A woman pulls a gun in court

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It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

‘Leather Apron’ at Marylebone Police court?

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As London woke up to the news that two women had been murdered in one night of horror in the East End the search for the murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued. The police pursued all the leads they got, some of which were clearly red herrings.

In the immediate aftermath of Catherine Eddowes’ murder a policeman found a piece of bloodied cloth in Goulston Street. Above it was a chalked message which seemed to infer the murders were being committed by a member of the Jewish immigrant community.

The idea that the killer was Jewish had surfaced soon after Annie Chapman’s inquest when one witness said the man she had seen with Annie just before her death ‘looked foreign’. Anti-alienism (racism) was endemic in Victorian society and it was easy to point the finger of blame at local Jews.

One man in particular felt the pressure of this local xenophobia. John Piser was arrested and questioned when he was thought to be a suspect. The Star newspaper even ran with the story, claiming that the mysterious character ‘leather apron’ was in custody for the killings. leatherapron

‘Leather Apron’ was the name given to a local Jewish man who had a reputation for violence against women. He may well have been an unpleasant character and he may have attacked women but that hardly made him unique in Whitechapel. As for whether Piser and ‘Leather Apron’ were one and the same person, the jury is out’.’

In the end Piser was able to provide Sergeant Thicke for an alibi to cover his movements at the time of the murders so he was released. Many local Jews ran the gauntlet of being arrested by the police or chased through the streets by lynch mobs. It is always much easier to pin the blame for something awful that happens on an outsider, rather than look for the suspects within your own community.

On the day that news of Stride and Eddowes’ murders hit the newsstands a man appeared at Marylebone Police court seeking compensation. The complainant was ‘a man of the artisan class’ and if accused a ‘gentleman’ of injuring him while making a citizen’s arrest. No names were given but the court heard that the man had been working on repairs to the organ at St Saviour’s church  in Paddington. As he walked home a stranger ran up to him and declared that he was ‘Leather Apron’ and tried to take him into custody.

He was dragged to the nearest police station, held for three and half hours, and then released. He wanted compensation for the hurt done to him but the magistrate was unable to help him. Mr De Rutzen explained that he would have to take his claim to a county court.

I wonder how often men were chased, abused, arrested and falsely accused in that ‘autumn of terror’? The press whipped up a storm with their wall-to-wall coverage of the story and the wild speculation as to the murderer’s identity must have caused dozens or more men to be looked on with suspicion.

In reality the killer was probably must closer to home and to the community within which all the victims lived and worked. It is highly unlikely that he was a ‘champagne Charlie’ or a ‘mad doctor’, or even a ‘desperate foreigner’. I believe he was a local Gentile who had grown up in Whitechapel and knew its streets like the back of his hand.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 02, 1888]

‘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]

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

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One of the delights of the Police Court reportage is the additional information it gives me about the way society operated in the Victorian period. Because Police Court magistrates were called upon to deal with such a large amount of ‘civil’ business we get a real insight into how people lived and worked.

One of the things that interested me when I was writing about immigration to the East End in the 1880s was the patterns of work for Jewish businessmen and their employees. Because Jewish law forbids the faithful from working after sunset on Fridays and all day Saturday I wondered if they closed their shops and factories or employed gentile (non Jewish) workers to keep them running. Moreover since the laws forbade Sunday trading did this seriously impact Jewish businesses which would have had to shut?

I was also interested to know whether Jews would be able to work for non-jewish businesses given the restrictions their religion placed on them. This matters because accusations of ghettoisation often stem from fears that migrant groups stick together and don’t integrate. However, its quite hard to integrate if you were unable to find work that allows you to have time off to practice your religion.

Isaac Rishfield was a cap maker. He ran a workshop on Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London close to the large Jewish community in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In July 1884 Rishfield was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court charged with ‘having contravened the Factory and Workshops Act’.

Prosecuting, Mr Lakeman told the court that under law Jewish businesses were entitled to employ people to work for them on Sundays, for half a day. This mirrored the time lost on Saturdays when workers tended only to work from early morning to the afternoon.

Very many Jewish owners took advantage of this legal loophole, Lakeman explained, and some, like Rishfield, were exceeding the regulations by employing too many. This, he continued, gave them an unfair advantage over gentile businesses in the area and complaints were made. The cap maker had employed ‘one Gentile on the Saturday and two Jewesses on the Sunday, which he was not entitled to do’.

Rishfield didn’t dispute the facts and pleaded guilty to the charge. He said he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong but ignorance is no defence in law so he was fined 20for each breach with 10s costs. In total he was fined the equivalent of £300 in today’s money. We know that Jewish households in the East End employed non-Jewish women as casual servants and now I’ve confirmed that this extended to other areas of the world of work and business.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1884]

A unsolved murder in the East End, forty years before the ‘Ripper’

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Spitalfields Market, c.1842

This is a very curious case and one which may require some deeper digger over the next few weeks. In May 1848 a murder was discovered in Spitalfields, East London. Many readers will be familiar with the history of area in the Victorian era and others might perhaps assume that murders were two-a-penny in such a ‘degraded’ part of the capital.

This is often how Whitechapel was (and continues) to be portrayed in the media of the day and it was one of the dominant tropes when the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders occurred in the late summer and autumn of 1888.

However, while the area did have high levels of poverty and crime it was probably no worse than St Giles in the 1840s or indeed the Borough; murder was still relatively rare and far from being commonplace.

Nevertheless this murder was of a child, and so something that was very likely to garner column inches in the newspapers. In this case the child was a local immigrant – ‘a little Jew boy’ – as the papers of the time described him. His name was Henry Lazarus and, by the 10 June at least, no one had been prosecuted for his murder.

On that Saturday however, one man was in custody and he appeared in the dock at Worship Street Police court accused of the crime. There was only one witness who gave evidence however, and he was far from reliable.

Charles Savage testified that he was standing near a place known as ‘The Ruins’ in Fashion Street at about 10 o’clock at night. Savage was a street musician and he was planning on playing that night.

He watched he said as a group of men set upon the little boy and strangle him with a necktie. He recognised one of the men as a local who was known as the ‘bottle conjurer’ (presumably another performer) but the others he didn’t, or couldn’t name except for one, the young man the dock: Thomas Hart, a porter at Spitalfields Market.

Having killed the boy the men stripped him of almost all his clothes and told Savage to get rid of it. He refused and wouldn’t be persuaded even when the threatened him he said, so they picked up the dead lad and through him into a dust hole in the tenter ground.

He’d followed them to see where they went and fully expected (or hoped) to meet a policeman but couldn’t find one. So he went home to his lodgings in Wentworth Street and fell into a troubled sleep. Standing in Mr Arnold’s court he now pointed out Hart and accused him of being the one that had strangled the little boy.

Savage was described as being ‘a poor half-witted cripple’ and he was not taken seriously by the bench. Mr Arnold heard that the street singer had previously accused the ‘bottle conjuror’ of the murder a few weeks earlier and so his credibility now was much in question. Savage was clearly aware of this and admitted that he’d changed his story. ‘I deny all that now’ he declared with what the paper called ‘an imbecilic simper’.

Faced with such a weak witness Arnold decided to release the porter, telling him he was free to go ‘without a stain on his character’. He turned to the dead boy’s father and said ‘he was astonished that anyone could be given into custody upon such a serious charge upon such evidence’. Henry’s killer then, remained at large but in the next week I’ll see whether we can find him in the records.

Watch this space.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 12, 1848]

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]