A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

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Imagine the scene if you can. You are on board a Thames steamer heading towards Battersea Bridge, it is nighttime, on a Sunday, the ship is packed and it is quite dark on the river. Suddenly the boat veers off course and starts to head directly towards the piles of the new bridge, sticking up out of the murky waters of London’s river. As the crew tries to slow the boat or alter its course the passengers panic, screams are heard, and everyone rushes about blindly.

Inevitably the steamer slams into the bridge but fortunately only sustains relatively minor damage. No one is badly hurt and the ship stays afloat. This is no repeat of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 when 650 people lost their lives. However, that was only 10 years previously and very many of those onboard would have remembered that awful event.

Having secured the ship and its passengers the crew’s next thought was to find out what happened. It quickly became clear that the boat had been sabotaged. The lock pin of the rudder had been unscrewed and removed, causing the vessel to become steer less. Suspicion fell on a group of young men who had been rowdy all evening, pushing and shoving people and generally acting in an anti-social manner as gangs of ‘roughs’ did in the 1880s.

One youth was blamed and brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. Remanded and then brought up on Monday 3 September 1888 Sidney Froud, an 18 year-old grocer’s assistant, was accused of ‘maliciously and wantonly interfering with the steering gear’ of the Bridegroom, a Kew steamer. He was further accused of endangering life and causing £30 worth of damage (around £2,500 in today’s money).

The prosecution was brought by the Victoria Steamboat Association (VSA) who were represented by a barrister, Mr Beard. He asked that the case be dealt with under section 36 of the Merchant Shipping Act, where a fine of up to £20 was the penalty. Several members of the crew gave evidence describing the lads as ‘full of mischief’ and testifying to hearing the defendant laugh as the pin was removed.

Froud did not deny his action but his defense brief claimed he had not acted maliciously, saying he had no idea that the consequences would be so severe. His conduct was ‘stupid’ but the ship’s company was negligent in allowing the youths to get so close to such an important part of the ship’s steering mechanism.

Mr D’Eyncourt, presiding, rejected any negligence on the part of the crew or the VSA and found against the lad. The only thing to be considered was his punishment. Mr Dutton for the defense, said he was only being paid 5sa week at the grocers so couldn’t possibly afford a huge fine like £20. His friends were ‘very respectable’ and several persons would testify to his good character. Perhaps a sound thrashing would have sufficed if he was younger he added, but at 18 he was past that.

Mr D’Enycourt listened to all of this carefully and in the end awarded the company 23scosts and fined Froud a further 50s. In total that amounted to almost 15 weeks’ wages for the grocer’s boy, if indeed he kept his job after such a public display of recklessness. I suspect he did because the fine was paid up on the day and he was released to his friends. He was lucky, as were the 100 or more souls that his stupidity had endangered the lives of.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 04, 1888]

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

A stowaway from Newcastle nearly becomes another murder victim in 1888

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When John Henry Marler was brought before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court on a charge of attempted murder it must have excited some interest in the district. Marler was a sailor, recently arrived in the capital from the north east of England on the Albert, a brig out of North Shields.

The brig was probably bringing coals from Newcastle but it had at least one passenger that the captain wasn’t aware of. Mary Jane Pascod had stowed away  on board, or at least had been pressured into doing so by Marler. Marler had proposed to the young woman before he’d left for London and had urged her to accompany him. The girl was reluctant to leave and quite likely even more reluctant to marry the sailor but somehow he smuggled her onto the ship.

Mary Jane was right to be worried about the 32 year-old seaman. He had a violent temperament, especially when he’d been drinking, and the couple argued. He was 12 years older than Mary and when she told him she didn’t want to have anything more to do with him he flew into a rage and threatened her. When they docked at the Isle of Dogs he went ashore and drank heavily.

He was seen later that night by a watchman on the wharf near the Albert. Marler spoke to the watchman, saying:

‘Stop me from going on board that ship to-night. If I do, I shall kill that woman’.

The watchman (John Stacey) didn’t stop him but did notice how drunk he was, and so he followed him onto the brig. Stacey saw Marler approach where Mary Jane was hiding and draw out a knife. He was about to bring it down on the young woman when Stacey pounced, grabbed his arm and wrestled the knife away.

He told his version of events to Thames court who must have listened all the more intently, knowing that just a few days earlier there had been a brutal stabbing in the East End that had left Martha Tabram dead in George Yard, near the Whitechapel Road. Martha was, arguably, the first of the official ‘Ripper’ victims that summer and later it was suggested that a sailor (albeit a foreign one) might have been responsible for the serial murders that so shocked the nation in 1888.

Mr Lushington decided to deal with Marlee there and then, sentencing him to six months imprisonment with hard labour. He instructed the police to send a telegraph to let Mary Jane’s family and friends know she was safe but would require help in getting back home.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, August 13, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A detective uncovers smuggling by Horsleydown, but a much worse discovery is made there in 1889

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Detective sergeant Howard was watching the comings and goings of ships and sailors by Horselydown Stairs on the River Thames. Situated near to what is now (but wasn’t then) Tower Bridge and opposite St Katherine’s Docks. In 1881 this was a busy stretch of the river with shipping bringing in goods from all over the world. Now, of course, it’s mostly a tourist area, but it is just as busy.

As DS Howard waited he saw a man he recognized go on board a steamship which had a Hamburg registration. He was sure the man was John Michael, someone he knew well as a smuggler, so he kept on watching.

Sure enough, about 30 minutes afterwards Michael reemerged and made his way on to the docks. The officer followed and then stopped him nearby. When he searched him the detective sergeant found seven pounds of tobacco and ¾ lb weight of cigars. The duty alone on these amounted to nearly £3 and so he arrested him.

When questioned Michael denied all knowledge that the goods might in any way be dodgy. He merely stated that a man on board had asked him to carry the goods ashore and was going to meet him in Tooley Street later. It was a weak defense and he probably knew it, but what else could he say?

When he was up before the Southwark magistrate he said very little at all expect to confirm his name, age (42)  and occupation (labourer). DS Howard was also there and told Mr Bridge that the man was well known as someone who earned money by carrying goods ashore to help seaman avoid the excise due on it. He got paid sixpence for every pound he smuggled, so he stood to make about 3-4s  for the haul that DS Howard confiscated.

He was ordered to pay £1 149d for his crime but since he didn’t have anything like that money he was sent to prison for two months instead.

On 4 June 1889 a human a parcel was found floating in the river just near St George’s stairs, Horsleydown. Some small boys had been lobbing stones at it but when it was recovered it was found to contain a decomposing lower torso of a woman. A leg and thigh turned up days later by the Albert Bridge and the upper torso was found soon afterwards by a gardener in Battersea Park. It was quickly linked to the Whitehall and Rainham torso mysteries that had been overshadowed in 1888 by the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel murders. Fig 2.1

For most of the last 130 plus years researchers have concluded that there were two serial murderers running amok in late Victorian London but was this really the case? A new book, penned by Drew with his fellow historian Andrew Wise, sheds new light on the torso and Whitechapel series and argues that one man might have been responsible for both.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper is published by Amberley Books and is available to order on Amazon here:

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 21, 1881]

A fatality avoided as race goers clash with an ‘honourable member’ on Wimbledon Common

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Richard Sims Donkin MP (c.1895)

On the day of the Epsom Derby 1888 (30 May) Richard Donkin was exercising his horse near Wimbledon Common. Donkin, a Tynesider, had made his wealth in shipping in the north of England and in 1885 he stood for parliament and was elected as the Conservative Party member for the new constituency of Tynemouth.

As he rode along a path that adjoined the common a waggonette approace din the opposite direction. The vehicle, a sort of large open cab capable of carrying several person, was driven by Frank Flint. Flint was carrying several passengers, taking them to the races at Epsom. As they passed Donkin there was jeering from the wagon and Flint raised his whip and struck out at the horse and rider.Unknown

The MP struggled but he was a good horseman and managed to prevent his beat losing it’s footing and sliding into a ditch at the side of the road. Had the animal fallen he feared it might have broken a leg and then have had to be put down. He made enquires and found Flint’s name and had him summoned before the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court.

The prosecution was directed by Donkin’s solicitor, Mr Haynes while Flint was defended by a Mr Hanne. The prosecution case was that this was an assault and a deliberate attempt to unseat the parliamentarian. In defence it was argued that it was all a mistake and an accident. Flint testified that his own horse had shied on seeing the other animal and that he was trying to control it when is whip accidently connected with the MP’s mount.

It was a cab driver’s word against a respected member of parliament and I think we know how those encounters were likely to play out.  For Montague Williams, the sitting magistrate, the issue was not simply who was to blame it was whether this constituted an assault. He consulted the clerk who consulted Justice (James Fitzjames) Stephen’s volume on the criminal law and decided that Flint was guilty of an indirect assault, and fined him £5.

Richard Donkin lived in Wimbledon until his death in 1919 at the age of 82. He served Tynemouth as MP until 1900 but made little impression on parliamentary history. Most of his interventions were concerned with shipping, something he knew a lot about. I’ve no idea what happened to Flint or his unruly passengers but if they had backed Ayeshire, the three year old stallion that won the Derby in May 1888 they might at least have won enough money to pay the hefty fine that Mr Williams handed down.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 13, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

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What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]