‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

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Mrs Georgina Weldon

In August 1883 a woman appeared at the Bow Street Police court to ask for a summons against a psychiatrist whose name is perhaps family to researchers interested in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case. Lyttelton Forbes Winslow was born in London in 1844 and trained as a physician, like his father. He became a psychiatrist like his father but was a controversial figure, falling out with his family and making seemingly spurious claims about his knowledge of who the Whitechapel murderer was.

Winslow believed the killer was the Canadian born G. Wentworth Smith who had arrived in London for work and lodged with a couple in Finsbury Square. Smith was apparently overheard declaring that ‘all prostitutes should be drowned’ and this was reported to Winslow by Mr Callaghan, the Canadian’s landlord.

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Winslow told the police, who investigated and dismissed his thesis, but the doctor persisted to talk it up at every opportunity. When he was eventually interviewed by Chief Inspector Swanson Winslow crumbled and said he’d been misrepresented in the press (which had carried the story). One Ripper theorist (Donald McCormick) suggested that the police even suspected Winslow himself of being the murderer.

Forbes Winslow’s real notoriety however, and his rejection by the mainstream medical community, was down to events before 1888 and linked in fact to this case at Bow Street. In 1878 he had attempted to commit Mrs Wheldon to a lunatic asylum at the request of her husband. This ended up in a long running court battle of which this request for a summons seems to have been a part.

Georgina Weldon was an opera singer who led a colourful life and become estranged from her husband Harry, a former officer in the Hussars. She’d filled her house with orphan children and when Weldon became increasing exasperated at the expense of keeping his ex-wife (at £1,000 a year) he tried to do what many Victorian men did and have his wife put away as a lunatic on account of her interest in spiritualism (which was increasingly popular at the end of the 1800s).

Her examination was conducted in an underhand manner by doctors who pretended they were interviewing her about her orphanage and Georgina soon realised something as amiss. She couldn’t sue her husband directly until the law changed in 1882 but seems to have sued everyone involved at some point and to have been a champion of litigation (‘the Portia of the Law Court’s as she was dubbed).

At this appliance in August 1883 Georgina had requested a summons to bring Dr Forbes Winslow to court to prove she was not insane. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, declined her a summons but stated that he was entirely satisfied she was not mad. He added that she could of course apply at a higher court to bring Dr Winslow to book, which of course she went on to do.

Georgina Weldon went to prison, gave public lectures, wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences and sang and published songs. She died just over six months before the outbreak of the First World War and perhaps deserves to be better known than she is. She certainly stands out as a woman who was not prepared to accept the lot that life dealt her; that is (or was) to be a submissive wife of a Victorian military man.

She carved out her own destiny and challenged the medical and legal patriarchy at every turn and its a shame she didn’t make it to the end of the war to see the sisterhood win the right to vote. She was a quite remarkable Victorian lady.

[from Morning Post, Monday 13 August 1883]

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

‘Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’: A wife’s desperate plea to save her abusive husband

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North-east London, almost a year from the start of the Whitechapel murders and the newspapers reports of the Police courts are full of violence. On the Commercial Road a blind man was repeatedly stabbed in the face, at Wandsworth two lads were summoned for beating up a newsboy so badly he was left hospitalized and unable to walk. In Islington a mother punished her 7 year-old son for losing the money she’d sent him to by bread with. Not content with a clip round the ear she pressed a red hot poker in his mouth, burning his tongue.

Over in Hackney two policemen were patrolling near Cross Street late on Sunday night (4 August 1889) when they heard cries of ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ They hurried towards the sounds and found a small crowd by a house and a woman bleeding from cuts to her arms. A domestic dispute had occurred – something the police were generally rather keen to avoid but perhaps the heightened tensions in the wake of the ‘Ripper’ caused these officers to intervene.

William Elvidge was standing close to his wife Alice and it seemed he had attacked her. Both parties were taken to the police station to be examined and for Alice’s wounds to be dressed.  She’d suffered two cuts only one of which was at all serious, cutting her muscle but she didn’t want to press charges against William.

‘The police, however, thought themselves justified in taking the responsibility of the charge’, and so the case came before Mr Horace Smith, the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court. Magistrates were often frustrated by the reluctance of women to prosecute their partners; too frequently they simply dropped the charges before their hearing came on, refused to give evidence against husbands in court, or pleaded for mercy for the when they were convicted.

Alice was a woman in this mould.

The court was told that the incident had resulted from William being ‘late for his tea’. An argument had begun and Alice had thrown a plate at her husband who had retaliated by seizing a knife and threatening to ‘cut her throat’.

The magistrate said this was a case that needed to go before a jury and indicted Elvidge to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace. This sent Alice into ‘violent hysterics’ as she pleaded with the justice not to send her man to trial.

Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’, she cried. ‘He is a good, kind, affectionate husband, and good to his children’.

As she was led away by a policeman she screamed:

Oh, dear, it’s all through me!’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 06, 1889]

‘I looked after them as well as I could’: a mother’s plea as her children are taken away.

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This morning I am working on the latest draft of my next book, which offers a (hopefully) plausible solution to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. So I’m currently sitting (fairly comfortably) in the National Archives at Kew. The sun is shining, the lake is full of geese, and the air conditioning in on. This is a world away, of course, from the trials and tribulations of the folk that were brought before or sought help or redress from London’s Police courts in the nineteenth century.

I’ve taken this case from July 1888, just before the series of murders associated with an unknown killer given the sobriquet of ‘Jack the Ripper’, began in August. I think it reveals the poverty and desperation of some Londoners at the time, and the casual cruelty that sometimes accompanied it.

However, this wasn’t a case that occurred in Whitechapel, but instead in Soho, in the West End. The area in which the murders of 1888 is so often portrayed as a degraded, godless, and immoral place that it can be easy to forget that other parts of the capital were equally poor, and that thousands of our ancestors lived hand-to-mouth in grinding poverty. It took two world wars to create a system that attempted to deal humanely with poverty; in 1888 this was still a long long way ahead.

Patrick and Mary Ann Lynch were tailors but they were also very poor. They lived in one room in a rented house in Noel Street, Soho. They had four children who lived with them, all crowded together in circumstances we would be shocked to discover in London today. In fact their circumstances, while not uncommon in late nineteenth-century Britain, still had the power to shock contemporaries. This was especially so when evidence of cruelty or neglect towards children was shown, as it was here.

The Lynch’s situation was brought to the attention of a local medical man, Dr Jackson, by neighbours of the couple. He visited and found the four children ‘in a wretched state’. He informed the police, and Inspector Booker of C Division paid them a visit. This is what he later told the Marlborough Street Police Magistrate:

The children ‘were in a filthy state. Three of them – Charlotte, aged four years, Michael, two years and ten months – were lying on a dirty old mattress. On the other side of the room was Henry James, aged ten months. They looked haggard and weak, especially Frank. They were so filthy that he could scarcely recognize their features. Frank seemed to be gasping’.

These were the days before social services and child protection but the policeman didn’t wait for permission from anyone, as soon as he could he had the children removed to the nearest workhouse in Poland Street. He arrested Mary Ann and charged her with neglecting her children. Mrs Lynch was taken to the police station where she was reunited with her husband, who had been arrested earlier the same evening for drunkenness  – it wasn’t his first time.

At the station Mary Ann said she’d tried to look after her kids but her husband hadn’t let her. ‘I looked after them as well as I could’, she pleaded, but ‘I had to work, and if I left off to look after them, my husband would kick me out of the place’.

In court the Inspector said that he’d tried to get the poor law relieving officer to intervene but he’d refused; no one wanted to help the family it seems. Another policeman, sergeant Castle, added that the relieving officer didn’t seem to think the Lynchs case was one of ‘actual destitution’, so weren’t inclined to act.

Mrs Lynch’s position was typical of many at the time. She had to work because he husband’s wages didn’t provide enough for the family to live on, especially as he chose to drink much of them away. Dr Jackson also gave evidence in court, telling the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that when he’d visited Patrick Lynch was lying on a mattress in drunken stupor, next to his son Henry. When he rose to his feet he pushed down on the little boy hurting him, and making him cry.

At this point little Henry was produced in court. This caused quite a stir as the child ‘appeared to be no bigger than a child’s shilling doll’. Mr Hannay was amazed the Poor Law Guardians hadn’t taken up the case adding that he was sure that the authorities would either realize that they had a duty to intervene, or would find themselves being prosecuted for neglect. For the meantime he remanded the couple and sent the children back to the workhouse.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, July 17, 1888]

Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

Ice cream wars in Camberwell end in a near fatal stabbing

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Pasquelio Cascarino ran an ice cream shop at 1 Neate Street, Camberwell with other members of his family. Italians in London were closely associated with two occupations in the nineteenth century: selling ice cream (a relative novelty at the time) and performing music in the street. Several disputes involving Italian organ grinders came before the Police Magistrates of the capital – usually for causing a nuisance – but this case is much more serious.

Pasquelio licensed members of his extended family to sell ice cream from barrows in the city streets. It must have been amazing for Londoners to taste genuine gelato for the first time, especially as the majority of them would not have had a fridge let alone a freezer, things we take for granted today.

So ice cream selling was profitable and Pasquelio’s brother-in-law (Antonio Pitussi) wanted some of the action. He took a barrow from his relation and started to sell ice cream in Avenue Road nearby. However, he neglected to pay his brother-in-law Pasquelio for the hire of the barrow and refused to do so when asked. So Cascarino hit him where it hurts by declaring he would open another shop right on Pitussi’s patch.

This angered the other man who remonstrated with his brother and threatened him. Things came to a head and Pitussi stabbed Pasquelio, and the pair ended up in court at Lambeth where the full story unfolded.

Seated in court (as he was too ill to stand) Pasquelio testified that it was ten days before the near fatal stabbing when he’d told Pitussi that he was intending to open a new shop in Avenue Road. His brother-in-law said that if he did so ‘he would be dead’ and that they would ‘settle the dispute with knives’.

On the 31 May Pitussi turned up at the Neate Street shop and Pasquelio again said he was intending on going ahead with his plan. Turning on him, Pitussi said he’d kill him under the nearby railway bridge and, when Mrs Cascarino argued with him, said he’d do for her as well right outside the shop.

Pitussi was in a rage and, pulling a dagger from his sleeve, leapt at the Cascarinos. Pasquelio was stabbed several times, in the arm and the abdomen, and his wife was punched as she tried to help him. One of Pasquelio’s brothers (Angelo) rushed to their help and eventually the trio managed to subdue the attacker. Pasquelio was taken to Guy’s Hospital where he was in danger for several days and took a few weeks to recover sufficiently to come to court. Pitussi was arrested and held until him could be brought before Mr Siren at Lambeth Police Court.

This was a family dispute and despite the serious nature of it Pasquelio Cascarino didn’t want to press charges against his sister’s brother. In the popular imagination Italians (especially Neapolitans) were quick to anger and just as quick to resort to knives. But these passions soon subsided it was said, and everyone could be friends again afterwards. The magistrate wasn’t so sure however and remanded the Italian for a week to decided what to do with him.

Later in June the case came up at Old Bailey where Pitussi (now formally identified as Antiono Pitazzi, 28) was inducted for wounding with intent to murder, and a second count of causing GBH. The case was short and Pitazzi was convicted of the lesser offence of unlawful wounding. Even now his brother-in-law spoke up for him telling the judge ‘I will forgive all he has done to me’. Pitazzi’s version of events (even in his broken English) suggests that he felt very hard done by and that there was fault on both sides. Perhaps because of all of this the court sentenced him to just six months in prison with hard labour.

The Italians’ love of knives led some to believe that the brutal Whitechapel murders, which took place a few months after this event, where the work of an immigrant. It was often said that ‘no Englishman could do this’. So instead of ‘Jack the Ripper’ there had to have been a Giovanni or a Giacomo.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 23, 1888]