A landlady receives an unwanted seasonal gift: slap in the face with a wet fish

DORE: BILLINGSGATE, 1872. Billingsgate fish market in the early morning. Wood engraving after Gustave Dore from 'London: A Pilgrimage,' 1872.

Billingsgate Marketing the morning by Gustave Doré, 1872

Drunkenness is usually associated with this time of year. People have plenty of time off work and numerous social occasions in which drink plays an important role. Whether it is sherry before Christmas dinner, beer on Boxing Day in the pub, or champagne and whiskey on New Year’s Eve, the season tends to lead some to imbibe excessively.

Not surprisingly then the Victorian police courts were kept busier than usual with a procession of drunkards, brawlers, and wife beaters, all brought low by their love of alcohol. Most of the attention of the magistracy was focused on the working classes, where alcohol was seen as a curse.

By the 1890s the Temperance Movement had become a regular feature at these courts of summary justice, usually embodied in the person of the Police Court Missionaries. These missionaries offered support for those brought before the ‘beak’ in return for their pledge to abstain from the ‘demon drink’ in the future. These were the forerunners of the probation service which came into existence in 1907.

In 1898 Lucas Atterby had been enjoying several too many beers in the Birkbeck Tavern on the Archway Road, Highgate. As closing time approached he and his friends were dancing and singing and generally making merry but the landlord had a duty to close up in accordance with the licensing laws of the day. Closing time was 11 o’clock at night (10 on Sundays) but Atterby, a respectable solicitor’s clerk, was in mood to end the party. So when Mr Cornick, the pub’s landlord, called time he refused to leave.

Mrs Cornick tried to gentle remonstrate with him and his mates but got only abuse and worse for her trouble. The clerk leered at her and declared: ‘You look hungry’, before slapping her around the face with ‘a kippered herring’ that he’d presumably bought to serve as his supper or breakfast.

It was an ungallant attack if only a minor one but if was enough to land Atterby in court before Mr Glover at Highgate Police court. The magistrate saw it for what it was, a drunken episode like so many at that time of year. He dismissed the accusation of assault with ‘a Billingsgate pheasant’ (as kippers – red herrings – were apparently called) but imposed a fine of 10splus costs for refusing to quit licensed premises.

The clerk would probably have been embarrassed by his appearance in court (and the pages of the Illustrated Police News) and if he wasn’t he could be sure his employer would have been less than impressed. It was a lesson to others to show some restraint and to know when to stop. A lesson we all might do well to remember as we raise a glass or three this evening.

A very happy (and safe) New Year’s Eve to you all. Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 31 December, 1898]

The estranged husband, his drunken wife, and the bent policeman

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Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth (sometime in the later 1800s – it must be before the 1860s as the police are still wearing stove pipe hats). 

This is an unusual case that arose from the all too usual complaint of desertion. In this example a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Mason was summoned to appear at Lambeth Police court to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and left her chargeable to the parish. In many cases of this sort the husband was effectively forced to maintain his wife because the alternative was that the ratepayers would have to.

However, this case was a little different as Mr Mason was not held accountable and the actions of a policeman who was involved in the process were distinctly questionable. This is probably why this otherwise mundane example of the daily work of the police courts made it into the papers.

Mrs Mason appeared in court in late November 1848 and was described as being ‘showily-dressed’ (which gives us an indication of the reporter’s opinion of her. She told Mr Elliot (the sitting magistrate) that two years previously her husband had sold off all the family furniture and had turned her out into the street. He had initially allowed her 10 shillings a week and she had returned to friends in Carshalton, but in August he stopped the payments to her. Since her husband lived in Lambeth that parish now became liable for her maintenance under the terms of the poor law.

Her husband explained that he had claimed a legal exemption to the support of his wife on the grounds that she was adulterous and called a witness to prove it. This man, another tradesman who knew Mason and his wife, admitted spending time alone with the woman but said he had no idea the pair were married. Mrs Mason vehemently denied she had done anything of the sort  but her estranged husband’s solicitor vowed that he could prove her a liar.

Given this development Mr Elliott adjourned the case and the parties returned to court on the 6th.

Now the tradesman’s brief produced a police constable – Samuel Booker (125P) who testified that on the night after the Mrs Mason had first appeared in court (which would have been Wednesday 29 November) he had found Mrs Mason much the worse for drink outside the Flying Horse pub in Walworth Road. She was, he added, ‘surrounded by bad characters’ and asked the officer to find her a bed for the night. Instead he lifted her up and accompanied her back to the police station. On the next morning (Thursday 30/11) she was brought up at Lambeth on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

PC Booker was now cross-examined and it was put to him that he had seen Mrs Mason earlier that evening, at about 9 pm. He said he had not but did recall talking to another lady who asked him to ‘procure a Carshalton bus’ for her. Surely this was one and the same person, the magistrate enquired. No, said the constable, he was quite sure this was a different woman.

I suspect he was lying, perhaps to conceal some relationship (however temporary) between them. He came unstuck when a gentleman appeared to say that he had seen PC Booker and a woman that looked remarkably similar to  Mrs Mason at seven that evening, outside a gin shop near Newington Church. He watched as the woman entered the shop and was followed in by the policeman a few minutes later.

The witness swore that a short time afterwards the man left by a different door. He challenged the officer as to his conduct and said he would report him. He was ‘not a little surprised on the next day to find that the policeman brought the same woman to court on a charge of drunkenness’.

So, what had the policeman been up to? Drinking with a woman while on duty? It wouldn’t be the first time.

But why did he arrest her, and then not let her go without a court appearance? Was he after a bribe, (monetary of otherwise) and are we meant to consider the possibility that Mrs Mason was prostituting herself to make ends meet? Again, she would not be the first poor woman to resort to this when her husband had left her penniless.

Mr Elliott judged that further enquiries should be made into the conduct of PC Booker, who would have to wait nervously on his sergeant and inspector’s decisions. As for Mr Mason however, there was no reason – the magistrate determined – why he should support a woman who behaved as badly as his wife had. Her claim for support was rejected and she left court as poor as when she arrived. With her reputation in tatters, little hope of divorce, and what seems like ‘the drink habit’, her future looked bleak.

[From The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Thursday, December 7, 1848]

Of billiards, bribery and champagne

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Sergeant Wills and his fellow police officer had arrived at the Hopples pub in King Street, Hammersmith at a quarter past one in the morning on the 16 November 1876. The public house should have been quiet, all the drinkers gone, and the place closed up, but the police were working on information that an after hours session was underway.

Determined to break it up the two men entered the premises and, sure enough, they found a number of people sat around the landlord’s parlour table. The landlord was a Mr Ward and he explained that an important billiards match had been played earlier and that the four men that remained were his guests, and would be ‘leaving directly’.

William Cook was famous in the 1800s. He had won the World Championship many times, taking his first victory in 1870 and dominating the sport until mid century when he was overtaken by John Roberts (himself the son of another professional billiards player). The game (which today is much less well known that snooker or pool) was popular in the nineteenth century and drew an audience of spectators, including on at least one occasion members of the royal family.

Presumably Mr Ward hoped that Sergeant Wills would be impressed that such an illustrious celebrity had been in his establishment and that it would justify the late night drinking session. But the police weren’t in the mood to be impressed and while the landlord pleaded his case the other officer took down the names of all those present so they could issued with summons to appear in the Hammersmith Police court.

Ward’s last attempt was also his worst. He leaned close and whispered in the police sergeant’s ear:

‘You had better have a bottle of champagne, and say no more about it’.

That was an attempt at bribery and Wills wasn’t about to let that pass.

‘No thank you, I want the names and addresses of the gentlemen and I shall report the case’.

And so he did.

On Saturday 2 December Ward and the four men that had been discovered in his parlour all appeared at Hammersmith in front of Mr Paget the sitting magistrate. The policeman set out his case and the landlord was defended by his solicitor, a Mr Child. The defense was that the pub was shut up and no drinks were being sold; the men were simply there after hours as guests.

Mr Paget accepted this and so he dismissed the first summons, that of running the house out of hours. As that prosecution had failed it followed that those against the four gentlemen would also be dismissed which just left the matter of attempting to bribe an officer of the law.

The magistrate was reluctant to punish the landlord; he kept a respectable house and Paget clearly felt the police had overstepped themselves. There was nothing wrong in a man sharing a few drinks with his friends so long as he wasn’t trading at the same time. It was understandable that the men wished to finish the evening discussing the merits of the two players they had just watched compete.

So he imposed a fine of £5 with costs (for the summons) of 56but said he would not record the conviction, so it would not affect Ward’s attempt to renew his license in future. It was a slap down for the police and a justification of sorts for Mr Ward. Importantly, the four ‘gentlemen’ had their names kept our of the papers as well.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, December 3, 1876]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

A woman pulls a gun in court

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It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]