Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. Mr Selfe’s first day at the office.

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The Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, & Co. brewery, c.1842

Thursday 3 April 1856 was Mr Selfe’s first morning as a London Police court magistrate.

Born in Worcester in 1810 at the age of 24 he had been called to bar and ‘practised [as a barrister] at the Oxford Circuit and Parliamentary bar’ until he took up his position on the London benches.* All Police Court magistrates in London were former barristers and, unlike their equivalents outside the capital, had the power to hear cases on their own. They had a good working knowledge of the law and several years of experience of court practice.

Mr Selfe had bene given Thames Police court in the East End of London. He replaced Mr Ingham who had moved on to the more salubrious environments of Westminster and Hammersmith. Magistrates did move around it seems, and some covered more than one court. In the 1880s there were at least two justices at Thames who sat for a few days each. This probably helped spread the workload but also stopped anyone getting too comfortable and warded off corrupt practice. The Middlesex magistracy in the 1700s had earned an unwanted reputation for venality, being derided by commentators as ‘trading justices’.

Mr Selfe’s first reported case was a beer thief, and quite an ambitious one at that. John Reynolds was 19 and his exploits were relayed to the newly appointed magistrate as he stood in the dock at Thames.

Catherine Driscoll testified that she was working for her employer at 51 Rosemary Lane where, at around 4 in the afternoon she saw Reynolds steal a barrel of beer from a drayman’s cart. She told the court that:

‘after he had launched it on the ground he rolled it along the street and up a court, and deposited in a yard at the back of a house in Rosemary Lane’.

Rosemary Lane had a long history of criminality stretching back into the eighteenth century, as Janice Turner’s work has shown. The drayman – a Mr Bullock – was delivering beer to a public house for his employers, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, and Co., brewers in Hanbury Street and Brick Lane since 1666. The brewery no longer exists but some of the buildings do, including the iconic chimney and the Truman eagle.

Bullock explained that he had come back to his cart to discover that a kilderkin of ale was missing before someone (perhaps Ms Driscoll) pointed out its whereabouts and the person that took it. Reynolds was nearby and Bullock tried to catch him but he ran off. A policeman (Thomas Britton 161H) was soon in hot pursuit and caught him after ‘a long chase’.

When Reynolds was asked to explain himself he simply denied all knowledge of the barrel of beer. ‘Then why did you run away?’ Mr Selfe asked him. ‘I do not know sir’, was the young man’s reply, adding simply, ‘I am innocent’.

‘If you protest your innocence I shall send the case before a jury’, the magistrate warned him. A conviction before a judge would bring done much more serious punishment than Mr Selfe was able to hand out, as the magistrate knew from recent experience. The clerk of the court asked Bullock the drayman whether the beer was worth at least 5s. The drayman laughed:

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. 

‘I suppose not’ commented Mr Selfe, ‘I shall commit the prisoner for trial’.

In the meantime however he remanded Reynolds as an officer at the court said he believed that the lad had a previous conviction that would need to be taken into consideration.

It was bad news for John. His opportunist theft would most likely end in a fairly hefty prison sentence, especially if a previous record could be shown against him. Mr Selfe might have been minded to show leniency if the lad had pleaded guilty but it was out of his hands now. Either way, his career at the Thames office was up and running and by using a keyword search for Selfe you can look for other cases over which he presided.

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 4, 1856]

p.s for those wondering, a kilderkin of beer or ale is an old Dutch term for a barrel that contained 18 gallons of liquid at the time. Today CAMRA still prefer to use kilderkin as a measure at beer festivals which equates to 144 pints. Truman’s is brewing again, in Hackney Wick, so you can still sip a local pint in and around Rosemary Lane (although Rosemary lane has gone, knocked down to make way for the railway. Now Royal Mint Street, running from Cable Street, follows much the same route).

*_from A. H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966) via [https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/selfe-henry-selfe]

No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster

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In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

An Italian displays a touch of bravura in court, but it does him no good

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St Margaret & St John’s Workshops in Westminster c.1875

Frederic Calvi was an Italian immigrant in London. Calvin worked as an engineer, and was presumably quite  skilled or reliable one as it was reported that he was ‘in constant work’. So it is something of a surprise to find this otherwise respectable working-class man in front of the Police Court magistrate at Marlborough Street on  charge of deserting his three children.

The case was brought by the Westminster Poor Law Union as it was them that had picked up the costs of supporting the children. And the costs were considerable. Mr Tett, the settlement officer for Westminster, claimed that they had spent £40 on caring for the Calvi children.

Having made some enquiries into the engineer’s situation Mr Tett assured the court that there was no need for him to have dumped the three children on the parish, as Calvi earned plenty of money and was well able to support them.

However, there was no mention of a Mrs Calvi so perhaps the children had no mother and Frederic was a lone parent. If that were the case, and if he didn’t have other relatives in England, then he might well have struggled to maintain a living and look after his family. There were plenty of Italians in London (as I’ve found in several past posts) but most of those recorded in the press were working as musicians.

Had Calvi come over on his own and married here? Or had he brought his family with him? This might be important as without an extended family or support network any change in his circumstances might throw him (and his children) into poverty.

In court before Mr Newton, Frederic was adamant that he needed the parish’s help. He had fallen sick he said and so was unable to provide for his children. That was the reason he’d taken them to the workhouse. He added that ‘it was well known that in England innocent people [like himself] were condemned’.

His attitude in court probably didn’t help him. Here was an occasion to throw yourself on the mercy of the justice, not to defy the system. But Frederic was clearly a proud man, or a callous one who cared little for his kids. Either way his actions and his attitude hardly endeared him to Mr Newton.

The policeman that had brought him in added that the Italian engineer was bullish when arrested. He said the prisoner declared he ‘was a Bismarck and would get over it’. What did that mean? It was probably a reference to ‘a rare stumble’ by the German chancellor in 1875 when his aggressive diplomacy nearly led to war on the continent of Europe as he attempt to force France to abandon rearmament backfired. Thereafter Bismarck proceeded with utmost caution. Calvi was indicating that in future he would do the same.

Sadly for him (and his three children) Mr Newton was not in the mood for second chances. He found the engineer guilty of deserting his children and sent him to prison for a month at hard labour. Exactly how that helped the situation or eased the strain on the Westminster parish purse (which would now have the children for another month) I’m not clear.

Calvin displayed a cavalier attitude on hearing the sentence however. He turned to the magistrate and challenged him to a game of billiards.

‘Double or quits’, he shouted, ‘He would be sure to get off’.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1875]

‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

A ‘sex pest’ is exposed on the Liverpool Street to Stratford line

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Today’s papers are understandably full of discussion about sexual assaults on women by men in positions of power. Following the ongoing revelations about the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and suggestions that such exploitation of women is rife at Westminster , the world seems to be waking up to the reality that casual sexual assault is endemic in our society.

There is nothing new in this (in fact regular readers may be coming to the conclusion that the London Police courts reveal that there is almost nothing new today at all; when it comes to crime and anti-social behaviour our Victorian ancestors were just as ‘bad’ as we are). What may be different today is that the climate has changed and women feel more empowered to speak out – to speak truth to power as the saying goes.

It is not (and never was) easy for a woman to accuse a man of sexually assaulting her. In the nineteenth century a woman that cried ‘rape’ exposed herself to accusations that she was at best lying, and at worst had encouraged the perpetrator by placing herself in a vulnerable position. The Victorian lady that allowed herself to be alone with a male was effectively ‘asking for it’ in much the same way that those accusations are levelled at women who dress ‘provocatively’.

For Victorian society the answer was a separation of the sexes wherever possible. Of course this really meant a separation along class lines. The daughters of the wealthy middle and upper classes were chaperoned and never allowed out on their own. No ‘respectable’ women would be seen out at night without a male companion and so any woman that was on her own, could not, by definition,  be ‘respectable’. This led to women being accosted on the street in the evening (and in broad daylight if they were in areas where prosecution was common) by men who thought them ‘fair game’. Much of this went unreported of course, as did most of the assaults on servant girls by fellow domestic staff, or their masters and his sons.

When Victorian society began to develop a system of public transport the boundaries between public and private space began to become mutable. The railway carriage soon became a dangerous place for single or unaccompanied women, seemingly regardless of the time of day or even the other occupants. Today we are familiar with the problems some women face traveling on the London Underground (the ‘tube’) and attempts to get women to report offences. It would seem that from the very introduction of steam driven railways men were subjecting women to unwelcome sexual harassment.

Hobart Moore was one of these so-called ‘sex pests’. In October 1877 Mary Ann Cocks, a young governess, was travelling in a second-class carriage on the Great Eastern railway from Liverpool Street to Stratford. It was just after 8 o’clock in the evening and so Mary Ann was probably on her way home after a day out.

Moore entered the same compartment and sat down directly opposite her. There were three others in the car, a man and two ladies. Moore asked Mary Ann if the train went to Forest Gate, and she replied that it did. He had established conversation.

As the train left Bethnal Green nation Mary Ann noticed that Moore ‘shuffled about a great deal with his feet, and between Bethnal Green and Old Ford stations he leaned down and touched her’.

Clearly shocked by his behaviour, Mary Ann asked him move. One of the other women in the carriage then suggested they swop seats and the school governess gladly accepted the offer. Then the other man in the carriage then helped her move to another carriage when the train stopped. She had escaped the ‘pest’ but had still suffered form the unwanted contact with him.

This is a Victorian news report so it gives nothing in terms of detail about how or where Moore touched Mary Ann. But she considered that she ‘had been insulted’ and the gentleman that had assisted her now fetched a porter so she could make a formal complaint about Moore. The porter now rode in Moore’s carriage and handed him over to a policeman when they disembarked at the next stop.

Moore must have known what he had done and the embarrassing consequences should he be called to appear in a public court to answer the charges. He now compounded his crime by attempting to bribe his way our of the situation. He pressed a half sovereign into PC 79K’s hand and asked him to forget all about it. The constable did no such thing of course and so Moore found himself before the Police court magistrate at Worship Street in the East End.

In court Moore’s lawyer, a Mr Willis, explained that his client held a ‘highly respectable position’ in society and had ‘recently married’. Ms Cocks must have been mistaken in what she alleged he argued. His client had been out to dinner and had eaten and drunk too much.

As a result he was ‘sick, and leaned from the window. While ill in that way his foot or leg might have done all that the prosecutrix had said, but he denied the hand or any intention to insult’.

Mr Hannay, the magistrate, said that on balance the evidence suggested that there was a case to answer and so committed Moore to jury trial at the Middlesex Sessions. The Digital Panopticon has a record of a 28 year-old Hobart Robert Moore being in prison in 1879, although (and thanks to ActonBooks for the information on this) this wasn’t because he was convicted of the assault on the governess. Instead it seems that he pleaded guilty at the sessions to a common assault and was fined. Two years later he was sent to prison for stealing money from his employer, allegedly to feed his gambling habit (Cheltenham Mercury, Saturday 6 September 1879).

We have yet to see whether any of the current revelations in America or Britain result in prison sentences for those accused of sexually assaulting  vulnerable women. I’m not holding my breath however.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 30, 1877]

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

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On Saturday 7 October 1854 Henry Young, a currier from Westminster, hired a hansom cab to take him to a number of appointments across London. He was picked up in Victoria Street and finally set down at the Royal Military College in Chelsea.

The cab driver, John Blake, then asked him for 7s and 6d for the fare. Young now attempted to bargain with him, offering just 5s instead, which Blake refused. Either not wishing to pay more, or not having the money, the currier offered to leave the driver his name and address and made to walk away.

However, as he moved away from the Royal College Blake followed after him and started to attract a crowd around him. In the end there were upwards of 50 or 60 people harassing the currier, and presumably plenty of verbal abuse was directed at him. When Young hailed another cab Blake told the driver that he wouldn’t get paid, recounting what had heaped to him. Not surprisingly the cabbie refused to take the fare and poor Young was obliged to continue on foot.

When he reached the King’s Arms on Sloane Square the currier ducked inside, followed by the cabbie. Now Blake demanded his address, which Young wrote down on a  piece of paper for him, and then smacked him in the face with his fist and called him ‘an _______ thief’, who ‘wanted to cheat him’.

This was both a physical assault and a public insult and so Young was determined to prosecute his assailant. The case was brought beforeMr Arnold at Westminster Police Court. Despite there being some reasonable grounds for provocation (Young hadn’t paid the cabbie the full fare – or any fare it seems) the magistrate suspended his license for three months and sent him to prison for four weeks.

This is an example of the courts displaying a clear class bias; had Young not been a ‘respectable’ merchant with probably links to the City guilds I suspect he would have been prosecuted for not payment of his fare and Blake merely admonished for resorting to violence. As it was it the cabbie had overstepped the bounds of deference, and had assaulted one of his ‘betters’. We should remember that cab drivers then had a very poor reputation in certain quarters – especially amongst the magistracy and police who saw them as surly at best and disrespectful of ‘polite society’.

How things have changed…

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 12, 1854]

p.s The Kings Arms is no longer a pub but the building still exists next to Sloane Square tube station; I think it is a restaurant today.