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

‘Forty Thieves’ (but no Ali Baba) in 1880s Camberwell

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Perhaps it was the proliferation of cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ or childhood retellings of the Arabian Nights that inspired Maurice Rooch and his pals. Or maybe theirs was an homage to the kings and queens of the Victorian underworld. Either way, in 1881 it landed them in court at Lambeth, and it probably wasn’t the first (or last) time. 

Rooch worked for a Mr J. N. Bate, a tobacco manufacturer at Denmark Hill in Camberwell, South London. One  day in February 1881 the company horse and trap was parked outside the premises, its precious cargo locked inside, ready to be distributed across London. 

Maurice Rooch had a key and he also some mates; a small gang of juvenile depredators – the self-styled ‘Forty Thieves’. Rooch used his key to open the back of the locked trap and help himself to several ‘packet of tobacco’. He also shared the information with his chums as to where and when the trap would be stopping to make deliveries. As a result numerous shops suffered similar losses and others of Mr Bate’s deliveries were pilfered from. 

In the end, and because Rooch was known to his employer and his companions conspicuous enough to the police, the little group of robbers was arrested and squashed into the dock at Lambeth before Mr Ellison, the sitting magistrate. 

Rooch was 15 years of age and he was joined by George Pedlingham (15), William Lloyd (14), William Lester (14), Arthur Robinson (14), William Webb (14), Joseph Davis (11), John Dye (10) and George Joseph How (14). They were all charged with ‘being concerned with others not in custody in stealing some tobacco from a traveller’s trap’. 

The name the ‘forty thieves’ is well known in the history of crime. Gangs (or networks) operating under that name are known to have existed as early at the 1700s in London. From the 1870s both male and female ‘gangs’ used that moniker alongside the ‘Forty Elephants’. They were probably inspired by the tales of Ali Baba that had been in circulation from at least the early 18th century, but also the New York City gang of the same name that existed from the 1820s. 

Maurice Rooch was remanded to the house of detention for robbing his master, there to await a possible trial once police investigations were concluded. His co-defendants were all released on bail, George Pedlingham admitting that most of them had some of the stolen tobacco in their possession.

In the following week the Standard carried an advert for the Gaiety Theatre which was staging (at 8.30 that evening) a burlesque performance in three acts of ‘Forty Thieves’ – a reminder of the power of popular culture to inspire young minds. 

Like a fleeting mirage in the desert this gang of ‘forty thieves’ disappear from the newspaper records at this point so I don’t know what happened to them. It is likely that Rooch (or Roach) lost his job and probably his liberty for a week or two. The other may well have escaped punishment on this occasion but, unless they found gainful employment or their parents intervened, were possibly destined for a life of petty or more serious crime thereafter. 

Lambeth was to become the centre of the ‘Hooligan panic’ in the following decade, again a mixture of fact and fiction as the character of ‘Alf’ a ‘Lambeth Lad’ was published as a semi-fictional biography of a young tear way. Well before then, and a year after Maurice and his pals appeared in court, the Pall Mall Gazette had run a feature on the ‘the Fighting Gangs of London’. This article cited a popular serial novel (The Wild Boys of London, or the Children of the Night) which, the paper said, ‘served as a text-book of crime for the younger generations of London roughs’.  

Not for the first time then we can observe that modern obsession with what ‘pop culture’ our young people are consuming, and the (negative) effect it has on them, is hardly ‘modern’ at all. 

[from The Standard Saturday 19 February 1881]

The death of a child is always a tragedy, this seems even worse somehow.

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Denmark Hill, Camberwell near the turn of the century.

1888 is a year forever synonymous with brutality and murder. Between August and November that year the papers were to become obsessed with the failure of the police to catch the ‘Whitechapel fiend’, the man that has gone down in history as ‘Jack the Ripper’. 

But the murders of the as yet undiscovered ‘Ripper’ were not the only killings in London that year, even if they were the most ‘newsworthy’.

In late May a man was brought before the sitting magistrate at Lambeth Police court, charged with murdering his infant son. 

William Albert Pierrepoint, a 31 year old hammerman from Camberwell, was accused of killing Sidney Gilbert John Pierrepoint, a child just one year and 10 months old*. 

The tragedy had happened on a Saturday evening as the Pierrepoints were leaving their lodgings at 158 Neate Street, Camberwell. As was often the case when a family left a small crowd had gathered outside. Some would have come to wish the couple and their children well, others to gawp, perhaps some even to revel in their neighbours’ misfortune. William Pierpoint was out of work, and seemingly had been for some time. The late 1880s were hard years for the British economy and the ranks of the out of work and underemployed grew, leading to protest rallies in Trafalgar Square and riots in Pall Mall. In 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English dictionary for the first time. 

As the family carried their small collection of personal belongings into the street to pile onto a barrow and made ready to leave, William, already slightly the worse for drink, railed against the world and his landlord. Perhaps because they were behind with the rent the Pierpoints had some of their furniture detained; most significantly their bed.

This was too much for the hammerman who suddenly raised his infant son up high and, with a cry of ‘Patty, Patty, you shall be the victim’, threw it to the ground. 

Stunned by what he’d done William stood there for a moment until the crowd became agitated. As they moved towards him and child a woman was heard to shout: ‘Don’t hurt him; he will have enough to answer for’. William fled and was picked up some time afterwards, even more drunk at the Little Wonder beer house nearby. 

The policeman that arrested him said that he went quietly when confronted with the assault on his child. ‘I had no intention of doing such a thing’, he explained as he was led to the station. Interviewed by Inspector Webb at 11 at night Pierpoint must have realised the enormity of his situation and tried to defend himself. ‘No one saw me do it’, he said, claiming that the ‘child fell off my arm’. 

In court before Mr Biron he said little except to repeat that the child’s death was not intentional. ‘I let the child fall’, he stated in the dock. The magistrate was unconvinced: ‘He did not let if fall, but dashed it to the ground’. William Pierpoint was first remanded and later indicted for murder and sent for trial at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey. 

The case came on in July 1888 and there the Pierpoints’ landlady, Sophia Moon, gave the court a bit more context for the events of that fateful evening in May. By the 26 May William owed her 19s 6d, or six weeks’ arrears. She had asked him for this and he told he hadn’t anything to give her. He had piled the family’s belongings into a barrow but told her she could have all the furniture – ‘You can have the b_____ lot’ he said, and apparently said quite a lot more, none of which she was prepared to repeat in a courtroom. 

He threw his key down and stormed off, his youngest child (Gilbert) in his arms. It was soon after this the then that the tragedy occurred. Despite William’s comment to the police there were witnesses that saw him throw his child to the ground. Eliza Howell, a leather dresser’s wife, saw it and later identified William to police at the beer house. Sarah Store also witnessed William’s actions, saying he was ‘dreadfully excited’ and had offered to hold the baby urging William to go and get the bed from upstairs. 

She was insistent that that child had not fallen, William had thrown it down. Others witnessed this and so despite his not guilty plea, his agitated state of mind, and the fact that several testified to his usual good nature towards children, Pierrepoint was convicted of murder. The jury strongly recommended mercy but judge passed sentence of death on him. 

William Pierrepoint did not hang for his son’s murder. On 22 July 1888 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that a respite had been received at Wandsworth Prison, where he was being held. Justice Hawkins, the trail judge, had added his name to that of the jurors in asking for clemency and it seems as if Pierrepoint’s sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment. 

It’s a very sad story, all arising from the stress that poverty can cause, leaving one child dead, and depriving the other of his father and Mrs Pierrepoint of her husband. And all for the want of 20 shillings, or about £80 today. 

Curiously, but not related, the name Pierrepoint is as associated with hanging as 1888 is with murder; from 1931 to his resignation in 1956, Albert Pierrepoint either assisted or was the lead executioner who hanged between 450-600 persons in his 25-year career. Of these 200 were war criminals executed as a result of the Nazi atrocities in WW2. 

Writing in his autobiography, published in 1974, Pierrepoint reflected on the death penalty (which by then had been suspended): 

… is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

[From Morning Post, 28 May 1888; Daily News 29 May 1888; Ipswich Journal 31 May 1888; The Standard, 31 May 1888; Reynolds Newspaper 2 June 1888; Lloyds’ Weekly Newspaper 22 July 1888]

*soem reports say that ‘Sidney’ was 2 and half years old.

‘The weakness of the dangerous classes’: attitudes to poverty are at the heart of my teaching this term

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This week I will begin teaching my third year module at Northampton which focuses on the Whitechapel Murders and East End society in the 1880s. 

It is going to be different this year: with a full national lockdown in place all of my classes will be remote, online. The way we do this at Northampton University is to host online teaching sessions – live, not recorded (although there is always plenty of pre-recorded content for students to access before and after sessions). So I will be in my ‘virtual classroom’ with my normal seminar group, who will all be tuning in from their homes.

It isn’t ideal, it makes discussion harder, but not impossible. There are the inevitable tech problems, and issues with WiFI and simply having a suitable space to study. I’m lucky, I have a home office and a decent chair and desk; some of my students are using the kitchen table in their parental home, with parents trying to use the internet to work, while their younger siblings are home schooled. 

But this is a national (an international) emergency and needs must. As Tony Soprano would say, ‘what a ya gonna do?’ 

This week we will start by looking at the East End through the maps of Charles Booth, who mapped poverty in the capital in the 1880s and 1890s. He famously colour coded individual streets according to their levels of wealth or deprivation: black or dark blue for the ‘worst’ parts, red or yellow for the ‘best’. Much of Whitechapel, Stepney, and Bethnal Green was black or blue. There were red streets – signifying commercial or middle class relative affluence – but these tended to be along the main thoroughfares (like Commercial Road/Street or the High Street). The very heart of the ‘abyss’ (as the American writer jack London later termed it) was very dark and here poverty was endemic. 

Charles Booth undertook his investigation into poverty as a result of what he thought were spurious claims, by the socialist leader Henry Hyndman, that poverty was rife in the capital. In fact he discovered the situation was much worse than even Hyndman had alleged. 

Alongside Booth’s maps my students will study contemporary accounts of poverty and the very many views of the ‘the poor’ expressed by (mostly) middle-class ‘well-to-do’ (to borrow a phrase from Booth) commentators. 

These are revealing because they show us what some middle class people felt about the inhabitants of the East End; it reveals their prejudices, their fears, and how these all came together to shape their thoughts about what could be done about poverty. For example, one report – in the Pall Mall Gazette from January 1888 – of an interview with the Rev. G. S. Reaney is illuminating. Reaney had run the Stepney Congregational Church in the East End for six years by 1888, and was leaving the church for pastures new.  He was both ‘hopeful and hopeless’ about the people he was leaving behind. 

One section of the populace, the native Londoners of the East End, he described as ‘a hopeless class’. He had no idea how they managed to survive the poverty that engulfed them. ‘I imagine they eat a great deal less than we think necessary’, he told the Gazette as he continued packing up his effects to move. ‘I think they occupy very little house room’ and ‘by constant flitting [i.e. moving at night when they were in rent arrears] they escape a good deal of rent’. 

‘They have so little character’, he continued, and were ‘the most drunken and dissolute class of people’. In fact, ‘were it not for their physical and mental feebleness they would form a dangerous class’. 

This gets to the heart of one of the themes I explore with my students: the threat posed by endemic poverty in the late nineteenth century, as seen by the wealthy and elite. Should a state intervene to help these people out of poverty, help give them the ability to support themselves, educate them, pay they better? Or was it hopeless to even try? Would the provision of state support undermine their independence, and help create a dependence culture? 

These continue to be questions we ask today. 

The Rev. Reaney – a Christian man we must assume – suggested that while the ‘hopeless class’ of the East End was possibly beyond saving we might take away their children (following the example of the ‘splendid’ Dr Barnado) and provide them with an education, preferably a long way from the slums of the East End.

Reaney, not surprisingly, had more faith in religion to change society than in politics. Socialism was on everyone’s lips in the 1880s, Marx was in London and the waves of central European immigrants that arrived in the East End brought radical political beliefs with them. These are also things we discuss in the module. 

Perhaps this year, with everyone suffering in so many ways under this pandemic, the struggles of ordinary people in the 1880s will chime more loudly than they normally would. Hopefully, our discussions and debates, albeit fractured by the difficulties of the online platform, will be even more focused and interesting than they usually are. 

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday 4 January 1888]

A light fingered minister is caught in the act

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The reverend William Ogborne was an unexpected occupant of a police court dock when he appeared before Mr Tyrwhitt in early January 1861. The self-declared Wesleyan minister pleaded not guilty to a charge of theft, even when it seemed perfectly clear that he had been caught red-handed. 

Miss Alice Coker was taking tea at the Café Reche, Piccadilly in the early hours of Thursday 3 January, and had a small silver wreath with her, which she had placed on the table. At one point she called the waiter over and asked him to look after it for her while she left for a moment (perhaps to ‘powder her nose’). 

When she returned and made ready to leave the café the wreath was gone. Looking around she noticed that the older man that had been sitting at a nearby table, dressed a like a cleric, had also vanished. Her suspicions fell on him instantly!

A policeman was called and, armed with a description, PC Luke Jeffery (49C) set off in pursuit. He quickly found Ogborne who was carrying a small rug under his arm, and asked him if he had seen the young lady’s wreath. He said he hadn’t.

PC Jeffery searched the rug but there was nothing there. He then asked Ogborne to remove his hat, which he did. And there it was, concealed inside! 

The minister was arrested and he and Miss Coker attended Marlborough Street Police court later that morning. 

In court Ogborne protested his innocence: he had overhead an altercation in the café between ‘some foreigners and others’, and he intervened to try and ‘throw oil on troubled waters’. There had been harsh words and ‘talk of swords and pistols’, and ‘a challenge’. In trying to defuse a potential duel he had accidentally knocked the small silver wreath into his hat and hadn’t noticed it as he set it upon his head and left. 

The magistrate was surprised that a clergyman should be in such an establishment at 3 in the morning (which begs the question of what sort of young lady Miss Coker was to be there, tout seul, herself). He was equally confused as to why Ogborne had not admitted to having the wreath in his hat when the policeman had searched his rug. The minister simply said he’d gone in for some refreshment and as for the wreath, he had forgotten all about it.

Mr Trywhitt was probably quite conflicted; superficially here was a ‘respectable’ man (a Wesleyan minister) who swore he was innocent but had been found in very suspicious circumstances.  Had Ogborne not been a religious person he would undoubtedly have been remanded while the theft was investigated. As it was the magistrate bailed him (set at £5) to reappear before him in a week’s time, and confiscated the wreath. Ogborne, who gave an address in St Albans (at Verulam Road, for those of you curious to know where) presumably left as quickly as he could. 

A week later all the parties were back with the addition of a lawyer for Mr Ogborne (a Mr Lewis) and a new witness for the prosecution. PC Jeffrey presented a young woman (no name given, just an address in Pimlico – like Miss Coker) who confirmed the prosecution’s version of events. She agreed there had been an altercation as the minister described but said she saw Ogborne take the wreath while it was happening, and so benefitting from the distraction. 

Mr Lewis told the court that there were a number of persons present – gentleman from St Albans – who would show that this was ‘one of those extraordinary circumstances in a man’s lifetime’. 

The court must have been on tenterhooks…

Mr Tyrwitt was told that Ogborne had come to London to stay with a friend in Pimlico but had arrived to find there was no bed available. He headed to the Haymarket to find one (odd, since the Haymarket was associated with beds, but not ones you always slept in…). Having secured a birth for the night he went for refreshments.

This explained why he was in the café, his lawyer now explained the supposed theft. 

During the mini-riot in the café he noticed the wreath and hid for safe keeping, aiming to return it to the young lady as the earliest opportunity. No one could doubt this, why would such a man steal such a trifle? He would happily produce 20 gentleman who would vouch for his client’s ‘irreproachable character’. He then proceeded to introduce a number of highly respectable members of St Albans ‘society’ (members of the corporation, a hat manufacturer, a clerk to the magistrates) all of who did exactly that. 

Mr Tyrwitt agreed with Lewis that it was unlikely that any jury would convict a man of Ogborne’s ‘character’ and that character in this ‘was everything’. But he clearly had his doubts about him and probably suspected him of stealing the wreath, although there was no obvious motive. in the end he let him go with a warning to be more careful in future. I

t probably goes without saying to conclude that had William Ogborne been a member of the working class, and not able to find respectable character witnesses to excuse his behaviour, he would have either have sent him to face trial by jury or (and this is more likely given the disputed evidence) summarily sent him to prison for a month or so at hard labour. 

Justice, as they say, isn’t always equal, or fair (then, or now). 

[from Morning Chronicle Friday 4 January 1861; Morning Chronicle Friday 11 January 1861]

A servant so drunk she could hardly stand up

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We are now, thanks to Downton Abbey and (previously) Upstairs Downstairs  pretty familiar with the dynamics of master/servant relationships in the Victorian period. Even if those dramas might distort realities in some respects they offer us a view of a world that ceased to exist about a 100 years ago. 

For the most part, above stairs at least, servants were deferential and obedient, and households ran fairly smoothly.  Of course these dramas focus on the ‘big house’ scenario where a hierarchy of servants  – from butler to scullery maid – have clearly defined roles to perform ‘above stairs’. 

In reality very many households in the 1800s had just one or two servants to help them with their daily lives, and relationships here might have been a little different to those depicted in TV and film dramas. 

Madeline Brett was not your typical well-behaved servant. She had joined Mrs Mary Jane Snell’s service on 23 December 1880, just before Christmas. This should have been an opportunity for young Madeline. At just 18 she now had a position in a house on Bonchurch Lane, North Kensington. In 1890 this area was marked as mostly pink to red on Charles Booth’s poverty maps, so ‘fairly comfortable’, to ‘Middle class: well-to do’. 

It seems Madeline liked a drink, and this was soon very obvious to her mistress. 

A few days after Christmas, on 29 December, Madeline broke a bottle she was trying to place on the table. Her speech was slurred and she could hardly walk. Mrs Snell was shocked, but she said nothing. It seems the servant had a temper and her mistress was already a little afraid of her. 

However, when Madeline announced she was going to wash the china Mrs Snell begged her not to, afraid that she would break it all. This provoked the servant who pulled on a coat and went out of the front door to fetch a passing milk boy. She told him to go and get a policeman to arrest her mistress!

When the constable arrived she ranted at him and the officer was forced to subdue her; Mrs Snell then dismissed her from her service and asked her to leave. But instead of collecting her things Madeline simply stormed out returning some hours later, even more intoxicated than she had been earlier. 

Mrs Snell was in her drawing room when Madeline entered carry a watering can. At first she demanded her mistress take the can upstairs, then fell over, got up, made her way to the small kitchen, and collapsed again. Mrs Snell told her to go to bed but the girl refused. Clutching some paper she said she was going to light the gas. 

When Mrs Snell investigated she found pieces of burnt paper all over the house where Madeline had tried, and failed, to ignite the gas lighting. When Mrs Snell upbraided her employee Madeline ran out into the street, shouting and knocking at doors until a policeman quickly arrived and arrested her for being drunk and disorderly . 

She appeared at Hammersmith Police court on 30 December where she pleaded not guilty and accused her employer of unreasonable conduct. The magistrate remanded her and she was up again three days later when Mrs Snell appeared to give her evidence. Madeline continued to protest her innocence – it ‘was a false charge’ she insisted, ‘she was drunk for the want of drink’ she told Mr Paget. 

The justice not surprisingly chose to believe Mrs Snell over her servant. Madeline was sentenced to 21 days in prison with hard labour. She took this badly, fighting with the gaoler and police as they led her away, and issuing a stream of threats to her – now former – mistress as she went.    

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 2 January 1881]

No happy ending for buttons in this East End pantomime

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Throughout the history of crime the roles of ‘fences’ (receivers of stolen goods), pawnbrokers, and those involved in the second hand clothes market, are frequently cited by commentators as problematic. Put simply, if thieves didn’t have somewhere to easily dispose of their ill-gotten goods then they might not steal in the first place. 

This was certainly the underlying theme in the Morning Post’s report of a theft hearing at the Worship Police court in late December 1870. Elizabeth Brown (aged 22), Charlotte Quigly (20) and her 45 year-old mother, also called Charlotte, were presented before Mr Bushby accused of stealing and selling a quantity of buttons from the younger Quigly’s employer. 

Mr Williamson, a wholesale manufacturer of buttons based in Hackney, East London, had noticed that his stock was going missing. Having been unable to pinpoint where the theft was occurring he called in the police. Detective Chapman of W Division (which was the Clapham force) soon discovered that a large quantity (‘several gross’) of buttons had been sold to traders in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Hackney by younger Charlotte Quigly’s sister. This gave him a clear link to the source of the depredations. 

He pursued this line of inquiry and found out that Charlotte and Elizabeth Brown had both sold parcels of buttons to shopkeepers in Bethnal Green Road. Armed with this evidence he arrested and questioned the two young women. Brown had left Williamson’s employment a year earlier and quickly admitted her crime; she had been driven to it by poverty she declared, and threw herself on the mercy of the detective.

With the two younger women in custody Chapman continued his investigation and soon arrested Mrs Quigly, charging her with selling some of the buttons in the full knowledge that they were stolen. Why her younger daughter was not arrested is not clear, but perhaps she was considered to have been acting on instructions from her mother or older sister, or there was simply insufficient evidence against her. Whatever the truth the three women appeared in the dock at Worship on the 29th having been remanded for the theft a few days earlier. 

The remand gave time for Willaimson’s solicitor to bring a motely collection of shopkeepers to court as witnesses. Isaac Levine (of 17 Bethnal Green Road) and tailor, and  Mr Hyams of Brushfield Street, Hoxton (a tailors’ trimming seller), plus another half-dozen traders were called to confirm the detective’s evidence. 

Examined by Mr Beard (the prosecuting solicitor) they said they had been offered the goods as ‘job lots’, as damaged or faulty, or some other story to explain why the buttons were available so cheaply. Few of them had asked any questions, or sent the women away, let alone pass on any suspicions to the police. Moreover, none of them wrote down their purchases in their account books. Clearly they must have known that the stock they were buying was ‘dodgy’ at best, but chose to do nothing and profit from it regardless. 

Mr Bushby was suitably appalled at their behavior, and said so.

‘[T]he system they pursued was  eminently calculated to foster crime like this’ he thundered, and ‘he fervently hoped the time would come when they and such as they would be looked after by the police’.  

‘The were as much answerable for the crime of the prisoners as the prisoners themselves’, he added, and told them he was astounded that they had the nerve to come to his court and swear that they had believed these goods were merely ‘damaged’ and not – as they clearly were – stolen.   In future they had better start recording all purchases in their logs books or they would find themselves in the dock as receivers. 

Having finished his tirade he granted the police a further remand to continue to gather evidence against the three defendants.  Sadly, this is where their trail goes cold. None of them appear in the papers after that and I can see no jury trial either. I suspect they were either summarily punished or that Charlotte Quigly (the younger) was simply dismissed from Mr Williamson’s employ. 

Here then was one Christmas season story involving buttons that didn’t have a happy ending. 

[from The Morning Post Thursday 29 December 1870]

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).