Down and out in a Chelsea back garden

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Homelessness is very much a part of life in London in the 21st century, something, I feel, we should – as a society – feel ashamed of.  London is the capital of one of the world’s richest countries; by GDP we are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, we have 54 billionaires (ranking us 7th in the world), and London is the sixth richest city on the planet.

However, in the 1870s Britain was THE richest nation on earth. In terms of GDP Great Britain far outstripped the US and generated more wealth than Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy put together.  London was the premier city of empire in the 1900s with more goods and wealth passing through here than anywhere else.

So for there to be rampant poverty and homelessness in Victoria’s capital was even more of a national disgrace. And, just like today, no everyone that was homeless had started life in poverty, or had led a ‘dissolute’ life.

Take James Russell for example. James was a 58 year-old man, quite close to my own age. He was well educated and described himself as a tutor. He had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and had earned a living teaching in various schools and most recently for the army and navy.

Yet despite this he found himself destitute and homeless in 1877, living a migratory existence sleeping on benches, in a baker’s barrow, and even an empty hansom cab. In September 1877 he was discovered sleeping in a garden in Pond Place, Chelsea by a policeman on patrol. The officer, PC Henry Skeats (328B) asked him his business and, since he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself, he arrested him.

Standing in the dock at Westminster Police court James Russell told Mr Woolrych his story.

He had a note from Dr Thompson, his master at Trinity, confirming his attendance there,  and promised that his situation was merely temporary; he hoped to get gainful employment soon. The magistrate sympathized with him: after all here was an educated man, a member of the upright middle classes, not the usual underclass he had to deal with. Russell promised that he would not return to sleeping rough on the constable’s patch (he made no such vow about alternatives however) and that was good enough for Mr Woolrych who released him.

Homelessness is not always a product of simple economics; mental illness plays it part, as does drug and alcohol abuse. If you want to help end homelessness in this country (or any country) then I would urge you to look to political solutions that favour a more equal distribution of wealth. Poverty is nothing new but then neither is wealth inequality that is controlled by the richest in society. For a more immediate and practical action you might consider, if indeed you can afford it, supporting one of the many homeless charities like Shelter or St Mungo’s.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

‘MeToo’ in the 1870s as some brave young women fight back

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The MeToo movement in the US and over here has helped expose the widespread exploitation of power by men for their own sexual gratification. Several prominent female actors have testified to being sexually assaulted or otherwise manipulated into performing sex acts by men who had the power and influence to further, or finish, their careers.

It took considerable courage for the survivors of these attacks to speak out and help bring their abusers to court. Victims are not always listened to, even today, and we did see instances where victims were effectively abused again, notably by the incumbent president of the United States, simply for daring to speak truth to power.

Given how difficult it remains for women to bring accusations against men for sexual abuse in the twenty-first century one wonders just how easy it was 150 or more years ago?

Victorian Britain was a much less female friendly society after all. It was a male dominated society where women did not only lack the right to vote, they lacked pretty much any rights at all. There were no female judges or magistrates, no policewomen, women were expected to look after children and the home, obey their husbands and fathers. They earned a lot less than men, were not allowed to study at university, and not encouraged to study at all. Queen Victoria was an exception in being a woman who held power (or sorts) and even she deferred to her husband in domestic matters.

So the young women that worked for Messrs. Fourdrinier and Hunt at their paperhanging works on Southwark Bridge Road deserve a mention this morning. In August 1875 James Fellows, a 34 year-old employee of the firm, was brought before Mr Benson at the Southwark Police court. He was accused of ‘disgraceful conduct towards several young girls’ working at the paperhangers.

Just what that ‘disgraceful conduct’ was soon became clear as a number of the women testified in court. Alice Page was just 16 and still lived at home with he parents. She worked making paper collars for Fourdrinier & Hunt’s in the same building as Fellows. She was working on her own on the previous Wednesday when Fellows came into the workshop and exposed himself. He did it again on Saturday and she informed her foreman.

I think we sometimes used to consider ‘flashers’ as a ‘bit of a laugh’; they featured in 70s comedy routines and perhaps weren’t taken that seriously. But Fellows was an active ‘sex pest’ using his position, as a male employee in a firm full of female workers, to gratify his own sexual urges at the expenses of his co-workers. His abuse did not end with ‘flashing’ either.

Alice Gillings told the magistrate that on the previous Saturday Fellows had entered the room where she worked and had thrown her down and sexually assaulted her. Caroline Smith had seen what happened to Gittings and rushed over to help. She scratched the man’s face in the process. Alice then managed to get away from Fellows, slapping his face and pushing him off, and told the foreman. Sadly, he did nothing about it.

Other girls had complained of Fellows’ conduct but were too ‘ashamed to tell it’ in court. Sexual predators and abuser like Fellows often rely on the silence of victims too scared or embarrassed to speak of what had happened to them. Just as in the MeToo movement it took a handful of brave survivors to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately in this case they had left it a bit too late. Mr Benson was disgusted by Fellows’ behaviour but since it had been over a week since the alleged attack on Alice Gillings he could not proceed with that charge. He reprimanded the foreman, James Collier, telling him that he should have sacked Fellows straight away after the first offence was reported saying that ‘he should not have remained in the place an hour’.

The indecent exposure had only been seen by Alice Page and he could not simply take her word for it uncorroborated. He suggested that the firm terminate his employment and ordered Fellows to enter into recognizances against his future behaviour for 12 months. It was a limited victory for the women at the paperhangers and hopefully prevented others from being victims of Fellows in the near future. It is deeply depressing to know that similar and worse episodes of male sexual violence and exploitation are still occurring in our ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ society.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 15, 1875]

What we all need is a right royal knees up

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Given that the Metropolitan Police courts sat six days a week, every week of the year, and most of them from 9 or 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon it is fair to say that the magistrates that presided over them were kept fairly busy.

Mondays were probably the busiest days because the courts dealt with all of those that had been picked up by the police on the preceding Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Most of those charges would have been for drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, or refusing to quit licensed premises (or a mix of all three). There would be a steady stream of wife beaters, pub brawlers, vagrants, unlicensed peddlers, to swell the ranks of the cheats, fraudsters, thieves, burglars and robbers.

The day after a bank holiday could also be particularly busy, as a day off tended to bring Londoners out to the various parks of the capital where drink was enjoyed and inhibitions were left at home. Fights, indecency, bad language, and criminal damage could all become prosecutable offences once the park police moved in to clear trouble makers from the grounds.

So it was something of a surprise to the magistrate at Marlborough Street on the day following Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in July 1897 that his court was virtually empty. Incredibly where he might have expected the usual caseload of 50-100 defendants to be swelled by those overdoing the celebrations, in fact he had just seven prisoners to process. At 11 o’clock the chief clerk turned to Mr. Plowden and said:

‘That is all’.

The justice ‘looked up in astonishment’ and asked for confirmation that he had no more business that day. He noted that ‘the jubilee seems to have extinguished’ both ‘crime and disorder’ and it was quite remarkable. He then made a point of praising the police (not something often heard from the bench in the 1800s).

‘It is most notable’, he said, ‘that the police have shown themselves the best friends of the public, and the public the best friends of the police’, before leaving his seat and retiring early for once.

The message here might be, if the country is beset by crime and disorder, discord and division, then the ideal thing to do is stage a royal pageant. Nothing brings peace and harmony to British life more quickly than a happy royal occasion. Teresa May should take note.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 3, 1897]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

The milk man, the general, and his trousers.

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General Robert Onesiphorus Bright (above) was an unlikely occupant of a Police Court dock but that is where he found himself in June 1888. General Bright had enjoyed an illustrious military career since he’d joined the 19 Regiment of Foot in 1843. He had seen service in Bulgaria in 1854 before taking command of the 2nd Brigade of the Light Division in the Crimea. According to the regimental record Bright was one of the very few officers who remain in service throughout, never succumbing to the disease that ravaged the forces fighting and Russians.

After the Crimean War Bright went on to see service on India’s northwest frontier and was cited in despatches. When he left the 19thFoot in 1871 he was given a commemorative silver cup engraved with a scene from the battle of Granicus, one of Alexander’s victories over the Persians. Bright fought in the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80 and again was mentioned in despatches. He became colonel of the Green Howards/19th Foot in 1886 and then was raised to the knighthood by Victoria in 1894.

So how did a man with his pedigree end up in front of Mr De Rutzen at Marlborough Street? Well, perhaps not that surprisingly the general was there for losing his temper.

He was summoned to court by Charles Heffer who had been pushing ‘a milk perambulator’ in Oxford Street and he made his way towards Hyde Park. He was waiting to cross Duke Street and the general was waiting in front of him. As a carriage came close by the general stepped back to avoid it and collided with Heffer’s barrow. The wheel scraped against Bright’s leg, soiling his trousers with the mud from the road.

It was an unfortunate accident but the military man’s instincts took over and he swiveled in the street, raised his walking cane and ‘dealt [Heffer] a severe blow across the face’. Whether he had apologized at the time or not is unknown but clearly Heffer had been hurt enough to demand satisfaction from a magistrate.

In court the general was apologetic and admitted the fault was his. Mr De Rutzen said he would take into account the fact that the assault was committed in ‘the heat of the moment’ but regardless of the general’s status he had to treat this case as he would any other. He fined General Bright £4 and awarded costs to Heffer of £1. Having faced the Russians and the Afghans I doubt this was the worst moment of Robert Bright’s life, he paid and left with his head held high.

Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday and, as I type this, the regimental colour of the 1st battalion Grenadier Guards is being ‘trooped’ on Horse Guards Parade in London.  The Grenadiers have a long history, being the first guards regiment to wear the bearskin following their actions at Waterloo when, under the command of Major General Peregrine Maitland, they repulsed the attack of Napoleon’s elite ‘Old Guard’. Wellington supposedly gave the command for the guard to stand and face the French, crying ‘Up Guards, and at them!’ although like so many moments in history the exact words are disputed.

Trooping the colour has been linked to monarch’s official birthday since 1748 (when George II was on the throne) but no one has done it as many times as the present queen, and I doubt anyone ever will. It wasn’t always held, partly because the British weather is so unreliable, and this caused Edward VII to move the day to June when (hopefully) the watching crowds might not get soaked.

Happy (official) birthday maam.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 08, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

The uninvited guest of the Duke of Westminster

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Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster 

James Clarke may have simply seeking a place to sleep when he clambered over the gates of Grosvenor House on Park Lane. He’d left clear footprints by the gates and it wasn’t difficult for the special constable on duty in the grounds to find and secure him.  When a large iron rod was found near to where he’d been hiding the policeman suspected that Clarke might have had more criminal activities in mind.

Clarke was arrested and brought up before the Marlborough Street magistrate after a night in a police cell. Clarke said he’d been ‘tramping during the day’ and just thought it looked a decent place to get his head down for the night. He’d picked up the bar on route, and there was nothing suspicious about it.

Perhaps he took it for protection as we know that anyone sleeping rough then (or now) was very vulnerable to being abused, robbed or assaulted. But it was as likely (more so maybe) that Clarke was going to use the bar to break a window or even to threaten or attack one of the residents if he’d got in.

I suppose in some circumstances he might have been given the benefit of the doubt but Grosvenor House was the London home of the 1st Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor.  The duke was instrumental in developing both the wealth of the Grosvenors and their stud at Eaton Hall in Cheshire. When he died he was believed to be the richest man in England.

So it is hardly surprising that he had a policeman on special duty in the grounds of his house. His family was close friends with the queen and Victoria not only raised him from marquis to duke, she was godmother to his eldest son. I doubt the wandering labourer knew exactly whose grounds he had broken into but the magistrate did. He sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

The current Duke of Westminster is also a Hugh. A billionaire he also estimated to be the richest man alive under the age of 30, and he has continued the close connection to the royals, being named godfather to Prince George of Cambridge, who is third in line to the throne. Wealth like the Westminsters is rarely diluted and inheritance means that when this duke marries and has children they will be as rich, if not more so, than their predecessors. Meanwhile people like James Clarke are still sleeping rough on the streets and gardens of the modern capital.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 04, 1888]

A young mind is turned by the dream of emulating Buffalo Bill’s wild Wild West

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In 1887 ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody brought his travelling Wild West Show to Europe. The show featured wild animals, reenactments of historical events from American history (such as the Civil War and the Indian wars), feats of horsemanship and skills such as sharpshooting and rodeo. It was a form of  circus with a peculiarly American frontier theme. Cody (below right, with Sitting Bull) was a master showman and thousands flocked to see performances in London, Manchester and Birmingham and even Queen Victoria took in a show as part of an American Exhibition in West London in what was her golden jubilee year.

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The touring show made a big impression on one young boy, 14 year-old Cecil James Eugene Harvey, who saw it in London. His head filled with cowboys and Indians (which were also the stuff of many of the cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ that youngers consumed) Cecil struggled to concentrate on his work as a City office errand boy. His fantasy world overtook reality and soon he settled on a plan that would allow him to follow his dreams.

As an errand boy he was trusted to run money around the City as part of his duties and young Cecil realized it would be fairly easy to top up his rather poor weekly wages with some ‘extras’ from under his employer’s noses. On the 6 April he was sent out by Mr C. R. Bonne of Eastcheap to cash a cheque for £5 but he never returned.

His absence was noted however, and the police were informed. They sent out telegrams to alert other forces and Cecil was arrested in Salford by the local police. They sent him back to London in the custody of an officer from the met and on 21 April 1888 he was set in the dock at Mansion House Police to be quizzed by the Lord Mayor.

In keeping with his romantic ideas of the Wild West Cecil played the part of an outlaw in court. He told the magistrate that he had intended to go to America to start a new life but when he realized that he didn’t have the money for the passage he went up to Manchester, where Cody’s show was playing, so he could take it in daily instead. He was still determined to get to the States and even the Lord mayor sent him to prison for 10 years for this crime, ‘he would go afterwards’.

Young Cecil was unlikely to get 10 years penal servitude for embezzling £5 but he would have lost his employment. The Lord Mayor remanded hi in custody as is so many of the reports of the newspapers we don’t get to find out what happened to him. I suspect that he spent an uncomfortable few nights in a cell before being formally reprimanded by the Lord Mayor and sent home to a thrashing from his father (if he had one).

I like to think that one day he made it to America, although once there who knows if it would have lived up to his expectations. The world looks very different when you are 14, especially if that world is reflected through the pages of comic books or in the fantasy world of the circus or theatre.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 22, 1888]

In June this year my new book – which offers up a new suspect for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 – is published by Amberley Books. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy you can find the details here.