No joke as a comedian finds himself in the dock of an East End court

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In 1888 the comedian Walter Groves appeared, not on stage this time, but in the dock at Worship Street Police court. He had been summoned by his former manager and fellow comedian Henry Bruce who accused him of assaulting him after the pair had fallen out in a dispute over what we would probably term ‘intellectual property’.

Back in February 1888 Bruce had employed Groves to perform as part of his theatre company. The comedian had written (or perhaps co-written) a sketch act that brought the house down on Easter Monday. On the basis of that success they decided to carry on performing the act and, Bruce insisted in court, had agreed to share the proceeds.

As seems so often to be the case in show business however, the pair fell out and eventually Bruce was forced to let Groves go but seemingly carried on using his material. This clearly irked the other man and on 14 May that year Groves found his former collaborator deep in conversation with the manager of the Forester’s Music hall (also known locally as Lusby’s after its owner, William Lusby). He strode up to the seated pair and loudly accused Bruce of stealing his idea and denying him the profits of it.

The court was shown evidence of playbills listing some of the sketches performed by ‘Harry Bruce’s Company of Comedians’ such as: ‘A sweep for king’ and ‘the Tin Soldier’ that Groves presumably claimed were originally his. It also heard that when Bruce denied any wrongdoing and insisted Groves leave the comedian challenged him to step outside and fight him, man to man. When the other man declined this invitation to a fist fight Groves thumped him in the face and gave him a black eye.

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This was corroborated by Frederick Clarence, a comedian in Bruce’s troupe, and by Charles Barber who worked for Bruce as clerk. In defence of Groves Neal Dryden (himself a comic) said his friend was sorely provoked, adding that he understood that Mr Lusby had wanted to employ Groves to perform in the act but Bruce had told him not to, saying the other man was ‘no good’. So with his character and talents impugned and his creative ideas ‘stolen’ from him it was hardly a surprise that Groves lashed out. It didn’t convince the magistrate however who ordered the comedian to find two sureties of £25 each to ensure that he kept the peace towards Bruce for the next twelve months at least.

William Lusby was a minor local celebrity in the 1880s and his first music hall was a popular venue on the Mile End Road. He had taken over the premises in 1868 and rebuilt the theatre, reopening it in April 1877 as Lusby’s Summer and Winter Palace. When it opened a gushing press review stated:

‘This new place of amusement, which, both on account of its great size and the splendid appearance of its interior, deserves to be described as “grand,” was opened to the public for the first time on Easter Monday evening. It affords accommodation for five thousand visitors, and there must have been nearly that number of persons who availed themselves of the earliest opportunity to see the magnificent building which Mr William Lusby has had erected for the use of the pleasure-seekers of the Mile End-road and its vicinity, as well as to witness the performances of the large and talented company of artistes which he has engaged’.

(The Era, 8 April 1877)

However, by 1888 Lusby had sold the theatre and it later burned down in a fire in 1884.  A new music hall rose from the ashes, the Paragon which opened in 1885 but by then Lusby had moved on, opening the Forester’s Music Hall where Bruce and his fellow comedians performed their sketch act.

Lusby, an East End lad made good, had built his success on property speculation and had, he claimed, only got into show business to help a young relative get a foot on the ladder. The Foresters was on Cambridge Road East, in Bethnal Green and in 1885 it gave Dan Leno his first big break in the entertainment industry. The legendary music hall star performed two comic songs and a clog dance and was paid £5 a week for doing so. Leno is credited with inventing stand up comedy which is probably why his name is still remembered today while Harry Bruce and Walter Groves have disappeared from history.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 31, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Jealousy, divorce and vitriol throwing in late Victorian Paddington

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Divorce was a not at all an easy thing to obtain in the nineteenth century. This meant that many couples either stayed together long after relationships had broken down or separated to live with someone else, but were then unable to remarry. For women this was a particular problem as it was harder for them to be seen as ‘respectable’ if they lived, unmarried, with a man. It was even worse should they have children by him, and that, in age before effective contraception, was fairly likely.

The breakdown of any relationship is traumatic and rarely entirely mutual so there is almost always an ‘injured party’. This sometimes leads today to long drawn out divorce cases, to jealousies, feuds, and even violence. So I imagine this might have been even worse in a society where divorce was much rarer than it is today. In the Victorian period then, there was much more scope for long lasting jealousies between jilted and abandoned wives and husbands and their new paramours.

This was the situation that Margaret White, a 44 year-old shopkeeper found herself in in March 1886. Margaret was married but her husband had left her 11 years previously, complaining about her ‘immorality’.  This may have referred to an affair or simply her behaviour (perhaps her drinking and staying out late in the evening). Of course it may have been a false accusation, we have no proof that Mrs White was in any way ‘immoral’.

Whether White left his wife for another woman in 1875 or not by 1886 he was living with Rose Simpson in her rooms at Burlington News in Paddington. Margaret had discovered this and on more than one occasion in 1886 she had confronted Rose and, supposedly threatened her. On the 3 March she had visited the property and called on Rose.

When she opened the door she allegedly produced  a small bottle which she claimed contained ‘vitriol’ (acid) and said she would throw it in the face of her rival if she ever stepped out of the house. She then stood outside for three hours while Rose cowered inside.

As this was the culmination of a series of threats to her, Rose decided to go to law to get protection or redress. On 13 March Margaret was brought, by warrant, to the Marylebone Police court to answer a charge of threatening her husband’s lover with an acid attack. Margaret pleaded not guilty and claimed that she’d never threatened Rose. She did admit that she had met her husband at open of their daughter’s house, by accident not design, and that he had told her he would never go back to her. This may have prompted her to  confront Rose but she steadfastly rejected claims that she had produced a bottle or vitriol or had ever ‘had anything to do with it’ in her life.

Rose Simpson, perhaps persuaded by her husband,  told Mr Cooke that she didn’t want to press charges and would be content so long as her rival was bound over to keep the peace towards her. She merely wanted, she said, for the threatening behavour to stop. The magistrate agreed, noting that there was no evidence that Margaret ever owned let alone threatened to throw acid at her. He accepted Mrs White’s sureties of £20 for six months but warned her that she faced a month in prison if there was any further intimidation of Ms Simpson.  Throughout this case involving his previous and his current object of affection, Mr. White was nowhere to be seen.

Acid throwing was not unusual in the 1800s and has resurfaced in modern Britain, as this report from the Guardian in February 2017 shows. If you would like to read more about this disturbing phenomena I can suggest no better source than Dr Katherine Watson at Oxford Brookes University.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 15, 1886]

‘No income tax, no monarchy!’ The cry of protestors in Trafalgar Square

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G W M. Reynolds

In March 1848 (a year noted for turbulence throughout Europe) there was a demonstration called in Trafalgar Square to protest about income tax. The protest had already been ruled ‘illegal’ by the commissioners of police and and the convener, Charles Cochrane, had tried to call it off. Men carrying placards were dispatched by the police to instruct the gathering crowds to disperse and go home. By this time however, 1,500 to 2,000 had gathered and didn’t seem to be in the mood to go anywhere.

According to the Daily News reporter very few (‘not above 50’) would have been affected by the imposition of income tax on incomes of over £30 a year and soon it became apparent that elements of the assembled had their own agendas. One man mounted the balustrade in front of the National gallery and started to harangue the ‘mob’ with calls for the end of the monarchy. He was quickly hauled down. The self-appointed ‘president of the meeting’, G W M (William) Reynolds, then took the stand and denounced ‘the income tax’ and let several other speakers add their voices to the protest. Reynolds was a major figure in the Chartist movement, an advocate of republicanism, and the founder of Reynold’s  newspaper.

By 3 o’clock the police, who had been watching but not acting decided it was time to bring the whole thing to a close. As the police moved in to clear the crowd trouble flared. There were scuffles and the officers under Commissioner Mayne’s command had to use force.

‘Resistance was offered’, the reporter noted, ‘and they had recourse to their staves, which they found it necessary to exercise somewhat roughly, stones being thrown at them, in addition to manual violence used’.

There were injuries on both sides and several arrests were made. The protest had taken place on the Monday and on Wednesday two young men, James Turner and William Allis, appeared at Bow Street Police court before Mr Henry to answer charges of unlawful assembly.

Commissioner Mayne was in court to press the case and testified that the men had acted to obstruct his officers and had ‘conducted themselves in a very rude and disorderly manner’. They’d been arrested and when searched later at the police station Turner was discovered to be carrying a pistol, with ‘a powder flask, balls, and wadding’.

Turner denied refusing to quit the square as charged but admitted to being rude to the police. As for the weapon he carried he said he always did, having been the victim of a highway robbery in Fulham Fields some time ago. He armed himself, he argued, against common footpads that infested some areas of the capital. I think this suggests that the police were still establishing their control in the 1840s and were far from being accepted as the city’s bulwark against criminality.

The men were released on their own sureties (and those of Turner’s master and Allis’ father) but because they verbally abused the police inspector as they were leaving, they were hauled back in and find 30each. There are times, they hopefully learned, when it is better to keep your mouth shut.

Banning a protest in Trafalgar Square was deemed controversial (as a future commissioner of the Met – Sir Charles Warren – was to discover in 1887) but the press noted that in 1848 it was illegal for assemblies to be held there whilst Parliament was sitting).

[from Daily News, Tuesday, March 7, 1848; The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, March 9, 1848]

A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Grecian Theatre, Shoreditch (1875) – (Islington Public Library)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gray’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

‘A weak-minded blackguard’: unrequited love and mental health collide at Hammersmith

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Frederick George Helmore was a troubled young man. The son of a successful coal merchant Frederick had been before the magistrates on more than one occasion, and had been cited in Chancery as a father moved to protect his daughter from the young man’s advances.

The problem had started in 1874 when Frederick had met Sarah Alice Grierson at Margate when she and her family had been on holiday. Sarah was also well connected, as the daughter of the General Manager of the Great Western Railway she enjoyed a life of considerable luxury. At first it seems that Sarah was quite enamoured with Frederick and enjoyed his attention. She wore a necktie he gave her to church and returned his letters.

But either she tired of him or her parents felt the match was inappropriate or she was too young (at 16 or 17) and she cooled on him. Fred was not to be deterred however and he kept writing to her, sending gifts and turning up at places he expected to find her (including at school and at seaside retreats like Margate and Folkestone).

This behaviour was not ‘normal’ and today we would describe as stalking. The courts soon became involved as her family tried to protect her. Frederick was summoned before Mr Sheil at Hammersmith Police court and bound over for £250 to refrain from approaching her. Her father had even fixed a sum of £100 on her to make her a formal ward of the court of Chancery as a result of Frederick’s unwanted attention.

None of this stopped the young man however and his behaviour became ever more extreme to the point that his mental health was being called into question. In October 1881, seven years after his initial meeting with Sarah, he was again in court at Hammersmith, this time in front of Mr Paget.

The charge was one of annoying Miss Grierson and threatening her life. According to the prosecution (conducted by Mr Lambert) Fred had approached Sarah and her sister in town and when they had climbed into their coach he ran after them. The magistrate was told that he tried to hang on the window and shouted threats at Sarah. Her sister reported that he warned that he ‘would do for you now, Alice’, before the window was closed and the coach moved off.

Mr Grierson gave an account of the years of trouble that Fred had caused and said that only recently he had donated a watch that the young man had sent to Sarah Alice to charity. The railwayman described Frederick as either a ‘lunatic’ or a ‘weak-minded blackguard’.  He was clearly sick of the whole business and wanted something to be done about it.

In court Frederick vehemently denied threatening Sarah Alice, swearing that all he said was that she ‘had gone too far’. He was not dealing with rejection at all well and the hints at the state of his mental health were probably close to the truth.

This is certainly what Mr Paget concluded. He bound the man over again, this time for the huge sum of £1000 plus two further sureties of £500 each (one of whom was Fred’s father).  But he warned him (and his family) that if he was summoned before the police courts again he would be dealt with as a lunatic and ‘not under proper control’. In other words he would restrained and locked up in an asylum (‘sectioned’ as we might term it today).

Frederick was led away and given into the care of his family. Hopefully they took the necessary precautions to make sure he never again troubled the Griersons.

[from The Standard, Thursday 13 October, 1881]

‘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