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]

A very ordinary homicide in the extraordinary ‘autumn of terror’

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We have spent the past few days in Whitechapel, looking at the cases selected for reporting at Worship Street Police court before Mr Montagu Williams. On Tuesday there was an illegal boxing match, yesterday an example of an over officious vestryman being brought to book. Today’s case received far fewer column inches but was much more serious than either, because it involved a homicide.

In the autumn of 1888 murder was on everybody’s mind; an unknown assassin had already struck several times in the district and the police were no nearer to catching him. ‘Jack the Ripper’ would kill again that year but for the time being the streets of Whitechapel were relatively quiet.

Serial and stranger murder – the sort the ‘Ripper’ indulged in was (and is) relatively rare. It was (and is) much more common for homicide victims to know their killer. This was the case with Mrs Roberts (we don’t know her first name) who died on the 18 October 1888.

She lived were her husband Joseph, a boot fitter, at Essex Place on the Hackney Road and the pair had a tempestuous relationship. On the 8 October she was drunk and so was Joe and the couple had a furious row in front of one of their children. The little girl told Mr Williams that she’d seen her mother aim a blow at her father as they quarreled in the street. Joe had fallen backwards but regained his feet and retaliated.

The boot fitter, much stronger and heavier than his wife, struck her hard on the head. She fell down senseless and never made a full recovery, dying ten days later. Other witnesses testified that there ‘was an utter absence of intentional violence’. Moreover, the medical evidence suggested that she had died from peritonitis, so not something directly related to the fight that the victim had started herself.

Joseph Roberts was discharged but told he would have to face trial on the coroner’s warrant. On 22 October Joe stood trial at the Old Bailey but since the prosecution offered no evidence against him he walked away a free man. He’d not meant to kill his wife and quite probably he regretted it but his actions would now mean his daughter and her siblings would be without a mother. Sadly, this was an all too familiar story in the Victorian capital.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 24, 1888]

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’: youthful pranks in Rosemary Lane

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Rosemary Lane had a reputation for criminality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The street was one of several in Whitechapel where the police were cautious about patrolling at night and where they would often turn when they needed to locate the ‘usual suspects’ for a bit of local thievery.

In 1847 PC H180 was passing nearby when he heard a terrible noise emanating from the lane and decided to investigate. He soon found almost two dozen young boys gathered together as some sort of impromptu orchestra, making an awful racket.  Some were banging pots and pans, others clashing knives and cleavers together; even bones were being used to pound out a rhythm on kettles and saucepans.

The policeman waded into this row and tried to get the lads to disperse. The boys were in high spirits and in no mood to listen. That day there had been a wedding – a Jewish marine store dealer, unpopular in the neighbourhood had married, and the reaction of the boys might have been some sort of youthful communal protest.

From the early modern period right up to the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for communities to express their displeasure or antipathy towards those they disliked or disapproved of by way of a charivari or skimmington. This was an old folk custom involving a mock parade with discordant (or ‘rough’) music.

As the policeman tried to stop the noise and make the crowd of boys go to their homes several of them turned on him and attacked him. One in particular hit him over the head with a kettle, knocking his hat into the gutter (before 1864 the police wore tall top hats, not helmets like they do today). He grabbed the boy and took him into custody, the others ran away.

The next day the child was brought before Mr Yardley at the Thames Police court charged with assaulting a policeman. Isaac Gardiner was so small his face could hardly be seen as he stood in the dock. When the magistrate was told that the boy had uttered the words ‘take that blue bottle!’ as he aimed a blow at the constable there was laughter in court. Isaac denied the charge, claiming some other boy was to blame.

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’, he said; ‘How could I reach up to a tall policeman’s head?’

It was a fair comment even if it was probably untrue. Mr Yardley was in no mood to have his court turned into a comic music hall act however, nor was he about to condone bad behavior by street urchins like Isaac. He told the prisoner that ‘boys must be taught to conduct themselves properly’. Isaac would be fined 5s and, since he had no money to pay, he’d go to prison for three days.

The poor lad was led away whimpering that it was unfair and he ‘didn’t see much harm in having a lark on a weddin’-day’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 20, 1847]

A drunken German attracts the attention of police hunting Jack the Ripper

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Given the prevailing climate of fear that gripped the East End in the autumn of 1888 it is hardly surprising that Charles Ludwig found himself in court. He’d been in custody for two weeks by the time he was reexamined before Mr Saunders at the Thames Police court on the morning of the 2 October. This was just a day after news broke about the discovery of the bodies of two more victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ and this effectively exonerated Ludwig of any connection to the murder series.

He was in custody because he was accused of threatening two people with a large knife whilst he was drunk. Mrs Elizabeth Burns had been confronted by Ludwig near the Minories on the outskirts of the City of London. When she saw the knife in his hand she screamed and two policemen came running up.

Elizabeth was so scared by the incident she quite forgot to tell constable John Johnson (366 City Police) that the man had got a  knife. PC Johnson said he been alerted to Elizabeth’s screams of ‘murder!’ as he perambulated his beat on the Minories. The sound came from a nearby alley that led to some railway arches, well known as ‘a dangerous locality’, he told the court. He found the woman but it was only after he had escorted her to the end of his beat that she mentioned that the strange man who had confronted her had ‘pulled a big knife out’.

‘Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?’ PC Johnson asked her.

‘I was too much frightened’, Elizabeth replied.

The copper raced off to see if he could find the man but he’d long gone. He gave a description to other officers he found but it was  a constable from K Division (PC 221K) that eventually made an arrest. He was called to a disturbance at a coffee stall on the Whitechapel Road. A drunken German (Ludwig) was remonstrating with the coffee stall owner who had refused to serve him.

Another customer, Alexander Finlay, was stood nearby and perhaps said something which brought him to Ludwig’s attention. Turning round Ludwig growled at him: ‘What are you looking at?’ and pulled out a long bladed knife which he threatened Finlay with. When the policeman arrived he took the ‘excited’ man into custody and since then they had been investigating his circumstances.

They may have thought he was the ‘Ripper’ or simply believed he was a possible suspect. He was potentially dangerous at least, so he was remanded in custody, being brought before the magistrate on a number of occasions. Now Inspector Pimley of H Division told Mr Saunders that Ludwig had ‘fully accounted for his whereabouts on the nights of the recent murders’ (meaning those of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman presumably) and so all that rested against him was the charge of threatening behavior.

Ludwig was clearly guilty of that charge but since he’d already served two weeks in gaol the magistrate told him he was now free to go. Ludwig was just one of many men arrested on suspicion of being the Whitechapel murderer. In those months, when tensions were so high, the police and public were seeing killers in every dark corner of the East End and immigrants like Ludwig were top of the list of possible suspects.

In reality it is much more likely that ‘Jack’ was part of the indigenous population of the capital, someone who didn’t attract the attention that a drunken knife-wielding foreigner might.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 03, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon