An elderly lady is sent flying by a drunken cabbie

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Traffic accidents seemed to be fairly common in Victorian London and so to were prosecutions of drivers (particularly hansom cab drivers) for dangerous driving. The most usual outcome was a fine, and occasionally a short spell in prison if the cabbie was unable to pay the fine. However, cab drivers were also prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a cab, especially when they were abusive towards a passenger or a policeman. In this case one driver was arrested after he drove his cab into two women who were walking on the King’s Road, nearly killing one of them. The driver was drunk and ended up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court.

George Thompson stood in the dock as the evidence of his actions was recounted before Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate. Emmelie Ullarbane said that she was walking along the King’s Road with her elderly companion Mrs Martha White on the previous evening. As they were crossing the road a cab driven by Thompson hit them, knocking Mrs White to the ground and trampling her. Emmelie was hurt but not too badly.

A policeman came rushing up and asked if they were injured; Mrs White was quite badly hurt so she was taken to be treated by a doctor. Mr. Mansfield asked him if either woman had been drinking, to which the officer – PC Langford (344B) – answered that they had not. That might seem an odd question to have asked but perhaps I can make sense of it later.

Having checked on the injured parties PC Langford set off in pursuit of the driver who hadn’t stopped after the accident. The policeman called to him but was ignored, so he raced along and managed to catch up with the cab. Langford leapt up onto the back of the cab, seized the reins, and stopped the horse. It was obvious to him when he confronted Thompson that the driver had been drinking and was quite incapable.

The policeman arrested Thompson and took him back to the station before heading off to Brompton to visit Mrs White to see how she was. According to the doctor’s report she was in a bad way, her petticoats ‘were torn to pieces by the tramping of the horse’, and she was not yet ‘out of danger’. It must have been a huge shock to an elderly lady and Mansfield remanded Thompson (who had two previous convictions for drunkenness) in custody for a week.

I wondered why the magistrate had enquired as to whether the women were themselves drunk. Two women walking in the early evening on the King’s Road did not necessarily suggest anything unusual. One on her own might have raised eyebrows but given Mrs White was described as being ‘elderly’ we might assume Ms Ullarbane was her companion or servant and so I can’t see anything odd here. Until that is we learn that Mrs Martha White was a ‘West India lady’.

I take this to mean that she was a part of London’s black community in the late 1800s a group rarely mentioned but ever present in the nineteenth-century capital. Perhaps Mansfield was simply expressing contemporary racism and imperialist views in assuming, or merely suggesting, that two black women out and about on a Tuesday evening had been drinking and were, therefore, partly to blame for the accident that had occurred.

This case rumbled on for several months, maybe as a result of the injuries Mrs White received. A jury had held the cab company liable and Martha had been awarded £100 in compensation. Thompson was finally brought back before the Westminster magistrate in August 1869. This time it was Mr Arnold and he declared that he was not going to be influenced by that civil judgment but determine punishment on it merits. He was convinced, he said, that Thompson had been drunk that night but wasn’t sure that had caused the accident. Instead he held Mrs White partly to blame stating that the accident:

‘was caused by the nervousness of the injured lady and her friend, who did not know whether to advance or recede’.

So he imposed a fine of just 10on Thompson who might have expected worse (especially given his previous convictions for being drunk in charge of a cab). The police were not so sanguine as the magistrate however, and informed his worship that the renewal of the driver’s license had been refused. George Thompson would not be driving a hansom in London again, or not at least in the near future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 01, 1869; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]