Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’: self-defence, vitriol, and exile to Australia

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George Day was passing along Lucas Place, Coram Street in the parish of St. Pancras, at about 2 in the morning when a woman hailed him from a house there. Day was in his cab and assumed the woman required a cab. It was pretty clear the house was one of ‘ill-repute’ (in other words a brothel) but George went inside anyway.

Once there the woman demanded that he stand her a drink and have one himself. There was no fare and Day soon realized that he’d been tricked, and started to leave. But the young woman kicked up a fuss and a heated exchange ensued, which was loud enough to be heard Mary Ann Murphy who lived nearby.  She described it as ‘a little bit of a bother’ and heard a woman’s voice say:

‘Don’t let him go, he wants to bilk her’.

‘Bilk’ was underworld slang for cheat, and as Murphy looked in through the open door she saw another woman run towards Day and throw something at him.

This woman was Elizabeth Cleveland she had thrown vitriol (sulphuric acid) in the cabbie’s face. The police arrived and Cleveland was arrested while Day was taken away for treatment.  The case came about before the magistrate at Hatton Garden but it was far too serious to be dealt with there. Cleveland was committed to Newgate and took her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 August 1840.

It may be that Day was economical with the truth that morning. Perhaps he knew it was a brothel and he’d gone in deliberately but then changed his mind. However, having crossed the threshold he was expected to pay something, if only for gawping at the girls that worked there. When he refused a fight broke out and that resulted in Elizabeth choosing the first weapon she could find. She didn’t deny throwing acid but claimed she did not know it was so concentrated; it was used for cleaning brass and was usually diluted. There was also some confusion as to whether it was a liquid or a powder (like lime) that was thrown.

It didn’t affect the outcome:  George Day had lost the sight of one eye completely and the surgeon that testified in court said there was little chance he’d ever regain the use of it. The jury convicted Elizabeth and the judge sentenced her to be transported to Australia for 15 years.

Elizabeth Cleveland had been born in Peterborough in 1787 and so, like many Londoners then and now, was a migrant to the capital. In 1840 she was 53 years of age (considered ‘old’ by one witness). She was finally put on board a ship (the Rajah) and sent to Van Dieman’s Land on 1 April 1841, landing on 19 July that year. Her record reveals that she claimed to have acted in self-defense (‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’).

It also noted that she was a widow with one living child. Elizabeth could read but not write, she was 5’ 2” high, had brown eyes, greying dark brown hair, and was fresh faced with freckles. She gave her occupation as a cook and laundress, which is probably the role she had played in the brothel, looking after the prostitutes there.

Her instincts were to protect the young women worked with but in this case it had gone terribly wrong with awful consequences for George day and for her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 20, 1840]

The prisoner who violently refused to accept her fate

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Although this story is not from one of London’s Police courts it does involve the magistrate system in London. It seems as if when crimes were committed inside prisons by serving prisoners it was possible for these cases to be heard (or at least assessed briefly) by visiting magistrates. Today we have a system whereby those held on remand in prisons or custody suites can be questioned by video link, so perhaps this was an early form of remote inquisition.

Elizabeth Heydrick was recidivist who had been in and out of court and the prison system on a number of occasions. None of her brushes with the law had any effect at all, unless it was to harden her resolve to be as obstreperous as possible.

In June 1870 she was in the Westminster house of correction serving a nine month sentence for assaulting the matron of the Bethnal Green workhouse. On that occasion as she’d left he dock she had turned to matron and vowed to kill her when she got out. As a result the magistrate ordered her to find sureties to ensure her good behaviour towards the woman on her release. This proved impossible however, so when her time was up she was kept inside and told she’d not be released until she did so (up to the period of sureties which was 12 months).

After three months Heydrick rang the bell of her cell, summoning a warder named Elizabeth Warwick to her. Heydrick told Warwick that she wanted to go to the exercise yard and the warder took her there. After about 10 minutes she said she wanted to return to the cell, but asked for some water first. She then turned on the taps but didn’t drink, just letting them empty into the yard. For this nuisance the warder rebuked her and told her to get back to the cell.

As they climbed the stairs to the level of Heydrick’s cell the prisoner turned around and punched Warwick in the face, blackening her eye, and then again twice to the chest. Other warders rushed to assist their colleague and so prevented Heydrick’s assault from being even more serious. As it was Elizabeth Warwick was badly injured and shaken up. The prison surgeon feared she’d broken two ribs and she was not fit to return to her duties – of even to leave her room – for nearly a month.

The magistrates that visited the prison fully committed Heydrick to stand trial for the violent assault at the next sitting of the Middlesex Sessions. On July 7 Heydrick appeared in court before a judge and jury who were told that when she had been taken to a ‘refractory cell’ (by which I presume they meant something like the ‘darks’ at Millbank, a solitary cell designed for punishment) she was searched. Male warders had helped subdue her after the assault on Warwick but only female warders could search her. As Amelia Newton was doing so she found a long pin in her jacket and was removing the potential weapon when Heydrick struck out and hit her in the face, cutting her lip and drawing blood.

The jury duly convicted her and the judge handed down an additional one-year sentence. Again this seemingly had little effect on Elizabeth who was led away from the dock laughing to herself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 08, 1870]

A photographer snaps when his subject dismisses his talent

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In 1868 photography was still in its relative infancy but it was coming more fashionable to have your photo ‘taken’. Edward Frewing described himself as a ‘photographic artist’ and had set up a studio in an upstairs room on Clerkenwell High Street. He was always on the lookout for new business and was standing outside on the street when two young Irish women came walking by. Frewing hailed them and persuaded them to come upstairs and sit for him.

Ellen Norton was married and lived with her husband in Queen’s Road, Holloway. Intrigued by the idea she and her friend Catherine Moran went up to Frewing’s studio and sat as his arranged his camera in front of them. He took a photograph of the pair and presented it to them.

Ellen was unimpressed. ‘We do not approve of it; it is not like us’, she told him.

Edward swore and flushed red with anger, causing Ellen to try to placate him. ‘If you take another I will pay you’, she promised.

‘You had better pay me, or I shall give you nine pennyworth’ the photographer warned her, and then seized a bottle from his worktop and threw it at her. It stained and bleached her dress and she hurriedly left, following her friend Catherine who had run off as soon as she had seen the man’s rage erupt.

‘If you not give me the 9I will throw you down the steps’ Frewing declared and made good on his threat, pushing her over and down several. Ellen fell and tumbled out into the yard, cutting her face and arms, and almost passing out. She stumbled, helped by Catherine, to see a local doctor who told her she should seek more serious medical help at the hospital, so grave were her injuries.

Having been patched up Ellen went home and later obtained a summons to bring Frewing to justice. At Clerkenwell she told her story to Mr Cooke with Ellen offering her support and confirmation of her friend’s evidence. The photographer gave an alternative of the altercation, suggesting that while he had sworn at her (and called her a ‘_______ Irish bitch’) he had not pushed her or thrown anything. Instead she had tripped up and knocked a bottle of ‘spirits of salts’ (hydrochloric acid ) over herself and then had fallen down the stairs in her haste to leave without paying.

The case was watched by a Mr H Allen a prosecuting officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women, an organization I’d not heard of previously. The magistrate agreed that this was a ‘very serious case’ and he wanted to hear from the surgeon that had treated Ellen at the hospital. She was still badly shaken by the episode and said she’d not eaten a thing since it had happened. An apology from the artist was not going to be sufficient in this case. Frewing was remanded in custody and his request to stand bail was refused.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 14, 1868]

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

No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

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Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

‘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

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]