Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

A lovers tryst in Chelsea, or a cunning deceit?

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With the memory of the royal wedding fading away but leaving, by all accounts, a warm romantic glow behind it, I thought I’d continue the theme a few days later.

In April 1887 Emma Banks took a room in a house in Smith Street, Chelsea. She had arrived with a man who purported to be her brother, but certainly wasn’t. The landlady, Mrs Jessie Gantlett, believed him however and his story that Emma only needed the lodgings temporarily while she found a position (in service).

All was well until the day that Emma left. Mrs Gantlett was shocked to find that another of her residents, Miss Price, had lost some items from her room. For whatever reason she suspected Emma and she searched the 22 year-old’s room.

There she discovered clothes belonging to Miss Price and some items of hosiery (stockings most probably) that were later identified as belonging to a hosier in Hammersmith. The police soon ascertained that Emma Banks had left the employment of Frederick Payne, a hosier, in March of that year, and he’d missed stock and £10 in cash from a locked desk in his shop.

When she was questioned by the police Emma broke down and admitted she’d been planning to abscond to Western Australia with the young man that had been visiting her. They’d bought the tickets for the journey she said and named him as James Tucker. So, he wasn’t her brother, but her lover.

Moreover, and perhaps Emma wasn’t aware of this, James wasn’t exactly free to elope to the other side of the world with his paramour. James Tucker was already married.

When the pair were brought before the Police Magistrate at Westminster Emma was initially charged with the theft, but it soon became clear that Tucker was also involved. He testified to knowing Emma for about two months and to ‘paying her attentions’. But he denied ever promising to marry her.

He had thought of leaving his wife, he admitted, and going to Australia. The clerk was outraged at his brazen admission of infidelity and his rejection of his responsibilities. He supposed ‘his wife was not a consenting party to this arrangement’ he inquired of the young man in the dock. ‘She was not’ he replied.

He’d bought the tickets with the money Emma had given him so he was guilty by association of the theft. Mr D’Eyncourt, the justice, told him he’d behaved terribly.

He ‘had deceived and led the young woman into trouble. As two felonies were proved he could not sentence him to less than six months’ hard labour’. In an odd  example of the changing nature of punishment in the 1800s Emma and James’ criminality meant that they would not be going to Australia after all, when 40 or so years earlier they would almost certainly have been sent there for doing exactly that.

So, was this a love tryst that ended badly or was Emma deceived as the magistrate suggested? I wonder how Mrs Gantlett felt knowing that she had effectively allowed a young unmarried couple to spend several nights alone together under her ‘respectable’ roof. Oh, the shame of it!

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 22, 1887]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

(Anarchist) bill stickers will NOT be prosecuted after all

In July 1893 all London was waiting for the marriage of the year – that Prince George the duke of York and Mary of Teck. Princess Mary had been supposed to marry the prince’s elder brother, Albert Victor, but he had died in 1892. The marriage was George’s grandmother’s idea and seems to have been quite embarrassing for all concerned. Mary was still mourning the loss of her intended and George must have been caught between duty and a desire to marry for love. Albert had died of a long illness which some have speculated was syphilis, caught whilst enjoying the company of prostitutes in the East End. More recent (and even wilder) speculation placed him at the heart of the Cleveland Street scandal and even have him as a candidate for being Jack the Ripper.

Not everyone in London was looking forward to an expensive royal wedding and a couple of days beforehand two men appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with putting up posters on the Gray’s Inn Road. The actual offence was ‘posting and dispersing bills, the same not having the printer’s and publisher’s address thereon’.

The posters (which we don’t have so can’t tell what they said) supposedly carried ‘abusive allusions to the royal wedding’. The royal family was far from universally popular in the 1890s and London was home to several  radical political groups who opposed the very idea of monarchy.

In court the two young men (Thomas Cantwell, 20 and Ernest Young, 27) were described as compositors and so worked in the printing industry. Young refused to give his address, Cantwell lived on Sidmouth Street. The police prosecutor was in somewhat of a quandary he said, because the since the men’s arrest the owner of the hoardings where the bills had been posted had brought a separate charge of fly posting without their consent. He told the court that while ‘no one could sympathize with the prisoners for posting such an offensive placard’ there was little to be done but for him to withdraw the police charge and allow the prosecution by the hoarding owners.

The magistrate reluctantly agreed with him and ordered the men to be released. Canter now piped up and said that when he had been arrested the police had seized his keys. When he had returned to his premises he had been obliged to break down his own door. In the interim someone had entered his home and helped themselves to some of his possessions while he was in the process of getting bailed.

The justice was unsympathetic; ‘I can’t listen to you now. If you want to make an application come again in the morning’, he told him, and sent him away. The papers termed the two men ‘anarchists’ and so were probably amused by the short shrift the magistrate handed down to them.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, July 5, 1893]