Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

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On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]

The perils of being a ‘known thief’

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Steam boats at Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge

After 1869 there was a change to the law. This was one of the long term consequences of the moral panic surrounding ‘garrotting’ (a form of violent street robbery) that occurred in London in 1862. The Habitual Offenders Act (1869) saw the creation of a register of prisoners who had been convicted. This included taking details of their physical features and photographing them. In 1871 the act was modified so that it was now limited to all those sentenced to a month or more in prison. The registers are held by the National Archives at Kew and and will be a part of a new historical online database, the Digital Panopticon.

Before that the court had no official record of previous offenders although there were plenty of instances where a person’s criminal record dogged them through the justice system. From the 1750s the Bow Street police office, run by Sir John Fielding (the ‘blind beak’) had attempted to create its own database of London’s criminals. Their early efforts were destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and subsequent records were lost to history when the office moved to a new building in the late 1800s.

Many constables, watchmen, gaolers, and magistrates could however identify persons who had appeared on more than one occasion but this was limited by memory and geography. If, for example, a defendant was brought up before the magistrate at Bow Street and convicted and sentenced to, say, a month in the house of correction, on release he would ‘disappear’. If he was arrested and brought before the justice at Worship Street (in the East End) then he may have been unknown to them.

It was then, as it is now, the case that repeat or persistent offenders were likely to receive a stiffer sentence, or at least not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to conviction. So we can see the benefits to the authorities of a systematic system of identifying known criminals. By contrast we can also see why it was in the interests of thieves to try to pretend they were first offenders by denying previous convictions (that might be hard to prove) or by using alias, which many did.

The John Cox that appeared at the Mansion House Police Court in June 1866 was described in the papers as ‘a well known thief’. He was brought up on a charge of robbing a young lady named Elizabeth Gallagher, on Old Swan Pier as she waited for a steam boat by London Bridge.

He was seen ‘dipping’ her pocket by an officer named Henwick, who may have been City policeman or more likely someone working for the steam ship company. Henwick acted quickly and arrested Cox before he could make his escape, and told him there was no use him denying what he’d done.

In the Mansion House court Cox’s luck went from bad to worse as the gaoler of Coldbath Fields prison rose to give evidence. He told the presiding magistrate, Alderman Gabriel, that he knew the prisoner of old. Cox had served time in the prison for being a rogue and a vagabond and had also been sentenced to three years penal servitude at the Middlesex Sessions.

As a result, instead of dealing with him summarily by awarding a short prison sentence, the alderman fully committed Cox for trial. As he was a taken down Cox turned his anger on the gaoler, warning that he ‘would be “down on him” [at] the first opportunity’, and was led away muttering curses to the cells.

Cox was clearly guilty of the crime but the consequences of being identified as a repeat offender: as someone who had not learned his lesson previously, was severe. On 9 July 1866 he pleaded guilty to picking the pocket of Elizabeth Gallagher and was sent to prison for seven years.

Cox was listed at 23 years of age in 1866. In 1874 another man, also named John Cox (aged 35) was convicted at the Bailey of housebreaking. Listed as a previously convicted felon he was sent down for ten years. Was this the same John Cox? There is a slight difference in age (3-4 years) but it is not impossible. Cox would have been out of gaol by 1874 and would have found it very hard to gain legitimate paid employment. He may also have made acquaintances inside that would have helped him ‘progress’ from the smaller crime of picking pockets to the more serious one of breaking into someone’s home or business.

There is an alternative outcome however. In 1879 a John Cox was convicted with another man, William Price, of stealing 20 ‘dead soles’. The pair pleaded guilty and Cox was shown to have been convicted in 1870 and a further five charges were heard and proved against him. He was sentenced to 8 years.

I suspect one of these cases (but not both) was our man. From 1869 or 1871 onwards we could be clearer if we checked the Register created in the wake of the garrotting panic. That is an exercise for another day but is the sort of exercise the Digital Panopticon project was created to make possible, the tracing of criminal ‘careers’ and lives of those sentenced at London’s Central Criminal court.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 23, 1866]

Footnote: yesterday I received my copy of a new volume about the history of crime. A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (edited by Jo Turner, Paul taylor, Sharon Morley and Karen Corteen) is published by the Polity Press and is full of short articles about criminal justice history across the 18th and 19th centuries. It features a short entry by your truly (on the Whitechapel Murders of 1888) and is an excellent companion to my own text book covering the period from 1660-1914

An adventurous lad and a distressed woman

Two tales today, one from Lambeth Police court and the other from Thames. Both involve people taking risks that might have ended their lives, but with quite different intents and outcomes.

Louisa McCarthy was living with the fear of her returning husband. Mr McCarthy was a ‘lazy, worthless fellow’ and had been sent to prison for six weeks for beating her up. It wasn’t the first time and she feared it would not be the last. The despair overtook her and as she walked along the banks of the Thames she determined to end her life by throwing herself in.

The sound of her body hitting the water alerted a gentleman named Vyall who was on board a penny steam-boat making its up along the river. He rushed along the deck and dived into the water to rescue her. Risking his own life he brought her to the shore and safety. She was in the Lambeth court charged with an attempt to ‘destroy’ herself. The magistrate took pity and as she admitted to regretting her action, he sent her home with her sister. He offered her no promises for her future safety when he husband was released however.

Over at Thames Police Court a young lad of 13 was facing a rather different prosecution. Thomas Bell had jumped out of the window of a moving train on the London and Blackwall railway. A guard, Joseph Bridges, deposed that he saw Thomas leap and then roll over the rails ‘like a top’. Apart from a grazed nose and knee he was otherwise unharmed.

Thomas was lucky, the court heard, ‘if a plate layer [a worker on the track] had not seized him he would have been knocked down and crushed’ by an advancing train on the opposite track.

The train was going at 15 miles an hour (probably a lot faster than most trains in and out of London today…) and so the boy had a ‘wonderful escape’. The offence (of jumping off a moving train) incurred a 40s fine but the justice dismissed the case stating:

‘Bring me some person older than this boy, who is stupid enough to jump out of a railway carriage in motion, and I will make an example of him’.

[from Daily News, Thursday, August 5, 1858]