Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

‘He is a good son and I have done no more than any mother would do’.

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When William Bennett was first brought before a magistrate at the Guildhall Police court he was remanded in custody for a few days. The justice, Alderman Stone, had wanted to hear from a key witness who had failed to turn up to give evidence. He remanded Bennett and issued a summons to bring the witness to court.

On Monday 8 April 1872 Bennett was brought up from the cells and once more faced his accuser, a shopkeeper named Mr Edgar who traded from premises on Fann Street, off Aldersgate Street. Bennett was charged with stealing a swing mirror which, according to Edgar, he had brazenly stolen  on the 25 March. Bennett, in company with another man had simply walked into Edgar’s shop  at two 2 in the afternoon and walked out with the mirror.

There was a shop right opposite that of Mr Edgar, run by a woman named Emily Hollingsworth. She was supposed to come to give her evidence but had not appeared. Now she was in court because of the summons and testified that she had seen Bennett and another man take the mirror as Edgar alleged.

The alderman magistrate demanded to know why she hadn’t appeared when the case was first heard. Emily replied that she had in fact come to give evidence before but had met Bennett’s mother in the  courtroom. Mrs Bennett asked her:

‘to throw doubt on the identity of the prisoner, and she refused to falsify her evidence, but said she would rather leave the court altogether than tell a falsehood’.

Next to appear was one of the warders from Cold Bath Fields prison who identified Bennett as someone who been previously convicted. Herbert Reeves said that Bennett had served a two year sentence recently with hard labour and added that a gaoler at the City prison would attest to him being in there on more than one occasion as well. This probably sealed the man’s fate and Alderman Stone fully committed him to take his trial before a jury.

He then turned his ire on Mrs Bennett, reprimanding her for ‘tampering with the witness’. She was unrepentant, telling the magistrate that her boy was a ‘good son to her, and she had done no more than any mother would do’.

When it came to the Old Bailey William pleaded guilty as charged. His previous convictions did count against him and he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude by the judge, for stealing a mirror valued at 5s 6d (about  £17 today).

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 09, 1872]

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

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The Three Counties Lunatic Asylum, Bedfordshire, (c.1871)

On the morning of the 22 February 1899 Eliza Williams and her husband Herbert were in bed at their home in Shepparton Road, Islington. Suddenly the door of the bedroom hurts open and a man sprang in armed with a large knife.

He rushed at the couple and aiming for Eliza,  he grabbed her arm and stabbed her in the side. He drove the blade in deeper and as she ‘slipped off the bed, he stabbed her in the breast’. Herbert roused himself and tried to protect his wife, charging at the attacker. But the man was in violent homicidal rage and was too strong for him. Herbert was brushed aside and thrown back onto the mantelpiece.

Herbert recovered his wits and wrestled with the maniac just as he was attempting to ‘rip open [Eliza’s] stomach’. Eventually the trio were dragged into the passageway as the fight continued and Herbert managed to get he knife out of the man’s hands. Soon afterwards the police arrived and the attacker was overpowered and taken away to the nearest police station. Eliza was badly hurt but lived and was rushed to hospital.

It took a while to come to court because the key victim, Eliza, was too ill to give evidence but in early April 1899 the case was heard at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr Horace Smith. Mr Smith now heard that the attacker was none other than Eliza’s father, Reuben Dunham, a 59 year-old carpenter from Wheathamstead in Hertfordshire.

Reuben was a troubled individual who had been residing in the Three Counties Lunatic Asylum near Stotfold before he’d absconded. At the time of the attack Eliza had applied for a summons to have him brought before a justice, perhaps for issuing threats against her. Was he unhappy about her marriage, or something else? Nothing is clear from the court report in The Standard but Dunham was clearly unhappy about something.

The detective dealing with the case, Inspector Collett, testified that when he had charged the carpenter with the attack he had exclaimed:

‘If a man is a man he can look at a man; if he is a scoundrel he turns his head away. This job has been going on for 18 months. I wish I had finished the pair of them’.

At Clerkenwell this level of brooding violence continued as Dunham was fully committed to trial for the assault and wounding. Turning to Herbert he told him:

‘You are a lucky man to be alive. I should like to have another cut at her’.

He was then led away to await the judgement of a jury in due course. He didn’t have long to wait. On the 10 April he was tried at Old Bailey and convicted of wounding and attempted murder. While he had been in Holloway Prison the medical officer there examined him and declared him to be sane, despite what seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dunham apologised for attacking his daughter and son-in-law and blamed it on his drinking. He said ‘he thought his daughter was going to take all his things away’ but had no other reason for what he’d done.

Despite the jury hearing that Eliza was lucky to survive the assault on her they recommended Dunham to mercy. However, he now admitted several other offences and to being previously convicted. The judge sentenced him to seven years’ penal servitude.

Thanks to the Digital Panopticon we know what happened to Reuben after this. We also have a description:

Eyes bl[ue]. Hair gr[ey] (bald top). Complexion f[ai]r. Height 5′ 3″.

He was granted a prison license (parole) in June 1904 and released from Gloucester prison on the 4 July aged 64.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 03, 1899]

Outrageous behaviour by “welshers” and “roughs”

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The steam train had opened up Britain and given the Victorians opportunities to visit the seaside and enjoy other leisure pursuits, such as a day at the races. However, this came at a price because the train was a great social leveller, and so long as one had the funds the normal barriers to the mixing of the classes were weakened. Single female travellers were particularly at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of other passengers but, as this case (from the Southwark Police Court) shows, it was hard for anyone to escape bad or boorish behaviour on the railways.

On the 6 February 1879 two publicans  and brothers – Edwin and Walter Cole – had taken the Brighton Railway Company train to  Plumpton to watch the horse racing. When they got back to the station at Plumpton there was a crowd on the platform. Walter (who ran the Latimer Arms in Notting Hill Gate) explained what happened as he and his brother waited for the train:

They ‘were surrounded by a numbers of “welshers” and roughs, who attacked them, and attempted to rob them of their railway tickets and money’.

As they boarded the train the attack continued, and Walter was punched by one man and   had to get help from the guard to restrain him. The guard called Charles Jones, an inspector working for the railway company, who collared the attackers and shepherded them to a carriage at the opposite end of the train where he locked them in.

When the train reached London Bridge Edwin and Walter alighted and were walking towards the exit when two of the men that surrounded them at Plumpton rushed them . One aimed a kick at Walter before he was seized by the station master, a Mr Pierpoint, and Inspector Jones. The assailant, a man named William Butler, was then handed over to the police.

The police seemed reluctant to prosecute at first because there was no obvious injury to either of the Cole brothers. Butler was released and no other members of the group that had caused the trouble in East Sussex were arrested. Walter was determined to press charges however, and applied for a summons to bring Butler to court.

So, a few weeks later, on the 22 February, Butler found himself before Mr Partridge at Southwark having to deny he had anything to do with this ‘outrageous’ behaviour. He said he didn’t go to horse races, didn’t bet on the horses and hadn’t done anything wrong.  The evidence against them was pretty damning and the prosecution witnesses were respectable men and their stories were consistent.

Moreover an ex-detective from P Division appeared in court to inform his worship that the prisoner was a member of a notorious ‘gang of welshers and thieves’ who hung around race courses. They were were know as ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’. ‘Hooligans’ were to become closely associated with the Southwark and Lambeth area in the 1890s and in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature about the various ‘gangs of London’ all of whom had colourful monickers like ‘Dutch Sam’.

There was laughter in the court as Butler’s affiliation was announced. Whether this came from his ‘chums’ or was a derisory reaction from the general public isn’t clear but Mr Partridge wasn’t in a mood to be amused. Despite the violence being petty and no real damage being done he handed the young man a two month prison sentence at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 24, 1879]

p.s the term ‘welsher’ has, it seems, nothing to do with Wales and the Welsh people. According to the OED a ‘welsher’ is a ‘bookmaker who takes bets at horse races but who absconds, or refuses to pay if he loses’. It seems to have come into regular usage in the early 1860s. ‘Roughs’ was commonly used in the early Victorian period for groups of men at political demonstrations that acted aggressively; by the 1870s onwards it seems mostly to have applied to gangs of young men that were increasing seen as a social problem in British cities. Organised crime around British race courses is the subject of the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, which takes the real-life story of the Birmingham gang as its inspiration, weaving in other race course gangsters such as Darby Sabini and Billy Kimber. ‘The inspiration for ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’ may have been an early professional boxer of the same name who was popular in the 1820s.

“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law

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On Sunday I started a short experiment in my methodology by choosing to follow just one week in the Police Courts. I picked the year 1883 because it neatly corresponded with our calendar for 2018. If you have been following the stories from Sunday you will know that we have resolved the case of George Wyatt (who robbed a jeweller on Hounsditch), heard that Henry Rollings was given the benefit of the doubt by the Woolwich justice, and noted the limits of the law in helping a cab driver whose fare had run off without paying him.

The case that remained outstanding was that of Harry Harcourt, the deaf and dumb pauper who made a miraculous recovery in Lambeth workhouse and found himself facing a charge of imposture.

Harcourt doesn’t appear in the police court reports published by The Standard on Saturday 3 February, nor is he in The Morning Post. I thought I might see him in the Illustrated Police News because that was a weekly paper and would have had the time to develop a fuller story around him, but sadly he’s a ‘no show’ there as well. We’ll have to wait to see if he is in the Sunday papers tomorrow. 

Instead, the top story in the Illustrated Police News  is the case of Mary Lowry and two other (unnamed) women who were brought before a City of London alderman for making a nuisance of themselves outside Aldersgate Street railway station.

The case was brought by a City policeman who explained to Sir Thomas Owden (on oath) that Mary and several others were frequently to be found outside the station selling flowers for button holes. Passersby were forced to ‘walk out into the road to avoid pass these obstructions’ he said, and the girls’ behaviour bordered on the aggressive:

‘They were not content with asking people to buy their flowers’, he stated, ‘but they followed them and thrust the flowers in their faces’.

When the policeman tried to move them on or arrest them they quickly got out of his way, returning when he’d passed by on his beat. As a result he had obtained summons to bring them into court.

Mary now spoke up for herself:

‘Beg pardon, my lord, I wasn’t there a minute. I was in the road till a milk cart came along, and I just stepped onto the path to avoid being knocked down’.

Sir Thomas didn’t believe her; the policeman had given his evidence on oath and he doubted he would have lied or made it all up. The other girls said they were sorry but they were simply trying to make a living. Flower sellers were a part of London’s poorest community and sometimes trod a narrow path between legitimate commercial business and petty crime or prostitution. If one thinks of Victorian or Edwardian flower girls an image of  Eliza Doolittle singing her wares in Covent Garden immediately springs to mind.

Sir Thomas said he was ‘sorry that [the girls] could not find something better to do’ but was inclined to be lenient on this occasion. He adjourned the summonses for a month to see if they would desist from their behaviour, and ket them all go.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 3, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Plenty of sympathy but no justice for a Hackney cab driver

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This case shows how statute law sometimes clashed with popular perceptions of how justice should work, even when the supposed ‘keeper’ of the law (the magistrate) felt that the law was wrong, or at least not fit for purpose.

William Loakes was a cab driver from Rotherhithe and this was his third appearance before the Southwark Police Court magistrate. Cabbies didn’t have a very good reputation in the 1800s, being described as surly and disrespectful, especially towards wealthier clients. They were not infrequently accused of overcharging or refusing to take fares where they requested to go.

But Loakes had done nothing wrong and had been coming to court to seek redress. He claimed he was owed 10s by a man named Thomas who had given his address asBor the Nag’s Head pub in Borough. He had come twice before to get a summons against the man but so far he had failed to trace him. No one  at the pub had any knowledge of him so William was back in court to ask for a warrant to arrest him.

The Warrant officer of the court told the magistrate that two summons had been served at the address but since ‘Mr Thomas’ (if that was his name) was not there they’d had to return with them. Mr Bridge was apologetic but explained that he didn’t have the power to issue a general warrant to arrest the fare dodger since that wasn’t a crime under the terms of the Hackney Carriage Act. The act, passed in 1853, set out plenty of regulations for the operators of cabs but failed (in Mr Bridge’s view) to protect the drivers from non-payment by their customers.

‘Cabmen were liable to severe penalties if they broke their contracts, and the parties that hired them should be treated the same way’, said Mr Bridge. He added – using the fact that his words would be reported – that he thought it high time Parliament looked at the law and changed it according to give magistrates more powers to deal with this.

There was little he could do for Mr Loakes however, who had already lost three days work sitting around in Police Courts trying to get his 10s. He suggested the matter be communicated to the Commissioner of Police in the hopes he might use his influence to get the law changed. Finally, he granted the cabbie a third summons for free and Mr Loakes left court after thanking the magistrates ‘for his kindness’ (but probably grumbling under his breath about the unfairness of it all – he was a London cabbie after all).

[from The Standard, Friday, February 02, 1883]