The celebrated ‘Soapy Fits King’ appears at the Lyceum

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When PC 64E reached the small crowd gathered outside the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand he found a man writhing around on the pavement, and frothing at the mouth. He whistled for help and PC 53E waited while his colleague took the man to hospital on an ambulance.

Once there however, the surgeon in charge declared that there was nothing wrong with the patient, expect that is that he had evidently been eating soap. Realizing that he’d been conned, the police constable arrested the man and took him back to the station before presenting him before the magistrate at Bow Street in the morning.

The man gave his name as Peter McDermott but Mr De Rutzen was informed by the gaoler (Sergeant Bush) that he was commonly known as the ‘Soapy Fits King’. McDermott was a beggar that had appeared ‘at nearly every police court in London’  and been sentenced numerous times as a rogue and vagabond.

Joseph Bosley of the Mendicity Society – the organization that took it upon themselves to police street begging – said that McDermott was well known to him as well. He’d watched McDermott for 18 years. He would appear at hospitals across the capital, sometimes twice in one day, ‘apparently suffering from fits, but he never had anything the matter with him’.

On the day in question McDermott had a glass of water in on hand and a brandy in the other and one wonders whether his audience genuinely believed him to be ill or were just amused by his antics. He denied using soap of course, and pointed to his extremely dirty face. ‘Do I look like it?’ he asked, to laughter in court.

‘I say it is not English’, he complained, ‘[that] I am not allowed to beg, and I have had nothing to eat for three days’.

He had a point of course. Society offered little for McDermott beyond the workhouse casual ward and that was in many ways worse than prison. This was a man who clearly had quite severe mental health issues that no one seemed to want to recognize. He was only a risk to himself and a more charitable society might have recognized his need for support. Mr De Rutzen decided to remand him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

A week later ‘the King’ was brought up again and more evidence as to his past misdemeanors was presented. Mr De Rutzen now ordered that he face trial as ‘an incorrigible rogue and vagabond’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 22, 1900; The Standard, Saturday, September 29, 1900]

Bullying, touts and the London cab trade: the forgotten role of the waterman  

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a London waterman was someone that worked on the river in the Victorian period. This is certainly what these men did in the 1700s but by the nineteenth century the cabmen of the Thames had almost entirely disappeared from the water. Instead they set themselves up at hansom cab stands across the city, providing water for the horses and opening doors to assist fares to and from the streets. They earned a living from the cabbies (who paid for the water) and the passengers (who tipped them for their service).

Watermen don’t seem to have had a particularly good reputation however.  In 1853 Charles Manby Smith painted a comic and somewhat melancholic picture of them: poor, disheveled, the but of the cabbies’ jokes, standing out in all weathers, frequently splashed by ‘mud and mire’. Life was hard for the waterman and not infrequently short.

But perhaps this case demonstrates that watermen had a little more power than Smith credits them with, and suggests that they could, to some degree at least, control which cab drivers were able to ply their trade successfully.

In November 1847 John Cooke was charged with assault at Bow Street Police court. On the previous evening he’d been working as a waterman on the Strand, keeping the pitch at the Spotted Dog rank where two cabs were stood. Cooke helped a fare into the second cab, ignoring the one in front and presumably dispending with cab etiquette.

The driver of the first cab, Edward White, complained at this and asked him what he was doing. Cooke replied that he could ‘do what he chose and if [White] was cheeky he should not have a fare all night’.

White must have said something to him because the waterman now strode over to the cab and thrust his fist through the window, smashing it, and then hit the driver and dragged him out onto the street. He started to beat him up before a policeman intervened and arrested him.

In court the story was told and Mr Hall ordered Cooke to pay a fine of 40(with the threat of 14 days in prison if he did not) and added compensation of 1s 8d for White for the damage done to his cab window. Two of Cooke’s fellow watermen tried to argue that the cabbie had made up the story but the magistrate didn’t believe them. In terms of social status the policeman and hansom drivers were a class above the watermen who stood by the road and watered the horses, and Mr Hall wasn’t about to take their side. The papers described Cooke as ‘one of those persons known as “bucks” and “touts”’, suggesting his actions were well-known but not approved of.

So did watermen have some power here? Was this an example of them trying to extract some more money from the cabbies, or being used by certain cab drivers to control who got fares and where? The Strand would have been a prime position for hansoms after all, with its proximity to London’s clubs and theatres. Do doormen today have a role in which drivers get which fares? Do they get tips? Was this all part of the informal economy of Victorian London  and does it still exist?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 19, 1847]

A waiter’s cheeky swig lands him him in court

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The Strand, London (late 1800s)

In 1881 Thomas Carr (originally from Norfolk) owned and ran the King’s Head public house at 265 The Strand.* The hostelry was close to where the new Royal Courts of Justice was nearing completion (it opened in 1882) and on one of London’s busiest thoroughfares (as the illustration above suggests). In late November Mr Carr employed a waiter to work in the pub serving what would seem to be quite high class customers.

William Whitlock had been working at the King’s Head for just three weeks when he seriously blotted his copybook. He was accused of stealing a bottle of champagne by Mr Carr’s son, and prosecuted at the Bow Street Police court in front of the sitting magistrate, Mr Flowers.

Mr Carr junior said he had seen the waiter carrying a bottle of champagne into the pantry and so followed him in. Once inside he challenged him and Whitlock told him that a gentlemen had left some wine in the bottle after he’d finished with it and he was taking it as ‘his perquisites’.

Carr explained that ‘in obtaining wine for customers it is the practice to give a bono check [a blank cheque in other words], and mby these means the prisoner [Whitlock] obtained the bottle of champagne on the representation that it was for a customer’.

Now, whether he intended to take the whole bottle or just finish the dregs is not made clear. Carr’s son said he saw Whitlock pouring water into the bottle – to dilute the wine or rinse it out having swigged the last half glass? Either way he had ‘no right to any wine’ while he was working and so shouldn’t have acted as he did. But it hardly seems to be the crime of the century.

Nevertheless the magistrate was faulty adamant that a crime (theft) had been committed. He found the waiter guilty and sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment. I doubt Mr Carr expected this outcome nor , it seems, did he welcome it. His solicitor approached the bench and pleaded for Whitlock’s freedom. Mr Flowers then agreed to substitute a 30s fine for the prison term. This was still a hefty punishment for a low paid worker – 30s in 1881 represents about £200 in spending power today – but at least it kept him out of gaol at Christmas.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, December 17, 1881]

*The pub has long gone and now it is a smart office block owned by a Japanese telecom company.

A dishonest butcher is hooked

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Thomas Dubbin had enjoyed a steady job as a butcher’s foreman working for a respectable business on The Strand. But his relationship with his employer, Mr Grant, had soured and, after a decade of employment, Grant suspected him of dishonesty.

Nowadays firms (especially retail companies) try to solve these issues in house. Investigations into pilfering or fraud usually start with disciplinary hearings and only involve the police if it is serious, or the accused employee does not confess quickly to their offending. It seems here though that Mr Grant immediately took his concerns to police and consulted two detectives, DS Partridge and DS Drew.

Mr Grant then had a visit from one of the lads he employed , whose name was Marshall. Marshall told him that the foreman had approached him and ‘incited him to steal some kidneys and take them to a neighbouring  shoemaker’s’.

This gave the butcher the hook he required to explose his dishonest employee.

Young Marshall acted as he had been told and took the offal to the shoemaker’s premises. Meanwhile the police kept Dubbin under observation to see what he did. Sure enough he went straight to the shoemaker’s workshop where he collected the kidneys. The police were waiting for him and he was arrested.

The magistrate was disgusted with his behaviour; partly because of the dishonesty in robbing a master he had served for 10 years, and for inciting a much younger member of staff to steal on his behalf. Thomas Dubbin was sent to prison for 3 months at hard labour and lost his steady employment too.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1883]