‘A very noble and intelligent dog’ saves a life the ‘owner’ had given up on

raisingcleopatrasneedle

In late March 1883 Thomas Lyford was walking his dog along the Victoria Embankment when the animal suddenly headed off towards Cleopatra’s Needle. It raced down the steps to the water, turned, ran up, ‘barked twice and ran back’. Lyford followed quickly afterwards instantly realising that something was wrong.

The dog was a retriever/Newfoundland cross, and the latter were bred for rescuing people from the water. The dog had seen a woman in the Thames and swam out towards her. When the animal reached her it used its large jaws to pull her back towards the river side a where Lyford was able to grab her by her dress and haul her onto the steps at the foot of the Egyptian monument.

The police and a surgeon arrived soon afterwards. They had been alerted earlier when a patrolling constable (PC 281) had noticed the woman acting strangely near the Needle. To his horror he’d seen her launch herself into the Thames in what appeared to be an act of self-destruction. The constable ran as fast has he could towards the Thames Police Office (which was at the foot of Waterloo Bridge on the north side of the river) to raise the alarm and have a boat launched to save her.

It was half past eight at night when the policeman had seen the woman jump so without the quick reactions of  Lyford and his dog she may well have drowned. Instead the woman was taken to the workhouse infirmary where, after some time, she made a full recovery.

As regular readers will know this was not the end of the story because very many people chose to attempt suicide in the 1800s and since it was against the law those that failed in their efforts were brought before the metropolitan Police Courts to answer for it. This woman’s name was Amelia Crickland and she was placed in the dock at Bow Street before Mr Vaughan while the case against her was heard.

We get no real sense of why she threw herself into the river but this is probably because the court reporter was more interested in the canine rescue story, which was described in detail. Thomas Lyford stood in the witness box with his dog. The animal ‘placed its fore paws on the ledge of the box, looking round the court in a most intelligent manner’.

‘It is a very noble and intelligent dog’ Mr Vaughan commented.

‘Yes, he came and told me that something was wrong as plainly as any Christian could,’ the proud dog owner replied.

The unnamed dog was the hero of the hour, poor Amelia (who could only put her decision to drown herself down to ‘some trouble she had’) was sent to the house of detention to wait final judgement on her punishment. ‘Some trouble’ may have meant she was pregnant, or had lost her employment, or some other disgrace she found too awful to bear. Sadly society wasn’t that interested in what had driven her to despair and the reality was likely to be that when she got the chance again she’d make sure there were no eagle-eyed policemen or rescue dogs nearby.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 30, 1883]

Cleopatra’s Needle (which had little or nothing to do with the Egyptian queen) had arrived in the capital in 1878 and so was still a fairly new attraction on the Embankment. It was paid for by public subscription to commemorate victory over Napoleon in Egypt and it had survived a tempestuous journey to reach London. I wonder how many visitors to London stop think of the number of people that ended (or attempted to end) their lives in the water that lay just beyond this symbol of British military power? 

A sad confession at Bow Street

woodenleg

At ten past eleven on Friday March 1 1883 PC Pilling (428 City) was patrolling his evening beat on the Victoria Embankment. A rough-looking man with a wooden leg approached him and made a startling declaration:

‘I want to give myself up for murder’.

The policeman accompanied the man back to Bow Street Police where he supposedly made the following statement to Inspector Husted, the inspector on duty that night.

‘My name is Dennis Driscoll. About 5 or 6 years ago, at Christmas time, I killed a man named Brennan, at a lodging-house in New Church Court, Strand, by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron – the iron frame of my wooden leg. I went away for some weeks, and he died.  At times I have been very unhappy about it, and so I have given myself up’.

It was a dramatic confession and Driscoll was taken before the Bow Street magistrate the following day, Saturday 2 March, to be formally indicted for the murder. However, once he was there Driscoll claimed that the confession had been fabricated; he’d never said any such thing.

Mr Flowers was told that Driscoll was well known in the area as an aggressive and unpleasant individual. He had been ‘repeatedly charged and convicted for violent assaults’ many of which involved him taking off his false leg and using it as weapon. Thus the idea that he had murdered someone in 1877 was not implausible despite his physical disability. The magistrate decided that since this was all very odd and the prisoner was acting ‘in a very strange manner’ he would at least remand him in custody so that further enquiries could be made.

Driscoll was back before Mr Flowers on the 10 March where a few more details emerged. The Inspector Hustead confirmed that a man named Brennan had died following a quarrel in 1879 (not 1877) and that it was believed that Driscoll was the other party. However, Brennan had not been at all badly injured and went back to work as a flower seller straight away. It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill and was admitted to St Giles’ Infirmary where he died soon afterwards. His death was attributed to his destitution (flowers sellers were often, in effect, beggars) and it was formally registered as death by ‘natural causes’.

Driscoll then was off the hook. He may have believed he’d caused another man’s death but there was no proof to take him to trial for it. He was however, quite destitute himself and so Mr Flowers ordered him to be discharged but offered to recommend him as a suitable candidate for the workhouse.

It is a very sad case and indicative I think of the lack of care in Victorian society for the disabled poor. Clearly Dennis Driscoll struggled with life and may well have been a violent person who struck out at those around him. He quite probably drank and if, as is likely, he found work hard to come by then he must have supported himself by begging in the streets. Evidently he was in and out of the justice system, regularly turning up in the Police Courts and quite likely spending small amounts of time locked up. We have no idea how he’d lost his leg but an accident, or an injury sustained in the forces are possible explanations.

His confession may have been the result of guilt, of a drunken urge to get something off his chest, or even of a fatalistic desire to end his miserable existence. Convicted killers were still executed in Victorian England and while that is unlikely to have been Dennis’ fate he might have thought that was a way out of his misery.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 05, 1883; The Standard , Monday, March 12, 1883]