The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

An unconventional Lady and her runaway maid

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United Industrial School site, Edinburgh, c.1877.

In the nineteenth century concern about juvenile crime and the fate of those young people caught up in led Mary Carpenter and others to campaign for the building of reformatories. In 1851 Carpenter had publisher an influential tract on the reform of juveniles and in 1852 she and Russell established a reformatory at Kingswood near Bristol. Two years’ later she opened a similar institution for girls at Red Lodge.

These were private charitable initiatives but gained government support in 1854 with the passing of the Young Offenders Act that encouraged their building and allowed magistrates to send juvenile criminals to them. In 1857 new legislation created Industrial Schools; both operated as a sort of public/private enterprise to remove young offenders from the streets of Britain’s crowded cities and educated them for a new life, away from the temptations and corruption of the homes they left behind. Boys were usually trained for industry or agriculture, while girls were taught to sew or to be domestic servants. All were taught to read and write so they knew their letters and could read the Bible.

Mary Ann Millen was a reformatory girl. At 18 she had been released from an institution in her native Edinburgh and sent to work in the household of Lady Douglas in London.

I wonder if this might have been Lady Gertrude Douglas, the daughter of the seventh marquise of Queensbury and an author in her own right. Gertrude, using the pseudonym ‘George Douglas’, wrote several Scottish based novels in the 1870s but lived in London, where she later helped her brother with his school. In 1882 she married one of the pupils, Thomas Henry Stock; she was 40, he was just 18.

Lady Douglas was familiar with the Edinburgh reformatory and the girls there. Perhaps she made charitable donations as a patron or involved herself on the board of trustees; this would have been exactly the sort of philanthropic ‘work’ that a Victorian lady could be involved in without drawing undue attention to herself, not that it seems that Gertrude was worried about other people’s opinions of her.

Mary arrived in London in April 1872. She was 18 and spoke with a heavy Scots accent. It must have seemed a very strange world to her; while Edinburgh was a busy modern city in the late 1800s it was tiny by comparison to the capital. Lady Douglas’ other servants were all English and Mary struggled to make friends, and even to make herself understood.

She lasted three weeks at the house in Gloucester Terrace, Kensington, before running away and making the long journey back to Scotland. She was quickly missed. Money was missing from a dressing room table and one of the servants had lost a waterproof coat. Lady Douglas summoned the police and a detective caught the next available train to Edinburgh.

It didn’t take Detective Seymour long to run down the runaway. Mary probably had few other options than to head for familiar territory in the neighbourhood where she’d grown up before being sent to the reformatory. Seymour had sent a telegram to the local police and their enquiries led Seymour to the High Street where he found Mary and arrested her.

She was wearing the coat and had just £2 17sof the money left. She’d bought some clothes and presumably paid her fare and had something to eat, the rest had ‘been taken from her’ she said.

Mary returned to London with the officer and appeared before Mr Bridge at Hammersmith Police court. Lady Douglas was there and intervened on the girl’s behalf. It was her desire that the girl should return to the reformatory in Edinburgh rather than suffer worse punishment in London. The magistrate was willing to grant her wish but on the condition that Mary had a taste of imprisonment to deter her from future crime. He sent her to prison for one day and ordered that thereafter she be handed over to Lady Douglas so she could be taken back to Scotland.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 15, 1872]

p.s Lady Gertrude philanthropy was not confined to poor Scotch lasses. In 1891 she founded the Dog’s Trust, which continues to this day. By then her marriage had broken down. Her husband had emigrated to South Africa and she ended her days in a convent hospital, dying of consumption in 1892. 

A ‘mysterious’ lost boy is ‘saved’ from the slums

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Bangor Street, Notting Hill

Lilian Edward was brought up before Mr Curtis Bennett at the Hammersmith Police Court charged with ‘being in the unlawful possession of a child’. The little boy was also called to court and questioned by the magistrate, even though he was only four years old. Lilian herself was just 18 and the circumstances suggested that the little boy, who was not named, may have originally have been lost (or indeed kidnapped)  as far away as Scotland.

Lillian cohabited with a man named McSweeney at a property in Bangor Street, Notting Hill (or Notting Dale as it was then known), but they were not married. According to one source Bangor Street :

Originally called George Street, it was the most notorious road of the Notting Dale ‘Special Area’ slum.
It was more colloquially known as ‘Do as you like Street’, a place where ‘no one left their door closed’, and the venue of the Rag Fair.

McSweeney was also in court and claimed the child as his, but Lilian testified that the boy did ‘not belong to him’. Who’s was he then, the magistrate wanted to know.

The child had been brought from the local workhouse at the special request of Mr Bennet because, as he explained in court, he had received a letter from Liverpool with a photo and description of a child who had gone missing in Dundee. The sender had presumably got wind (perhaps from some earlier hearing reported in the press) that a ‘mysterious child’ had been discovered and was living in a poor part of west London.

This reminds us that the provincial press regularly reported the goings on at the London Police courts along with entries about their own sessions. This sharing of crime news has a very long history with reports of cases at Old Bailey and the county assizes being  staple of early newspapers in the 1700s.

Mr Bennett wanted to see if the boy in his witness box was the same one that was described in the paper, and so he ‘questioned the little fellow’. PC Brown was unconvinced; he said that while ‘inquiries had been made’ (he was not very specific) they had not proved that this child and the one in the photo were the same. His eyes, he continued, were not there same colour as the description in the newspaper report. The magistrate was not sure though, he felt he might be the lost boy.

Next up was John Pike of the Children’s Aid Fund (founded as early as the 1850s) at Charing Cross who requested that the boy be sent to school in the meantime as ‘he was not under proper control’. McSweeney tried to intervene to demand the boy was given back to him but the magistrate refused to allow him to speak .

The whole hearing has the feel of a scene from a Dickens’ novel, with the ‘little fellow’ as another runaway like Oliver Twist. Mr Bennet clearly did’t want to send him back to the squalor of Bangor Street and the ‘care’ of McSweeney. He requested that the child be ‘remanded’ to the workhouse to give Mr Pike the time to draw up the necessary paperwork to have him admitted to the Industrial School at Milton. There he would he educated and cared for (in a fashion) but no further attempt was likely to be made to reunite him with his parents.

As for Lilian Edward, she was released to the relative freedom of Mr McSweeney’s company and his home in Bangor Street.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1889]

Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]