‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering, but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’. No pity for a East End thief

Mill Lane, Deptford c.1890s

There were some curious and sad stories from the police courts on 30 August 1864. 

At Bow Street a man was sent for trial for stealing his landlady’s shawl (value £1) but the circumstances were most peculiar. 

She had found him drunk in her room, sitting on one chair with his feet up on another.  When she asked him to leave he dropped to all fours and started barking like a dog and meowing like a cat. A policeman gave evidence that just days before the same man had been seen trying to persuade soldiers in uniform to desert to join ‘the Federals’ (meaning the Northern ‘Union’ army fighting the American Civil War against the Southern ‘Confederates’). 

At Worship Street Maurice Lawrence cut a sad figure in the dock. Described as ‘a general dealer’ who lived on Plumbers Row, Whitechapel, he was clearly down on his luck. He struggled to stand on his one good leg, the other was ‘withered’ and ‘about to be amputated’ the court was told. 

He had been discovered by Michael Mahon, allegedly stealing flowers from Victoria Park. Mahon was an old soldier – a sergeant major who’d seen service in the Crimean War – and he caught Lawrence plucking ‘three dahlias and two geraniums’ and, in his new position as park constable, arrested him. As he was bring led away to the station house Lawrence begged to be set free, offering Mahon 5for his liberty. 

In court he admitted taking the flowers but denied attempting to bribe the park constable, and then threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. He rolled up his trousers to reveal his withered limb ‘which was seen to be no thicker than an ordinary walking stick’.  

If he hoped the magistrate would let him off he was disappointed. The magistrate declared that unless people that stole flowers were punished ‘the beds will very speedily be destroyed’. 

‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering’, he said, ‘but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’.

So for stealing a small bunch of flowers from a public park Maurice Lawrence was fined a shilling and the cost of the flowers. Since he was unable or unwilling to pay this he was sent to prison for a day instead.   Perhaps that represented leniency, but it seems a fairly unkind punishment for a man that was so obviously in a state of extreme poor health. 

The last story that caught my eye (leaving aside a man that tried to kill himself with a dose of laudanum) was that of two landlords prosecuted for keeping unlicensed lodging houses.  Both prosecutions were at Greenwich Police court before Mr Traill, the sitting justice. John Buckley (in absentia) and Johanna Keefe were both accused of renting rooms (although the term is hardly apt, ‘space’ would be more accurate) without a license. 

The cases were brought by Sergeant Pearson (45A) the inspector of lodging houses in the district’. He testified to visiting both properties (in Mill Lane) and describing the scene he found there. 

At Buckley’s he found a room with:

‘with beds, each occupied by a two men, three of whom paid 4d a night each, and the other 2s a week; and in a cupboard in the same room he found a bed on the floor occupied by two men, each paying 1d a night. The size of the cupboard, which had neither light nor ventilation, was about 6 feet in length, by 4 feet in width and 5 feet high’. 

There were other rooms with similarly cramped lodgings within them.  At Johanna Keefe’s he found a room that had: 

‘three beds, each occupied by two men, five of whom paid 2s per week each, the sixth being the defendant’s son’. 

‘What!’, interjected Mr Traill, ‘Ten shillings a week rent for one room?’

‘Yes, your worship’, the sergeant replied, ‘and a small room, not being more than 12 feet square’. 

The magistrate issued a warrant for Buckley’s arrest (he had form for this offence) and fined Keefe 20s. Hearing that she had eight years worth of previous convictions he warned her that if she persisted in taking lodgers without obtaining a license he would start fining her 20 shillings a day.

All in all the day’s reports made a fairly depressing read and reminded Londoners that their city had plenty of social problems in the mid 1860s.

[from Morning Post Tuesday 30 August 1864]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88

‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

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The Salvation Army is a well-established charity doing good work with the poor and homeless for well over a century. It was set up in London by William Booth in 1865, adopting the name Salvation Army (formally the Christian Mission) in 1878. Booth was an evangelist Christian who took his religious beliefs seriously, believing that the teachings of Jesus Christ impelled the better off to look after the poor.

As several articles in this blog series have shown the ‘Army’ wasn’t always well received. Their military structure and marching bands drew opprobrium and ridicule from all levels of society but by the turn of the century they were clearly established as a fixture in both British and American society.

In 1888 Booth, who started his mission in the East End of London, preaching in rooms above what is now the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, set up a temporary night shelter in Hanbury Street, for the homeless female poor. He was prompted by the murders of Jack the Ripper, who preyed on vulnerable and often homeless prostitutes in the area.

The shelter was basic, and cost users 3d a night (2for children, and just a penny for infants in arms). In December 1889 Booth himself was summoned to the Worship Street Police court to answer a summons brought against him by the police, for running a shelter that wasn’t registered as a ‘common lodging house’, and therefore fell foul of the regulations.

This was the police’s report of their visit to the shelter, delivered by a sergeant (32H) and Inspector Ferrett:

‘The sergeant said that each sleeper had a “box like an egg-chest.” minus the bottom. A mattress made of American cloth and seaweed was in this, and the coverlet was sheepskin the size of the mattress, the sleeper putting their head through a hole at one end’.

The property, an old bath house, was well ventilated and quite warm, served as it was by hot water pipes. It had space for 192 women and for their three pence they got a light supper as well. The mattresses were cleaned regularly and the place was orderly, so what was the problem?

Well the summons seemed mostly concerned with it not being registered and that this ‘temporary’ solution to a crisis becoming permanent by default. The police did bring along some witnesses that to argue that the Salvation Army were operating not merely as a refuge but as a de facto lodging house but Mr Bushby wasn’t convinced by their line of argument.

He dismissed the summons and let Booth go back to his charity work.

We are once again in a period where homelessness and poverty are in focus. Winter is here and people are dying on the streets of British cities. Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, despite us being in the top 10 richest nations on earth.

Changes to the benefits system (the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax) by the Conservative government (and before them the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition), and a decade of austerity economic policies driven by a succession of Conservative chancellors from George Osborne to Sajid Javid have directly impacted the lives of the poorest.  726 people are known to have died on the streets in 2018, the highest number since recording began in 2013.

Something to think about when we cast our votes on December 12.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 07, 1889]

Entertainment mingled with disaster in 1880s Spitalfields

Scene of the late Disaster in Spitalfields, at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, Princes-Street

All sorts of business came before the Metropolitan Police courts, much of it very far from what we might describe as ‘criminal’. The reportage of these courts therefore offers us an interesting glimpse into London life in the nineteenth century.

Take this case for example: three men from Spitalfield’s Jewish immigrant community were brought before a magistrate for staging unlicensed entertainments.

The hearing, on 12 November 1889, was the second one before Mr Bushby so most of the arguments had already been made a week earlier.  Several witnesses, including the police (represented by Inspector Reid1) testified that they had watched dramatic productions and imbibed ‘spirituous liquors’. The defendants, most notably the proprietor Solomon Barmash, had argued that the performances were ‘for social improvement’, but this didn’t convince the magistrate.

All venues putting on plays had to have a license issued by the Lord Chamberlain of letters patent, from the Queen, allowing them to do so. Barmash and his Hebrew Dramatic Club on Prince’s Street had no such license. He and his fellow defendants were accused of staging The Double Marriage and The Convict and selling drinks to the paying customers, which was prohibited under the licensing laws of the day.

The magistrate, Mr Bushby, fined Barmash £36 plus £3 costs, some of which was to be born by his co-defendants Joseph Goodman and Charles Dickerson (the younger). This covered both the sale of alcohol and the staging of plays without a license.

I found it interesting that both plays were performed in Yiddish and these made the magistrate question whether they were in fact ‘educational’. Although he agreed with the prosecution that the law had been broken it does show us that there was a thriving local immigrant community which wanted to see and hear cross cultural entertainments. The Double Marriage was apparently a ‘French’ play according to the court report although there was a Jacobean play of this name.

In January 1887 17 people lost their lives at the Hebrew Dramatic Club when a reported gas leak and fear of fire and explosion caused panic in the club.

‘The scene at the time was one of intense excitement’, reported the Pall Mall Gazette. ‘Screams of terror and cries of appeal and advice mingled while the mass wedged in the doorway struggled and surged’.

Although three of the victims were unidentified the other 14 were all ‘foreign’ Jews, and were mourned by their community in the days that followed.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 13, 1889]

  1. Possibly Edmund Reid (of ‘Ripper Street’ fame) or the less well known Joseph.

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

NB this post first appeared in August 2018

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]