‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering, but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’. No pity for a East End thief

Mill Lane, Deptford c.1890s

There were some curious and sad stories from the police courts on 30 August 1864. 

At Bow Street a man was sent for trial for stealing his landlady’s shawl (value £1) but the circumstances were most peculiar. 

She had found him drunk in her room, sitting on one chair with his feet up on another.  When she asked him to leave he dropped to all fours and started barking like a dog and meowing like a cat. A policeman gave evidence that just days before the same man had been seen trying to persuade soldiers in uniform to desert to join ‘the Federals’ (meaning the Northern ‘Union’ army fighting the American Civil War against the Southern ‘Confederates’). 

At Worship Street Maurice Lawrence cut a sad figure in the dock. Described as ‘a general dealer’ who lived on Plumbers Row, Whitechapel, he was clearly down on his luck. He struggled to stand on his one good leg, the other was ‘withered’ and ‘about to be amputated’ the court was told. 

He had been discovered by Michael Mahon, allegedly stealing flowers from Victoria Park. Mahon was an old soldier – a sergeant major who’d seen service in the Crimean War – and he caught Lawrence plucking ‘three dahlias and two geraniums’ and, in his new position as park constable, arrested him. As he was bring led away to the station house Lawrence begged to be set free, offering Mahon 5for his liberty. 

In court he admitted taking the flowers but denied attempting to bribe the park constable, and then threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. He rolled up his trousers to reveal his withered limb ‘which was seen to be no thicker than an ordinary walking stick’.  

If he hoped the magistrate would let him off he was disappointed. The magistrate declared that unless people that stole flowers were punished ‘the beds will very speedily be destroyed’. 

‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering’, he said, ‘but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’.

So for stealing a small bunch of flowers from a public park Maurice Lawrence was fined a shilling and the cost of the flowers. Since he was unable or unwilling to pay this he was sent to prison for a day instead.   Perhaps that represented leniency, but it seems a fairly unkind punishment for a man that was so obviously in a state of extreme poor health. 

The last story that caught my eye (leaving aside a man that tried to kill himself with a dose of laudanum) was that of two landlords prosecuted for keeping unlicensed lodging houses.  Both prosecutions were at Greenwich Police court before Mr Traill, the sitting justice. John Buckley (in absentia) and Johanna Keefe were both accused of renting rooms (although the term is hardly apt, ‘space’ would be more accurate) without a license. 

The cases were brought by Sergeant Pearson (45A) the inspector of lodging houses in the district’. He testified to visiting both properties (in Mill Lane) and describing the scene he found there. 

At Buckley’s he found a room with:

‘with beds, each occupied by a two men, three of whom paid 4d a night each, and the other 2s a week; and in a cupboard in the same room he found a bed on the floor occupied by two men, each paying 1d a night. The size of the cupboard, which had neither light nor ventilation, was about 6 feet in length, by 4 feet in width and 5 feet high’. 

There were other rooms with similarly cramped lodgings within them.  At Johanna Keefe’s he found a room that had: 

‘three beds, each occupied by two men, five of whom paid 2s per week each, the sixth being the defendant’s son’. 

‘What!’, interjected Mr Traill, ‘Ten shillings a week rent for one room?’

‘Yes, your worship’, the sergeant replied, ‘and a small room, not being more than 12 feet square’. 

The magistrate issued a warrant for Buckley’s arrest (he had form for this offence) and fined Keefe 20s. Hearing that she had eight years worth of previous convictions he warned her that if she persisted in taking lodgers without obtaining a license he would start fining her 20 shillings a day.

All in all the day’s reports made a fairly depressing read and reminded Londoners that their city had plenty of social problems in the mid 1860s.

[from Morning Post Tuesday 30 August 1864]

Skipping their way to court: prosecuting games in the ‘People’s Park’

Vic Park

In 1874 Easter fell over the weekend of the 4thand 5thApril and the weather was fair in London. On Easter Sunday lots of Londoners headed to the parks to take the air and promenade in the spring sunshine. Victoria Park in East London (dubbed the ‘people’s park’) was particularly busy; an estimated 20,000 people visited, many dressed in their ‘Sunday best’. The police were on hand as always, to keep an eye on any troublemakers and to ward off thieves and drunks.

The park had first been opened to the public in 1845 and a Chartist demonstration in 1848 gave the police their first public order challenge. That passed without incident as the thousands who gathered soon dispersed when a heavy rain shower broke above them. So much for a British revolution eh?

Victoria Park fell under the aegis of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act (1872) which restricted the use of the park. All ‘games’ were banned for example, although interpretations of what a ‘game’ meant was disputed. A week after Easter two men were brought to the Worship Street Police court and prosecuted under the act by a representative of the Royal Parks.

Park constable Blazer (no.21) reported that on Easter Sunday he’d been on patrol in the park when he’d noticed a number of men with skipping ropes. The men were holding long ropes and charging men and women a halfpenny or a penny to skip within them while they twirled them. It seemed like harmless fun but the constable said that it was damaging the grass (presumably by the tramping of very many pairs of feet jumping up and down). Moreover, charging money was an infringement of the rules.

He approached two of the men and told them desist but they laughed at him and carried on. Blazer then decided he had to arrest them. The men were charged at the nearest station and released to appear before Mr Hannay at the police court. There the magistrate asked their names and occupations. Henry Neale was a brass finisher and his companion, James Mortimer said he was a labourer. Both were simply earning a little extra by their entrepreneurial use of a skipping rope.

Inspector Condon of K Division was on hand to support the park constable. He explained that under the regulations defined in the act no person was allowed to play at ‘any game’  or ‘sell or let any commodity’. Arguably then the men had broken two rules but Mr Hannay doubted whether selling a go on a skipping rope constituted selling a ‘commodity’. However, by the same token they were clearly engaged in ‘a game’, which did infringe the rules. The constable piped up to say that he always ignored children who were skipping with their own ropes,. he was sure that shouldn’t be restricted under the spirit of the act.

Today our parks are full of people running, skipping, playing football or cricket, doing yoga or pilates, or using the myriad exercise machines that have sprung up in recent years. Exercise is part of the mantra of daily life and the idea that we would prosecute people for encouraging a little of it seems odd, the say the least. But while the Victorian recognized the benefits of fresh air and a brisk walk they also wanted to keep their green spaces free from commercial exploitation, especially on holy days. Mr Hannay duly fined the pair for causing a nuisance. They handed over half a crown each and were discharged.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 12, 1874]