‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

Unknown

On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

Ripper

This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’: the selling of ‘ladies tormentors in late Victorian London

81dYTyqkKTL._SX450_

The Marlborough Street Police court dock was pretty crowded on the last day of May 1887. William Waller, William Bryan, Margaret Loosley, John Dean, William Smith, John Coleman, John Reardon, Michael Donnellan, Samuel Maidwell and Thomas Gambier all started up at Mr Mansfield as he listened to the evidence against them.

They had been rounded up by the police and charged with selling ‘squirts’ and ‘thus enabling persons to commit assaults’. The prosecution was brought individually, as they had all been involved but in different places. A Mr Alsop said that he had first complained about the problem but the law was unclear on whether their activities were prescribed or not.

He clearly wanted something done about the ‘squirt nuisance’, but what was it? It seems that the men and women were selling what we would describe as water pistols but these were filled with something unpleasant, not necessarily dangerous, but a liquid that stained or had a very bad smell. The Times described it (in 1876) as ‘a peculiarly abominable scent’1and the pistols sold as ‘ladies tormentors’.

After similar complaints by residents the police had posted up notices prohibiting the sale of such ‘weapons’ but the accused had ignored them. The previous night had seen London’s parks lit up by illuminations and this had drawn crowds on to the streets. Crowds brought mischief and opportunities to sell ‘squirts’ and occasioned this mass occupation of the Marlborough Street dock.

The magistrate agreed that the use of squirts was a ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’ but he wasn’t clear that any law had been broken by selling them. It wasn’t as if they were lethal weapons – like guns – which already had restrictions on their sale.  It was, he said, akin to the school playground where things were commonly thrown around but not intended to cause real harm. An educated man, he regaled the court with the history of the carnival in Rome where ‘bon-bonsetc, were thrown at passers-by’.

He was sure the police were right in trying to suppress the problem but until the legislature acted to prohibit it there was very little he could do to stop it and punish anyone for selling squirts. If, however, those using them were brought before him he would do his utmost to punish them as the law allowed. So the crowded dock was cleared and the squirt sellers dismissed.

1 The Times 1879 from a tweet by Lee Jackson, [24/5/16]

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 01, 1880]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

ilp-20-2-1886

This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 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 which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A welcome new insight into the lives of the ‘Ripper’s victims

th

Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99

This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Hallie Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.

She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.

However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders.  This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.

This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’.  Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).

It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.

I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.

Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.

I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?

It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.

So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.

As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.

This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.

This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.

Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.

I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.

*And other women listed  in the Police File (held at the NA).

NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more. 

A well-read thief hides his plunder in his hat

xjf119812

A Victorian coffee house, note the lack of female customers.

Francis Nicholls was a young man of about 25 years of age. He sounds like he possessed a certain degree of cunning and a great deal of cheek. At the end of October 1845 Nicholls was brought before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court and charged with a number of counts of theft.

On Tuesday afternoon (28th October) Francis visited a beer shop on Blackheath Road (run by William Gentry.  He sat himself down and ordered ‘some bread and cheese and a pint of beer’. Having downed his pint he called for another and for a “screw of tobacco” to enjoy with it. He then took out a notebook and asked for a pencil and proceeded to write something in it.

Mr Gentry now had ‘occasion to go out’ of his shop so asked his customer to settle his account, at which point the young man ‘rummaged in his pockets’ and admitted he had no money and couldn’t pay. He handed over his waistcoat and handkerchief in lieu of his bill (saying the publican could pawn them) and left.

Soon after he’d gone Gentry realised he had taken the pewter pint post he had been drinking out, so made a complaint to the nearest policeman.

Later, in the early evening, Francis entered the Victoria Coffee Rooms, also on Blackheath Road, and this time asked the serving woman, Mary Ann Wells, for ‘some coffee, a rasher of bacon, and a roll’. Having served him Mary Ann asked him to pay and again he pleaded poverty and apologised for having nothing to give her.

The servant called her mistress, Mrs Atkinson, who immediately sent for a police constable. The policeman, who happened to be passing by, was detective constable  John Evans (189R) and he secured the young man. Suspecting that Nicholls was concealing something DC Evans asked him to remove his hat. Nicholls refused and so Evans swept it from his head, whereupon out fell a squashed up piece of metal that had once been Mr Gentry’s pewter pint pot.

Back at the station a proper search was conducted and  a copy of The Times newspaper tucked inside Nicholls’ trousers, which was subsequently identified as belonging to the coffee house’s owner, Mr Atkinson. The young thief was locked up for the night.

Brought before Mr Grove at Greenwich it looked like a fairly straightforward case of theft and of the non payment of bills. But the magistrate suspected that Nicholls was a serial offender so ordered that he be locked up for a week so that the officers of the Toothily Fields Bridewell could come down and identify him. If he was a recidivist thief then he faced a few months in gaol rather than a few days of weeks.

Let’s hope he had a ready supply of newspapers or paper, because he was, unusually for London’s so-called ‘criminal class’, seemingly quite well educated.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1845]

An excitable militia man and the shadow of Napoleon III

e1821cdf6cae558d45af2d1d0d7aa7d8

In mid July 1859 there was something of a panic about a potential French invasion of Britain. This had been stirred up by the press after Louis Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and had operated as an autocrat for the first six or so years of his reign. As Louis Napoleon (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), he had been elected president in 1848 but had seized power in a coup d’etat when he was denied the opportunity to run for a second term.

Invasion fears may well have prompted some in England to enlist in the army or the local militias. The latter were not ‘proper’ soldiers although they played an important role in defending the state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They never enjoyed the popularity that the Navy or Army did however, even in the hey day of Victorian militarism.

In July 1859 Reynold’s Newspaper reported several views from other papers about the situation in France. Reynold’s was notably more radical than many of its competitors and often served an audience that was more plebeian in character. The Morning Advertiser warned that ‘the country is in imminent danger of invasion from the ruler of France’ and a force of over 100,000 men. The Daily News wrote of ‘Louis Napoleon’s perfidy’ and noted that the governments ‘of Europe regard him with increased suspicion and dislike’. Even the sober Times claimed that ‘war and peace hang by a thread’.

Meanwhile in Bethnal Green the over excited militia seem to have been trying out their martial skills on the local passers-by.

On Monday 18 July an iron merchant named James Webster appeared in court to complain about a brutal assault he had suffered on the previous Saturday evening. Webster, who worked at premises in Digby Street, stood in the witness box at Worship with his head bandaged in black cloth.

He told Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, that he was on his way home from work at about half past 5 o’clock when he encountered several members of the Tower Hamlets Militia. They might have been a bit ‘tipsy’ he said, but he wasn’t sure. One of them threw a hat at him which hit him in the face and fell to the floor. He reacted by kicking it out of his way and carryied on walking.

As he went a few yards he felt a ‘heavy blow’ on the back of his neck, which knocked him off his feet. He got up and grabbed hold of the man he thought was to blame, a militia private by the name of Charles Lowe. As the two grappled others joined in and he described a scene of chaos with several men rolling around on the ground before he was overpowered and subjected to what seems to have been a pretty brutal kicking.

Webster told Mr D’Eyncourt that:

‘As I lay on the ground I was beaten and kicked so badly about the body that I am covered all over with bruises and cannot lie down with ease, and also, while I lay on the ground’ a woman had ‘somehow got her ear into my mouth and so nearly bit the upper part of it off that it only hung by a mere thread, and I have been since obliged to have it sewn on’.

This woman was Anne Sherrard who was described as married and living in Old Ford, a poor area of Bethnal Green associated with the new industries on the River Lea and the railways. Both Ann and Charles Lowe appeared in court to answer the charges against them.

Mr D’Eyncourt clearly thought this was a particularly serious assault because he chose not to deal with it summarily, as most assaults were, but instead sent it on for jury trial at the next sessions.  He noted for the record that:

‘This is a most brutal assault and it is high time that these raw recruits should be taught better; men like these fancy that as soon as they have a soldier’s coat they must commence fighting someone immediately, whereas an actual soldier would not be guilty of such infamous conduct’.

D’Eyncourt then was drawing a clear line between the professionals and the amateurs and finding the latter a much poorer specimen overall. History tells us that there was no invasion in 1859 or indeed ever again in British history to date. Had there been we might have been able to see how private Lowe and his companions fared when confronted by a real enemy rather than a perceived one. As for Napoleon III, his reign was the longest in French history after 1789 but came to the end in ignominious defeat by the Prussians at the battle of Sedan in September 1870. He ended up living out the rest of his life in England, but not as an all conquering victor but as a former head of state in exile.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 24, 1859]

This one is for Bill and Jim, and their family – I can only think that Charles must have been a very distant relative, and not at all like his modern ancestors.

A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

paold_postcard_Arsenal02

In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]