A wilful act of youthful vandalism that echoes down the centuries

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

I used to live opposite a bus stop on a busy route into Northampton. The stop had a glass shelter to protect passengers from the elements, and buses called every 10-15 minutes at peak times. Behind the shelter was one of the town’s larger parks, laid out in the Victorian period for the good people of Northampton to enjoy. However, the park at night (while locked up) also provided a suitable hiding place for a group of small boys who took great pleasure in aiming small stones at the bus shelter whilst remaining hidden from prying eyes.

With depressing regularity the youths smashed the glass in the shelter which was then cleaned up within a few days and the glass replaced. Only, of course, for the cycle of criminal damage to begin again. One of my neighbours decided to watch the shelter from an upstairs window and called the police when the boys started their attack. I’m not sure they were caught but the violence stopped and the bus company’s property has only suffered more mild forms of vandalism since.

I can almost hear the complaints about ‘cereal’ modern youth, with no respect for property, and no curbs on their behaviour. ‘Young people these days…’ and all that.

But the reality is that teenagers behaving badly is not a new phenomena; it has little or nothing to do with the internet, with computer games, with modern divorce rates, or the end of corporal punishment in schools or any of the reasons the Daily Mail and its ilk like to present as symptoms of the decline of a once great Britain.

Take this tale, from 1881, a mere 137 years ago (when we had corporal – and capital – punishment, divorce was all but impossible, and women hadn’t yet got the vote). George Martin, the verger of the presbyterian church in Upper George Street, Marylebone, was fed up with arriving in the morning to find the windows of his church broken during the night.

Martin decided to set a trap for the culprits (whom he suspected to be a group of local lads) and he lay in watch to see what happened. A about six o’clock on the evening of Friday 2 September 1881 he watched as a group of four lads entered the churchyard. They picked up some stones and started to lob them at the church’s windows. As one hit and broke a pane Martin leapt out from behind a tree and chased after the now fleeing boys. Three escaped but he managed to catch one on of them, and hands him over the police.

On the Saturday morning Edgar Ashworth – a 13 year-old milk seller from Paddington appeared in court at Marylebone charged with breaking the church’s windows. George Martin had helpfully produced a drawing of the church windows, indicating where the damage was. He put the cost of the broken window of the previous night at 1s but said that upwards of 70 small panes had been broken in the last fortnight.

The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen was appalled; he ‘said he’d never heard a more miserable case that this’, and was determined that someone should be held responsible. ‘The evidence against the prisoner was as clear as noonday’, he said and he decided to fine him 40s for the criminal damage plus 1costs. His father was in court to hear this and said he had no intention of paying for his son’s actions.

As a result Edgar would be obliged to suffer the alternative: he was sent to prison for seven days.

My modern vandals would have been dealt with quite differently of course, but it is sobering to think that even the prospect of a hefty fine or imprisonment did not deter Edgar and his chums from a similar act.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 05, 1881]

A fanatic causes a disturbance at St Paul’s.

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It was midday on 24 April 1883 and the verger to the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (a Mr Green) was close by the choir with his assistant. He noticed a well-dressed respectable looking man marching towards the altar with some determination. As he got close he clambered over the rope that divided the area from the public space and would have reached the communion table had Mr Green not stopped him.

There was no service at that time and no good reason for the man to be where he was. The man now demanded that the verger remove the cross and the candlesticks from the table at once, a request that Green, not surprisingly refused to comply with.

This angered the man who insisted again, trying to push past to implement his will himself. With some effort Green and his assistant prevented him and when the man refused to stand aside they called for a policeman to take him into custody.

So exactly what was all this fuss about? This became clear later that day when the verger and the intruder appeared before the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police court.

The defendant gave his name as William Handsley Podmore, 61 years of age and a solicitor. He was charged with making a disturbance in the cathedral, not a very serious offence in the eyes of the law but an unusual one for a man of such standing in society. Indeed, when the policeman was summoned Podmore warned the verger that he himself was a magistrate and he would ‘make him remember this one day’.

In court Podmore at first conducted his own defence, insisting that he had every right to ask for the candles and the cross to be removed:

‘On principal’, he declared, ‘I maintain that they have no right to be in a Protestant Church. I said I insisted on their being removed, and I will have them removed’.

The verger’s assistant was called to testify and supported his colleague’s account adding that the solicitor had acted very oddly that lunchtime. He had told them both that he’d been to the cathedral ‘1800 years ago, and made other strange statements’. He had even suggested he was Jesus Christ himself the verger’s assistant told a presumably stunned courtroom. William Podmore dismissed this as ‘nonsense’. He insisted he was within his rights and was a upstanding citizen. He ‘held five appointments in the City’ he added, and was a ‘Master Extraordinary of the Court of Chancery’.

The alderman, Sir Robert Carden, seemingly chose to humour the aged lawyer. If he didn’t like ‘ornaments in the church’ why did he go there? There were plenty of other churches he could worship in in the city after all.

‘I will go there’, insisted Podmore, ‘and I will pull them down. It is simply Romanism in our Protestant Evangelical Church’ adding that ‘these accused things should [not] be allowed to remain’.

A character witness appeared next to vouch for Podmore. Mr Crawford was a fellow solicitor who had known the defendant for years as well-respected member of the community, he soon took over his friend’s defence. He thought he must be ill if he was acting in this way because it was entirely out of character. Podmore was a Commissioner for Oaths and he hoped the alderman would be satisfied by a promise from the defendant not to enter St Paul’s ever again.

However, he added that he thought a shame that it had come to court at all. He alluded to recent changes at the cathedral that were not to everyone’s liking and Sir Robert agreed. However, whilst he might think it fitting to express his ‘disapproval at the extraordinary change which had taken place in the service at the cathedral, he should not think of disturbing the service because he disliked it’.

Reynold’s Newspaper ‘headlined’ its reports as ‘another disturbance at St. Paul’s’ suggesting Podmore wasn’t the only person unhappy that whatever changes had been taking place. The justice decided that he wanted to hear from the Dean and Chapter about the changes that were happening at St Paul’s so adjourned the case for a week, bailing Podmore on his own recognizances.

A week later Mr Podmore was back and the Dean and Chapter chose not to press charges. They insisted that they did so because it was their belief that the solicitor was ‘not responsible for his actions at the time of the occurrences’ (suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness). However there was a little more detail to this that emerged in Reynolds’ account of the second hearing. The Dean and Chapter wanted to make it clear to the public – through the auspices of the magistracy – that disturbances at the cathedral should not be allowed to continue.

‘St. Paul’s was the cathedral church of London’, they insisted, and its services were attended by large congregations. There was no knowing what might be the result to life and limb if any scare or panic arose through the act of a fanatic, and in these days especially when the public mind was excited by recent threats against public buildings, the dean and chapter had a great weight of anxiety resting on their shoulders’.

Sir Robert Carden agreed that Podmore was ‘in the wrong’ and the solicitor himself (while insisting he was not out of his mind) accepted his responsibility and his ‘little want of judgement’. He said he hoped the law would change so such ‘ornaments would soon be removed in a legal manner’.   He was released on his own sureties of £50 to not disturb the peace in future but the magistrate added a warning that the leniency he’d shown to Mr Podmore was on account of his infirmity and character, he would come down hard if there were any further attempts to disturb the peace of Wren’s masterpiece.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 25, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, April 29, 1883; The Standard, Wednesday, May 02, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 6, 1883]