‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’: self-defence, vitriol, and exile to Australia

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George Day was passing along Lucas Place, Coram Street in the parish of St. Pancras, at about 2 in the morning when a woman hailed him from a house there. Day was in his cab and assumed the woman required a cab. It was pretty clear the house was one of ‘ill-repute’ (in other words a brothel) but George went inside anyway.

Once there the woman demanded that he stand her a drink and have one himself. There was no fare and Day soon realized that he’d been tricked, and started to leave. But the young woman kicked up a fuss and a heated exchange ensued, which was loud enough to be heard Mary Ann Murphy who lived nearby.  She described it as ‘a little bit of a bother’ and heard a woman’s voice say:

‘Don’t let him go, he wants to bilk her’.

‘Bilk’ was underworld slang for cheat, and as Murphy looked in through the open door she saw another woman run towards Day and throw something at him.

This woman was Elizabeth Cleveland she had thrown vitriol (sulphuric acid) in the cabbie’s face. The police arrived and Cleveland was arrested while Day was taken away for treatment.  The case came about before the magistrate at Hatton Garden but it was far too serious to be dealt with there. Cleveland was committed to Newgate and took her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 August 1840.

It may be that Day was economical with the truth that morning. Perhaps he knew it was a brothel and he’d gone in deliberately but then changed his mind. However, having crossed the threshold he was expected to pay something, if only for gawping at the girls that worked there. When he refused a fight broke out and that resulted in Elizabeth choosing the first weapon she could find. She didn’t deny throwing acid but claimed she did not know it was so concentrated; it was used for cleaning brass and was usually diluted. There was also some confusion as to whether it was a liquid or a powder (like lime) that was thrown.

It didn’t affect the outcome:  George Day had lost the sight of one eye completely and the surgeon that testified in court said there was little chance he’d ever regain the use of it. The jury convicted Elizabeth and the judge sentenced her to be transported to Australia for 15 years.

Elizabeth Cleveland had been born in Peterborough in 1787 and so, like many Londoners then and now, was a migrant to the capital. In 1840 she was 53 years of age (considered ‘old’ by one witness). She was finally put on board a ship (the Rajah) and sent to Van Dieman’s Land on 1 April 1841, landing on 19 July that year. Her record reveals that she claimed to have acted in self-defense (‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’).

It also noted that she was a widow with one living child. Elizabeth could read but not write, she was 5’ 2” high, had brown eyes, greying dark brown hair, and was fresh faced with freckles. She gave her occupation as a cook and laundress, which is probably the role she had played in the brothel, looking after the prostitutes there.

Her instincts were to protect the young women worked with but in this case it had gone terribly wrong with awful consequences for George day and for her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 20, 1840]

Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]

Two young chaps ‘go snowing’ in Southwark.

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One of my favorite possessions is a 1961 edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) that has the wonderful subtitle:

 Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals  Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Trade, The White Slave Traffic,  and Spivs.

It catalogues both British and American slang terms for all sorts of criminal activities from an A C coat (one that has many pockets to hide stuff in) to ‘zombie’ (a less than affectionate term for police women, which arose in the 1950s).

One phrase I’ve always liked is ‘going snowing’, which refers to the deliberate theft of linen from a washing line. In December 1870 that is what brought two teenagers before the magistrate at Southwark Police court, who sentenced them spend Christmas and the New Year behind bars.

PC George Stent (186M) was on duty in Rockingham Street at about 10 in the evening of the 14 December when he heard a noise. It seemed to have come from an entrance which led to Messrs. Ned and Hunter’s workshop so the alert constable went off to investigate.  As he walked through the gateway he saw a wagon and a young lad balancing himself of the wheel. Underneath he noticed another boy who was now trying to hide.

The bobby tugged the lad down and hauled the other one from under the vehicle. There had been a spate of robberies in the vicinity and he suspected he might have discovered the cause. A quick look under the wagon revealed a stash of linen that the lads had been stowing away having filched it from a nearby garden.

Using the powers he had under the Vagrancy Act (1824) he arrested them both on suspicion and took them into custody to be questioned further.  While the boys were locked up at the police station he returned to the scene with a pair of their boots and compared it to footprints in the garden where washing had been drying. They fitted exactly and the two were formally charged with theft.

Their final examination before the courts took place on the 23 December 1870 and Mr Partridge (the ‘beak’) decided against letting them take their chances with a jury. He used the vagrancy act to send John Turner and John Smith (both lads of 17 years) to prison with hard labour for three months.

Happy Christmas!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 24 December, 1870]

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

A ‘bully’ is seized; a case of mistaken identity in Leicester Square

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Stagg & Mantle’s store on Leicester Square

One of the things that fascinates me whilst reading the reports of the Victorian police courts is the changing use of language, especially slang. Language is always evolving of course; one only needs to spend time around young people to see how they create new words and adapt old ones. Slang (like underworld cant or Cockney rhyming slang) effectively excludes those that don’t understand it and allows conversions to occur in the hearing of those we’d rather didn’t understand what we were saying.

However when we look back into history to read about the people from the past through their own words the changing use and definition of words can be quite confusing. For example ‘gay’ which has changed its meaning considerably over the centuries. Now it almost universally refers to homosexuality but this probably only dates back to the 1930s, and only to men (and possibly only in the US). For most of the twentieth century in Britain it means happy, cheerful and it still is used like that.

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In the late 1850s (a period of concern about sexual health following revelations about the disastrous state of British troops in the Crimean War) ‘gay’ was a slang term for female prostitution (as seen in a famous cartoon from the time – shown on the left).

Another family word today is ‘bully’ which I think we would all understand to mean someone who uses their strength or position of power to intimate or exploit someone else. Bullying is rightly at the top of school and work agendas as something that needs to be dealt with and that vulnerable people should be protected from.

So would you be surprised to discover that in the 1800s (and indeed earlier) ‘bully’ was a slang term for a protector? It seems strange until we unpack it a little more and find that ‘a bully’ in Victorian terminology meant a prostitute’s protector, or in modern language, her ‘pimp’. Victorian bullies profited from the money made by street prostitutes and ‘protected’ them from other bullies or competitors for their territory.

Once you know that this report from the mid 1870s makes more sense.

Detective Leader of C Division (Metropolitan Police) was standing at the corner of Leicester Square watching a crowd of people outside Stagg and Mantle’s department store. Some of the more fashionable London streets attracted prostitutes and thieves and the police often watched for well-known or suspicious characters to catch them in the act of committing crime. Detective Leader was in plain clothes and looked like an ordinary member of the public.

Looking across Leader suddenly noticed a man, possibly drunk, wade into the crowd and start an altercation with a small group of women. He quickly intervened to separate them only to find that the man seized him by the collar and then declared that he was under arrest. The man, who was a recently discharged soldier named William Corrington, told the policeman that he (the soldier) was a detective and that he was arresting him (the actual detective) and would take him to the nearest police station. His explanation was that Leader was a ‘bully’ and so he must have believed he was trying to protect the women from the former solider.

The detective tried to explain  that the man was mistaken; he was the copper and he had been watching these women, but Corrington was too drunk to understand. A nearby uniformed officer saw what was happening and came to his colleague’s assistance and the man stood aside. But this was only temporary, when he saw that the detective wasn’t going anyway the ex-army man lurched forward again declaring:

‘You are loitering here again, and I shall take you to the station’.

Since Corrington could not or would not see sense, Leader and PC Harding (28C reserve) hauled him off to the nick and he was presented before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street in the morning on a charge of ‘annoying’ the detective in the course of executing his duty. The magistrate fined him 20(or 14 days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay).

Poor Corrington. He’d been discharged from the army only a few days earlier, we don’t know why. He was clearly drunk but possibly suffering in other ways. Prostitutes were exploited themselves of course, but they also preyed on drunk men and maybe William had fallen victim and had had his pocket pinched in the past. It is often remarked that the police (in plain clothes) can look remarkably similar to the criminals they are pursuing so maybe this was an honest mistake. This story does tell us as well, that the West End of London was considered a ripe spot for petty crime and vice in the 1870s, and little has changed there today.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 09, 1875]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Two thieves ‘going snowing’ are caught by the peeled eyes of a child detective.

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I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.

One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.

Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.

Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.

However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.

Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a  distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.

Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]

The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]