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.

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The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

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George Cruikshank, ‘A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’, (1848)

Sometimes the London press seems to have chosen to focus on a particular theme. In the third week of July 1864 it appears to have been the personal tragedy of suicide. I can think of no reason why acts of self-destruction should have been higher in that period than in any other year. In America civil war was tearing that nation apart but the only noteworthy event in London was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller, the first ever murder on the railways. Perhaps the relative lack of news stories in July prompted the newspapers to concentrate on the personal drama of those that decided they could no longer cope with life.

Attempted suicide was a crime in the 1800s and so those caught in the process were liable to be prosecuted. On the 19 July The Morning Post reported that three individuals had appeared before the city’s magistracy charged with this offence.

The first of these was an elderly man called James Gander. PC 244 of B Division told Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court that he’d been alerted to the fact that a person was seen drowning in the River Thames. It was about 8 o’clock on Sunday night (17 July) and when the policeman reached the water he and a bargeman managed to affect a rescue, pulling the 60 year-old out of the river.

Searching him he found three large stones in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. When he recovered his senses Gander told the constable that ‘trouble of mind and family misfortunes had driven him to it’.  Gander was also quite drunk, or at least appeared to have been drinking heavily and in court his son told the magistrate that his father had taken to drinking recently.

He went on to say that his father had been a fairly successful master carman but some time ago that business had floundered and gone under. His wife had been away from the family for the last few months looking after her daughter-in-law and it seems Gander wasn’t coping well. The magistrate wasn’t particularly sympathetic; he remanded the old man for a week so he could reappraise the case but said he was minded to send him for trial for the crime.

At Southwark on the other side of the river Mr Woolrych had two unconnected attempted suicides to consider. PC 133M told the magistrate that at half-past five on the previous Friday afternoon (15 July) he had found Henry John Arnold lying on the pavement in Swan Street. A gentleman was standing over him and called the officer’s attention to him, saying he feared the young man was dead.

Arnold was alive, but ‘totally insensible’. The gentleman handed the policeman a bottle marked ‘laudanum’ which he had prized from the stricken man’s hand. Arnold was taken to Guy’s Hospital and his stomach was pumped to try and save him. He was lucky but it took a few days for him to recover sufficiently to be brought before the magistrate at Southwark to answer for his actions.

Mr Woolrych asked him if he been trying to kill himself and why. Arnold admitted he had and explained it was because he ‘truly unhappy’ having fallen out with his wife. This prompted a ‘decent-looking female’ to step forward and state that she was Mrs Arnold. She said they had argued about a young girl that worked with him, but she’d forgiven him. Arnold had taken it badly and had wandered off for a while and she’d not known where he was. She worried because he was often in ‘bad health’, and perhaps she meant in poor mental health.

This time the magistrate decided he would keep Arnold in gaol until ‘he was in a better frame of mind’, perhaps conscious that the young man had told the  arresting officer that ‘next time he would do it better’.

The final case was that of Mary Ann Willis. She was also brought to Mr Woolwrych at Southwark and charged with attempting to end her own life. A young lad named Samuel Carden testified that on Saturday afternoon (16 July) at 3 o’clock he’d been on Waterloo Bridge stairs where he worked assisting the watermen. Mary Ann came down the stairs and remarked to him that ‘it would be a nice place to commit suicide’.

Carden told her to be careful that she didn’t accidently fall in and said he would ensure no one tried to kill themselves while he was there. Regardless of this, she pushed past him and ‘slipped off the logs and went under’. Samuel acted quickly, grabbed her and pulled her back on to dry land, before she could be caught under the logs of the platform and be drowned.

In court Mary Ann denied all of this and said she’d fallen in by accident. The magistrate asked Samuel if he thought the woman had been entirely sober when he’d seen her. The lad said he was pretty sure she had been drinking as she looked unsteady on her feet when she came down to the jetty. Faced with this evidence and Mary Ann’s denial the magistrate had a decision to make. Whom did he believe?

Finally he decided that he would believe the ‘respectable young woman’ but probably because he felt she had acted on the spur of the moment and had planned to kill herself. Unlike Carden or Gander this seemed to be a life that could be turned around. But young Samuel had acted bravely and deserved a reward for saving her, so Mr Woolrych ordered that he been given five shillings from the poor box. Mary Ann he discharged.

Today none of these individuals would be prosecuted for what they had done or had attempted to do and hopefully all three would have been given some support from the mental health services. This doesn’t prevent thousands of people from trying and succeeding in ending their own lives of course and stories like these remind us that everyday people struggle with their personal demons and pressures, and some of them lose those battles.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 19, 1864]

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

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I often wonder what the Victorians would make of our society if they could visit it. I imagine they’d be both awed and shocked if they were able to time travel forward to 21stcentury London. Awed by the technology perhaps: the cars, neon lights, television, mobile phones. Shocked by what they would see as irreligion, immorality and a lack of deference.

Of course the idea that the Victorians were prudish and all went to church has been successfully challenged by historians but it remains a fact that they were more conservative and less tolerant of some behaviours than we are today. Homosexuality was made illegal in 1885, and men could be sent to prison for engaging in sexual relationships with other men, as Oscar Wilde was. Suicide was a crime and there was considerably less understanding of mental illness throughout the period. The criminal justice system was harsh: many more people were incarcerated for relatively minor property offences and the death penalty existed, and was used, for murderers.

The newspaper reports of the metropolitan Police Courts are an excellent way to peer into this world. To quote Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and we can see this at Bow Street, Lambeth, Marylebone and all the other magistrate courts.

At the end of June 1886 two individuals were brought up at Lambeth Police court charged with begging. Begging remains an offence punishable under nineteenth-century legislation (the Vagrancy Act of 1824) but it no longer carries the risk of prison and is often ignored by the police unless it is aggressive or causing a particular nuisance. So while retain the power to prosecute beggars we rarely use it. Instead the emphasis is on helping those that beg, or (more cynically) in arguing about how best we should help them.

In 1886 there was a Mendicity Society; an organisation dedicated to the prevention of begging, especially by those it deemed to be imposters. I’ve written about them before  and their officers crop up frequently in cases that came to court. Joseph Boseley was one such officer and on the evening of Monday 28 June he was watching two beggars in Church Street, Camberwell.

Both appeared to be women and they held a Bible out to read from. As passers-by approached they would ask for a donation and if it was forthcoming they would reward the donor with a verse of scripture. However, if they were refused money, then, ‘as soon as the person walked on [they] made use of foul language to one another’. Boseley smelled a rat and he arrested them for impersonation.

Boseley knew this pair well and was watching them to gather sufficient evidence against them to prosecute. He knew also that they weren’t both women: one of them was a man dressed up as a woman, and this was assumed, I think, to be a ruse to separate pedestrians from their hard earned cash, as a pair of females asking for charitable donations to a ‘good cause’ seemed more believable.

In court the pair cut a sorry looking vision in the dock. Mary Ann Saunders was 55 and her partner, Henry Bennett ten years younger. Bennett was set in the dock still wearing ‘female clothing, with hat and ribbons, and hair hanging down his back’. When questioned he continued to speak in a high-pitched impersonation of a female voice, as he had being doing as he stood beside the kerb in Camberwell.

Boseley told the magistrate (Mr Biron) that there had been multiple complaints about the duo and that they ‘were old mendicants’. Saunders could often be seen pushing Bennett around in ‘a perambulator’, always dressed as a woman, and always begging for money. He saw them as a couple of charlatans who were entirely underserving of the public’s sympathy, let alone their money.

Today however, I wonder what we would make of them. Was Bennett merely donning female attire as a ruse to con people, or was he cross-dressing because he felt more comfortable in women’s clothes? We have only very recently begun to accept that gender is more fluid and the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t coined until 1971. In 1870 two men were put on trial for transvestism, but there was insufficient evidence to convict them.After 1885 men who dressed as women were sometimes prosecuted as homosexuals, again demonstrating a contemporary misunderstanding of those that cross gender boundaries.

The beginnings of attempts to understand transgender issues can be seen in the late nineteenth century but for a sympathetic understanding we have to wait till late into the twentieth century. Even now those that feel uncomfortable in the gender they were born into and who are brave enough to present themselves as the person they know and believe themselves to be can find it a very tough experience. We are only very slowly adjusting to the idea of all gender toilets and allowing people to be whom they want to be.

Was Henry Bennett ‘trans’? It is impossible to know of course. Mr Biron was convinced he was a beggar and said he would remand the pair for further enquiries. At this Bennett fainted in the dock, although the papers saw this as a yet another example of imposture and an opportunity to poke fun at him for the amusement of its readership. On the 9 July they were brought up again and the magistrate sent them both to prison for a month for begging, declaring them to be ‘rank imposters’.

As he was led away Bennett cried out: ‘A month, what for? I didn’t beg; I only give bits of scripture comfort’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 30, 1886; Reynolds’s, Sunday, July 11, 1886]

A personal tragedy for the girl that couldn’t cope

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By the time Ann Poulter was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she had recovered sufficiently from her pregnancy to face a rigourous legal inquisition. It was almost six weeks since she had given birth on the 2 May 1845 and she’d spent most of the time in between in hospital as she was very weak. Now Ann, a servant working at a house in Hanway Street, Fitzrovia, was charged with killing her new born baby.

Standing in the dock before the justice, Mr Maltby she now had to listen to a succession of witnesses testify against her. The first of these was Diana Hugo a charwoman who deposed that on that day she’d gone to work at Hanway Street as usual. She’d suspected that Ann was pregnant and was hiding it, as many young women would have done in a society that condemned women for falling pregnant before marriage.

Servant girls like Ann were vulnerable to the pressures applied by masters or their sons, or indeed those of their fellow male servants. Even if the child was  a product of  a loving relationship it was likely to be unwelcome because having a child out of wedlock was a sure fire way to get yourself dismissed in Victorian England.

Diana Hugo’s suspicions were confirmed by what she found in the kitchen – traces of blood on the floor and other signs. She told her mistress he called Ann to her and grilled her about it. Ann denied everything and said she’d merely been unwell ‘but would soon be better’.

The char wasn’t convinced and when she heard the stifled cry of an infant she searched and found (in the coal cellar) a baby girl, ‘newly born, wrapped in a gown’ that belonged to Ann. The baby and mother were reunited and Ann was sent to bed and a surgeon was sent for.

Dr Odling was next to give evidence. He said he examined Ann and the baby later that day and all was well. When he came back in the evening however the child was dead and there ‘were marks of violence on its person, particularly about its head’. The police were summoned and Ann was arrested and taken away.

The doctor that carried out the post mortem examination (a Dr Hind) said that the injuries the child had sustained were not obvious externally. The baby girl had died of injuries to her head, her little skull being fractured. Ann told him that one or two days before the birth she’d tripped and fallen downstairs, which is how she accounted for the injuries to her baby.

Now it was Ann’s turn to give her account of what happened and she was vague and contradicted the earlier reports. She admitted dropping the child so that it bruised its face, but it wasn’t intentional. She also said that she hadn’t released she was so close to her time or she would left her employment and gone into confinement.

The consequences of being found guilty of killing her baby were serious but it seems that there was no one in court who was there to help or speak up for her.

Mr Maltby committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey but I can find no record of this taking place. Nor does she appear in the records collated under the digital panopticon project, so what happened to her? She may have been tried and acquitted – not all not guilty verdicts were written up for the Old Bailey Proceedings. She may avoided trial altogether if, say, some new evidence surfaced.

But I suspect the real reason she disappears from the records is that she died; possibly while awaiting trial in prison. She was clearly a disturbed young woman to have hidden her baby in the coal cellar, and it seems likely she did kill it. It isn’t too wild a leap then to suggest that the pain of this coupled with her personal trauma led her to end her own life before a jury convicted her of taking that of her new born daughter’s.

Hanway Street is rumoured to have been named after Jonas Hanway, an eighteenth-century philanthropist and founder of the Marine Society (which helped destitute young boys find an escape from poverty and crime in the Navy). Hanway was also a governor at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, which took in the unwanted offspring of the poor. One of Coram and the other founders (such as William Hogarth) aims was to offer a safe refuge for illegitimate babies born to mothers who felt they had no alternative but to get rid of them. So there is a sad irony that this tragedy took place in where it did.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 18, 1845]

A series of mini tragedies as Londoners welcome another summer

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Lambeth Bridge in the 1800s

The Standard‘s coverage of the Police Courts of the Metropolis at the engining of June make fairly grim reading. At Lambeth two brothers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst daring each other to jump off Lambeth Bridge. When the case came to court their elderly mother revealed that the wife of one of them had died earlier week, having thrown herself off Shot Tower Wharf.

Suicide was the theme of the day it seems: along at Southwark in the Borough Isabella Soof (a 46 year-old married woman) was charged with attempting to end her own life. She had leapt into the river at London Bridge but a passing labourer heard her scream and dragged her out. As he pulled her to safety she said:

The grave is my home. I have no husband. Let me go and drown myself‘.

Her husband appeared in court and told Mr Slade he could think of no reason why she’d do such a thing. The magistrate, rather unsympathetically, sent her to prison for a week.

He was perhaps mindful that there was something of an epidemic of women trying to do away with themselves and was trying to issue a warning that the action was a crime that would be punished. Ellen Dalman (38) was also charged with attempting suicide. A policeman saw the book folder running down the stairs at London Bridge and intercepted her before she was able to plunge into the murky waters of the Thames.

Slade remanded her for a week so that enquiries could be made into her domestic circumstances and mental health.

At Wandsworth a former major in the army tried to avoid the disgrace of being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour by giving a false name. The justice – Mr Paget – saw through his subterfuge and fined him 10s for the drunkenness and gave him a dressing down for not admitting to who he really was.

Over at Bow Street (where the reporter offered a short recap of the cases there rather than any detail) another woman was prosecuted for attempting to drown herself; her mother promised she would ensure no further attempts were made and she was released. A clearly disturbed woman who’d smashed up the windows and property of a man she described as ‘disreputable’ was sent to a hospital instead of being imprisoned, showing some level of appreciation for her condition at least.

Finally a drunken man was prosecuted at Thames before Mr Saunders for beating up a young woman who was his neighbour and damaging property to the value of £4. She might have suffered a worse fate had not several locals ‘rushed in and released her’ from his clutches. The man, Michael Lynch, was sent to prison at hard labour for three months.

All of this was published in the Tuesday morning edition of the paper. The Standard was a daily paper with a morning and evening edition by the 1880s. It was broadly conservative in its outlook and reached an audience of over 200,000 by the turn of the 20th century. It has a long history, surviving into the 21st century under its current Russian owners and becoming a free paper for Londoners.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 03, 1879]