Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

‘What a ruffian you must be’ to punch a defenceless woman

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Lydia Morgan was drinking with her husband in a pub in Chelsea when an argument broke out. Her husband was quarrelling with another, younger, drinker when a friend of the teenager tried to intervene.

Mrs Morgan told the intruder to mind his own business and sit down. With that the lad, Patrick Cook (19), punched her in the face knocking her off her stool. The assault broke Lydia’s nose and she was taken to hospital to be treated for the injury.

The next day Cook was in court at Westminster Police court to answer for his actions.  He claimed that Lydia’s husband had been preparing to fight him (he ‘had his coat off’) and was drunk. Mr Morgan and his wife flatly denied this and their version of events was corroborated by Thomas Cook, the landlord of the Royal Oak in Keppel Street (who was no relation to the defendant).

Mrs Morgan had appeared in court with her face half covered in bandages and the policeman that brought the charge presented a certificate certifying that her nose was broken. Mr Selfe, the magistrate, thought he recognized Patrick Cook and asked the officer. The constable said that Cook was a violent lad who had been in court in September that year for stabbing a man with a fork. He’d served six weeks for that assault.

That certainly counted against him and cemented the justice’s view that he was guilty of this offence.

‘What a ruffian you must be’, he told him.

‘The instant you get out of prison here you are indulging in your naturally savage propensities. You have committed a serious and perhaps permanent injury upon this poor woman, who it is clearly shown offered you no provocation whatever’.

He then proceeded to sentence the lad.

‘If you had struck her more than once I should have given you the utmost punishment the law allows, and as it is I’ll stop your brutal habits for a little time, by imprisoning you for three months, with hard labour’.

With that Cook was led away to start his second term of incarceration that year. I doubt it was to be his last.

In 1872 a Patrick Cook was sentenced to a year in gaol for assaulting three policemen. He was aged 25 and gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (which probably meant he had no actual trade, ‘labourer’ was a common default ). His criminal record notes two previous convictions: three months in November 1865 and six weeks in September, both at Westminster Police court. He served each sentence in Cold Bath Fields house of correction.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 14, 1865]

‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’: One woman’s brave but foolish intervention

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Violence was topic for most of the cases reported in the evening Standard newspaper on 13 October 1877. Just as modern readers are shocked by hearing of stabbings and attacks on defenseless elderly people and children, our ancestors must have shaken their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

Of course the accounts of assaults and domestic violence were both real and relatively unusual; it was this that made them newsworthy. So we do have to be aware that when we read the nineteenth-century papers we are looking at a selection of ‘crime news’ that the editor thought his readership would ‘enjoy’. Plenty of less sensational news was generated by the ‘doings’ of  the metropolis’ police magistrate courts.

But let’s return to October 1877.

The first report that evening was of ‘an unprovoked assault’ on Mrs Jane Nash. Jane was walking out with a friend to meet her husband for Friday night drinks. As she made her way along Newington Causeway a drunken man collided with her, and ‘nearly knocked her down’. Jane gave him a piece of her mind, telling him to watch where he was going.

The man turned round, punched her in face twice, and would have started kicking her as she lay on the ground if two men hadn’t intervened and pulled him off her. At Southwark Police court he was sent to prison for 14 days by Mr Benson.

Staying south of the river Edward Richards surrender his bail and appeared at Wandsworth Police court charged with ‘a gross outrage’. He was accused, along with three other men not in custody, of attacking a man at a farm in Merton. John Ebliss, a ‘native of Bengal’, was sleeping at Baker’s End farm when Richards and the others hauled him out in a blanket and threw him in a ditch. Whether this was a prank or they had discovered Richards sleeping rough on their property wasn’t made clear in the report. The magistrate, Mr Paget, remanded Richards for a week so that the other men could be apprehended.

At Marlborough Street George Webster was charged with assaulting William Bowden, one of the surgeons attached to St John’s Hospital in Leicester Square. Webster had been making a disturbance in the hospital, probably drunk, and was thrown out. This sort of behavior still happens in hospitals today and every  night NHS are abused and assaulted by members of the public who’ve had too much to drink. Webster had come back into the hospital and in an argument with the surgeon he punched him in the ear. Mr Cooke warned him that behaviour like that could get him a prison sentence but on this occasion, and with the surgeon’s agreement, he merely bound him over to keep the peace for a year.

The final case was the worse. At half past midnight on the previous Friday (the 5 October) Emily Withers was passing the corner of Cannon Street Road when she saw a street robbery in progress. Four young men had set on another. When they discovered he had no money that started beating him up and Emily, unwisely decided to intervene.

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’, she cried, drawing the attention of one of them.

‘What is it to do with you?’ Robert Martin asked, moving over to her.

He kicked out at her, landing a blow on her knee. As the young man struggled free of his attackers and ran for help Martin now kicked Emily in the stomach. The violence knocked her off her feet and ‘she was in such agony that she could neither move nor speak’. It took some moments before a policeman came running up and arrested Martin.

Emily spent four days confined to bed as a result of the attack but recovered sufficiently by the following Friday to give evidence against her abuser in court. Mr Chance, the presiding magistrate at Thames Police court sentenced the 17-year-old lad to six month’s hard labour.

So here were four acts of violence to unsettle the readers of the Standard as they digested their supper. It would remind them that while crime had fallen considerably since the early decades of the century there was still plenty to fear on the capital’s streets. However, the reports were also reassuring  in that in each case someone was in custody or was being punished for their acts of violence. They were off the streets and no threat any more.

Today I think we operate in a similar way. I live in London and stabbings are reported weekly, sometimes more.  Every death is a tragedy, a young life cut short, and a family bereaved.  It is made worse because the culprits are rarely caught and so remain at large, as an ongoing danger. But are they are a danger to me and my life? The news reports suggest that this sort of violence – knife crime committed by teenagers on each other – is unlikely to affect me directly because I am a white man in my fifties. That said local reports suggest that there was a stabbing just up the road from us, and several muggings (by youths on scooters) had also been reported.

London can be dangerous; anywhere can be dangerous, just ask the victims of the recent assaults in Manchester. But violence is still rare and reported because it is rare, and therefore newsworthy. As Nick Ross always used to say, ‘don’t have nightmares’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 13, 1877]

‘You shan’t take him’; mob rule breaks down in the East End

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Some areas of the capital were notoriously difficult to police. There were several streets and alleyways in Spitalfields and Whitechapel where the police simply did not go unless they were in twos or threes; a single beat bobby was at serious risk of being assaulted if ventured into ‘the Nichol’ for example, or strolled down Dorset Street unawares.

In September 1883 one unfortunate copper had affected an arrested  on Brick Lane, just south of the notorious old Nichol Street slum. He’d been given the man in custody on an accusation of assault and was attempting to take him to the nearest station house when a man started winding up the watching crowd against him.

William Harrils shouted at the policeman: ‘You shan’t take him’, before urging the gathered people to intervene. They did, and a ‘mob’ of about 50 started jostling him and trying to get the prisoner away from his captor.

Suddenly the officer was tripped from behind and landed on his face. A woman rushed in and started to kick at him as he lay on the ground, Harrils punched him in the eye as he sat up. Thankfully help soon arrived in the person of a fellow officer and the crowd melted away leaving the female attacker and Harrils in the arms of the law.

The pair were brought before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court where Harrils received a sentence of 21 days in gaol and his accomplice, Emily Manley,  was fined 10s(or a weeks’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay).

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 27, 1883]

‘I want you!’ ‘But I don’t want you’: unrequited love ends that ends in violence and a life ruined

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Hannah Williams loved James Newbold and she thought that the young engineer would marry her. She believed this and that had led her to support him while he was out of work, give him money to get his clothes out of pawn, and, most importantly, to give herself to him physically. She was a respectable and ‘extremely good looking’ domestic servant and to make these decisions she must have been fairly sure of James’ intentions.

Unfortunately for Hannah however, James was not on the same page when it came to the future. When she got word that he had proposed marriage to another young woman she set off to confront near his place of work. Hannah found James drinking with his workmates in the parlour of a beer shop in Rotherhithe Street. She sent in a message asking to see him and he stepped outside.

At first Hannah asked him to step inside with her so they could talk but he refused. She then asked him if it was true that he was to be married to someone else. He admitted it.

Through tears Hannah now vowed that she would have ‘her revenge either on me or the lady’, James later recounted. He went back inside without her. Some minutes later she sent another message in, demanding he come back out to speak to her. He ignored it so Hannah waited till he left with his friends and confronted him again.

‘I want you’, she cried. ‘I don’t want you’, he replied and started to walk away back towards the hammer shop where he worked. When Hannah followed he warned her away, threating to ‘knock her head off’ if she did as she was embarrassing him in front of his fellow workers. Undeterred Hannah pursued him slowly and then, suddenly, pulled a long kitchen knife from her clothes and attacked him with it.

She cut at this throat, drawing blood and only narrowly avoiding the main artery. James was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery. Hannah was seized and handed over to the police. She appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich on 18 September 1847.  Having heard the evidence, including the medical testimony of a surgeon, Hannah was committed for trial and led away by the gaoler, ‘apparently unaffected by her deplorable position’.

Her trial took place at the Old Bailey on 25 October, once James had fully recovered. The jury convicted her of wounding but had a lot of sympathy for her situation. Effectively ‘ruined’ and exploited by  her lover and then publically threatened her actions were, if not excusable, at least understandable. Recommended to mercy, the judge sentenced her to just one month in prison for the knife attack.

Hannah was just 20 years of age in 1847 and she wasn’t to enjoy a long life after that. According to the digital panopticon she must have moved up to Wolverhampton at some point following he release, and she died there in 1873 at the age of 46. Perhaps she never recovered fully from the shame of her crime and the loss of her reputation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, September 19, 1847]