The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

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Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

A distraught wife declares: ‘I intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving me’.

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A Southwark street in the 1890s

Serious violence such as attempted and actual murder was rarer in the nineteenth century than we might think from all the concentration of sensation literature and ‘murder news’ that has survived. Excellent work by Judith Flanders and Rosalind Crone has illuminated our understanding of the Victorians’ fascination with murder and gore but we shouldn’t conclude from this that homicides were an everyday occurrence.

Sadly, domestic and spousal violence was commonplace and the Police Courts were regularly witness to tales of wife beating as tensions in the home were brought into the public sphere. Magistrates tried to take a firm line with abusers but were often frustrated by the fact that survivors frequently refused to condemn their abusers in court; they were prepared to take them to law but not prosecute them fully, for fear of future retribution or losing the main breadwinner.

Nearly all of these victims were women but women did initiate violence sometimes and fight back when attacked. Men rarely prosecuted their wives however, because this would have suggested they had lost control of the household and that would have been a social catastrophe for their reputation.

So it is rare to see a woman in front of the courts for assaulting her husband or partner, unless there is a very clear and obvious reason, as there is with the case of Elizabeth Penning.

Elizabeth Penning had been living with John Walthe for several years. The couple weren’t married but lived as if they were. This sort of arrangement – normal today – was much more common than me might expect in the nineteenth century. Marriage was expensive and working class society did not demand that couples tied the knot officially, especially in large urban centres such as London.

It wasn’t a happy marriage however. John was having an affair and abused his wife. By his own admission he had ‘ill-treated [her] while he lived with her. He had broken three of her ribs, [and] struck her with a chopper, for which he had been punished’.

In late January 1860 he had been out drinking late and was on his way home. As he approached the Sir John Falstaff pub on Kent Street he noticed Elizabeth sitting on the step outside.

She challenged him, calling out: ‘What have you done with your woman?’

The pair rowed and John walked on. He hadn’t gone far when he heard female screams and rushed back and down Falstaff Yard, near the pub. There he found Elizabeth armed with a knife. She rushed at him and aimed  stab at his neck. The kitchen knife went in deep and blood flowed. John was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital and his life was in danger. He didn’t recover form his wounds for a month. Meanwhile Elizabeth was arrested while the courts waited to find out whether she would be charged with attempted or actual murder.

Fortunately for all concerned John survived and the case came initially before the Southwark Police Court magistrate, Mr Burcham in February.

Now that Waltin could give evidence more detail of what happened that night emerged. He’d not been alone when he passed Elizabeth at the pub. He’d had a woman on his arm and that was how the row had started. Elizabeth had threatened him and he’d dismissed this, telling her she ‘had not pluck to do it’.

PC 171M had been first on the scene, responding to the shouts from Falstaff Yard. He saw Elizabeth brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife and arrested her. She admitted stabbing her husband and said ‘she intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving her’. John was reluctant to testify against his wife, and admitted his own fault in the matter. Elizabeth said nothing before the justice, preferring to keep her defence for the jury trial that would inevitably follow.

The case did come before the Old Bailey and Elizabeth was convicted of wounding her partner. The trial unfolded with little more detail than we have from the pre-trial hearing. We do get to hear from Elizabeth however, who issued a written statement at the end of the case. This repeats some of the facts John admitted to at Southwark but adds considerably to a picture of his brutality and callous disregard for her. I’m not for a moment suggesting she was justified in stabbing him but it helps explain why she did so:

The prisoner put in a written defence, stating that she had lived with the prosecutor for seven years and suffered much ill treatment; that she had charged him at Southwark Police-court with cutting her head open with a chopper, for which he was imprisoned for three months; since when he has fractured three of her ribs, cut her eye open, and given her two severe wounds on the head with a pickaxe, which caused her at times not to know what the did or said; that he had kept her for three months without boots or shawl, so that she could not seek work, and got involved in debt, and that when she spoke to him about it he struck her; that she saw him on Saturday night with the woman in question, whom he told to give her a good hiding.

Having been found guilty Elizabeth was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Common Sergeant.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1860]