An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and a comment that he hadn’t seen him for some time.

This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three weeks earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him. The 61 year-old wine dealer told him: ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’.

Rowe was shown in to the counting house where Lock left him. Barely five minutes later the sound of a pistol shot punctured the peace of the house and Lock heard his master cry out: ‘Rowe has shot me!’

He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then manoeuvred Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Police inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with him and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?, the Lord Mayor asked him.

I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes‘, Rowe replied.

Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant.

After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could not help thinking it [his dismissal] was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me‘.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was thrown on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything‘.

Rowe was stony faced:

My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough‘.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss-fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

I have had them for 30 years‘, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway‘.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice.

After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or even a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

Another dreadful attack on the police and an echo of PC Culley, the first officer to be killed ‘in the line of duty’.

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It was claimed last week (by the Daily Express) that assaults on the police had risen to ‘28 attacks a day on officers in crime epidemic’.1

With recent events in mind it is easy to suggest that our police men and women are at a greater risk of harm than ever before but as one independent fact checking organization has shown, it isn’t really possible to compare rates with those in recent years because reporting criteria has changed.

The reality is that from their very inception, in 1829, members of the public have subjected the police to attacks. It has not become then a dangerous occupation, it always has been. The first officer to die to be killed in the line of duty was PC Robert Culley. He signed up for Peel’s new force in September 1829, joining C Division. On 13 May 1833 he was part of a team sent into break up a demonstration of the National Union of the Working Classes (a group  of radicals demanding parliamentary reform). The gathering at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell descended into violence as the police moved in to disperse it and PC Culley was fatal wounded in the affray.

Hundreds of officers have died since Culley, with PC Andrew Harper being the most recent. Many thousands more have been injured and it is unlikely that we would ever have a true figure for this because statistics for common assault are notoriously unreliable. During the first 20-30 years of policing in England the police were deeply unpopular in working class areas. Seen as ‘class traitors’, and busybodies their use to suppress Chartism or demonstrations against the hated Poor Law won them few friends. Nor did their efforts to close down markets or stop street gambling endear them to working-class communities.

While they enjoyed gradual acceptance by the end of the century it would be fair to say that the public still saw the police as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than the ‘lovable bobby’ that 1950s and 60s television dramas like to depict.

In 1883 William Aldis was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police court in the East End of London. Aldis was a costermonger – a small trader who sold goods from a barrow. Costers were always being asked to ‘move along’ by the capital’s police and they resented these attempts to interfere with their traditional way of life. They saw the police as their enemies.

On the 2 August 1883 PC James Simpson (135K) was on duty just after midnight on Salmon’s Lane in Limehouse. He noticed Aldis and a group of ‘roughs’ standing outside the Copenhagen pub. They were drunk and rowdy, and making quite a noise so PC Simpson moved over to tell them to go home.

Aldis saw his opportunity to ‘serve out a policeman’ (as one coster had famously boasted to Henry Mayhew) and punched the officer in the face, blackening his eye, and sending him crashing to the pavement. The other roughs steamed in and rained down blows and kicks on the stricken policeman as he lay helpless on the ground. When they’d finished their work they ran off before help could arrive.

William Aldis was arrested later but it took a while for the case to come to court because PC Simpson was too sick to attend. Even two weeks later he was still unable to appear to give evidence in person. Evidence was obtained however, which satisfied Mr Lushington that the costermonger was to blame for the assault and he sentenced him to six months at hard labour.

So before we carried away in thinking that we have a ‘crime epidemic’ on our hands today and that something different is happening in society it is worth remembering again (as my blog yesterday argued) that violence towards the police and others is nothing new. That may not be very comforting but it is the reality.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 18, 1883]

‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

A lazy policeman, ‘regaling himself with coffee and cold meat,’ reveals early resistance to the New Police

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It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.

However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.

For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing.  “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.

Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.

Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.

Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.

Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours.  What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?

Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.

While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.

In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.

A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]

A detective shows ‘promptitude, ability, and discretion’ and wins high praise indeed

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The detective department were a belated addition to the Metropolitan Police. When Sir Robert Peel created his ‘bluebottles’ in 1829 he modeled them on the existing watch and parish constabulary, rather than the Bow Street ‘runners’ and other entrepreneurial thief-takers.  Peel was careful not to offend public sentiment, which eschewed the idea of a ‘system of espionage’. That sounded far too much like the Napoleonic state police that had been run by Fouché from Paris.

So detectives (if not detection) was not part of the remit of the first police force to pound the streets of London. However, it soon became apparent that just such a body was necessary, even if it still remained undesirable. A series of high profile incidents (notably the murder of Lord Russell in his home and the initial failure to catch a notorious criminal named Daniel Good) led to the creation of the Detective Department in 1842.

It took a while for the detectives to establish themselves but by the 1880s they had survived one or two scandals and changed their departmental name (to CID) and were beginning to win some grudging acceptance in the hearts and minds of the British public. This was helped by the rise of the fictional detective in the works of Victorian novelists like Dickens and Wilkie Collins and then the first appearance in print (in 1887) of Sherlock Holmes, the professor of detection.

There are moments where we can see the impact of detectives in cases before the Police courts. Mostly any police involved are ordinary beat bobbies, and they do a fair amount of detection themselves. But in November 1882 at the Mansion House Police court detectives appear in two cases, while another is commended publically for his efforts by the sitting alderman magistrate.

Detective Constable Wright of the City Police had been keeping an eye on Mary Ann Jordan and Mary Ann Bassett after he’d received a tip off that they were up to no good. On the 20 November he was called to a warehouse in Queen Victoria Street which had been broken into. Seven rolls of cloth with a value of over £100 had been taken and DC Wright suspect that Bassett and Jordan were responsible.

Acting on this hunch and the intelligence he had acquired he and DS Downs went south of the river to The Borough and visited the address he had for the pair. It was about 8 in the evening and both women – who shared a room – were in bed. He asked Jordan if she knew anything of the robbery but she refused even to get up, let alone answer him; Bassett admitted to pawning to material but claimed not to know it had been stolen. He arrested both of them and, on the following day, Alderman Owden committed them both to trial.

Next up William Gough was charged, on evidence provided by another City detective, of obtaining 40 yards of silk using a forged document. Despite his denials the magistrate fully committed him to Old Bailey, another success for the detectives.

At the end of the report from Mansion House it was noted that Sir T Owden, the alderman sitting in for the Lord Mayor, had taken the time to heap praise on Detective Wright for his efforts in catching some thieves who had raided the premises of Mappin & Webb, the jewelers, on Oxford Street.

The owners of the firm wanted to present the detective with ‘some testimonial in recognition of the promptitude, ability, and discretion [he had shown] in arresting the right men at the right time’.

The magistrate was delighted to hear it and added his own vote of thanks to DC Wright. So, 40 years after the first detectives started work here was proof of their acceptance and appreciation from both business and the magistracy. Detectives continue to enjoy a mixed reputation amongst the public and police – sometimes seen as outside of the police, often as mavericks when represented in fiction and TV, but also as a necessary part of fighting organized crime.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 21 November, 1882]

Milking it in at Hyde Park

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If you visit Hyde Park this weekend you will see many things: couples strolling arm in arm, dog owners walking their pets, cyclists clad in lycra and joggers sipping from water bottles; there will be ducks and geese and squirrels, and plenty of pigeons; and of course at this time of year there will crowds of people attending the Winter Wonderland.

What you are very unlikely to see is cattle. However, in 1829 cows grazed on the parklands, reminding us that early nineteenth-century London was a lot more rural than we might expect.

Cows were pastured on the grass by the ‘cow keepers’ who helped supply milk to the thirsty population of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Research has shown that there was a herd of about 30-40 cows in the park and that other herds were grazed across the capital and on its perimeter. Of course as London expanded much of the green space was gradually built upon and by the middle of the 1800s many of these herds were disappearing. The Victorian period also experienced a change in the tolerance of animals on the city streets and increasingly cattle and sheep were directed away from centres such as Smithfield to the outskirts of London. This has been described as ‘improvement’ by historians.

In 1829 one man was clearly enjoying the benefits of having milk cows nearby. Joseph  Nicholas had taken to milking the cows himself under cover of night and taking home a couple of bottles for himself and his family.

This did not go unnoticed by the cow keepers who began  to suspect that the dwindling yield form some of their animals was not occasioned by a problem with the animals themselves. They contacted the police (quite possibly Peel’s newly created body) and set them to watch the park at night.

Sure enough, in mid November 1829 at 10 at night two officers saw a man waking in the park. It was Nicholas and they stopped and asked him his business.

‘Halloa there’, they enquired, ‘what are you doing?”

‘Nothing particular’ the middle aged man replied, ‘only inhaling a little fresh air, for the benefit of my health’.

The constables thought it an odd time to be taking the air so they searched him. In either of his long coat pockets they found a bottle of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the teats of one the fine beasts in the park. They arrested him and presented the man at Queen’s Square Police court the next day.

Nicholas was very sorry for what he’d done and promised not to reoffend in future. The magistrate, Mr Gregorie, was anxious to hear from the cow keepers to see if they wished to press charges. So poor old Nicholas was remanded in custody for a couple of days.

Nicholas doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records that survive for those transported in the 1800s. So perhaps his apology was enough or maybe when he reappeared Mr Gregories handed down a small fine. His actions were hardly a major crime and were probably replicated up and down rural England in the 1800s. With the police on the case the cow keepers now had some chance to protect their stock, before that it seems the milk could be taken past their eyes without them even noticing…

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 16, 1829]