‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

A stowaway from Newcastle nearly becomes another murder victim in 1888

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When John Henry Marler was brought before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court on a charge of attempted murder it must have excited some interest in the district. Marler was a sailor, recently arrived in the capital from the north east of England on the Albert, a brig out of North Shields.

The brig was probably bringing coals from Newcastle but it had at least one passenger that the captain wasn’t aware of. Mary Jane Pascod had stowed away  on board, or at least had been pressured into doing so by Marler. Marler had proposed to the young woman before he’d left for London and had urged her to accompany him. The girl was reluctant to leave and quite likely even more reluctant to marry the sailor but somehow he smuggled her onto the ship.

Mary Jane was right to be worried about the 32 year-old seaman. He had a violent temperament, especially when he’d been drinking, and the couple argued. He was 12 years older than Mary and when she told him she didn’t want to have anything more to do with him he flew into a rage and threatened her. When they docked at the Isle of Dogs he went ashore and drank heavily.

He was seen later that night by a watchman on the wharf near the Albert. Marler spoke to the watchman, saying:

‘Stop me from going on board that ship to-night. If I do, I shall kill that woman’.

The watchman (John Stacey) didn’t stop him but did notice how drunk he was, and so he followed him onto the brig. Stacey saw Marler approach where Mary Jane was hiding and draw out a knife. He was about to bring it down on the young woman when Stacey pounced, grabbed his arm and wrestled the knife away.

He told his version of events to Thames court who must have listened all the more intently, knowing that just a few days earlier there had been a brutal stabbing in the East End that had left Martha Tabram dead in George Yard, near the Whitechapel Road. Martha was, arguably, the first of the official ‘Ripper’ victims that summer and later it was suggested that a sailor (albeit a foreign one) might have been responsible for the serial murders that so shocked the nation in 1888.

Mr Lushington decided to deal with Marlee there and then, sentencing him to six months imprisonment with hard labour. He instructed the police to send a telegraph to let Mary Jane’s family and friends know she was safe but would require help in getting back home.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, August 13, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A mini riot at an RHS fête

30 Chiswick House

1829 was the year that the Metropolitan Police Act was passed bringing a fully regulated and hierarchical system of police to the capital’s streets. However, we shouldn’t assume that London was unpoliced before Peel’s initiative, nor believe everything early police historians have told us about the inefficiency or corrupt nature of the measures that existed before the ‘Peelers’ began to patrol their beats.

London had been policed by amateurs and part-time paid police from the medieval period and the networks of parish watchmen and constables had improved markedly in the second half of the 1700s. One of the key improvements in ‘policing’ (and I use that term more broadly than it is used today) was the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792. This created seven ‘police offices’ across London and complemented the existing ones at Bow Street and the City of London’s Guildhall and Mansion House justicing rooms.

Based on the Bow Street model established by Henry and John Fielding, these police offices were set up as courts with police magistrates (justices of the peace) and court officers (or ‘runners’ as they were known at Bow Street). These institutions later evolved into the Police Magistrates courts and their officers were effectively replaced by Peel’s New Police after 1829.

In July 1829 there was no Metropolitan Police Force and so Londoners were reliant on the old system. And we can get a glimpse of the sort of things they had to deal with in this case that came before the Marlborough Street Office on first Wednesday in the month.

Edward Perry, a coachman, was charged ‘with violently whipping and endangering the lives’ of two Marlborough Street officers. His case was heard by all three appointed police magistrates: Sir George Farrant, H. M. Dyer senior, and his son, H. M. Dyer, junior. The court was packed with several gentlemen who had either witnessed or heard about the events that led to the violence that was alleged to have been meted out to the court’s officers.

One of the officers, Schofield, gave his evidence before the bench. He testified that at 7 o’clock on the previous Saturday evening (27 June) he had been stationed opposite the entrance to Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Fete, which was held in gardens on Wavendon Road on land leased by the Duke of Devonshire. We might have thought that an RHS event (like the modern one at Chelsea) would have been a sober and civilized occasion, but it seems that in 1829 ended in a mini riot.

A queue of coaches had developed, as they waited to collect their ladies and gentlemen from the fete, and this caused some tension as patience worn thin and tempers rose. Perry was employed by Sir Astley Cooper and as he waited outside the gates of the gardens a man approached him and asked him to ‘drive on, and take them up in a few minutes’. At first Schofield assumed this was Sir Astley himself but later established that it was one of the knight’s ‘near relations’, a Dr Patterson.

As the doctor departed into the gardens Schofield, aware of the queue behind, asked Perry to move along. Perry replied that he wasn’t going to move for anybody. The officer took the reins of the horses to lead them away and Perry struck him hard with his whip.

Seeing this one of Schofield’s fellow officers (Goddard) rushed to help his mate. Schofield tried to clamber onto the coach via the running board but Perry pulled it up fast, meaning the officer fell back onto the street. Undeterred he got up, dusted himself down and grabbed at the reins. The driver and officer struggled for some moments before, eventually, Perry was unseated and the coach secured.

In court Perry challenged this account, saying he’d not heard anyone tell him to move and that the officers were aggressive and he’d been injured in the process. He also denied a suggestion that he was drunk, something often leveled at coach drivers who probably drank plenty of beer in the course of their work but were not expected to be get inebriated.

Mr Dyer senior was present at the fete and said that since he could corroborate Perry’s evidence perhaps he should step down from the bench. Another gentleman witness, a Mr Creswell, also supported the coachman. The younger Mr. Dyer had also seen the ‘riot’ but his account verified that of the court officers.

The confusion here is probably explained by the fact that as the incident occurred a throng of servants, attached to various notables visiting the fete, got involved on to try and rescue the coachman as he was led away. A riot ensued and another court officer (Ballad) said that because some of these men were ‘following the officers in a fighting attitude, he was compelled to take out his pistols to keep the mob off’.

This reveals then, that the officers of the courts (or some of them at least) were routinely armed, whereas Peel’s men were only equipped with truncheons establishing the tradition that British police are only given firearms under special circumstances.

Several other witnesses came forward to testify against the officers but this did them little good. Perry was convicted of assaulting Schofield and was fined 40s. The bench agreed that there was less evidence that he’d assaulted Goddard but still fined him 20s anyway. In 1829 60s was a lot of money, around £200 at today’s prices, or two week’s salary for a skilled tradesman.

He wasn’t the only one punished for involvement in a riot that had spoiled the quite peace of Chiswick that night. James Smith, a groom employed by a coal merchant at the Adelphi was fined 20s ‘for attempting to ride over Boothman, a special constable’, and John Wichens, another coachman, had to find £4 as a result of being convicted of whipping two other Marlborough Street officers, Avid and Stone.

While the Bow Street runners wore red waistcoats to identify them it must have been hard to determine exactly who was a policing agent in the early 1800s. One of the advantages of the New Police then was their unambiguous visibility; with their blue swallow-tailed coats and tall stove pipe hats they quickly became a recognized figure of authority on London streets. This didn’t mean that coach drivers became any more respectful of them, but it did make it harder for defendants to claim they hadn’t realized who they were.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1829]

A pair of well-read rogues at the Mansion House

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The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.

One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.

Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string.  The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.

The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.

It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8 a volume and had a set of them.  There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.

In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.

The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.

Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]

Fire and murder in the East End but business as usual for Mr Lushington

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

John Tenniel’s Nemesis of Neglect, Punch (29/9/1888)

On Friday 31 August 1888 the Standard newspaper reported on the ‘great fire’ that had raged at the London docks the night before. Workers had knocked off at 4 that day as usual but at 8.30 in the evening someone noticed the smell of burning. It took until nine for the authorities at Whitechapel to be alerted whereupon officials there ‘ordered every steamer to proceed to the scene’. By the time they got there (coming from all over the city) a massive fire was underway.

The fire was raging in the South Quay warehouses which were ‘crammed with colonial produce in the upper floors and brandy and gin’ at ground floor level. With so many combustibles it is not surprising that the 150 yard long building blazed so violently. The conflagration not only drew the police and fire brigade to the site it also attracted thousands on Londoners  in the East End to step out of their homes to see the fire.

The Pall Mall Gazette also featured a report on the fire within its fourth edition that day. It described the warehouse as 200 yards long and said 12 steamers were engaged in fighting the blaze. It reported that soon after the first fire was brought under control a second broke out at the premises of Messrs. J. T. Gibbs and Co. at the dry dock at Ratcliffe, damaging workshops, goods and a nearby sailing ship, the Cornucopia.

As dramatic as the dockyard fires were they were eclipsed by an adjacent report on the same page which read:

HORRIBLE MURDER IN EAST LONDON

ANOTHER WHITECHAPEL MYSTERY

This of course refereed to the gruesome discovery made by police constable John Neil as he walked his beat along Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) parallel to the Whitechapel High Street. PC Neil had found the dead body of a woman later to identified as Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, the first ‘canonical’ victim of murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The Gazette’s reporter must have seen the body in the Whitechapel mortuary because he was able to describe it in some detail for his readers.

‘As the corpse lies in the mortuary it presents a ghastly sight […] The hands  are bruised, and bear evidence of having been engaged in a severe struggle. There is the impression of a ring having been forced from one of the deceased’s fingers, but there is nothing to show that it had been wrenched from her in a struggle’, ruling out (it would seem) robbery as a motive.

No one, it seems, had heard anything despite there being a night watchmen living in the street. It was a mystery and as more details of Polly’s injuries emerged in subsequent days the full horror of the killing and the idea that a brutal maniac was at work in the East End gained ground in the press.

Meanwhile it was business as usual for the capital’s Police Courts; at Thames Francis Greenfield was charged with cruelty to a pony. He was brought in by PC 73K who had found the man beating the animal as he exercised it around a circle, presumably training it. The poor ‘animal was bleeding from the mouth, and there was a wound on the side of its lip’. The constable was told by several bystanders that Greenfield had been ‘exercising’ the beast for well over an hour. Mr Lushington, the magistrate, adjourned the business of his court  to go and see the pony for himself. When he returned he sentenced Greenfield to 10 days imprisonment with hard labour for the abuse.

Having dealt with that case the next reported one was of Philip McMahon who was in court for beating his partner, Emily Martin. The pair had been cohabiting for four or five years and it wasn’t the first time he had hit her. After a previous incident, when he’d blacked her eye, she had forgiven him and had done so several times since. Then on Monday (27 August) he had come up to her on the Mile End Road and grabbed her by the throat. He tore off a locket that she wore and assaulted her. He declared he was leaving her and when she tried to reason with him and implore him not to go he hit her again, knocking her senseless. Mr Lushington gave him 6 months hard labour.

Both cases testify to the violence and cruelty that was often associated with the working class residents of the East End of London. This allowed the press to construct a picture of Whitechapel as a place that had abandoned any semblance of  decency. The area became the ‘abyss’, a netherworld or living hell, where life was cheap and personal and physical corruption endemic. The “ripper’ became the embodiment of this vice and crime-ridden part of the Empire, given form by John Tenniel’s nemesis of Neglect, published on 29 September 1888 at the height of the murder panic. As with the modern press, historians and other readers need to be very careful before they take everything written in them at face value.

[from The Standard , Friday, August 31, 1888; The Morning Post, Friday, August 31, 1888;The Pall Mall Gazette , Friday, August 31, 1888]

for more Ripper related posts see:

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

The Hungerford Market boys provide early trouble for the Peelers

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I’ve mentioned the unpopularity of the New Police on more than one occasion in this blog and it was certainly a truth that not everyone welcomed Peel’s innovation. It took several years for the ‘Peelers’ to become grudgingly accepted on the capital’s streets and even by the end of the 1800s not everyone welcomed them. In the early days of the professionals there were accusations of corruption and collusion with local criminals and prostitutes, and of heavy handedness and a lack of discipline.

This case demonstrates some of that early tension and is a useful reminder that many policemen were vulnerable to attack from those that resented their presence in their communities. In this example it was a ‘gang of fellows in Hungerford market‘ that were determined to show their contempt for the ‘boys in blue’ at every opportunity, and had organised themselves to deal with any legal consequences that might arise.

PC Richard Wallington (19 F Division) was proceeding along his beat along Villiers Street between 11 and 12 at night on Wednesday 11 August 1830 (less than a year after the first of the Peelers had taken to the streets) when he saw a group of men harassing a private watchman.

He heard ‘high words’ as the watchman tried to get them to go home quietly. One of the men, a ‘sturdy looking fellow’ named Thomas Moody, said they would not quit because they were looking for someone. In fact they were looking for a policeman that he claimed ‘they had paid £8 for’.

This sounds like a bribe and presumably they expected something for it. However, it seems as if whatever they expected the copper to do (or to not do perhaps) had not been forthcoming and now they were after revenge. Moody declared that if they found him they meant to ‘rip [his] b_____ guts out’.

At this PC Wallington turned away, sensibly enough perhaps as he was outnumbered. Unfortunately for him the men had seen him and followed him into the Strand. Mood confronted the PC and threatened to ‘rip his guts out’. Wallington  told him to be quiet and go home. Instead of following that advice however the man attacked him, kicking and thumping him before the policeman was able to call for assistance. As Inspector Wovenden and some other officers arrived the pack of men scattered but Moody was overpowered and taken back to the station house.

In the morning he was produced before the magistrate at Bow Street and the case of assault against him outlined to Sir Richard Birnie. Inspector Wovenden testified that Moody had also insulted and threatened him and declared that he didn’t fear the consequences. Moody insisted that his gang had clubbed together to create a subscription fund out of which any fines incurred for assaulting policemen would be settled.

It is an interesting concept and shows how the so-called ‘criminal classes’ of nineteenth century London might have found a strategy to deal with this new threat to their operations. Many of the street crimes that the New Police dealt with were punished by fines: drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, gambling, refusing to quit licensed premises, obstruction – all carried a fine of between 1s and 10s. Even assault routinely incurred just a fine.

However, a failure to be able to pay any fine would land you in the house of correction for anything up to a month so swift payment was necessary. Later in the century, if the records of the Thames Police Court for the 1880s are reliable, it would seem that magistrates were choosing to punish serious assault (i.e that meted out to the police or to women) with prison, regardless of any ability to pay a fine.

In August 1830 though Sir Richard was content to test the theory of whether the Hungerford Market gang would make good on their boast to pay the fines incurred by anyone that took out a policeman. He handed down a hefty fine, £5 (or £250 today) which Moody could not find quickly. In consequence as he was in default he was taken away to serve two months in prison. It didn’t answer the wider question of who the gang had ‘bought’ but at least it sent a message that Peel’s New Police could not be interfered with with impunity.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 13, 1830]

A father uses the police courts to accuse the police of taking work away from his boy

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Before alarm clocks were widely available (let alone radio alarms or digital alarms on mobile phones) most people were reliant on being ‘knocked up’ by a tap on the window in the early hours of the morning. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century this role was sometimes played by men from the night watch who patrolled the streets in the days before professional police forces were established. Private individuals also acted as ‘knocker uppers’ and continued to wake communities up until the 1950s, charging a few pennies a week for the service.

In 1881 young William Clutterbuck was employed to wake people in the streets around his home in Manchester Place, Bethnal Green but he had somehow got into a local policeman’s bad books and in July this landed both of them in court.

The boy’s father took out a summons against police constable 383K for assaulting his lad. Mr Clutterbuck admitted the assault was  minor but that was not the reason he had brought it; he was upset because the police were ‘interfering with the boy to take away his work’. That impacted on the family income and had therefore to be challenged.

This is an interesting example of working people using the summary courts to complain about the police and acts therefore, as a small test of how effective the metropolitan police courts were as arenas of negotiation for ‘ordinary’ people.

Young William was sworn and then gave his evidence to Mr Hannay, the Worship Street magistrate. He told him that ‘he went out very early in the morning, calling men who lived in his immediate neighbourhood to their work’. He charged sixpence a week for waking them but had lost one client because a policeman (PC 201H) had made them stop employing him.

PC 150K had also threatened him and said he would lock him up if he found him on the streets. When he and his father went to the station house to complain about this and other instances when the local police had tried to interfere with his work he was called a thief by PC 383K (the defendant). This was repeated three times in front of the inspector although there seems little justification for it.

The next morning William was out on the streets when he ran into the same copper who ‘abused him, asked why his father did not put a better coat on his back, threatened to lock him up and get him sent to a reformatory, and took him by the collar and twisted him around’.

This was the last straw for Mr Clutterbuck who took out the summons that brought the policeman to court. He also produced a ‘long list of persons’ who were prepared to testify on his sons’ behalf. Now it was for the magistrate to consider the evidence he had heard and decide whether the police had a case to answer.

Mr Hannay did seem minded to take it seriously. The assault ‘was of no matter’, but the allegation that the police were colluding with each other to ‘terrorise the boy’ was a grave one. He asked Clutterbuck to come back to court in a few days with some of those that had said they were willing to be sworn to give evidence.

This was a challenge to the police’s authority in the East End, an area where they were perhaps least popular in the capital as a whole. The local costermongers resented them for moving them and their barrows along, and when it came to the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888 the community felt it necessary to form their own vigilance committees and patrol the streets themselves, so little faith did they have in the police to protect their womenfolk from the murderer.

The final resolution of this case does not seem to be recorded in the London press (or to have survived if it did). This is not surprising, the papers liked to offer their readers ‘tit bits’ of news from the Police Courts and this would have served to amuse or concern readers in equal measure. It was a dig at the ‘boys in blue’ and a reminder that working-class boys needed to contribute to the family income as well as go to school to learn the ‘thee Rs’.

I doubt much would have happened to PC 383K even if several local men had backed up the complaint against him, but if he then left young William alone to carry on his early morning work then that would have achieved all that his father set out to do. Why did the policeman do it? Perhaps they were able to earn a few extra pennies themselves whilst on their beats (as the old watchmen had) and resented the competition William provided. Whatever the truth this is perhaps an example of the police courts operating as the ‘people’s courts’ as some historians have suggested they did, working for local people against the authorities rather than simply being an arm of the disciplinary state.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 17, 1881]

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]

Gamekeeper turned poacher at the West India Docks

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Sugar being loaded at the West India Docks c.1900

So far this week at the Thames Police Court we have had three assaults (one of them domestic), a stabbing at sea, and a case of arson (with no obvious motive). The reporting has come from two different newspapers, Reynold’s and  the Illustrated Police News. Today’s post is taken from the Standard, and concerns a breach of trust.

Francis Earl was a Customs House officer. In fact he was described as ‘an extra out-door Customs Officer’ which sounds very much like he was a junior or low ranking officer rather than anything more sophisticated. In consequence I don’t expect he was particular well paid for the job he did, probably in all weathers and at antisocial hours.

Perhaps this led him into temptation, and that is hardly surprising given the huge amount of luxury goods that came through the London docks in the late nineteenth century.

On Saturday morning, the 11 June 1881, Earl was about to leave the West India Dock when he was stopped by watchman. His black bag was searched and a bottle of gin found inside. Earl was arrested and was then taken before Mr Lushington at Thames Police Court the next morning. There he was charged with the unlawful possession of goods that were believed to have been stolen.

Lushington had a reputation for severity, and he clearly didn’t like the idea that a Custom’s officer might be corrupt. After all it was the job of men like Earl to catch and prosecute those seeking to evade customs duties, not to profit from the illegal trade.

As a result the magistrate sent him to prison for two months adding that ‘he hoped the defendant would lose his position at the Customs, since he was not fit to be trusted’.

Ouch.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 13, 1881]