The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

On the buses: Mr D’Arcy’s close encounter with John Bull

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There were two important innovations launched in 1829, both of which have become iconic London institutions. As we enter the height of the tourist season in the capitals, tens of thousands of visitors will be heading home with souvenirs and amongst them are likely to be images of London buses and policemen. The Metropolitan Police Force was created by statute in 1829 and on 4 July that year the very first omnibuses set off from the New Road (now the Marylebone Road) at the start of their journey to Bank in the City.

‘Buses weren’t an English invention – Parisians had been enjoying them for a few years already – but it was a Londoner named George Shillibeer who established the first routes in the capital. They weren’t large, carrying just 22 people at first, but as the mode of transport caught on more and more companies followed Shillibeer’s lead and soon there was fierce competition for passengers.

I imagine that omnibuses were quite a novelty at the start and just as tourists today might want to ride on a double decker Viscount D’Arcy (who sounds as if he might have stepped from the pages of Jane Austin novel) was keen to experience it for himself. He was staying at Mivart’s Hotel on Lower Brook Street (which is now quite famously renamed as Claridge’s) so could have taken a hansom anywhere but chose to ride with ‘everyman’.

He hailed a ‘bus bound for Paddington but the driver was reluctant to let him sit outside (where he wanted to) telling him instead to sit inside, where there was lots of room. The viscount wanted to ride outside (like I always want to ride upstairs, where you can see) but the man was abusive and insisted he couldn’t. D’Arcy wasn’t used to being denied what he wanted and got on anyway, making his way up to the roof.

The driver, William Davison, saw that he’d been ignored and raised his fist and waived it at the viscount, shouting more abuse. ‘Disgusted at this strange and unwarrantable conduct’, the viscount ‘determined on alighting as soon as possible’. As the omnibus stopped at St Pancras church he stepped down and was just about to place his foot on the street when Davison spurred his horse and took off at speed. Luckily D’Arcy was uninjured as he tumbled towards the ground but he was angry and made a note of the vehicle’s number (3912). He applied for a summons and, on the last day of July 1833, William Davison was summoned before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court to answer for his actions.

Viscount D’Arcy said he was ‘as much astonished as annoyed’ by Davison’s conduct, ‘from whom, from his round far face and complete “John Bull” appearance, he expected much civility’. Davison denied the charge and told Mr Rawlinson that it was D’Arcy that had started it by calling him a ‘damned fellow’. He brought along a witness but either they lost their nerve or hadn’t been paid enough and failed to back him up. The magistrate sent him off with a flea in his ear and a £5 fine.  The whole experience would have given the viscount a story to regale his friends and family when he returned home from London, something much better than a toy bus or a plastic police helmet

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 01, 1833]

The perils of unfettered competition: a ‘desperate contention’ in the Mile End Road

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One of the ‘big ideas’ of the late twentieth century was privatization. The principle was that all things are made better by competition. The Conservative government of the 1980s believed in the power of the market to deliver better services more cheaply than the state could. As a result Britain saw the privatization of gas, electricity and water supply, telecommunications, the buses and railways, and a number of other formerly state run concerns (even prisons and, more recently and to seemingly disastrous effect: probation).

In the nineteenth century most of society was run privately however and Britain supposedly thrived on the competition for business that entrepreneurial capitalism provided. Margaret Thatcher’s love of ‘Victorian values’ is well documented and her government looked back to a time when Britain stood on its own two feet at the forefront of world trade and enterprise.

However, while competition is usually healthy we have found that the privatization project doesn’t always bring the benefits we were promised. Our utility bills seem to keep on rising, we are paying more for our television and phone use than ever before, the railways are expensive and more inefficient than ever, and our part privatized prison and probation service is in chaos.

Perhaps the reality of competition is then that sometimes the customer suffers rather than benefits from it, and in this case we can see that very clearly.

One Friday in late June 1843 an elderly man was waiting near the police station house on Mile End Road in the hope of catching an omnibus home. Throughout the 1800s several rival omnibus companies plied their trade throughout the capital and were not averse to some rough or otherwise underhand tactics in their competition for passengers.

Two omnibuses were travelling fast on the Mile End Road and both saw the gentlemen up ahead. As he waived his stick to flag them down the two drivers engaged in a furious dash to reach him first.

Thomas Evans was the owner and driver of his Victoria Stratford ‘bus while James Corney drove an omnibus called Monarch for Mr Giles’s company. Both raced towards the old man watched with growing concern by a pair of police constables who had just left the station house.

Corney was quickest and reached the fare first. Evans was close behind though; so close in fact that the pole of his vehicle nearly ran through the Monarch in the process and an accident was narrowly avoided. Both men leapt down from their buses to try and secure their passenger.

When the incident was tried at the Lambeth Street Police court the policemen testified that:

Here a desperate contention took place as to who should have the passenger, and such was the determination of each, that they actually laid hold of the old gentleman, and dragged him too and fro for some minutes’, only stopping when the police became involved.

Before Mr Norton (the justice), Corney admitted he had been driving too fast but blamed Evans. Evans placed the blame on one of his passengers (‘a gentleman who sat on the box seat stamping violently with his feet and hissing at the driver of the other vehicle’). This had caused his own horses to gallop off he said, and it took a while for him to regain control of them.

Crucially the police gave Corney a good character reference as a ‘careful and steady driver’ but condemned Evans as a frequent offender, and said he’d been fined several times for ‘furious driving’ in the past. The magistrate found fault in both their actions but more in Evans’. He fined Corney 10and the other driver 20. Both paid, Evans with much less good grace however.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 24, 1843]

Two unsuspicious characters exploit passengers on the Dartford train

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I have discussed the perils of travelling on the Victorian railway network in previous posts on this blog. The railways not only made Britain smaller and allowed Victorians a new freedom to move around the country quickly and cheaply, it also broke down some of the well-established barriers between the classes. Not everyone was entirely comfortable with this, no least because it also opened up new opportunities for crime.

Alfred Thomas and Ann Mark were skilful thieves who exploited the new railways to earn an illegal living. Their patch was the South-Eastern Railway, which ran (until 1922) from London to Dover. They dressed ‘fashionably’; in other words they didn’t look like criminals or members of the lower working class but passed as respectable.

Ann dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm. She also had a small lap dog and must have seemed to those that saw her a charming young woman with a distracting animal. Alfred was similarly presentable and when the pair traveled together he pretended to be her brother. What could be less threatening: two siblings traveling together on the railway?

However, all was not as it seems and these two were eventually exposed and brought to the Southwark Police Court to be prosecuted as thieves.

The first witness and victim was Mrs Susannah Pledge, a ‘lady residing at Bermondsey’. She testified that she was in a  second-class carriage on the train to Dartford and was sat next to Ann while Alfred sat opposite. Ann was playing with her ‘handsome little dog’ letting it crawl in and out of her muff. At Plumstead Alfred rose and leaned over to Ann to speak quietly to her, then at the next station he got up again and bid her farewell, saying: ‘Give my love to brother’.

As soon as the young man had gone Mrs Pledge realised that her dress had been cut and her purse removed from her pocket. Mr Walter Rutherford (described as ‘a gentleman’) was also in the carriage and saw what went on. He was suspicious of the pair and saw Alfred reach over towards Mrs Pledge and scoop up something from the floor of the train just as they pulled in to Woolwich station.

He called the guard and helped track Alfred down to a third-class carriage further along the train. Another woman in the the carriage had also been robbed in the same way. Alfred escaped however, dashing across the station towards the waiting room.

The railway company, mindful of its reputation and the effects of these sorts of thefts on its customers, had hired a detective to investigate the problem. Detective Dennis Scannel (who was officially employed by the Metropolitan Police in M Division) was seconded to the railway. This suggests that the police themselves were well aware that protecting customers on the railways was also part of their role. Today we have the British Transport Police but this force wasn’t created until after the second world war.

Scannel told the Southwark magistrate, Mr Coombe, that when he’d arrested and searched the pair he’d found significant amounts of coin on them. He’d recovered four to five pounds in silver and found the ladies’ empty purses under a grate in the waiting room where Alfred had been seen to go directly after the train arrived at Woolwich.

The prisoners were represented in court by a lawyer who said they would plead guilty to the crime in the hope that the magistrate would deal with them there and then and not send the case before a jury. This would minimise their sentences of course. The counsel for the prosecution explained that several other robberies of a similar nature had occurred recently and he and the police were convicted that these two were responsible.

Mr Coombe weighed up the evidence; picking pockets was notoriously difficult to prove and conspiracy even more so. If he sent the pair before a jury one or both of them might well be acquitted. At least by gaoling them today he would protect passengers on the railways for a limited period and by alerting the public (via the newspapers) to the risks they took while traveling he might also reduce the number similar thefts. So he did as the prisoners’ lawyer asked and in finding them guilty sent them to prison for six months at hard labour and ordered the two ladies to be reunited with their purses and missing money.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 12, 1862]

A ‘perfectly honest’ man is cleared at Woolwich

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Today we move south of the river and up to Woolwich, home of the Arsenal (the ordnance factory that is, it would be another three years until the football club of that name was founded). Henry Rollings, a tramcar conductor, was charged at the Woolwich Police Court ‘for neglecting to deposit an article of lost property within 24 hours’.

The charge was brought by a tramway inspector, a Mr Naudi, and he appeared in court to press the case while Rollings was supported by a number of people who spoke up for him as being an honest man.

On the 18th January 1883 Agnes Brookes was riding on Rollings’ tram as she often did. Rollings knew her well but not well enough to know where she lived. When Agnes got off to her rooms in Thomas Street, Plumstead, she was upset to discover that she had lost her brooch. It must have fallen off as she traveled on the tramcar, and thinking this she later applied to the Woolwich and Greenwich tramcar company’s office to see if anyone had found it.

She was in luck. The clerk told her that it had been handed in and sent to Scotland Yard, as was their standard procedure. The brooch had been found by another passenger, Eliza  Payne, who gave it to the conductor, Rollings. However, Rollings thought he recognised it as belonging to Agnes and so hoped to be able to return it in person, rather than simply sending it off to lost property as he was supposed to. He told Eliza this and she believed him.

So how did this case of lost property end up before Mr Balguy, the Woolwich Police magistrate?

Well it seems that when Miss Brooks first went to the office to enquire about her missing brooch Rollings hadn’t told anyone he’d got it, nor did he say that he knew her. It was only when he heard she was looking for it that he handed it over at the office. This was the story that Mr Nuadi told at least, and it placed Rollings in a difficult position. He was effectively being accused of keeping the jewellery for himself and only owning to finding it when forced to.

A police inspector explained that the tramway inspector had deposited the brooch with him on Sunday morning (three days after Agnes lost it) and Rollings turned up a few hours later to sign the record sheet. The brooch was then sent on to Scotland Yard to wait for its owner to claim it.

Luckily for the conductor the magistrate chose to believe his version of events. The man had acted foolishly, but not criminally and he doubted Mr Nuadi’s testimony. In fact he said that the tramway inspector was ‘famous for his incredulity in the honesty of people’. Rollings would have been liable to a penalty of £10 or even a term of imprisonment but he would only impose a fine of 10s on this occasion.

The traffic manager (possibly Rollings’ boss) was in court and Mr Balguy hoped that this incident and his appearance in court would not cost the conductor his job. No, said Mr Huddlestone, it would not. Rollings was, in his view, a ‘perfectly honest’ man. Which seems like the sensible outcome. Agnes got her brooch back, Rollings was fined but kept his job, and the tram company protected their reputation as a safe means of transport in public.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 31, 1883]

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

Wars ‘on the buses’ in Chelsea

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We are used to the idea that business works best when there is competition. Throughout the 1980s we were consistently told that privatised industry was so much better than public ownership. As a result we saw the selling off of British Telecom, and gas and electricity supply. The infamous ‘Tell Sid’ ad seemed to run for ages, encouraging ordinary people to buy shares in British Gas.

Among the wave of privatisations was the deregulation of transport. The railways went as did the bus services, leading not to more efficiency and cheaper prices (as we had been promised) but to ever rising rail fares and the closure of vital (if not particularly  cost effective) rural bus routes.

Competition there was, but massive benefits for the consumer? Not so much.

In early Victorian London competition was also the watchword as the capital’s expansion into the suburbs drove a need for greater and more join dup transport links. Over the course of the century London developed horse drawn trams, omnibuses, and overground (and underground) railways. Soon the metropolis was better connected than anywhere else in Europe and, arguably, remains so today (even if we do moan about it reliability).

But here again competition brought as many problems as it brought benefits. We can see an example of this in a report from Queen Square Police Court published in the autumn of 1843.

The magistrate at Queens Square, Mr Bond, complained that his office had been beset with numerous requests for summons as omnibus proprietors prosecuted each other for damage to vehicles, or drivers and conductors brought charges against each other for assault.

Three rival firms were operating in Chelsea, as the starting point for journeys into central London. Messrs. Glover, Child and Ingram all ran ‘buses from the Three Compasses pub at 94-94 Fulham High Street (pictured below in the 1880s).

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The competition was fierce but rather than this leading to a better service it merely served as a ‘danger to the public and disturbance to the neighbourhood’ and Mr Bond was sick of it.

Several representatives of the bus companies were in his court in November to hear he warn them that unless they started to take notice he would bring the full force of the law to bear upon them. Mr Bond felt that ‘as trifling penalties appeared to have no effect upon he should for the future, when there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction, impose the highest penalty, that of 5L, for each offence’.

Hit them in the pocket was Mr Bond’s strategy, just as it is the preferred strategy of the independent bodies appointed to regulate privatised industries today. Just as today, I suspect our ancestors grumbled about the cost and reliability of their transport networks. They didn’t have anything to compare it with of course as all this was new to them.

At some point the government decided that transport was too important to leave in private hands, and required, at least, some level of nationalisation. Have we reached that point again, some people clearly believe privatisation has failed? In London, of course, our transport remains in the control of the capital’s government, and not entirely in private hands, which means its users are eagerly shielded from attempts to close down unprofitable routes or hike up prices.

And we rarely see realise ‘Blakeys’ and ‘Stan’ fighting ‘on the buses’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 20, 1843]

The showman, the tram conductor, and the irritated magistrate.

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Fare dodging was frequently punished at the summary courts. Conductors of trams or buses, hackney coachmen, and train guards brought in travellers  who had refused or neglected to pay for their journeys. In some circumstance this was because they disputed the amount charged (most often when it came to cabs) or claimed that they hadn’t realised the vehicle was going as far as it was, or had missed their stop. It seems that in most of the instances that were reported by the press the customer paid up, often with an added penalty of paying the transport company’s court costs.

Harry Perkins was one such example of a fare dodger that annoyed the sitting magistrate  at Thames and ended up paying much more than he need have had he simply bought a ticket in the usual way.

Perkins was described as a ‘showman, living in a caravan at Dalston’. So perhaps he was a part of a travelling circus. His actions in late October 1890 certainly entertained the editor of The Standard who decided to submit his story to print for his readership. The circus man boarded a tram in Dalston and travelled to Shoreditch where he attempted to get off. At this point the conductor (‘Conway, badge 1227’) asked him for 1s for his fare. When this was refused Conway restrained his customer until a policeman was found who could take him into custody.

In court the next day Perkins was charged with refusing to pay his fare and with being drunk. The magistrate started by questioning the tram’s conductor as to Perkins’ conduct.

Was the prisoner drunk, Mr Williams asked Conway.

‘Well that depends’, came the reply.

‘What?’ said the justice.

‘It is a very difficult thing to say whether a man is drunk or not’, was Conway’s response.  ‘Some people say that a man is not drunk when he can stand; others say that…’

At this point the magistrate cut him off.

‘I don’t want a lecture on drunkenness’ he grumbled, ‘if you can’t prove that the man was drunk on your care there is an end of that part of the charge. How about refusing the fare?’

Once a sheepish Conway had muttered that yes, he had refused the shilling demanded Mr Williams turned his attention (and clear irrigation) to the showman in the dock. Why had he attempted to get off without paying he wanted to know.

‘I did not want to ride’, answered Perkins. ‘I got on the car, and found the seats on top wet, and the inside was full, so that I wanted to get off, and the conductor would not let me’.

‘But you had a good long ride’ declared Mr Williams, adding ‘so it took you about half-an-hour to find out that the seat was wet?’

The prisoner could only restate his previous explanation that he ‘did not want to ride’. The magistrate dismissed this with a curt statement that he was fining him 10for the trouble he had caused when all this could have been avoided had he simply paid, when asked, the 1s fare.

I rather suspect that the message Mr Williams was sending was intended for a wider audience than the circus man. His time had been wasted unnecessarily and he wanted to avoid similar cases coming before him in the future. It probably also served as a rebuke for the conductor (and therefore all bus and tram conductors) and allowed readers to chuckle over the discomfort of ‘jobsworths’ everywhere.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 29, 1890]

Death at Archway goes unpunished

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On the 11 February 1866 John Loveman was standing with his omnibus at the Archway Tavern on Highgate Hill. Loveman was a driver for John Wilson, whose ‘Favourite’ ‘buses were some of the earliest on the capital’s streets.

As he waited a drunken man tried to barge his way onto the omnibus, but Loveman prevented him from doing so. Witnesses watched as the man, Thomas Brown, tried and failed three more times to get onto the vehicle. Frustrated he lashed out at the driver, grabbing him and, ‘with great force throwing him to the ground’.

The attack caused Loveman to break his leg and at his own request he was immediately taken to the King’s College Hospital, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The house surgeon, Mr Thomas Howell, treated him on arrival and he was held there until the 7 March, when he passed away. He had died, it was recorded, ‘from exhaustion caused by a succession of fits of an epileptic character, and inflammation of the right leg’.

Brown was summoned for assault and later presented at Clerkenwell Police court on a charge of manslaughter.

The key to this turned on whether the injury to Loveman inflicted by the drunken Brown had led directly to his death. Before his death the court was told that the omnibus driver was a ‘strong, healthy man, and there did not seem to be anything the matter with’. At the coroner’s inquest (which were, it must be said, often hasty and somewhat casual affairs with little medical examination beyond the cursory), Brown was named as the cause of the driver’s death.

However, a later post mortem failed to find any link between the injury Loveman had sustained and his death just under a month later. The prosecutor, Mr Beard, felt sure proof would emerge if only the original house surgeon at King’s (Howell) could be asked to appear and testify. The magistrate, Mr Barker, was less convinced. He said there was very little evidence to charge Brown with at the moment and he was minded to let him go.

However, he asked Inspector Westlake (Y Division, Metropolitan Police) if a warrant had been issued for Brown’s arrest by the coroner. It had, he was told and the prisoner would have been arrested earlier if he had turned up at the inquest.

Mr Barker agreed to release Brown on bail (the figure was not reported) but he was immediately rearrested by Inspector Westlake, and conveyed to Newgate gaol. Given that a man had died and Brown had committed an assault (albeit under the influence of alcohol) I would have expected there to be a trial at the Old Bailey and for Brown, if convicted, to face  short spell in prison. But no such trial is recorded so I am left to presume that at a subsequent hearing before the magistracy the prosecution offered insufficient evidence to persuade the bench to formally indict Thomas Brown for manslaughter.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, March 21, 1866]

NB I have a framed black and white print of the image of the Highgate Archway that once belonged to my maternal grandfather, Percy. It belongs to my mother but graces my office and reminds me my roots everyday (I was born in the Whittington Hospital, not far from the old pub or the former omnibus stop.