Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

A victory for William Stead or just another victim of male lust?

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On Saturday I left you with the unfinished case of Louisa Hart who was accused at Marylebone Police court, of the abduction of a young girl for the purposes of child prostitution. The hearing was one of the first to result from the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 after a sensational campaign by the leading journalist of the day, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette.

On the 8 February 1886 Louisa Hart was remanded in custody so that an investigation by CID could be further pursued. On the following Tuesday (16 February) Hart was back before the magistrate flanked by her solicitor (a Mr T. Duerdin Dutton) to hear a prosecution brought this time by the Treasury. She was described as being 21 years of age and residing at 32 Fulham Palace Road. The charge was that she had ‘unlawfully procured two young girls of reputable character, aged twelve and thirteen respectively, for immoral purposes’.

Florence Richardson was again called to give evidence, this time in person, and she recounted her experience of visiting Mrs Hart with her friend Rosie Shires in the summer of 1885. This account had a little more detail than the one I reported on Saturday as Florence described some of the events that had occurred:

Having had tea with Mrs Hart Rosie and Florence ‘went downstairs to a back room furnished as a bedroom. They washed their hands and presently an old gentleman came in’.

He spoke to the girls but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Soon afterwards though both girls undressed and then things happened which were said in court but not written up or published by the Daily News’ reporter. Mrs Hart gave Florence a half-sovereign and Rosie 10s, adding 3s 6for their cab fare home to Holloway. Florence returned on the next Saturday and the same man was there and the same thing happened again.

It was an awful experience for Florence who cried bitterly in the witness box, especially when she was being cross-examined by Mr Dutton. She was being asked about her family, her withdrawal from school, and her sister, but she pleaded with the bench that she had nothing more say having already  ‘brought sufficient disgrace on her family’.

The next witness was Sophia Shires (22) of Spencer Road in Holloway. Rosie was her daughter and was not yet 13 years old. She’d found a letter (form Mrs Hart) in her daughter’s pocket and had contacted the police. Again she was cross-examined with doubt being thrown on her morality with regards to her daughter. Had she been aware of what Rosie was involved with? Had she been complicit?

This chimed with the case of Eliza Armstrong, the 13 year-old girl that William Stead had bought for £5 as the centerpiece of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé. It was Mrs Armstrong’s strong reaction to the idea that she had ‘sold’ her daughter into prostitution that helped bring Stead and his accomplice Rebecca Jarrett before an Old Bailey judge and jury in the previous year.

Rosie was not in court and her mother clearly wanted to spare her the trauma that Florence was going through but Mr De Rutzen, the magistrate, insisted. The case was adjourned for a few days and Louisa Hart again remanded in custody. Meanwhile Mr Mead, the Treasury solicitor, muttered darkly that there had already been attempts to interfere with some of his witnesses. Powerful forces supported brothels and child prostitution just as they had opposed the attempted to pass the legislation that was at the heart of this prosecution. Some members of the elite strongly believed they had a right to prey on the children of the poor to satisfy their carnal desires.

During the course of the following week it emerged that Louisa Hart’s husband, Ben, was possibly the real power behind the relationship. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that when Louisa had been searched at Paddington police station she had told her female searcher that Ben Hart had married her when she was just 15 years old. It was against her will, she said, and it was him that had been the driving force in setting up what was described as ‘a child’s brothel’ in Markham Square.

Louisa Hart was back before Mr De Rutzen on 2 March. The same evidence was repeated but with some clarifications. Rosie was there this time and gave her version of the events in the house. She described the gentleman there as ‘middle aged’ and was clear that she had been asked her age, and ‘Florry’ asked hers. The prosecution was trying to establish that the girls were underage and that Mrs Hart (and the mysterious unmanned pedophile) knewthey were underage. She later added that on another occasion at the house she clearly remembered Mrs Hart insisting she tell the old gentleman that she was over 16, despite her knowing that she wasn’t.

This last point seemed to knock the defense solicitor somewhat and he asked for an adjournment for a week. The magistrate allowed this and again remanded the prisoner. A week later a much shorter hearing ended with Louisa being fully committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

That trial took place on 3 May 1886 and Louisa Hart was accused and convicted of ‘feloniously aiding and assisting a man unknown in carnally knowing Rosie Shires, a girl under the age of 13’. That was all the details the Old Bailey Proceedings recorded apart from Hart’s sentence, which was five year’s penal servitude. She served just over three years, being released on license in August 1889 and listed on the habitual criminals register. She died ten years later at the age of just 34. What happened to Rosie and Florence is unknown. The man that abused them seems to have got away scot-free as did Louisa’s husband Ben.

[from The Daily News, Wednesday 17 February, 1886; Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 24 February 1886; The Standard, Wednesday, 3 March, 1886]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]

September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]

Dozens of noses broken as a policeman loses his cool on a hot July evening.

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In today’s post the normal tables are turned and as a policeman finds himself standing in a Police Court dock. PC Labram (186T) was up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street on a charge accused of causing malicious damage. The case was brought by Peter Chambers of Harriet Street, Lower Marsh on south side of the river Thames, an artificial flower maker who had been trying to sell his wares outside the Reform Club in Pall Mall.

It was Jubilee night in July 1887 and London had been celebrating Queen Victoria’s fifty years on the throne. Presumably Chambers was intent on selling a range of novelty items to the patriotic crowds of passers not far from Buckingham Palace. As far as PC Labram was concerned however, Chambers was a street nuisance and when he found him on the street he asked him ‘pack up’ and ‘slope’ away.  The peddler obeyed but not quickly enough for the officer, who aimed at kick as his departing rear which propelled him several yards up the street.

When Chambers objected – saying ‘you have no cause to do that, policeman’ –  the bobby pushed him ‘so violently that he had to drop his basket’ to stop himself from falling over. This scattered some of the flower sellers ‘noses, scratchers and squirts’ over the paving slabs, and again Chambers complained loudly that he was trying to comply with the officer’s request and he needn’t shove him.

PC Labram’s response was to place his size nines on the man’s goods and stamp them into pieces. When Chambers protested the policeman threatened to do to him what he’d done to his false noses, back scratchers and water squiters, and so he hurried away. Several onlookers saw what had happened and berated the constable with cries of ‘shame!’

Five or so minutes later Chambers was in nearby James Square and he saw PC Labram had followed on, presumably tracing his beat. He confronted him and said he intended to report him at King Street police station. This simply provoked the officer to push his basket off his shoulders, throwing the contents on to the ground, where he stamped on them for good measure. A group of ‘roughs’ saw what was happening and ran to join in the fun, jumping up and down on the poor man’s goods.

In court Mr Poland defended the constable and asked him if he had also been selling the ‘squirts’ he had with him. This was apparently prohibited and Chambers said that while he had them he was not selling them.

What did he have asked Mr. Newton, and what was their value.

Twelve shillings’ worth of scent-fountains, ten dozens of holiday noses, and about the same number of back scratchers’, he replied. The noses had moustaches on them but many of these had now been torn off. He estimated the damage at 32s.

Mrs Eliza Jackson of Great Smith Street corroborated Chambers’ evidence and said that the ‘constable treated the man like a dog’. Her husband also testified against the officer.

The defense argued that men like Chambers went about the crowded streets ‘selling squirts, and so procuring and aiding persons to commit assaults upon others by throwing dirty water over their dress. The police did all they could to prevent the nuisance, and bills cautioning the public were issued before Jubilee Day’.

The magistrate was not unsympathetic to this view and declared that:

it was a mischievous and cruel thing to sell such things and, and if people chose to pay out their money in such articles they must take the consequences’.

Nevertheless the constable had acted disproportionately and it would have been better if he’d arrested Chambers rather than kicking him and breaking his stock. He asked Chambers and Labram to withdraw while he assessed the real value of the damage done. Instead of the 32s the man claimed Mr Newton awarded him just 7s 6d. He also vindicated the constable by saying he was (however aggressively) just following out his orders for the day.

I get the feeling that PC Labram was simply grumpy at having to police the crowds that day; while everyone else was having fun he was patrolling the streets and perhaps he resented it. Seeing an opportunity he did what all bullies do and acted like a little tyrant. A fine was the least he deserved and if he’d directed his frustration at one of the ‘toffs’ at the Reform Club he might have been drummed out of the force. Chambers was a nobody though, so he got away with it.

Shame on him, and shame of the magistrate for not standing up for the ‘little man’.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 06, 1887]

If it looks like ‘easy money’ it probably means you are about to get fleeced: trains, racing and the 3 card trick

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In mid June 1882 a well-dressed man was stood in the dock at Southwark Police court and charged with conspiracy to steal (or rather defraud) from two German visitors to the races. However, Henry Archer was no small time thief and appeared in court represented by his lawyer and ready to vigorously refute the charges laid against him.

There were two supposed victims (unconnected and on separate days) but only one showed up in court. Archer’s brief, Mr Keith Frith, suggested that the absence of one of the complainants was evidence of his client’s innocence, as we shall see.

The case began with the prosecution giving their version of events on the 8 June 1882. Mr Batchelor, from the Treasury Solicitor’s office led the prosecution and stated that on the Thursday in question William Tremel was travelling in the first class carriage from Waterloo to Ascot to watch the horse racing. As he took his seat Archer and two other men joined him. As the train pulled out of Waterloo one of Archer’s companions spread a travel rug over his knees and pulled out a pack of cards. He then proceeded to play the ‘three card trick’ with his friends.

The trio were betting and winning and losing money. Tremel may not (as a foreign visitor) have been familiar with the game and watched intently. Not long afterwards Archer asked him if he wanted to join in and the German was soon hooked and, inevitably (because it was a scam) started to lose.

By the time they got to the end of the journey he had lost between £8 and £10 (which may not sound that much, but represents about £500-£650 in today’s money). Tremel also borrowed another £20 from Archer and gave him and IOU; he had been well and truly fleeced but Archer claimed that he had never been on the train and had never met the German.

At the racetrack the prosecution claimed that Archer had bid his friends farewell and told Herr Tremel that he was off to see his brother, who was ‘Fred Archer the jockey’. Later that day Tremel saw Archer on the racecourse and noticed that he was carrying a book for recording the odds. Mr Frith explained that his client was a respectable individual and a ‘bona fide betting man’. In other words he was a licensed bookmaker on the Ascot and Kempton Park racetracks and argued that he’d done nothing wrong and that Tremel must have been mistaken in identifying him.

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The other victim (Robert Poehl) had stayed away from court because he accepted that he lost a similar amount of money on the train playing at a game of chance at which he’d hoped to profit.

When Archer had been arrested the police found ‘commissions and telegrams from certain noblemen well known on the turf’ and so – Frith argued – it was ‘absurd to bring charges against him’. He produced a witness who gave Archer an alibi and a glowing character reference. Batchelor, prosecuting, said he’d be able to find a witness to shoot down the alibi and asked for a remand so he could bring further evidence against Archer (and possibly track down the other two men). Mr Slade, as magistrate, agreed and bailed Archer in the meantime.

The whole episode reminds me of the racetrack wars of the 1910s and 20s (dramatized by the BBC in the Peaky Blinders series) involving rival gangs led by Billy Kimber, Darby Sabini and Alfred Solomon. There was a legitimate betting industry but it worked in the shady borders between legitimacy and criminality and the two worlds were never very far apart.

People are still being fleeced by the ‘three card trick’ (or ‘find the lady’) mainly because humans continue to believe they can beat the system. You can’t and as every casino owner knows 9and every gamble forgets) the ‘house always wins’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 15, 1882]

Fred Archer was a famous jockey in the 1880s, if not the most famous. He won champion jockey no less than 13 times in a row and rode 2,748 winners. Despite his success he had a sad end, taking his own life at the age of just 29 following the death of his wife in childbirth. Fred Archer had one surviving daughter to whom he left a huge fortune worth over £6,000,000 today. He did have two brothers, but neither of them were called Henry, so perhaps our Archer made that up as well.

For a detailed analysis of the racetrack wars see Heather Shore’s London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-1930, which offers an excellent study of networks of crime and the people involved in it.   

Dodging the Police and skating on thin ice in St James’s Park

St James Park Frozen

In the Victorian period the ornamental lake in St James’ Park was occasionally turned into an impromptu  skating rink. There are reports of Londoners donning their skates and taking to the ice in large numbers.  This was despite the fact that it was a dangerous thing to do and the park authorities and police took measures to stop them.

This rarely prevented them however, as one writer noted in 1853:

They invariably prefer testing the ice themselves, by walking on to it, or under it, as may happen: and it is for the sake of checking this precocious spirit of experiment, that the edge of the ice all round the lake has been broken every morning since the frost set in, by men appointed for the purpose; and hence it is that now, when it will bear, bridges of plank have to be laid down that they may get on and off. You may observe, likewise, that ropes are laid across the ice from one bank to the other, in readiness to be drawn instantly to any part that may give way.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life (1853)

In January 1879 the weather was cold enough for the lake to freeze over and dozens took to the ice. In desperation the park authorities and police resorted to the law to try to deter the thrill seekers. One morning at Bow Street a ‘number of young men’ were brought in before Mr Ingram charged with ‘sliding and skating on the ornamental water’ despite ‘the caution of the police and the printed notices forbidding the same’.

The case was prosecuted by the representatives of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works, who ran the parks, in the person of Mr Golden, a Treasury Solicitor. Golden regretted having to bring the case but said the Commissioners had been exasperated by pleasure seekers simply ignoring all the signs and even attempting to cut the rope that was used to clear them off.

Several policemen had been deployed to thwart the skaters but their attempts had become something of an entertainment in itself. The skaters amused themselves by ‘dodging’ the bobbies who found it ‘no easy task’ to catch them. Mr Golden told the magistrate that the ‘tumbling of an officer was a special source of delight to the mob’.  I can well imagine it was.

The magistrate, satisfied that the Treasury solicitor had proved his case, turned to one of the young men in the dock and asked him if he thought it was ‘fun’ to act as he had been accused of doing. ‘Certainly’, replied the youth, ‘and I think so still’. The appearance in court hadn’t cowed him or his fellows at all. I suspect they were respectable young men because their names were not recorded in the paper and Mr Ingram fined them the considerable sum of £1 each and let them go.

[from The Standard, Friday, January 17, 1879]

For other posts relating to London’s parks see:

Pram (and class) wars in Regent’s Park

Indecency and rough behaviour spoil the tranquility of London’s Royal Parks

Riotous behaviour in Hyde Park and a cobbler is sent packing

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