A second chance for the lad that strayed

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Augustus Harris (1852-1896)

It seems as if young John Davenport was trying to escape his environment and make a better life for himself. For a 14 year-old working-class lad like John there were few opportunities to scale the social ladder or win any kind of wealth or fame. An entrepreneurial boy might strike lucky and make a fortune in business; by contrast serious crime was a pathway out of poverty (albeit a rocky and precarious one).

I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the Strictly Coming Dancing judge Len Goodman. Len told that growing up in East London he knew that his passport out of the area was dancing. It was that, he said, or football or becoming a gangster. While he loved football, dancing was his passion and what he was best at.

Entertainment was also John Davenport’s thing and he got a break, being selected as part of the touring company performing Augustus Harris’ Human Nature (written in 1885). Augustus Harris was a big name in late Victorian theatre. Dubbed the ‘father on modern pantomime’ Harris was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and co-wrote a number of plays and pantomimes. Several of these will be familiar to modern readers including Babes in the Wood (1888), Beauty and the Beast (1890) and Cinderella (1895).

So it was a ‘big thing’ to be chosen by Harris and should have meant to start of a long career in show business. Unfortunately John found himself on the wrong sort of stage in June 1888, after being caught in the wrong sort of act.

At the beginning of June he was brought into the Bow Street Police court and charged with stealing a pocket-handkerchief. He was first remanded so enquiries could be made and these revealed his links to Harris and the theatre company. It also revealed that his father – a costermonger –  wasn’t keen to see his boy fly the nest, at least not if it meant he would be excluded from his son’s earning potential.

As a 14 year-old thief with a previous unblemished record the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, was minded to be lenient. A member of the St Giles’ mission appeared and said he would be happy to find the boy a temporary home so long as the father would ‘give an undertaking not to interfere with him in future’. Mr Wheatley (from the mission) was clearly keen to remove the old bad influences from John and set him on a better road. Mr Davenport however refused to play along and said he would rather see John imprisoned for month instead.

Mr Vaughan told the father that he was extremely selfish and saw through his attempt to conceal his avaricious desires on his son’s earning under a cloak of parental indignity. Now it transpired that Augustus Harris had heard about John’s arrest and far from abandoning the lad as yet another wastrel that had failed to take the opportunity offered to him, ‘interested himself on the boy’s behalf’. The court was informed that Harris had found him a job in domestic service, would pay for a new suit of clothes and the fare to get him there.

It was a kind and generous offer and presented a viable solution to the magistrate. John was released to begin his new life. Let’s hope he took full advantage of this second chance the impresario had given him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 3, 1888]

P.s Augustus Harris was a lover of food and drink as well as the theatre and there is a bust of him on the corner of Catherine Street in Covent Garden, where he might have enjoyed a glass or tow. There’s even a smart Italian restaurant named after him.

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

A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

‘Gin Lane’ uncovered in the 1850s

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The Victorian’s love of gin, immortalised by Dickens in Sketches by Boz

When Benjamin Elmy, and offer of Her Majesty’s Excise, knocked at the door of number 20, New Compton Street it was opened, ‘after a short pause’, by a woman. Elmy asked her if she lived there.

‘No’, the woman replied, ‘I have nothing to do with the house’.

It was a strange response for someone answering the door, unless she was a visitor on her way out. Benjamin entered through the door and made his way downstairs. He was acting on information and presumably knew what he was expecting to find there. He wasn’t disappointed because he found ‘the lower rooms fitted out as a distillery’.

‘A still was at work on the fire, and there was a quantity of manufactured spirits in large bottles’. Elmy also found about ’60 gallons of wash, and all the apparatus of a private still’.

This was clearly an operation to make liquor and avoid the duty on it. Londoners had a huge appetite for cheap alcohol in the nineteenth century and especially for gin (which is what I suspect was being made at No. 20).

Benjamin had not gone on his own and one of his colleagues had decided to follow the woman that had let Elmy in. He caught up whether and brought her back to the illegal distillery. Her name was Eliza Nash and she denied all knowledge of the still or the people involved with it.

Unfortunately for her she was overheard by the landlady of the house who pushed into the room and set the proverbial cats amongst the pigeons.

‘How can you tell the officer that’, she exclaimed, ‘I have seen you constantly about here, and have you lately fetched a great deal of water for the house?”

Eliza was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of what she’d been doing so the excise men took her, and the contents of the room, into custody. The next day they brought her to the Marlborough Street Police Court where Mr Bingham found her guilty of running an illicit still. He was lenient on this occasion, fining her the lower amount of 30 but warning she would go to prison for three months if she failed to pay.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 15, 1855]

An early example of the problems facing Peel’s ‘New Police’.

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In the first year or so from their creation in 1829 the ‘New Police’ experienced a somewhat troubling baptism of fire. Resented by the working class for interfering in their day-to-day lives, and looked down upon and resented by the middle class for being another expensive charge on the rates, the new ‘Peelers’ were attacked from all sides. Added to this was the reality that in the first 18 months of their existence a large number of new officers were disciplined and discharged for drunkenness, corruption, or for fraternizing with local prostitutes.

It was, then, an inauspicious beginning for Sir Robert Peel’s new force of law and order.

The reports of the Metropolitan Police Courts in the early years (when ‘Police Office’ is a more accurate term) are not as regular, or often as fulsome as they were after mid century, but this one from 1830 gives us a sense of the difficulties the police had in establishing themselves as protectors of the public and the state in the 1800s.

In early May 1830 PC John Harding (99 E) was placed in the dock at Bow Street accused of assaulting a member of the public. The charge was brought by a respectable member of society, a Middlesex magistrate no less, named Mr Mallard.

Mr Mallard claimed that he had seen PC Harding maltreating a woman in Russell Street, near the British Museum. It had been around 6 o’clock in the afternoon when he saw the policeman dragging a woman (later identified as Sarah Scott) up and down the street, while she protested.

Harding was not apparently on duty as he wasn’t wearing his badge, as the Middlesex justice told his colleague at Bow Street. When Mr Mallard attempted to stop the PC from continuing with his abuse of Sarah he received short shrift and a mouthful of invective. Crossing the road Mallard took out his pocket book and started to write down the copper’s details so he could report him.

At this PC Harding strode across towards him, ‘seized him by the collar’ and said: ‘I’ll teach a fellow like you to take a Policeman’s number!’ Mallard explained that he was a magistrate but Harding was undeterred; instead he grabbed him by the arm and ‘dragged him through St Giles into the High-street’, while a crowd of baying onlookers hooted at him.

Finally, Mallard was able to present PC Harding with his calling card and was released. He went and complained to the commissioners but was informed that the policeman was only doing his duty (as regards arresting the woman) and so would keep his job. Sarah Scott appeared and gave evidence that supported the magistrate’s version of events, while PC Harding argued that he had arrested the woman as she was interfering with his attempts to chastise a young street tearaway.

Mr Halls, the Bow Street justice on duty, was clearly conflicted. When presented with the word of a magistrate versus that of a policeman he felt unable to decide what the merits of the case were. Instead he chose to pass it up through the system, to the Sessions of the Peace, where a jury could decide whom to believe.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1830]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]