Entertainment mingled with disaster in 1880s Spitalfields

Scene of the late Disaster in Spitalfields, at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, Princes-Street

All sorts of business came before the Metropolitan Police courts, much of it very far from what we might describe as ‘criminal’. The reportage of these courts therefore offers us an interesting glimpse into London life in the nineteenth century.

Take this case for example: three men from Spitalfield’s Jewish immigrant community were brought before a magistrate for staging unlicensed entertainments.

The hearing, on 12 November 1889, was the second one before Mr Bushby so most of the arguments had already been made a week earlier.  Several witnesses, including the police (represented by Inspector Reid1) testified that they had watched dramatic productions and imbibed ‘spirituous liquors’. The defendants, most notably the proprietor Solomon Barmash, had argued that the performances were ‘for social improvement’, but this didn’t convince the magistrate.

All venues putting on plays had to have a license issued by the Lord Chamberlain of letters patent, from the Queen, allowing them to do so. Barmash and his Hebrew Dramatic Club on Prince’s Street had no such license. He and his fellow defendants were accused of staging The Double Marriage and The Convict and selling drinks to the paying customers, which was prohibited under the licensing laws of the day.

The magistrate, Mr Bushby, fined Barmash £36 plus £3 costs, some of which was to be born by his co-defendants Joseph Goodman and Charles Dickerson (the younger). This covered both the sale of alcohol and the staging of plays without a license.

I found it interesting that both plays were performed in Yiddish and these made the magistrate question whether they were in fact ‘educational’. Although he agreed with the prosecution that the law had been broken it does show us that there was a thriving local immigrant community which wanted to see and hear cross cultural entertainments. The Double Marriage was apparently a ‘French’ play according to the court report although there was a Jacobean play of this name.

In January 1887 17 people lost their lives at the Hebrew Dramatic Club when a reported gas leak and fear of fire and explosion caused panic in the club.

‘The scene at the time was one of intense excitement’, reported the Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Screams of terror and cries of appeal and advice mingled while the mass wedged in the doorway struggled and surged’.

Although three of the victims were unidentified the other 14 were all ‘foreign’ Jews, and were mourned by their community in the days that followed.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 13, 1889]

  1. Possibly Edmund Reid (of ‘Ripper Street’ fame) or the less well known Joseph.

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

Police break up a ‘prize fight’ in Dalston as the Ripper case reaches its apogee.

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The Havelock Arms in Albion Drive, Dalston in the 20th century

On the morning of the 10 November 1888 the reports from the London Police Courts in The Standard made no mention of the latest ‘Ripper’ murder (that of Mary Kelly, who’s eviscerated body was discovered at her lodgings in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street). But then no one had been arrested, and no one charged for the killing and the court reports concerned appearances not general reports of criminality. There was plenty of  newspaper coverage of Mary’s murder of course, as the extensive links on the most useful ‘Ripper’ site (Casebook.org) testify.

One case that day did catch my eye because highlighted the existence of illegal prize fighting in late Victorian London. The Marquess of Queensbury had published his rules to govern boxing in 1867 (although previous attempts to regulate the sport had been tried in 1838 and even earlier, in the 18th century). But, as both Ripper Street, and Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes in recent years suggest, illegal prize fights, with the gambling that was associated with it, continued.

Like dog fighting (also the subject of attention from the writers of Ripper Street)  such illegal fights were hard to stop; they took place at night in out of the way places and news of them was spread by word of mouth to avoid police informers if possible. Despite this in November 1888 police inspector Alcock and his men successfully raided a premises in Dalston and arrested several of those taking part.

Thomas Avis and Thomas Porter, labourers at the small arms factory at Enfield (which made rifles) and John Hicks, a carriage builder from Mile End, were charged at Dalston Police Court with ‘being unlawfully concerned in a prize fight’.

The raid had taken place on the Havelock Gymnasium on Albion Road, attached to a pub that bore the same name. Avis and Porter had been the ring fighting while a crowd watched,Mr but the case turned on whether this was merely practice (sparring) or an actual fight. The men had excellent characters, the inspector admitted, and a future fight had been arranged and was waiting for official approval.

The police had a ‘spy’ in the gym; a former detective named Rolfe was embedded and keeping an eye on proceedings. The court was told he was ready to give evidence if required but wasn’t called. The Enfield pair were defended in court by Mr C. V. Young who explained that they headed up ‘rival gymnasiums, and were only trying conclusions in a friendly manner’.

The magistrate, Mr Bros, was content that nothing illegal had occurred, or at least nothing that could be conclusively proven.

‘The evidence shows’, he explained, ‘that the men were engaged with boxing gloves or the ordinary character and in an ordinary boxing match, which is no offence in law. The lowering of the gas, however, gave the affair a suspicious aspect, which was intensified by the rush of the people’.

In other words, whilst they had been doing nothing that was technically illegal they were sailing fairly close to the wind and ought, in future at least, to ensure they observed both the letter and spirit of the law. Damage had been caused to the property, which had been attributed to the large numbers who wanted to get into the see the fight, but this, it was accepted, had actually been the result of the police raid itself. All the defendants were dismissed to go back to their places of work and training for the main event.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 10, 1888]

Police corruption in the 1840s: H Division in the dock at Lambeth

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In late April 1842 four police constables appeared at Lambeth Police Court as defendants charged with pilfering from the London Docks. John Broughton, Robert Bird, Joseph Linscott and Thomas Trotman stood accused of stealing brandy and wine whilst they were supposed to have been on duty. The four men were represented by a solicitor, a Mr Pelham and the case was heard before Mr Henry, the Lambeth magistrate.

The case was brought by William Pierse, Police Superintendent at H Division (later to be the home of the BBC’s Ripper Street) , and he stated that he received information that the men had been taking home ‘quantities of wine and brandy’ when they had finished their shifts at the docks. Acting on this tip off he visited the home of Broughton (199 H) at 12 William Street, St George-in-the-East.

Pierse challenged the policeman with the information he had and Broughton denied all knowledge. The superintendent asked if he had any objections to a search of his property and Broughton said he neither had any objection nor any alcohol in the house. However, as soon as the senior officer began to open some of his cupboards  PC Broughton quickly produced  a bottle of brandy, claiming it was a gift from a ship’s mate aboard The Ocean.

If this was meant to stop there search then it failed and the brandy was quickly joined by ‘a champagne bottle and two smaller bottles, and a small earthenware bottle of brandy’. He tried to pass these off as presents, before he was cautioned and confessed to having taken them from the docks.

Pelham cross examined the superintendent but didn’t challenge his evidence, merely extracting a statement that up until then Broughton had held a good character in the force, and had served at the docks for the last 12 months. Superintendent Pierse then offered very similar evidence against each of the other officers in the dock.

So, we now had a policeman who, by his own confession, was guilty (at best) of a breach of trust and, at worst, of outright theft. The question now came of proving that he (and the other officers) had deliberately stolen it from the dockyards.

The court called in a Mr Clements who worked for the Dock Company as a ‘confidential constable’. This suggests that he was private security hired to protect the company’s stock. Clements said he was quite happy to let the police investigation take it course but he offered his own thoughts on the thefts.

According to him no brandy or champagne or other wine was left lying around the dock area but there were substantial stocks in the warehouses. So in his view the police must have carried away the alcohol ‘in small quantities’; and this, he added, ‘they had an opportunity of doing, as they always wore their great coats when leaving the dock, and they were never searched’.

Pilfering from the docks was widespread in the 1800s (as it had been in the 1700s, and would be till the docks finally closed in the late 20th century) but it was much easier if you were unlikely to be searched.

Mr Pelham now made a plea for his clients.

‘He expressed a hope that, as they all had wives and families who were solely dependent on them for support, and as their conduct in the present instance would lead to their dismissal from the force, he [i.e. Mr Henry, the justice] would merely fine them’.

That would indeed have been a good result for the men, and much better than ordinary thieves might have expected from the court. In the opinion of Mr Henry this was a very serious crime but he was mindful of the reality that proving that the brandy and wine found at the men’s homes was that taken from the docks would be difficult, if not impossible. For that reason alone, he said, he would not send them before an Old Bailey jury.

He was left with the only option available to send a message that this sort of behaviour was entirely unacceptable. He sent each of them to the house of correction for two months. One can imagine that for four young coppers, that was unlikely to be a pleasant experience. On top of that, they were unemployed and unlikely to find trusted work for some time, if at all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 27, 1842]

A murder in Barbados or a false accusation?

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The most recent series of Ripper Street opened with the death of an Indian lawyer found in the East India dock. At first it was thought that this might be the result of rivalry between dockworkers or perhaps tensions between foreign sailors (often this meant Lasacars) and locals. I don’t know how the writers get their stories but they might profitably search the pages of the Victorian press.

In September 1875 a Malay boatswain named Seeden was brought before Mr. Lushington at Thames Police Court. He was charged with ‘causing the death of a Lascar seaman named Sali’. Both men had served on the Neva, said John James a fellow crew member who gave evidence at Thames.

Whilst the ship lay at anchor at Barbados Sali and Sedeen quarreled and the latter knocked Sali to the deck, pushed him to the rail and threw him overboard. After an interval of 20 minutes he informed the captain that his crewmate had ‘jumped overboard’.

Mr. Lushington examined two other Malay sailors but they failed to corroborate James’ testimony. The magistrate turned to James and suggested it was odd that he waited so long to bring his evidence before a policeman or a court. He dismissed it as an ‘entirely groundless charge’ and ordered Sedeen to be released. He added that if the police ‘thought it proper’ they should arrest and charge James with perjury.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, September 29, 1875]