A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

Inconsistency and the legacy of slavery as two assaults come before the courts

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Memorial to the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, which commemorates the Guyanan resistance hero, Quamnina.

I suppose it is too much to ask for consistency from the criminal justice system when cases come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the circumstances of each can be quite different. This is especially true when it concerns violence, specifically violence which fell under the very broad terms of ‘assault’ in the nineteenth century.

Assault was always a very fluid term in law, made clear in instructions to magistrates from Dalton to Burn from the 17th to the early 19th century. Even the advent a professional police and the creation of a Police Code book did little to cement a clear understanding of what assault really was. By the later 1800s there was at least distinction between ‘common’ and ‘aggravated’ assault, but the former definition was as vague as it had been in the 1700s:

‘A common assault is the beating, or it may be only the striking, or touching of a person’.

Police were advised not to arrest aggressors in these cases, ‘but leave the party injured to summons’ them. If actual violence was evident (wounds were obvious for example) the officer was obliged to take culprits into custody, even if they hadn’t seen the incident themselves.1

This allowed a lot of leeway and makes it quite hard for us, as historians, to compare assault cases. When we add to this the fact that most – almost all in reality – were prosecuted before the magistracy (where records are scant at best) we are at a severe disadvantage in understanding the contexts and causes of non-fatal violence in history. It makes it equally difficult to understand why some cases resulted in fines and others led to long prison sentences. It isn’t always as simple as looking at the level of violence used, as this pair of cases from 1843 illustrate.

Violence was often associated with drunkenness, and this took many forms. Mary Denyer was strolling along the Mile End Road, minding her own business one afternoon, when two young men approached her.

Thomas Webb and George Todd had been drinking, enjoying a holiday from work. They grabbed hold of Mary and ‘twirled her abou, but rather too vigourously. Perhaps this was ‘high jinks’, or two boorish young men behaving badly towards a vulnerable female that happened to cross their path.

Regardless of their motives – sinister, or simply crass and stupid – the young tailoress was pregnant and the shock and rough handling she received by being ‘twirled about’ caused her to faint to the pavement.

The men quickly ran off instead of helping her, not the best idea under the circumstances because they’d been seen by a policeman. The officer, having left Mary in the care of a passerby, set off in pursuit. The pals were quickly captured and when brought before the Thames magistrate, were very apologetic, but said they were  only having ‘a lark’. They were drunk, they’d seen a pretty girl and they’d had a dance with her. They didn’t intend to hurt her, and they had no idea she was with child.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate, Mr Broderip. He condemned their behaviour and said they had committed a ‘gross outrage’ on the poor girl. As a result he fined them £5 each, money he almost certainly knew they didn’t have. That condemned them to spend the next two months in prison. 

I’ve no defence for Todd and Webb, they acted very badly and deserved punishment. But I am interested in justice Broderip’s seemingly inconsistent treatment of assault in his courtroom.

Broderip’s fury at the action of two ‘ruffians’ towards a pregnant women was not matched by his reaction to an assault on a sailor who complained at his court the following day.

Joseph Beale has signed up as an ordinary seaman on the Ludlow a merchant vessel sailing from Demerara (modern day Guyana) to London. On more than one occasion the captain, William Johnson, had abused Beale and accused him of failing to do his job properly.

There were two key incidents that Beale accused his master of:

beating him with a stick and punching him and smashing him in the face with a ‘spitting-box’ (a spittoon).

The violence he’d suffered was, by his own account, severe and certainly aggravated. It was also deliberate, related and sustained. Beale told Mr Broderip he had been struck more than a dozen times with a stick. Had he counted the blows he’d received the magistrate asked him Yes, the sailor replied, he had, or at least until he reached 12 when he stopped counting.

The captain was defended in court by Mr Price, a barrister who cross examined Beale and  discovered that the captain had also lowered his wages, on the grounds that he was only a ‘ordinary’ season not an ‘able’ one (as Beale had apparently claimed).

Beale said he’d never claimed any such thing but perhaps the damage was done and it certainly convinced the magistrate that the man was full of resentment towards his superior.

Broderip accepted that an assault had occurred but decided (with no corroborating evidence at all – indeed at least one crew mate corroborated Beale’s account) that Beale was exaggerating it. As a result the magistrate imposed a small fine and advised Captain Jonson to not ‘strike a man in the heat of passion’ in future or get involved in arguments with his crew on deck.

Compare this fine (10s) for actual and severe violence from a person in authority with the (relatively) minor assault that landed two working class men in gaol the day before.

There was another factor here though, Demerera had been a slave colony. In 1823 a rebellion of 10,000 slaves was crushed by the authorities and many of those accused of involvement were hanged. The revolt probably helped finally undermine slavery and the callous treatment of those involved and the horrors it exposed it undoubtedly ruled the abolition movement. In 1834 slavey was officially abolished in Demerera (under the terms of the 1834 abolition act), so just 9 years before this incident reached Broderip’s court.

We might note that while slavery was an abomination in many people’s eyes parliament still saw fit to compensate the plantain owners for the loss of their ‘property’. In Demerara this amounted to £4,297,117 10s. 6½d (or close to £300m in today’s money).

Joseph Beale was ‘a man of colour’, and so maybe one of those freed in 1843, or the son of freed slaves at least. So just perhaps, in the eyes of Mr Broderip, he was not worthy of more ‘justice’ in his courtroom, especially not when the subject of his complaint was a white man in a position of authority.

[From Morning Post, Wednesday 11 January 1843; The Standard, Thursday 12 January 1843]

  1. Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889 edited by Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood, (Mango Books, 2015), p. 25

Drew’s latest book, Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited is available from all good bookshops (if you can find one open!) and online via various outlets: e.g Waterstones and Amazon

The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

‘I ain’t scared of no ghosts…’: Halloween traditions in the Victorian press

Tonight is Hallowe’en when the borders to the spirit world are at their thinnest and the dead walk the earth…

Or it is All Hallow’s Eve, an important Christian date marking the night before All Saints Day (or it has been since Pope Gregory III moved it from its original date in May).

It has now become a highly commercialised and largely secular festival: a chance for retailers to sell sweets and inedible pumpkins, for the very young to dress up and go out ‘trick or treating’, and for the not-quite-so-young to dress up and go partying.

It is – and it seems it has long been – a night for misrule, for chaos, for turning the word upside down.

It is often viewed as an American import. ‘Trick or treat’, pumpkins, the whole commercial element of Hallowe’en was almost entirely absent form my childhood in the 1970s. Now it is hard to imagine October 31 without a constant stream of miniature shots, devils, and witches knocking on our doors while their slightly embarrassed parents lurk by the gate.

But the truth is that it is actually returning export. The traditions of Hallowe’en, developed out of Celtic paganism and the celebration of Samhain and arrived in America with Irish and other British immigrants.

There were several closely linked traditions in Celtic nations – such as ‘nutcrack night’ in Scotland for example. There young people would throw nuts into a fire to see if they lie still and burn (signifying happy marriage) or pop and burst (meaning your matrimony was doomed to be tempestuous).

In Ireland people would gather food and drink in the days before October 31, beginning the process of hunkering down for the winter. This marked the end of the growing season when the land appeared to die and all that farming communities could do was bring in their crops and animals and wait for the spring.

In 1846 some of these traditions were reported in the newspapers, quoting from older folklore texts and were presented with a general sneering undertone which reflected mainstream English Christian distaste aimed at the Irish. But in doing so we can see the origins of the trick or treat custom that is so popular today.

‘The peasants in Ireland’, we are told, ‘assemble with sticks and clubs, going from house to house, collecting money, bread-cake, butter, cheese, eggs, etc. for the feast [of Samhain]’.

Candles are ‘sent from house to house in vicinity, and are lighted up on the next day, before which they pray, or are supposed to pray, for the departed soul of the donor’.

On the night there is feasting, apples and nuts ‘are devoured’, ‘cabbages torn up by the root’. There is divination from nuts again and from hemp seeds. These are ‘sown by maidens, and they believe that, if they look back, they will see the apparition of man intended for their future spouse’.

In Celtic beliefs a man named ‘Stingy Jack’ or ‘Jack the lantern’ roamed the wild at night, having tricked the devil to keep his soul. Unable to enter Heaven or Hell he was condemned to walk abroad at night and he was remembered in the carving of turnips, which were then illuminated with a candle.

When immigrants arrived in north America they found pumpkins much easier to carve than turnips, and a new tradition was born. The tradition of going house to house continued and, probably at some point in the 1920s, was formalised into a sort of annual festival – the ‘American’ Hallowe’en to have today.

So all those ‘ghosts’ and ‘witches’ with their hopeful buckets and their scary costumes are actually a reminder of our deep rooted pagan history. Pope Gregory III wanted to obliterate a pagan autumn festival by superimposing a Christian one.

Just as churches were built on pagan shrines and sites of worship, and Easter and Christmas replaced the existing pagan festivals (of Eostre and Yule) Samhain was relegated to a mere folk story, belonging to a superstitious peasant community, all in an attempt to stamp out any remaining traces of pre-Christian religion.

Given the current pandemic Hallowe’en will be very different this year. Children will not be able knock doors and demand a treat, parties will not happening, the night of misrule will have to be suspended in lockdown but I shall still carve my (entirely edible) pumpkin and mark the passing of autumn and the early onset of winter.

Happy Hallowe’en!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday 31 October 1846]

A chimney sweep’s wife is assaulted and an elderly man abused: two cases of everyday violence from 1880

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Two contrasting cases today – both involving violence and both from 1880. The first of these brought Daniel McCarthy to court at the Guildhall in the City of London.

Mr and Mrs Fisher were eating their dinner on Saturday afternoon. It was between 1 and 2 o’clock  and Mr Fisher had probably spent the morning at his work as a chimney sweep. He had left his ‘sweeping machine’ outside their home in Herring Court, Redcross Street while he settled to eat the meal his wife Ellen had prepared. All of sudden their repast was interrupted by a noise outside. 

Ellen got up to investigate and found man in the street chucking a sackful of soot all over the courtyard, with two other men standing nearby. He had knocked over her husband’s machine and when she asked him what he was doing he gave her a mouthful of abuse. Ellen Fisher strode off to find a policeman but none was to be found and she quickly returned. To her horror she now found her husband being beaten up by the man’s mates. 

When she loudly protested and threatened to call the police the first man – McCarthy – attacked her. He punched her in mouth, knocking her to the ground. When she hailed herself up he knocked her back down and started kicking her. His heavy boots opened a cut in her head, which bled profusely. Throughout she tried to call for the police but no one came.

Later, after she had reported it to the station and had given a description of the man involved. McCarthy was picked up. One of Mrs Fisher’s neighbors corroborated her testimony and McCarthy was sent to prison for 14 days with hard labour. 

Was McCarthy drunk? Did he hold a grudge against the Fishers? Sometimes it is frustratingly difficult to understand why incidents like this happen. We don’t even know McCarthy’s age or his occupation; perhaps he was a rival sweep or maybe Fisher owed him (or someone he worked for) money. The attack seems random and unmotivated, but there may be more to it. 

Further east, at the Thames Police court, another case of violence was being heard. Ada Goodchild, (45) was accused of cutting and wounding her 77 year-old husband John. 

It wasn’t the first either, as was so often the case with domestic violence there was a history of abuse. What was unusual here was that the abuse was female, and the victim male. It is likely that ‘husband beaters’ such as Ada Goodchild were (and are) more common than records suggest; even today the pressures of conventional ideas of masculinity are likely to put off some men from reporting incidents where their partners have bested them. 

John Goodchild stood in court with his head bandaged and testified that Ada had assaulted him a few days previously with a candlestick, but he’d forgiven her and she had promised never to do it again. Her promise didn’t last long. 

On Saturday night she had come home drunk, ‘dragged him out of bed, and [had] pelted him with every conceivable item she could lay her hands on’. Ada then seized a knife and went for him with it, cutting him just above his right eye. Bleeding and battered, John Goodchild staggered out of the house in Wells Place and went to find a policeman. Ada was arrested and brought before Mr Saunders at Thames on the following Monday morning. 

The magistrate upbraided her and said that if he carried on like this she would end up hanging for the murder of her spouse.  For wounding John she was sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. The couple was separated and we can only hope that the justice’s lesson was learned.

Again, we have no idea what caused the rift between Ada and her husband. The age gap was huge and perhaps that was an issue – John perhaps wanted his wife to stay at home, while she sought company and perhaps extramarital relations with men younger than her husband. We can try and imagine her motives but it may be as simple as her being unable to control her temper when she was drunk.  

Whatever the case for the next 2 months John would have to cope without his wife at home. Just as female survivors of domestic violence often had to weigh up the consequences of prosecuting their abusers, John Goodchild’s decision to go to 

law may have temporarily given him peace but he would have to face Ada’s possible wrath  when she retuned, and make his own supper and wash his own clothes while she was incarcerated. 

Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 10 October 1880

A maid runs off to the theatre to see the minstrels (and we get a reminder of our racist past).

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Isabella Parker was a servant at a house in Piccadilly. White domestic service brought a level of security as well as a bed and regular meals it must also have been a life of fairly monotonous drudgery. Every day was much the same and, if your were a maid of all work or one of few or even the only servant in a household you would have had almost no time for yourself.

So we can perhaps understand why Isabella chose to escape her dull life for an evening by clambering out of a window to find some entertainment. Having climbed on the roof she headed over several adjacent ones to reach the St James’ Hall near Regent Street and Piccadilly.  

On the night of the 6 June 1870 the Christy Minstrels were performing their ‘blackface’ routine, as they had since the early 1860s. Isabella made her way through a window and either consumed drink she brought with her or was already drunk when she left home. As a consequence she was loud and kept interrupting the act until the police were called and an officer managed to pull her down and escort her outside.

This wasn’t easy as Isabella struggled with him, ‘set to screaming, became quite infuriated, said that she was a Fenian [an Irish republican] and would shoot the lot’ [of them].

It was not the first time she had got drunk and snuck into the theatre; she was a big admirer of the Minstrels and clearly a lover of drink. At Marlborough Street Police court her previous record was read out and Mr Tyrwhitt fined her 5(or four days in gaol). That may have been the least of her problems for unless she had very forgiving employers Isabella may well have lost her position as a servant.

The original Christy Minstrels were formed in the USA in 1843, at Buffalo. They had a very structured show built around white men ‘blacking up’ and performing jokes, songs and dances that downplayed the horrors of slavery for a white audience.

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The Minstrels that Isabella risked her employment to see were a British tribute act (to use a modern term), not the American originals. There were more than one troupe of minstrels touring Britain in the 1800s and the one at St James’ Hall may have originated in Dublin, perhaps explaining Isabella’s mentioning of the Fenians.  

The St James show lasted until 1904 although the group had become the ‘Moore & Burgess Minstrels’ well before then.

The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas described minstrel shows as:

‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens’.

Despite this and despite abolition minstrel shows continued to exist well into the twentieth century. I can remember watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC in the 1970s with my family; it was only finally cancelled in 1978, despite being the subject of complaints and accusation that it was racist.

I think this is useful reminder of how recently our television screens used to depict Black faces for comedic value – not in some minority or niche programming but on primetime for a family audience. Now I hear discordant voices complain that ‘allowing’ Black actors (as the BBC have done) to play roles in period dramas and other programing is some sort of ‘political correctness’ and an affront to indigenous ‘White Britons’. It is the same voices that challenge the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, those that don’t believe Britain is a racist country and either deny that prejudice exists or argue that it doesn’t matter.

If racism wasn’t a problem in this country we wouldn’t need the BLM movement. The fact that it is only in the last decade that positive images of Black people have routinely appeared on our television screen (the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment in this country) when negative ones have been common currency for well over a 100 years before then, should remind us to guard against complacency.

There is no place for racism in the world. 

From Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 12 June 1870

A brutal assault on the underground

A brutal assault on the underground

Clarence Lewis was in a poor state when he appeared at Guildhall Police court in September 1880 to tell the sitting alderman what had happened to him. 

He was only a young man – just 18 years of age – and apprenticed to a grocer with premises in Aldgate and Kensington. On 21 August he was working at the Aldgate shop when his master, Mr Barham, instructed him to travel to Kensington to pick up the takings there. He arrived at 9.30 and collected a bag containing neatly £100 in cash. 

In 1880 £100 was a considerable sum of money (around £7,000 at today’s prices), so his master certainly placed a lot of trust in young Clarence. Stowing the package in his pocket he headed for High Street Kensington station to catch the train back to the City.

Clutching his third-class return ticket he rushed to catch the train. As he passed the ticket office a man a little older called his name. The young man was Henry Perry and he claimed the pair knew each other. ‘Don’t you know me?’ he demanded and, when Clarence replied that he didn’t, said: 

‘I am Perry, of Aldgate; I thought you were too proud to speak to me’. 

This must have triggered the apprentice’s memory because he now recognized the young man as someone who had once worked behind the counter at Barham’s shop in Aldgate. Perry insisted that Clarence join him in a first-class carriage and waived aside the younger man’s protest that he didn’t have the fare:

‘Never mind’, he said, ‘I will pay it’. 

The compartment they entered was empty and, as the train moved off, Perry peered into the next one and laughed, saying that there were only a few ‘girls over there’. The train rattled through a couple of stations before Clarence’s companion produced a small phial of liquid which he said was Zoedone, offering it to him.

Described as ‘the king of non-alcoholic beverages’ ‘Zoedone’ was said to have powerful ‘elements essential for the building up and reproduction of the human body’.  

It was a tonic drink which was available throughout the late 1800s and Perry claimed to have obtained a small sample. Warning his new friend not to take more than half he watched as Clarence upended the bottle. Clarence swallowed about an eighth of the phial and it tasted awful and fizzed in his nose. He immediately felt sleepy and resisted as Perry poured some onto his handkerchief and suggested he sniff it. 

‘Don’t you like it?’ Perry asked. ‘No, if all teetotalers’ drinks are like that I’d rather not be a teetotaler’ Clarence told him.

He turned down the other man’s offer of port to take the taste away. 

The pair carried on the journey for a few stops, with one female passenger getting on at Gower Street and then off at Kings Cross. Then, just before they reached Farringdon Perry pounced on his victim, hitting him with a stick and knocking to the carriage floor. He knelt on his chest and put his hand over his mouth as Clarence tried to shout for help. His assailant demanded to know where the money was and Clarence was forced to tell him.

Having lost the shop taking the beaten apprentice hid his head under the seat for safety; when the train pulled into Aldersgate station he emerged to find that Perry was nowhere to be seen. 

It took several weeks for Clarence to be fit enough to attend court and, even when he was, he stood in the witness box swathed in bandages to his head. He had been helped at the station by a bricklayer and his brother who saw him staggering out of the compartment covered in blood. Perry had not fled and as a policeman approached the crowd around the stricken apprentice he appeared clutching the parcel he had stolen. 

When Clarence accused him of doping him with laudanum and chloroform (the phial he claimed to be a tonic being quite the opposite), and then assaulting and robbing him, Perry brazenly denied everything.  ‘We are friends’ he told Clarence and the police that now collared him, ‘and you know me; I have not robbed you; that is my own money’. 

The alderman at Guildhall had heard enough to commit Perry for trial at the Old Bailey where he appeared on 13 September. The court heard evidence from a number of witnesses as well as testimonials to Perry’s general good character in his employment with another grocer on Aldgate. He had left there in May but his boss only had good things to say of him. 

Nevertheless this couldn’t save him. He was found guilty of violent robbery and was probably fortunate to avoid a charge of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 30 lashes and a crippling 20 years of penal servitude. Perry didn’t do 20 years because he died just 15 years later in 1895 at the age of 39, not long after being discharged from prison. 

From Nottinghamshire Guardian Friday 3 September 1880

I have been writing and teaching the history of crime for over a decade and continue to find it fascinating.  Whether it is the stories of everyday life in Victorian London that I uncover for this blog, the mystery of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings, or murders and attempted murders like this one, I am always discovering new ways to look at crime and its representation.

Fortunately very few of us will experience murder directly in our lives; instead we engage at a distance, through the news, or, more often, via a television drama or a holiday crime novel. When we do it is invariably shocking murder that captures our attention. Indeed if we took popular cultural representation of crime at face value we could be forgiven for believing that murder was an everyday occurrence, when, in reality, it is extremely rare. 

This week my most recent book – Murder Maps– is published by Thames & Hudson. This takes a 100 years of murder news in a global context, exploring via short entries, dozens of homicides across Europe, the USA, and Australia from 1811-1911. 

In the stories of Jack the Ripper, Henry H. Holmes, Joseph Vacher, Ned Kelly, Belle Gunness, and the other murderers I show the myriad motivations and underlying causal factors that led men and women to kill. Jealousy, greed (like Perry), politics, and severe mental illness were all factors that resulted in newspaper headlines that shocked and titillated readers in equal measure.  

Hopefully some of you will take a look at Murder Maps and find it as fascinating to read as I did to research and write. But don’t have nightmares, we are all pretty safe in our beds today. 

‘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]

A birching for two boys as Arsenal get their first manager

The gate at Woolwich Arsenal

Charles Robinson was packing up his butcher’s stall at Woolwich Market on Saturday evening when he spied a couple of boys acting suspiciously. They ran off and Charles thought no more of it. 

Until he checked his cash box that is. The box was about 15 shillings light but there was little he could do, the lads were nowhere to be seen. 

The following evening PC Shove (445R) was stopped by a tram conductor in Plumstead. The conductor told him that he’d seen two boys moving in between the passengers queuing for the trams on the High Street. He was pretty sure they were up to no good and he gave PC Shove a description of the pair. 

Later on, at about 10.30 at night, the officer spied his quarry and collared them. He asked them to turn out their pockets and discovered two purses and about 12s in loose coins. Neither lad could give the policeman an adequate explanation as of how they came to be in possession of so much money and eventually owned up to stealing it from Mr. Robinson’s stall the previous day. 

The boys were taken to court at Woolwich and charged with theft. They gave their names as George Bell (11) of Lower Robert Street, and William Igglesden (10) who said he lived in Ann Street. Both addresses were in Plumstead but there was no mention of their parents appearing in court. 

Sergeant Gilham, the gaoler at Woolwich Police court, recognized the boys: the younger child. William Igglesden had been sent to a truant school on two previous occasions he told the magistrate, while the pair had also been in trouble together in the recent past.  

The gaoler informed the magistrate (Mr Taylor) that George and William had been caught in ‘the refreshment bar of the Arsenal football ground’. They’d broken in, helped themselves to whisky, and had got quite drunk. All that brought was a telling off and a warning not to offend again. 

Perhaps it was thought that a warning would suffice and a lesson would be learned, but that leniency was not about to be repeated.  

Mr Taylor told the pair that if they continued to misbehave they risked being sent to prison, regardless of how young they were. To reinforce the message he ordered that a police sergeant beat the pair of them with a birch rod.  

Maybe that did the trick because there’s no prison record for anyone with either name from the 1890s onwards. Of course names could be changed but one can only hope that George and William realised that they were pushing their luck too far. 

1897 was an important year for Woolwich Arsenal, the club whose bar the boys had raided earlier that year.  

On 2 April Thomas Mitchell became the club’s first full-time manager, beating 53 others who had applied for the position. Mitchell had previously managed Blackburn Rovers and been a referee, so he was an experienced football man. He knew about winning as well, having led Rovers to no less than four FA Cup victories.

Presumably the board hoped Mitchell would bring success; after all in January local rivals Millwall Athletic had knocked the Arsenal out of that season’s competition with a 4-2 away defeat. Mitchell never really got the chance to show what he could do at Arsenal because he felt the board of directors was constantly meddling in his efforts to improve the team. So in March 1898, just under a year after he took the job, he resigned, one of the shortest managerial reigns in the club’s 134-year history. 

Arsenal would have to wait a long time to win their first FA Cup, with victory over Huddersfield in 1930. Today of course the modern Arsenal Football Club holds the record for the most FA Cup wins (14) and the most cup final appearances (21). Today they take on all conquering Liverpool in the ‘largely meaningless friendly’/’first trophy of the season’ (delete as applicable) behind closed doors at Wembley in the FA Community Shield. 

I like to hope that the ancestors of William and George are watching somewhere, cheering the Gunners on. Who know eh? 

[from Morning Post, Monday 1 February 1897]

For more on Arsenal’s history visit the excellent Arsenal History Society site. The Arsenal History Society is an integral part of AISA (the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association) and you can find out more about their work here.