A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

A suspected murderer captured and a fatal accident exposed

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In a break from the daily ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts I thought I’d take a look at ‘other news’ on the same page of the papers this day in 1873. Following the reports from Guildhall, Mansion House, Westminster, Marylebone and the Worship Street Police courts came the story of the ‘Coram Street Murder’. This reported the killing of Harriet Buswell, a London prostitute, found dead in her bed, and the arrest of a suspect in the village of Pirbright near Guildford, in Surrey.

The man, named Joveit Julien, was a Frenchman and had raised suspicion while drinking in a pub. On being searched he was found to have ‘three napoleons and several other pieces of money’ along with papers suggesting he had tickets to travel to New York but hadn’t made that trip. Despite claiming he couldn’t speak English he was more than capable of reading a wanted poster issued by the police which offered a £200 reward. He was arrested and an interpreter found so that the police investigating the murder could question him. However, the report continued, when two witnesses failed to identify him the authorities were forced to let him go.

Perhaps this was an all too common example of suspicion falling upon a foreigner? However, later in the month a German – Dr Gottfried Hessel – was formally charged with Harriett’s murder at Bow Street Police court. Hessel was discharged for lack of evidence but no one else was ever prosecuted for the murder of the woman.

Meanwhile in London and on Lambeth side of the Thames the paper reported that a ‘fatal accident’ had occurred. A builder named Bass had visited a wharf belong to a Mr Beaumont. Darfield Wharf, was close by the Lion Brewery at Charing Cross Bridge, and the builder had gone there in search of mouldings. The wharf manager West took him to see his stock that was held below a loft used to store oats.

Another man, the foreman Harris, was about to go along with the pair when his wife called him back to fetch her the key to a coal cellar. Her domestic request saved his life.

The loft was old and probably creaking under the weight of oats stored there. With a sickening creak the ceiling gave way and 50 tons of oats landed on the wharf manager and his customer. Harris shouted for help and all hands rushed to try and clear the rubble from the stricken men.  The men from Bennett’s hay and straw wharf nearby also downed tools to come and help and within moments there were ’40 men engaged in clearing away the mass of rubbish’.

One small boy was pulled from the wreckage, miraculously unharmed, but the two men trapped under the fall were not so lucky. West had been hit on the head and died instantly, Bass had suffered a broken leg, snapped just above the knee and must have passed away in considerable agony. Mr Bass’ pony had also been under the loft when it collapsed and it too was dead.

It was a terrible tragedy which today would have provoked an investigation into health and safety. The Victorians however, were no so big on H&S so one can only hope the parish did their best for the families of the men that died.

[from The Morning Post,  Friday, January 10, 1873]

An unlikely jewel thief who is not as clever as he thinks he is

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Paul’s Wharf by Joseph Pennell (1884)

Very many of the crimes prosecuted at the police courts were easily dealt with by the magistracy who handed down fines or short spells of imprisonment. However, the courts also acted as filters for the jury courts – the Middlesex sessions and Central Criminal court at Old Bailey. When a very serious case – like today’s – came before the justices their task was to stage a pre-trial hearing and commit the defendant to take his trial later.

Samuel William Liversedge was a commercial traveller. The 33 year-old worked for a City jewelers based at 44 St. Paul’s Churchyard, Goddard & Lawson.  He enjoyed the full confidence of his bosses, being trusted with thousands of pounds worth of jewelry each week, which he took around the various shops in the capital to sell. He was paid on commission but with a retaining salary, and this was always topped up to 50a week so Samuel was well remunerated for his work.

At some point in 1877 things began to wrong for him it seems. Whether he simply succumbed to the temptation that carrying around a small fortune in precious stones and gold and silver presented, or perhaps because he was in debt despite his generous salary. Either way as early as April that year he began to steal from the firm.

Things came to a head in November when Liversedge left St. Paul’s Churchyard with £1,000 worth of items in his usual black leather bag. When he got back, that evening, he was excitable and somewhat the worse for drink. The bag was missing and he told his Mr Goddard and Mr Lawson that he’d been robbed on a train whilst traveling between Edgware Road and King’s Cross. By his account he’d entered a carriage in which there were three men and a woman and as they left they brushed past him and must have pinched the bag containing all the jewelry. He called the guard who was unable to stop the train and so the thieves got away.

That was his story but it didn’t hold up in court, either at the Guildhall (before Sir Andrew Lusk) or later at the Old Bailey in March 1878. The guard testified at Liversedge’s trial and said he had looked for the three men and a woman and had seen no one leave his train carrying a bag such as had been described.

The bag did reappear at about 6.30 the same evening, ‘floating off Paul’s Pier, with the empty jewel cases and the cards attached to them’. William Barham found them. Barham was a Thames lighterman and he saw the bag in the water and fished it out. Lightermen knew the river intimately and was sure that it hadn’t been in the water long. The bag was closed and there was hardly any water inside, so someone had thrown it in not long before.

Goddard and Lawson had taken a cab to Scotland Yard as soon as their traveler had told them he’d been robbed. They had been told to make a full inventory of the missing items and came back to tell Liversedge. He suggested they all go to Bow Lane police station to do this, which they objected to. Samuel ignored them and rushed off to the station where he gave a list of the missing items, but a very short and partial one. Crucially Bow Lane Police station was close by Paul’s Wharf, where the bag was later found.

Sir Andrew Lusk heard from the prosecutors that at first they’d wanted to deal with this carefully and without prejudicing any future court case. Fundamentally they wanted their goods back though and hoped that some publicity might lead to the identification of items that they expected  that LIversedge had pawned. They asked for a remand which the magistrate granted.

It took a while for this to all reach the Central Criminal Court but in March of the following year Samuel Liversedge was formally tried and convicted of stealing ‘three watches, one pendant, nine pairs of earrings, and other articles’ belong to the City firm. Several pawnbrokers turned up to give evidence that they had received items from Liversedge over the course of the last six months or so. The jury found him guilty and the judge sent him to prison for seven years at penal servitude.

Whatever motivated Liversedge to steal from his masters and jeopardize a pretty well paid career is a mystery; his voice – if he spoke at all – is not recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. At 33 he was probably fit enough to survive 5 or so years in gaol before he earned his ticket of leave but his chances of returning to that level of trusted employment were slim.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 10, 1877]

Police made to look sheepish in a case of mistaken identity

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By the 1860s London was a very modern city, boasting many of the ‘modern’ features that we take for granted today. It had department stores, theatres and music halls, trains (including an underground railway), buses and trams, and its streets were crammed with tens of thousands of commuters rushing to and fro to work and back. It was a commercial centre and the seat of government; a social and cultural capital and the largest one in Europe.

However, for all its modernity it still represented a nineteenth century city with elements that have long gone today. For example, cattle and sheep and were still driven into the capital to be sold at markets like Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End for the meat trade. Today our beef and lamb arrives in temperature controlled vans and lorries, and the only animal hooves that touch our streets are those belonging to the police and horse guards.

This process of cleaning our streets of animals (‘urban improvement’ as our ancestors termed it) began in the 1800s and was completed, largely, by the end of the century. Markets were moved out of the centres to the peripheries, streets became the preserve of  people, not beast, and politeness reigned. Of course they were soon replaced by vehicles and London’s streets soon echoed to the sounds of horse drawn trams, omnibuses and hansoms, all eventually to be supplanted by motorised versions.

In 1868 Henry Goodwin came before the alderman at Guildhall Police court. Goodwin was a drover and his job was to bring sheep into London for sale. Goodwin was licensed by the City of London and wore his badge on his coat. However, his ‘crime’ that day was to have driven more sheep into London than the regulations allowed.

PC William Kenward (426 City Police) said that he was on duty on the 21 September just before 8 in the evening when he saw the defendant coming over Blackfriars Bridge with a drove of sheep. He thought the man had too many sheep and asked him what the head count was. The drover grumbled that ‘he had better count them himself’. PC Kenward counted 160. That was too many so he took the drover’s number (which was 1543) but the man refused to give his address.

The man in the dock was Henry Goodwin, senior (and he wore badge number 263). He declared he’d not driven sheep through the city for 18 months. The police had issued the summons to the wrong Goodwin. This was easily done as both of them were Henrys. It was also quite dark and both PC Kenward and his colleague (PC Clark 489 City) admitted they couldn’t be sure in the poor light that the man in the dock was the person they’d seen on the bridge. The older man was also able to produce a witness who testified that Henry senior was drinking with him in the Three Stags pub on the Kennington Road at the time the drove was crossing into London.

All in all it was a case of mistaken identity by the police and Alderman Causton felt there was insufficient evidence for him to proceed against the drovers. Father and son were released without further action and probably had a chuckle at the policemen’s expense. Nevertheless it shows us that even as late as 1868, just 150 years ago, one of London’s busy bridges was being blocked by a flock of sheep 160 strong. It is the sort of scene we associate with rural Britain, not the modern city. The image above is of Dingwall (in Ross Shire, Scotland) in the 1950s. We might imagine this is not that far from how London might have looked in the 1860s, as the Goodwins brought their flock to market.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 07, 1868]

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]