‘It was a bigger boy, sir’: youthful pranks in Rosemary Lane

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Rosemary Lane had a reputation for criminality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The street was one of several in Whitechapel where the police were cautious about patrolling at night and where they would often turn when they needed to locate the ‘usual suspects’ for a bit of local thievery.

In 1847 PC H180 was passing nearby when he heard a terrible noise emanating from the lane and decided to investigate. He soon found almost two dozen young boys gathered together as some sort of impromptu orchestra, making an awful racket.  Some were banging pots and pans, others clashing knives and cleavers together; even bones were being used to pound out a rhythm on kettles and saucepans.

The policeman waded into this row and tried to get the lads to disperse. The boys were in high spirits and in no mood to listen. That day there had been a wedding – a Jewish marine store dealer, unpopular in the neighbourhood had married, and the reaction of the boys might have been some sort of youthful communal protest.

From the early modern period right up to the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for communities to express their displeasure or antipathy towards those they disliked or disapproved of by way of a charivari or skimmington. This was an old folk custom involving a mock parade with discordant (or ‘rough’) music.

As the policeman tried to stop the noise and make the crowd of boys go to their homes several of them turned on him and attacked him. One in particular hit him over the head with a kettle, knocking his hat into the gutter (before 1864 the police wore tall top hats, not helmets like they do today). He grabbed the boy and took him into custody, the others ran away.

The next day the child was brought before Mr Yardley at the Thames Police court charged with assaulting a policeman. Isaac Gardiner was so small his face could hardly be seen as he stood in the dock. When the magistrate was told that the boy had uttered the words ‘take that blue bottle!’ as he aimed a blow at the constable there was laughter in court. Isaac denied the charge, claiming some other boy was to blame.

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’, he said; ‘How could I reach up to a tall policeman’s head?’

It was a fair comment even if it was probably untrue. Mr Yardley was in no mood to have his court turned into a comic music hall act however, nor was he about to condone bad behavior by street urchins like Isaac. He told the prisoner that ‘boys must be taught to conduct themselves properly’. Isaac would be fined 5s and, since he had no money to pay, he’d go to prison for three days.

The poor lad was led away whimpering that it was unfair and he ‘didn’t see much harm in having a lark on a weddin’-day’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 20, 1847]

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. Mr Selfe’s first day at the office.

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The Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, & Co. brewery, c.1842

Thursday 3 April 1856 was Mr Selfe’s first morning as a London Police court magistrate.

Born in Worcester in 1810 at the age of 24 he had been called to bar and ‘practised [as a barrister] at the Oxford Circuit and Parliamentary bar’ until he took up his position on the London benches.* All Police Court magistrates in London were former barristers and, unlike their equivalents outside the capital, had the power to hear cases on their own. They had a good working knowledge of the law and several years of experience of court practice.

Mr Selfe had bene given Thames Police court in the East End of London. He replaced Mr Ingham who had moved on to the more salubrious environments of Westminster and Hammersmith. Magistrates did move around it seems, and some covered more than one court. In the 1880s there were at least two justices at Thames who sat for a few days each. This probably helped spread the workload but also stopped anyone getting too comfortable and warded off corrupt practice. The Middlesex magistracy in the 1700s had earned an unwanted reputation for venality, being derided by commentators as ‘trading justices’.

Mr Selfe’s first reported case was a beer thief, and quite an ambitious one at that. John Reynolds was 19 and his exploits were relayed to the newly appointed magistrate as he stood in the dock at Thames.

Catherine Driscoll testified that she was working for her employer at 51 Rosemary Lane where, at around 4 in the afternoon she saw Reynolds steal a barrel of beer from a drayman’s cart. She told the court that:

‘after he had launched it on the ground he rolled it along the street and up a court, and deposited in a yard at the back of a house in Rosemary Lane’.

Rosemary Lane had a long history of criminality stretching back into the eighteenth century, as Janice Turner’s work has shown. The drayman – a Mr Bullock – was delivering beer to a public house for his employers, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, and Co., brewers in Hanbury Street and Brick Lane since 1666. The brewery no longer exists but some of the buildings do, including the iconic chimney and the Truman eagle.

Bullock explained that he had come back to his cart to discover that a kilderkin of ale was missing before someone (perhaps Ms Driscoll) pointed out its whereabouts and the person that took it. Reynolds was nearby and Bullock tried to catch him but he ran off. A policeman (Thomas Britton 161H) was soon in hot pursuit and caught him after ‘a long chase’.

When Reynolds was asked to explain himself he simply denied all knowledge of the barrel of beer. ‘Then why did you run away?’ Mr Selfe asked him. ‘I do not know sir’, was the young man’s reply, adding simply, ‘I am innocent’.

‘If you protest your innocence I shall send the case before a jury’, the magistrate warned him. A conviction before a judge would bring done much more serious punishment than Mr Selfe was able to hand out, as the magistrate knew from recent experience. The clerk of the court asked Bullock the drayman whether the beer was worth at least 5s. The drayman laughed:

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. 

‘I suppose not’ commented Mr Selfe, ‘I shall commit the prisoner for trial’.

In the meantime however he remanded Reynolds as an officer at the court said he believed that the lad had a previous conviction that would need to be taken into consideration.

It was bad news for John. His opportunist theft would most likely end in a fairly hefty prison sentence, especially if a previous record could be shown against him. Mr Selfe might have been minded to show leniency if the lad had pleaded guilty but it was out of his hands now. Either way, his career at the Thames office was up and running and by using a keyword search for Selfe you can look for other cases over which he presided.

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 4, 1856]

p.s for those wondering, a kilderkin of beer or ale is an old Dutch term for a barrel that contained 18 gallons of liquid at the time. Today CAMRA still prefer to use kilderkin as a measure at beer festivals which equates to 144 pints. Truman’s is brewing again, in Hackney Wick, so you can still sip a local pint in and around Rosemary Lane (although Rosemary lane has gone, knocked down to make way for the railway. Now Royal Mint Street, running from Cable Street, follows much the same route).

*_from A. H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966) via [https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/selfe-henry-selfe]

The limits of the magistrate’s powers exposed as the co-op is in the dock

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Mary Anne Loane was a ‘poor thinly-clad and wretched-looking’ woman who came to see the Thames Police court magistrate to seek his help. She told Mr Paget that she and her husband had been defrauded of 20s by the St George Co-operative and Provident Industrial Society.

She and her husband, a journeyman shoemaker, lived in Rosemary Lane – a very poor area of London. Mr Loane had invested 20s in the Co-op by paying in 3 and 6d whenever he could afford it. In return they were promised a dividend and ‘get provisions cheap’.

No interest was forthcoming however, and Mrs Loane complained that goods were actually more expensive in the Co-op stores in Cannon Street and its bakery on John Street than they were in her local grocer’s. She told Mr Paget she paid  a penny more for per pound for sugar in the Co-op and ‘candies were [also] a penny dearer at the stores’.

To add insult to injury when one of their children had died, and her husband had asked to retrieve his investment to pay for the burial fees, ‘he was told by the committee [of the Co-op] that it must be buried by the parish’. Being buried by the parish was the ultimate humiliation for poor families and many joined burial clubs to make sure they had the funds to avoid this. Mr Loane had probably thought he was insuring himself and his family against such an eventuality rather than dreaming of the ‘riches’ he could make from his investment but it had all come crashing down with he failure of the company to pay up.

The Loanes weren’t the only ones affected by this, there were other ‘sufferers’ and many of them crowd into Mr Paget’s court to see what he was going to do for them.

Sadly, he could do nothing at all.

‘I cannot help you’ he told Mrs Loane,

‘You must put up with it if you join such societies as these, where the magistrates have no jurisdiction’.

He asked to see the printed rules and regulations of the Co-opertaive society  and was handed a copy but that only confirmed his fears. He was powerless to act, the families would have nothing for their investments which, though small in the general scheme of things, were all the excess ‘wealth’ they had in the world.

An item printed after that day’s reports from the Police Courts listed the births and deaths in the metropolis in the year 1865. London had an estimated population of 2,999,513 in 1865 and the population was growing. Average weekly births outstripped deaths (2,052 to 1,413) and the report went on to state, with some pride, that the capital had dealt with the outbreaks of cholera much more effectively than had been the case on the Continent. Nearly 11,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1853-4 before Dr John Snow identified that it was spread by water and measures were taken to combat it.

July 1855 saw the ‘Great Stink’ and Joseph Bazalgette’s work to improve the city’s sewer system started the following year. His scheme didn’t cover all of London by 1866 however and when cholera arrived again it was the East End, and London’s poorest (like the residents of Rosemary Lane) that were most vulnerable.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 22, 1866]

One drink led to another…

Rosemary Lane had a bit of a reputation in the eighteenth century, and its fair to say this persisted well into the 1800s. Now the lane has gone, replaced completely by Royal Mint Street which runs to join Cable Street, south of Whitechapel High Street. In 1861 Henry Mayhew wrote of the people that here:

The lodgings here are occupied by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpen, and others whose trade is connected with the river, as well as the slop-workers and sweaters working for the Minories. The poverty of these workers compels them to lodge wherever the rent of the rooms is the lowest.

One of those living in and around Rosemary Lane was Mary Ann Carey, who described herself as a ‘basket woman’. On Tuesday, the 22 September 1868 Mary was in a pub when John Fletcher, a native of Scotland, newly arrived from Australia, walked past.

According to Fletcher Mary ‘rushed out’ and asked him to have a drink with her. Mary may have fallen for him, or perhaps she was already a little the worse for drink to be so forward, but my understanding of her actions suggests that she was a prostitute as well as a basket woman. Many women in the area sold themselves when they could not sell something less personal.

Gold rush

Fletcher had been to Australia for the gold rush; we know this because in court he said he was carrying ‘two nuggets of gold entrusted to him by a  scotchman [he met] at the diggings’. The gold rush in Australia drew thousands of fortune hunters to the continent i the 1850s and 60s. John Fletcher said he had had arrived back in London from Melbourne on the Lincolnshire and had presumably gone out to party on his new wealth. Months at sea with only male company led him to Whitechapel and the dock community than was synonymous with cheap booze and casual sex.

He took Mary up on her offer and the two of them started drinking at noon. ‘One drink led to another’, he told the court, and soon he realised he was missing not only the two gold nuggets but also four sovereigns. At least he still had his gold watch he thought, as the chain was in his pocket. Alas when he pulled the chain out, the watch was gone!

He called for a policeman and PC Childs came to his assistance. The policeman told the magistrate (Mr. Paget) that the pub was a ‘notorious den of thieves’ and he knew Mary as well. She was soon apprehended and presented in court. PC Childs suggested it was unlikely she was working alone and he begged time to round up the others.

Mr. Paget sympathized with the Scotsman’s plight but also said that his experienced should be a warning to others to avoid such places and keep their valuables safe. The court reporter took great delight in transcribing Fletcher’s words in dialect:

When asked what he would do now the poor man replied: ‘I was guan to Scotland. What am I to do now I dinna ken’. Where had he slept? ‘I was oot all the nicht in a yard’.

It was a very long way to go to find gold only to lose it within hours of landing back home in Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1868]