Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.

 

 

Murder or suicide? The death of John Broome Tower in Stoke Newington (part 2)

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For the first part of this story follow this link

Ernest Cogdon saw John Broome Tower several times on 31 December 1884. The two men were friends and Cogden said they met at Haycroft and Gilfillon’s offices   in Great Winchester Street where Broome Tower worked as an underwriter’s clerk.

The course of his work meant that Cogden, a fellow clerk, ran into Tower three more times that day before the pair took a train back to Finsbury Park (where Cogden lodged) at 6.30 that evening. They dined with a Mrs Earl and her daughters (one of whom was sweet on John) before going to a service at St John’s Church in Highbury Vale. It was well past midnight when they parted company on Green Lanes, Cogden going back to Finsbury park and Tower to his digs at 109 Dynevor Road in Stoke Newington.

That was the last time anyone saw John Broome Tower alive but Cogdon was sure he left his chum in good health, sober and with money in his pockets. They’d agreed to meet the following day for lunch. Cogdon was also puzzled that Tower’s body had been found where it was, as he was not on his normal route home; what had caused him to change his habits that night and did he take his own life, or was he murdered?

The police were pursuing the second option: when Tower’s body had been recovered it seemed as if he’d been attacked. His hat was battered (and it wasn’t an old hat), he collar looked as if it had been wrenched from his neck, and the state of his coat suggested the wearer had been involved in a struggle. More than one set of footprints were discovered near the bank of the reservoir where the body was found, and only one matched the boots Tower was wearing. A scarf or large handkerchief was around his neck, spotted with blood, and the press and police speculated that he had been strangled with it.  However, there were no other wounds that might have accounted for his death.

It was a proper Victorian ‘murder mystery’ in ‘the rapidly growing northern suburb’ as the Penny Illustrated Paper described Stoke Newington. It provided its readers with a sketch of the locality and an artist’s impression of the finding of the body at the reservoir (above). No one had heard a sound that night despite there being several potential witnesses including a cab driver, two carriages, and two young lads being close to the scene of the supposed attack at the time.

The police had employed divers to search the reservoir, men working for Doewra and Co., but they had not uncovered anything that might help explain the circumstances of the death. The police, under the direction of N Division’s Superintendent Green, remained baffled and were offering a reward of £100 for information.

Several days later the police investigation had still not resulted in an arrest. Enquiries at Tower’s workplace had now revealed that ‘discrepancies’ in his accounting which hinted at workplace theft. The amounts were significant but not huge – £60-80 – and no cheques were missing. Had Tower killed himself to avoid disgrace? It seemed unlikely, especially as Dr Bond (who examined his body) found no sign that he’d drowned in the reservoir. This suggested to him that he’d been killed first and then thrown into the water. Bond (who was later to be involved in the Whitechapel Murder case of 1888-9) was ‘clearly of opinion that death resulted from homicidal strangulation, and that two or more persons had been engaged in the matter’.

Two years later the case remained unsolved. A man did confess to killing Tower and robbing him with an accomplice but his evidence contradicted much of what the police already new and little credibility was given to it. In 1886 the papers reported that Chief Inspector Donald Swanson was convinced that the poor man had committed suicide. Another theory was that he had been decoyed into the area of scrub near the reservoir by a woman, and then attacked and killed. Swanson may have been content to put the mystery to bed as suicide because it relieved the police of responsibility for finding the killer/s, however unlikely it seems from the evidence presented to the coroner.

The mystery certainly caught the attention of people at the time and the 1886 confession (by a man named Thackery) was not the only one. In January 1887 George Charles Wilson also said he’d killed the underwriter’s clerk but he was dismissed as being unfit to do so suffering as he was, from ‘a disturbed mind’ and being found wandering as ‘a lunatic’.

In the end the crime was and remains unsolved. Somebody killed John Broome Tower or else he made it look that way. It had briefly propelled the outlying suburb of Stoke Newington to national attention, something I’m not sure its inhabitants would have welcomed.

[The Penny Illustrated Paper, 12 January, 1884]

The Stoke Newington murder mystery

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Just after nine o’clock on Wednesday  morning, 8 January 1884, a man’s dead body was recovered from a reservoir at Stoke Newington. George Jaggers, employed by the New River Company, had dredged the reservoir after several personal items had been found nearby by a group of boys and two men walking to work. The objects, which included a hat, coat, ‘a pearl pin, an earring, a watch key, a bar of gold, a watch chain’ plus some money, were formally identified as belonging to a Mr John Broome Tower.

At a coroner’s inquest held at the vestry hall in Stoke Newington several witnesses testified to finding the possessions of Broome Tower in the vicinity of the reservoir, which was situated (as it is now) north of Lordship Park, in the space between Green Lanes and the Seven Sisters Road.

The hat and coat had been seen first by William Palmer, an engineer’s assistant, who saw them as he went to work for the New River Company on the Tuesday. At 8 o’clock, as he came back for his breakfast he saw two policeman carrying them and went over to tell them he’d seen them earlier that morning. Palmer lived in Queen Elizabeth’s Walk which ran down from the reservoir at Lordship Road, then along the edge of Clissold Park to the rear of St Mary’s old church on Church Street.

In Booth’s late 1890s map of the area the top end of the Walk is not mapped or categorized at all, the project not covering the very north of the capital. Around the old church, where there was a mortuary near Edwards Lane and Meadow Street, the housing was poor and coloured blue, but the properties along Queen Elizabeth’s Walk were comfortably red. There were pockets of pink on the map above Clissold Park but Lordship Park and the other streets bordering the pumping station on Green Lanes were solid red in colour.

Detective Inspector Glass of CID told the inquiry that his men had found footprints and other marks close to the reservoir and had made casts of them. George Jaggers explained that the water was about 6 foot deep where he found the body and that the edge sloped down from the top. He did not think someone could have thrown a dead body in from the top, he would have had to enter the water as well if the intention was to cover it sufficiently so it was hidden.

The coroner said that on the information they had heard thus far ‘there was no doubt that the young man had been murdered’. He said the likeliest theory was that Broome Tower had been attacked, dragged into the eater, strangled and drowned. The jury recorded a verdict of ‘willful murder against some person or person unknown’.

John Broome Tower had not been seen since New Year’s Eve and his disappearance was followed by that an unnamed young woman, the press reported.  The police were trying to trace her whereabouts as they wanted to question her in relation to the man’s death. As of the 12 January 1884 however, they were clueless and the papers were describing the discovery of a body in the reservoir as the ‘Stoke Newington Murder’.

Broome Tower was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in a service that was attended by a small number of people, including Miss Alice Drage, who had identified most of the items found as belonging to the deceased, his mother and father, and his old school master. In the late 1890s the cemetery, which still lies behind Church Street had a small female prison at its southeast corner.  This was the London Female Penitentiary which later became the London Female Guardian society, and housed ‘fallen women’ (Victorian and Edwardian code for prostitutes).

Was John Broome Tower murdered, or did he take his own life? I’ll continue my investigations and let you know.

[from The Herald, Saturday, January 12 1884)

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

A brave man saves a young life

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William Whitlock was a brave man and a humanitarian; someone who was prepared to risk his own life to save others. While we should always be sensible about wading in to disputes or rushing into burning houses to rescue people I would hope our society still has people like William in it. Sadly, if the reports from some of the emergency services are to be believed, we have become a society that would rather record an accident or calamity on our mobile phones than take an active role in helping out.

William lived at 1 Canal Row, Albany Road close by the banks of the Surrey Canal. The canal was built in the early nineteenth century to transport cargo to the Surrey Commercial Docks and its long towpath provided opportunities for recreation and for those with darker intentions.

On the evening  of Tuesday 20 August 1844 William was walking along the canal, as he often did, when he heard raised voices ahead. Two young people, a man  and a woman, were arguing. The woman saw him and ran over.

‘For God’s sake, Sir’, he pleaded, ‘use your endeavours to prevent that young man [indicating the other person] from destroying himself, for he has threatened to drown himself’.

William spoke to the man and advised him to go home. The other, whose name was Edward Hornblow, was clearly distressed and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol, at first seemed to agree and started to walk away. Then suddenly he turned and ran headlong towards the canal, leaping into the water.

At that point the canal was about 8-9 feet deep and Edward disappeared into the depths. William stripped off his jacket and dived in after him. He was a strong swimmer and he needed to be because as he surfaced the young man grabbed hold of him, suddenly desperate to live. At first the pair sunk like a stone but when they came back up gasping for air, William managed to drag himself and Edward to the canal bank. By then the woman had got into the water where it was shallower and together she and Mr Whitlock struggled but got Edward to safety.

Edward Hornblow was in a sorry state and he was carried, insensible, to the parish workhouse to be treated. The young woman, whose name was kept out of the subsequent newspaper report, was also badly affected by the experience. She suffered ‘violent fits afterwards’.

Two days later William was in court at Union Hall to testify to Edward Hornblow’s attempted suicide. Hornblow had recovered sufficiently but the woman was not in court. William Whitlock said that he had rescued a number of people from the canal and the magistrate asked him if he had ever had a reward for it.   The Humane Society was formed to help prevent suicide and it often gave monetary rewards to those that saved lives. No, William told Mr Cottingham, he had never been rewarded for his actions even though on the previous occasion that he’d leapt into the canal (to save a young woman) he’d had to remain in his wet clothes for hours, and had a caught a chill as a result.

Mr Cottingham now turned his attention to the defendant and asked him why he’d taken the action he had. It was a fairly typical story of unrequited love. William had been ‘paying his attentions’ to the young woman in question and was trying to move their relationship on by discussing marriage. She wasn’t ready or she wasn’t interested. Either way, having taken some ‘Dutch courage’ before he popped the question the young man was sufficiently traumatized by the rejection to attempt his own life. He was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat his actions in future.

The magistrate ended by praising William Whitlock’s heroics and ordered that Edward Hornblow provide financial sureties against any repeat of his behaviour. He would be locked up until these were secured. This case is a reminder that suicide (and its attempt) was fairly common in the 1800s with canal and the Thames being regular scenes of these human tragedies. In many cases the thing that stopped attempts from being successful was the quick and brave actions of passersby, the ‘have a go heroes’ of the nineteenth century. I do hope we haven’t entirely lost that spirit in our modern ‘me first’ society.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 23, 1844]

‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

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I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

The Police Court: a progress report

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I thought I’d do something a little different this morning. I’ve been writing reports from the Victorian Police courts for over two years now and have collected several hundred stories which were beginning to give me some historical findings that I might be able to analyse more broadly.

There is a difference I’ve found, both in the nature of cases, the way the courts are used by the public, and the way in which they are reported by the press, and this seems to move in patterns across the period 1830-1900. I’m not at a stage where I can be completely sure about this but it does seem that the newspapers are clearly highlighting particular sorts of case or crime in much the same way as we see ‘hot topics’ appearing in our own papers today.

Sometimes that is a sort of criminal activity (and notably this is fraud of some sort when the Mansion House or Guildhall courts are reported). Other times it is begging and vagrancy – real concerns of the mid Victorians who had reframed the Poor Law to treat the ‘undeserving’ poor more harshly. Later see we plenty of domestic violence cases highlighted as this was something that certainly concerned several of the late Victorian magistrates who wrote up their memoirs. Child neglect, abject poverty, and suicide were also topics that come up time and again with varying degrees of shock, sympathy and distaste.

One of the key problems I’ve faced in undertaking this sort of research is that the papers only ever offer us a snapshot of the magistrates’ work. The daily or weekly newspapers run about a half page on the Police Courts and that means they cover about 5-8 courts and report on one (sometimes two or three) cases from each of them. But we know that these courts were busy places, dealing with hundreds of cases daily, especially on Monday mornings when the police cells emptied of the weekend’s drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters.

Judging by the archival records I have looked at from Thames Police court (one of the few places where records from the 1800s have survived) most of those prosecuted there were fined for being drunk and disorderly, or drunk and incapable. Very many others were in for some form of assault and received fines or short prison sentences. Cases which were complicated and led to serious charges being heard at the Old Bailey were relatively few by comparison but were more often reported by the papers, because of course they were often more interesting for the readership.

So what we get is a fairly lopsided view of the police courts and I have been aware that I am also engaging in a selection process in offering up the ones for you to read. Once I realised that dozens if not hundreds of people were reading my blog did that affect they way I chose which cases to cover? It is a difficult question to answer; there are all sorts of factors that determine what I write about. I am drawn to certain types of case because they seem to offer insights into Victorian society at different points, but other times I just find the story sad, amusing or unusual.

Today I am speaking at the 2018 East End Conference, a gathering of largely amateur historians who have a fascination with the Whitechapel Murders and the context in which they occurred. I on quite late in the day and as this is the 130th anniversary of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of ‘Ripperologly’ (the study of the murders) and the problems of historical evidence. This is because the Ripper case and the character of ‘Jack’ has been manipulated from the beginning of any interest in it. He has been used by tour guides, entertainers, politicians, social reformers, historians, video game makers and others for all sorts of purposes. Each generation has shaped their own ‘Ripper’ to suit contemporary concerns or tastes.

In the process we have lost touch with the reality of the murders which were brutal in the extreme. The Ripper figure has become separated from the real killer and an entertainment industry has grown which has exploited the victims and the area in which the killings took place. In the light of recent movements that oppose misogyny (like the ‘Me Too’ movement) I believe Ripperology needs to reflect carefully on the sometime casual way in which the killer has been turned into some sort of cult comic book figure – the mysterious topped hat gent with a knife and a Gladstone bag swirling his cape through foggy backstreets.

This characterisation has arisen from the lack of hard evidence we have for who ‘Jack’ really was. The vacuum has been filled by speculation – which is not in itself a bad thing – and by a vert partial reading of what evidence we do have. Much of this is gleaned from the Victorian press in the 1880s and I can see (simply by reading them every day for this blog) how careful we need to be about that material.

So writing this blog and writing and researching my own ‘Ripper solution’ book has helped me think more carefully about how we use and present ‘history’ and that will form part of what I have to say this afternoon. Normal service – in the form of the reports of the magistracy – will return tomorrow with a tale of pyromaniac who risked the lives of those he lived with. A tale appropriate for Guy Fawkes I thought.

Drew