Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

The ‘madman’ who refused to do as he was told.

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St John’s Church, Holloway

Not for the first time I’m struck by how frequently the police courts of the metropolis (the forerunners of modern magistrates courts) prosecuted individuals who exhibited clear sign of mental ill health. Victorian society not only lacked the resources to care for the mentally ill, they also had a much less well-developed understanding of them.

As a result the ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ were locked up in institutions like Bedlam (which gives us a popular term for chaos), small private asylums, or, later in the century, larger public ones such as Colney Hatch. The treatment individuals received in such institutions varied but it very far from being ‘caring’.

This was probably the sort of place that John Hassalt ended up in after his brush with Mr Laing, the sitting magistrate at Hatton Garden, in May 1837. At the start of Victoria’s reign John may have been sent to Hanwell in Middlesex, which opened in May 1831. But he might equally simply have been housed in one of the capital’s many workhouses, especially if he was poor. There he would have had virtually nothing that might be described today as ‘specialist mental health care’.

So what had John Hassalt done to earn his appearance in court and a possible relocation to an asylum or workhouse?

John was a bricklayer – or so he was described in court – and he was charged, by the churchwarden of St. John’s in Holloway, with ‘having disturbed the congregation in church on Sunday’.

Mr Povey, the churchwarden, explained that on that morning he’d entered the church just as the curate was reading prayers. Hassalt had approached the pulpit and was about to enter it and take over the service when Povey and several other parishioners seized him and led him away. It was not the first time John had tried to interrupt proceedings he added, but enough was clearly enough for the exasperated churchman.

Apparently all John Hassalt wanted to do was ‘expound the holy truths of religion’ to the gathered audience. When questioned by the magistrate he said nothing other than this in defence and clearly thought he was entitled to do just that. He had written to the curate to express his wish and determination to preach and thought that would or should suffice as explanation.

Povey piped up to say that Hassalt was clearly ‘touched in his intellect’ (in other words he was ‘mad’).

No, I am right enough’ countered the bricklayer.

To which the justice declared that:

his notions of religion could not be very correct or he would not disturb a Minister of the Gospel in the performance of his duty’. He must promise not to do so again.

Hassalt would make no such promise. Indeed he solemnly swore notto! At this the magistrate lectured him on his conduct at some length and warned that if he was brought before him again he would be forced to send him to prison.

I doubt that would have done much good – the warning or a prison sentence – because Hassalt was convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. I fear the only logical outcome of this was likely to be his future confinement, not to a prison, but a mental hospital, either on the command of the state or at the expense of his family, if he had any.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1837]

This has similarities to another tale over interruptions to church services (this one at St Paul’s) and for other stories that involve mental illness see:

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

 

A lovers tryst in Chelsea, or a cunning deceit?

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With the memory of the royal wedding fading away but leaving, by all accounts, a warm romantic glow behind it, I thought I’d continue the theme a few days later.

In April 1887 Emma Banks took a room in a house in Smith Street, Chelsea. She had arrived with a man who purported to be her brother, but certainly wasn’t. The landlady, Mrs Jessie Gantlett, believed him however and his story that Emma only needed the lodgings temporarily while she found a position (in service).

All was well until the day that Emma left. Mrs Gantlett was shocked to find that another of her residents, Miss Price, had lost some items from her room. For whatever reason she suspected Emma and she searched the 22 year-old’s room.

There she discovered clothes belonging to Miss Price and some items of hosiery (stockings most probably) that were later identified as belonging to a hosier in Hammersmith. The police soon ascertained that Emma Banks had left the employment of Frederick Payne, a hosier, in March of that year, and he’d missed stock and £10 in cash from a locked desk in his shop.

When she was questioned by the police Emma broke down and admitted she’d been planning to abscond to Western Australia with the young man that had been visiting her. They’d bought the tickets for the journey she said and named him as James Tucker. So, he wasn’t her brother, but her lover.

Moreover, and perhaps Emma wasn’t aware of this, James wasn’t exactly free to elope to the other side of the world with his paramour. James Tucker was already married.

When the pair were brought before the Police Magistrate at Westminster Emma was initially charged with the theft, but it soon became clear that Tucker was also involved. He testified to knowing Emma for about two months and to ‘paying her attentions’. But he denied ever promising to marry her.

He had thought of leaving his wife, he admitted, and going to Australia. The clerk was outraged at his brazen admission of infidelity and his rejection of his responsibilities. He supposed ‘his wife was not a consenting party to this arrangement’ he inquired of the young man in the dock. ‘She was not’ he replied.

He’d bought the tickets with the money Emma had given him so he was guilty by association of the theft. Mr D’Eyncourt, the justice, told him he’d behaved terribly.

He ‘had deceived and led the young woman into trouble. As two felonies were proved he could not sentence him to less than six months’ hard labour’. In an odd  example of the changing nature of punishment in the 1800s Emma and James’ criminality meant that they would not be going to Australia after all, when 40 or so years earlier they would almost certainly have been sent there for doing exactly that.

So, was this a love tryst that ended badly or was Emma deceived as the magistrate suggested? I wonder how Mrs Gantlett felt knowing that she had effectively allowed a young unmarried couple to spend several nights alone together under her ‘respectable’ roof. Oh, the shame of it!

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 22, 1887]

‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

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It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

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Yesterday I visited Highgate cemetery. This is the first time I’ve been to the West cemetery – the oldest part – which you can only access as part of a guided tour. Myself and about a dozen others avoided the royal nuptials by spending a fascinating 90 minutes or so with Stuart, one of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery’s volunteers. He showed us around the cemetery, up into the catacombs and around the Egyptian style tombs, pointing out some of the famous people buried there (like Michael Faraday) and telling us about the history of site.

I was most touched by the stories of ordinary people like Elizabeth Jackson – the very first burial at Highgate after it opened in 1839 – whose husband must have saved every penny he had to ensure his wife was interned in a crowded graveyard in central London but instead was buried in the quite peace of the suburbs. He later died of cholera but his second wife made sure he was interred with his first love, and possibly their daughter who died (as so many did) in infancy.

The tour costs £12 but is well worth every penny and includes the £4 admission to the East cemetery, where you can visit Marx, Elgar, Douglas Adams and my early historical hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

Today I’ve picked a tragedy from the Police Court in the year Highgate opened. As Charles Aymer drove his butcher’s cart along Old Bailey in May a young woman stepped out into the traffic. London was as busy then as it is today, although where we have cars, vans and buses, they had coaches, cabs and carts.

Aymer saw the woman – Jane Lang – and reined in his horse, but couldn’t stop in time. The horse knocked her down and the wheels of the chaise cart ran right over her stricken body. She died where she lay.

The butcher was brought up before the alderman at Guildhall Police Court where he gave his evidence. The alderman accepted that it was mostly likely to have been an accident but said he would have to remand him in custody until an inquest had taken place the following week. The court was also told that Jane had been due to get married that week as well. It was an awful thing to happen, but there was probably little the butcher could have done to prevent it.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 20, 1839]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)