“For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off”: ‘Knocked’ in the Old Kent Road

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I find all sorts of violent acts being prosecuted at the Police courts of Victorian London but few were as savage and, at the same time, bizarre, as this one.

Patrick Kieffe was drinking with several workmates in a pub on the Old Kent Road when the beer got the better of them and they fell to arguing. All of them worked at the gasworks and one of them, John Baxter, had the task of stoker – which demanded strength and courage – had the reputation of the hard man in the group.

As the beer overcame any inhibitions Kieffe had he started to shout the odds and challenge all and sundry, but especially Baxter, to a fist fight. Baxter ignored him and dismissed the challenge as bravado; Kieffe was a young man, Baxter more mature in years. Enraged Kieffe flew at his co-worker as he stood at the bar nursing a pint, knocking him to the floor. He leapt on him and started to pummel him with fists and, before the others could intervene, he bit him and tried to tear off one of his eyebrows.

One of the group, John Montague, rushed in to help as Baxter called out:

‘For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off’.

Kieffe had Baxter’s eyebrow in his teeth and, like a dog with a bone, he was refusing to release him. Montague threatened to break his jaw and finally the younger man relented. The police arrived and PC  90P arrested Kieffe and took him away. Baxter’s wounds were dressed by a local doctor who later testified that ‘nearly the whole of the left eyebrow was bitten off’.

The case ended up before the Police magistrate at Lambeth, Mr Elliott, who was shocked at the violence of the act. He told Kieffe that he had acted ‘like a perfect savage’ and remanded him in custody until his father could be found.

The South Metropolitan Gasworks on the Old Kent Road were built in the 1830s and the old gasholder (now disused) stills remains. The Old Kent Road is synonymous with South-East London working-class life, as immortalized in the old music hall song, “Wot Cher! Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road”.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 20, 1862]

“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.

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The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]

The return of Harry Harcourt – an imposter or a genuine man in need?

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In the boiler room of a Victorian steam ship

On Wednesday I featured the story of Henry Harcourt who had claimed he was deaf and dumb and presented himself at the Lambeth workhouse casual ward seeking shelter. There he suddenly blurted out that he could in fact speak (and hear) but had closed off the world while serving as a stoker on a voyage to and from Australia. To the surprise of everyone in the Lambeth Police court he also claimed to be a relation the sitting Home Secretary, Sir Vernon Harcourt.

Henry was remanded in custody so that enquiries could be made into his history to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. Two days later the papers reported that he was back up before Mr Chance at Lambeth for the latest developments to be revealed.

Police constable 110L took the stand to tell Mr Chance that he’d discovered that Harcourt had been a barman then, working with his aunt, and she didn’t remember him having any difficulties speaking or hearing then. That was in 1877 he confirmed, just six years earlier.

The magistrate now turned to Harcourt in the dock to ask him to explain his situation.

‘Do you seriously say now that you have pretended to be deaf and dumb for 14 years?

‘Yes, to all but my immediate friends’, replied the former stoker/barman.

So how did he manage on board the ship, Mr Chance wanted to know.

‘I only spoke to those attending the fires. The persons on board thought I was deaf and dumb’.

‘I am very sorry for what I have done’ Harcourt added.

The court heard that he had written down requests for food on pieces of paper so as to maintain his ruse with his fellow shipmates but could offer no real explanation for why he acted this way. Mr Chance was clearly dissatisfied with his answer and equally determined to get to the bottom of it. Was there anyone who could shed any light on the case, he asked?

The police constable that had investigated Harcourt’s background said the aunt was loathe to come forward to testify and added that she was a woman of independent means. There was a declaration from Harcourt that he was entitled to some family money from a will but nothing was at all clear. Mr Chance said he needed to hear directly from Harcourt’s aunt and remanded him in custody once more.

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing’, the magistrate concluded, ‘and I cannot help thinking there is something more than has already come to light’.

Whether there was, and whether it was reported, you will have to wait to find out later this week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 01, 1883]

Daring burglars nabbed by a DC near the Duke of Wellington’s London home.

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Piccadilly, near Green Park, in 1897

In the early hours of the morning of the 27 April 1889 Detective constable William Wyers (294 C) had stationed himself in a secluded spot at the corner of Piccadilly and St George’s Place; from here he could watch Piccadilly and the homes of the wealthy that lived there.

In the Victorian period the crime that most exercised the queen’s subjects, after murder of course, was burglary. The papers were filled with reports of burgled premises and with advertisements for preventing intruders from entering your home. This was also the period that saw the birth of home contents insurance as homeowners sought to protect themselves from the supposed legions of ‘Bill Sikes’ and his ilk.

As DC Wyers watched he saw three men approaching a house at number 146 Piccadilly, adjacent in fact to where the Ritz Hotel is today.* He saw one of the men enter the gates of 146 and climb the steps to the front door. The man tried the door and seemed to fiddle with (perhaps to see it was unlocked). Finding it secure he retreated, climbed over the railings and lit a match, and waited a moment or two. From a distance Wyers couldn’t be completely sure what he was up to.

The ‘burglar’ then went back to the other men and slowly, and in single file, they each approached the property. The man (who was later established to be Arthur Thiviot, a stoker living on the Charing Cross Road) went back over the railings followed by one of his mates (William Booty, a porter ‘of no fixed abode’). While they did this the last man (John Pegg, a Soho printer) stayed back to keep watch.

None of them had noticed the detective constable however. DC Wyers took advantage of a passing hansom cab and jumped on to the back spring, hitching a ride towards them. He alighted opposite Apsley House, the London home of the Duke of Wellington. This now placed him behind the men and he crept on all fours to avoid being seen by the lookout Pegg.

Unfortunately for Wyers he wasn’t as careful as he might have been. Pegg saw him and whistled to alert the others. They ran for it, rushing across Piccadilly and into Hamilton Place, with the policeman in hot pursuit. Wyers caught Thiviot and Booty and cornered them in a doorway. Pegg was known to the police so the DC called him by name and ‘ordered him to stop’, which he did.

He asked Thiviot what he was up and what he had in his pockets. The alleged burglar told him he had nothing on him, and if he was a suspect then the copper better take him back to the station. Wyers thrust his hand into Thiviot’s pocket and produced  dark lantern, a common tool of the burglar.

‘Halloa, what are you doing with this?’ asked Wyers.

‘Oh, its all right Mr Wyers’, replied the stoker, demonstrating that the detective was also well known to the criminal fraternity, ‘I have just left my club. The stairs are very dark where I live , and I brought this lantern to show a light up there’.

It was a fairly pathetic excuse given the circumstances, but I suppose he had to offer something.

Myers grabbed Thiviot and told the others to follow him to the station, warning them that he knew where they lived should they chose to abscond. Thiviot also urged them not to abandon him. As soon as they met with two beat ‘bobbies’ on Piccadilly however, Wyers handed them over and all three were accompanied to the police station.

There all three were searched; Booty and Pegg were clean but Thiviot was found to have ‘a lock picker, a knife and a pair of scissors’ on him. DC Wyers then returned to 146 Piccadilly with Inspector Barrie and they discovered more evidence: a jemmy and marks on the door that suggested Thiviot had tried to force it earlier. They moved on to search Thiviot’s lodgings in Charing Cross Road where they also found a set of keys, ‘and a surgical lance’ (why this was mentioned is unclear, except perhaps to show that he must have stolen it at some point,  why would he have it otherwise?)

In court on the following Monday the Marlborough Street Police magistrate the three were remanded on a  charge of loitering with intent to burgle the home of Mrs Rose Joyce, 146 Piccadilly, London.

The three men went on trial at the Old Bailey in May 1889, but not for the attempted burglary in Piccadilly. Instead they were tried for burgling a warehouse in Charing Cross and the items found on Thiviot (the lantern for example) and the jemmy or chisel found at the scene of the attempted crime in Piccadilly, proved vital in convicting him. All three were found guilty and then admitted a string of previous convictions.

As a result Cheviot was sentenced to penal servitude for six years, the other two for five. The court also aware William Wyers the sum of £2 ‘for the ability he displayed in watching and apprehending the prisoners on another charge, which was not proceeded with’, this being the attempted burglary of Mrs Joyce’s home.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 29, 1889]

*The famous London landmark was not there in 1889 however, as it did not open until 1906.