Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

The Camden Town Tragedy: Class and titles in coverage of the Crippen case


An IPN headline from 23 July 1910

The past is a different place: sometimes, this does not seem to be the case when analysing crime coverage in the newspapers of the 19th century or early 20th century.

The human instinct is to be drawn to tales of murder and mayhem; to find ourselves gripped by some horrible case, and to carry on reading about victims’ deaths – the manner of it, the weapons used, even the fear catalogued in offenders’ testimony about their offences, or implied in defence wounds, and so on.

We may not ever desire to commit a crime ourselves, and we may not have an ounce of sympathy towards the offender, but there is certainly something present in human psychology that makes us want to know, to understand, the nature of crime and why humans do things that our criminal and legal systems have declared to be offences.

If this interest in crime is part of our psychology, then it is no wonder that it transcends time, and why reading, say, coverage of the Whitechapel Murders in the Illustrated Police News during late 1888 feels familiar to those of us who would otherwise be reading stories of other cases in today’s tabloids (and, of course, today’s papers continue to write about the crimes of the past, most notably those same Whitechapel Murders – just one example being this Sun piece from earlier this year).

The basic tenets of crime reporting have not changed that much, although the law might have changed in some respects (I recently researched a post-World War 2 story for a local paper, for example, where the victim of an attempted rape was not only named, but her address and other details happily reported, both prior to her attacker’s identification and apprehension, and following his trial).

The fundamentals are the same: setting the scene, detailing the shocking crime, giving information that the police want made public in order to locate and arrest an alleged perpetrator.

In this way, crime reportage is like a crime novel – both are written to draw the reader in and to keep them reading. In the 19th century, just as now, we fear the unknown, and in particular the unknown attacker. We scare ourselves by reading these stories that transcend time and place, and it makes little difference to us where a crime took place.

I’ve been reading about the Karla Homolka case this week; it may be a Canadian case, but it still raises issues about the ‘faces’ presented by a violent, possibly psychopathic woman, and whether she managed to dupe the predominantly male authorities, that are pertinent in a wider context (and if you want to send me a copy of this new book about Homolka, Routledge, I wouldn’t object!).

But one way in which some crime coverage of the past appears to differ from today is in the implied respect for class and title that some newspapers employed. Of course, Victorian society was always preoccupied with social position, and title was a way of presenting one’s social position, or of signifying respect for an individual.

Crippen and Le Neve on trial

This, though, presents some interesting reading. Take, as the most obvious case, that of Hawley Harvey Crippen.

Even today, he is more commonly referred to as Dr Crippen, despite his US homeopathic qualifications not being sufficient for him to practise as a doctor in his adopted country of England. This differs from, say, the more recent murders committed by GP Harold Shipman – we tend to refer to him as ‘Harold Shipman’ rather than ‘Dr Shipman’.

Crippen married his second wife, Cora, in 1894, but murdered her in 1910, having started an affair with typist Ethel Le Neve. As the police closed in on him and his made-up stories about what had happened to Cora, Crippen and Le Neve fled, making their way across the Atlantic.

Walter Dew

They were arrested thanks to recognition by the ship’s captain, a wireless telegram, and a chief inspector – Walter Dew – who travelled on a ship that was quicker than Crippen’s, enabling him to capture the couple when their ship approached port in Canada.

The murder, and the exciting chase across the Atlantic, was obviously a major story, and eagerly covered by the press – both at the time, and long after.

The Illustrated Police News, known for its over-excited coverage of crime, and its gory illustrations, duly engaged in columns of newsprint to detail the case.

At the time of the inquest into Cora’s death, through the attempt to flee, the arrests, and the subsequent trial, the parties were largely referred to by their titles: Dr, Mrs, Miss.

Yet even a quarter century later, the Illustrated Police News still obeyed the conventions by how it referred to the parties (in a page looking at ‘notable crimes of the past’ – IPN, 30 January 1936, p.5).

The IPN’s depiction of Crippen and a disguised le Neve on board their ship to Canada

When it recounted Crippen and Le Neve being arrested, the story not only referred to ‘Mrs Crippen’, the victim, but referred to the accused as ‘Dr Crippen’ and ‘his typist, Miss Le Neve’. There were, admittedly, some mentions simply of ‘Crippen’, but these were vastly outnumbered by ‘Dr Crippen’, otherwise referred to as ‘the doctor’.

There is, though, another reason why their titles were so important. Crime was associated with the lower classes: they were seen to be rather lawless, immoral, prone to drinking and to violence. If Cora’s murder had been by a labouring man, it may have been seen as less of an interesting case.

This murder, though, was committed by a doctor. He had a title, he was middle class. His occupation and his title made the crime even more newsworthy than it would otherwise have been.

The women’s titles had also got significance. Miss Le Neve – the unmarried woman having an affair with the husband of Mrs Crippen, the married woman. Their titles implied not respect so much as a stressing of their roles in Crippen’s life and their roles in this drama. It was a shorthand for what had been going on, highlighting the relationships between the parties whilst.

Therefore, although on the surface, the use of titles appears to be a remnant of a past that was very focused on respect for class, and for titles, underneath, there are other reasons to highlight people’s positions, and they add to, rather than distract from, the crime story in question.

Book review: Rex v Edith Thompson

Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, and Edith’s husband Percy Thompson

On 9 January 1923, a 29-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man fell to their deaths at the end of two ropes. The events that had led to their deaths had been endlessly debated in the press and in court during the previous three months, and as we approach the centenary of their executions, there is still discussion about whether the woman in question deserved to die.

The woman, Edith Jessie Thompson, a married woman from the eastern outskirts of London who dared to dream of a more exciting life than marriage to a dull man who may have been violent towards her, of more than life in the new suburbs of the London/Essex border. The man was Freddy Bywaters, someone she had known since his childhood, a family friend who she embarked on a passionate affair with.

Edith is a fascinating woman, even from this remove: she worked full-time in London, and seems to have enjoyed having a career that enabled her to pay her fair share towards her marital home, unusual at the time. She was ambitious, independent, and loved books and writing. This love of writing, combined with a vivid imagination and desire for romance, was her downfall.

In her book on the case, out today in paperback, Laura Thompson explores how Edith Thompson was condemned by her own letters to her lover – or rather, by the perceptions others, primarily men, formed about her based on these texts. She was hanged even though she had not killed her husband – it was her lover, everyone agreed (including him), who had stabbed Percy Thompson to death as he walked home with his wife following an evening at the theatre.

But Edith had been a prolific letter writer, and in a way, she was failed by the young lover who ignored her requests to burn her correspondence (she, however, burned most of his), which led to them being used as evidence against her. Her letters are a mix of reality and fantasy, of dreams and desires, and so the odd references to doing something to her husband – a man who would not agree to a separation, even though he was aware of his wife’s affair – were seen to be attempts to poison him, or requests for her lover to do so.

She was condemned for having an affair, for being too open about her feelings, and for trying to communicate in an imaginative way to her lover. She was, as Laura Thompson suggests, punished for being too modern a woman, trying to live a life beyond that which society dictated she should be happy with. And yet. There remains doubt as to whether she had actually tried to kill her husband, about how complicit she was in the murder.

Her lies immediately following Percy’s death – claiming to have not seen an attacker, that Percy simply collapsed, that she saw no blood – did not help her cause. And her letters can certainly be read in different ways, according to how you feel about her.

Edith Thompson

This is, to her credit, something acknowledged by Thompson, who seems to herself fluctuate in her feelings towards Edith. She distinguishes as well between what Edith wrote, how Edith saw events, and how others perceived them. Therefore, the book is a book of two halves: most of it recreates Edith’s life from her own letters, using her own words, before the book changes focus (the ‘Rex’ part) by looking at events subsequent to the murder, written up by others – by Home Office officials, by lawyers, by newspaper journalists.

True crime books can vary in quality and in terms of their writing and analysis. This is one of the hardest I’ve found to read, because of its ambitious approach – it makes you concentrate, to read everything carefully in case you miss something.

It’s imaginatively written, but complex, weaving in social and gender history, and constructing a three-dimensional picture of the stifling nature of lower middle class life in Ilford in the early 1920s, as women’s lives were changing, but not yet changed. As Laura Thompson stresses, Edith was caught between two generations, and was before her time. Had she been a generation later, she would have enjoyed more freedom, more opportunities, and might have been happier.

It is to Laura’s credit that she makes no attempt to simplify the case, or Edith’s background. Freddy Bywaters is perhaps more two-dimensional, although she does try to get beyond the picture of him we might get from Edith’s letters, to present a perhaps unworthy lover, one who had a tendency to violence, a darker side underneath the striking good looks. Percy is, inevitably, more of a cipher – the reader never gets a good look at him, which is a reflection again on Edith’s letters and their focus, but acknowledged by the author.

The author never seems sure of the level of Edith’s complicity, but one thing is certain: she should not have been convicted of murder, and hanged, as the murderer was never in doubt, and there was no evidence against Edith. She was convicted of having an affair, of writing explicit letters, of living in a fantasy that went horribly wrong. Her letters were read out in court by men, and judged by men. She never had a chance, despite having not committed the crime she was charged with.

Ultimately, the book presents a strong case against the death penalty, and the depiction of Edith’s time in the condemned cell, and her hanging, is the most harrowing I’ve come across. If you want a simplistic true crime book that sees crime as an entertainment, do not read this; however, if you want a deeper consideration of the gendered nature of crime and punishment, and attitudes towards women’s sexuality and desires between the wars, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Rex v Edith Thompson: A Tale of Two Murders, by Laura Thompson, is published by Head of Zeus.Thanks to the publisher for giving me a review copy of the book.




The Leytonstone Murder: how a merchant’s madness over money led to a horrific death

It was an ordinary weekend in the autumn of 1904,  and the Dover police were about to have the relative peace broken by William Hoffman.

“I wish to surrender myself,” he said to one of the police officers, an Inspector Lackwood, as he entered the police office. Lackwood looked the man up and down. He appeared very depressed, and Lackwood wondered whether he had been drinking, but there was no sign of it. He was not drunk, and neither was he hallucinating.

He did, however, appear familiar. Lackwood remembered a note circulated by the Metropolitan Police recently, which featured the description of a man they wanted to question: this stranger in Dover matched that description.

Lackwood immediately got in touch with his fellow officers in Hackney, east London, prompting Detective Inspector George Wallace to make the slow journey down to the south coast. It was the following morning when he walked into the police office, and saw Hoffman.

“I am a police officer,” he told the stranger, “and I should arrest you for wilful murder.”

“I will say nothing,” responded Hoffman: “I have said all I wish to say.”

But Hoffman had not said everything; although he had also talked extensively to Inspector Lackwood, prior to Wallace turning up, on the train from Dover back to London, he once more gave a full statement, confessing to a heinous crime. He had, as the Met strongly suspected already, murdered his own housekeeper, Helen Walden, in the cellar of 11 Park Grove Road in Leytonstone.

William Hoffman was aged around 41, and was originally from Chesham in Buckinghamshire. He had been living in the house for around five years, and with his brother, Thomas, ran a business from there, as coal, coke and wood merchants (although the 1901 census actually records them at the address as greengrocers). Helen had started work for them as a servant in around 1901, when she would have been around 16.

Hoffman was an unlikely looking murderer. He wore a neat blue reefer coat, and had a well-trimmed, albeit long and bushy, black beard.

He looked, it was said, like a ‘rather quiet-looking man’ with a ‘peaceful state of mind’, although his quietness could have been due to his partial deafness.

The peaceful attitude he displayed to police and, later, to a judge and jury, belied the crime with which he was soon charged. Helen Walden, who was just 19 years old,  had been discovered in the cellar with her throat ‘cut from ear to ear’.

It later emerged that Thomas Hoffman had gone out on a coal round at 8am on the morning of the murder, leaving Helen and William alone at home. The Hoffmans’ shop was on the ground floor, and William had worked there in the morning, as several customers laters attested. Helen, meanwhile, was starting the week’s washing in the cellar, which was directly underneath the shop.

At around 11am, William was seen leaving the shop, carrying a black bag. When his brother arrived home two hours later, he found that both the shop and the side entrance were locked, and he couldn’t get in. He knocked at both doors, then on the windows, but the house seemed empty. Eventually, he broke open the side entrance, and started calling for William and Helen. No answer. The house was, it was later said, ‘as silent as the grave’.

Thomas searched the rooms for his brother and servant. Eventually, he came to the cellar – and found the body of Helen Walden, lying on her back in a pool of blood. A horrified Thomas immediately ran to the local police station, and soon he was running back, this time accompanied by two detectives.

Two doctors arrived shortly after, and found that Helen had been dead for several hours, although her body was still warm. There was no doubt about the cause of death – her throat had been cut from right to left, ‘in a jagged fashion’ – but her face was also covered with fingerprints, grey with coal dust.

Later, William confessed that he had gone down into the cellar, where Helen was working, and asked her for money she owed him. This amounted to around £19, and William had previously accused her of stealing it, a charge that she had furiously denied.

Yet it seems that she had a history: nine months earlier, as it emerged later, she had admitted to stealing 30s from one of the Hoffman brothers, but had been allowed to repay it in weekly instalments of 2s – still quite a sum, as her wages were only 5s a week.

William obviously had some sympathy with the young woman, to the extent that Thomas Hoffman had told his brother they should turn her out of the house, ending her employment, after she had admitted the earlier theft; William refused, because she had no parents still alive and he was concerned about what would happen to her if she left.

It may, then, have been understandable that when a further sum went missing, William suspected Helen – and it seems that she had received the money, but perhaps thought William had given it to her, or at least lent it to his long-serving servant. In his account, anyway, she admitted having had the money; but she no longer had it in her possession.

“I can’t get it,” she responded, “I have given the soldier £10 and Madge Harrington [a friend] £9, and they won’t give it me back.”

The ‘soldier’ was her young man, who was in the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs (the Royal East Kent Regiment), stationed at Dover.

“If that is so,” answered Hoffman, “I shall have to do something.”

Helen was not scared off. “If you want anything out of that, you will have to take my life,” she napped, and then lay down on the floor, on her back, and put her arms up. “Come on, cut my throat!”

This, at least, was Hoffman’s version of events. Taking Helen’s words literally, he immediately cut her throat with a white-handled knife, before wiping it clean of blood on Helen’s own clothes. William even claimed, rather ruining his story, that as he cut Helen’s throat, she helped him: “she turned over on her face and then on her back again. I didn’t struggle with her at all, as there was no occasion to do it.”

After committing the murder, Hoffman had calmly walked away from the house, and to the train station, where he caught a train down to Dover. He checked into the Standard pub on Commercial Quay, and there he had stayed from Wednesday to Friday, when he first walked to the police station, with the aim of confessing.

On getting there, however, his courage failed him, and he had returned to the pub. Eventually, though, that weekend, he succeeded in telling the police what he had done. He argued that his main reason for coming to Dover was to find Helen’s soldier, and to either get the money she had given him back – or kill him.

Hoffman appeared at Stratford Police Court immediately after reaching London again, on a charge of murder. Although his appearance attracted crowds outside the court, the public were not allowed to come in and watch proceedings. His appearance was brief, and ended with him being remanded into custody.

He was eventually tried at the Central Criminal Court in December 1904, and, despite medical evidence – from Dr Scott, medical officer at Brixton Gaol, where Hoffman had been held  – that he was insane at the time of the murder, was convicted. William’s comment in court, shortly before being sentenced, was said calmly:

“I think it is a great shame, after a man has been robbed of over £300 [sic], that he should have his life taken away. I have treated this girl to the best of everything.”

William Hoffman was sentenced to death; however, after a medical examination by Home Office doctors – ordered, perhaps, in part because of a protest there had been after his conviction by those against the death penalty being carried out against a man who had been declared insane – he was granted a respite. William may have felt that Helen had got away with theft, but he had, in a way, got away with murder.


Illustrations from the Illustrated Police News of 5 November 1904, p.3 and the Clifton and Redland Free Press, 4 November 1904, p.4, accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.

The clairvoyants who failed to tell their own fortunes

An Edwardian trial used legislation from larceny to witchcraft to prosecute a husband and wife palm-reading team…

In 1904, an ordinary looking, middle-aged couple appeared in court to answer various charges. Charles Yates Stephenson and his wife, Martha, were well-dressed, literate and well-spoken. They were also two of the targets of a concerted effort by the Metropolitan Police to clamp down on a surfeit of fraudulent clairvoyants and spiritualists who were flocking the capital, advertising their services in the press, and encouraging the vulnerable, the grieving, and the unhappy residents of the capital to pay good money to hear platitudes – voices of their dead loved ones, allegedly speaking beyond the grave.

Charles was born in 1858 in Southwark, the son of a commercial traveller and grandson of a wealthy shipowner. He grew up in Camberwell and in Brighton, initially working in the latter place as a journalist. He knew how to conjure up a good story, and this would later include a series of exaggerated job titles.

In the censuses, he variously described himself as a ‘medical masseur’, a ‘medical electrician’, and, finally, a doctor of medicine, despite having never gone to university or medical school. He moved around frequently; in 1888, when he was working as a reporter in Southport, he married Martha Faircloth, one of ten children, and the daughter of a Cambridgeshire corn miller.

A sketch of the Keiros during their trial

The Stephensons moved around the country, but after a spell in Sussex – where Charles was convicted of two offences, from the minor (failing to muzzle his dog) to the major (getting drunk and beating Martha up in the street) – they moved to London. By the turn of the century, they had established a partnership as Professor and Madame Keiro. This was a permutation of the name Cheiro – which was an abbreviation of cheiromancy, another word for palmistry.

Another palmist who used the name was the Dublin-born William Warner, known as Cheiro; he was a popular figure in London at around the same time. Although using a form of the word cheiromancy was logical in the Stephensons’ line of work, it is also possible that they wanted to create a link between themselves and the well-known ‘society palmist’ by using a similar name.

The fin de siècle had seen a resurgence of interest in spiritualism and the ‘other world’, following a similar passion amongst individuals earlier in the 19th century. Academics sought to rationalise spiritualism whilst others embraced it and founded societies aimed at exploring the supernatural. Students investigated the occult illicitly, scaring themselves with ouija boards and other activities designed to communicate with the dead.

An increasing number of palmists and fortune tellers set up in business across Britain, some working from their kitchens or living rooms, inviting strangers into their homes to tell them what they wanted to hear. Others, like the Stephensons, aimed higher, renting properties that could act as business premises.

The press and government were concerned at this resurgent interest in the supernatural, and the authorities sought to clamp down on it. They invoked three main pieces of legislation – the Larceny Act, the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and the Vagrancy Act. Under the old vagrancy laws, it was illegal to engage in fortune telling for money – something originally linked to suspicion about gypsies – and there were also issues regarding fraud, with it being increasingly recognised that these fortune tellers were fraudulent, and that their motive was obtaining money for false services.

It was made clear, with the Stephensons, that they ‘were not of the class of vagrant fortune tellers, who wandered from house to house, but would probably claim to belong to the innermost hierarchy of that class’. Therefore, despite the laws against vagrancy, there was also a kind of romantic perception of the itinerant, gypsy fortune teller – one that the Stephensons were keen to exploit.

The police awareness of fortune-telling scams had been helped by disgruntled former clients, who made efforts to discredit individuals such as the Keiros, both by reporting them to police, and by writing anonymous cards, placed publicly, warning others.

The Keiros were so concerned about these notes that they took the risk of placing an advert in the Morning Post in January 1901, describing themselves as ‘Professor and Madame Keiro, scientific palmists’ (Charles was no professor, and neither had scientific credentials). They stressed that they held daily consultations at Regent Street, but then added: ‘The writer of the anonymous cards to Prof. Keiro and others has been traced. Their communications are treated with the contempt they deserve.’

It was on10 October 1904 that Charles and Martha Stephenson appeared before the magistrates at the Clerkenwell Sessions House in London. They both pleaded not guilty to fraud. The prosecution mocked Charles’ description of himself as ‘the leading and oldest established palmist in the world’, and made clear that money was at the heart of the business – ‘he had carried on a highly remunerative business for many years.’

Although every customer who visited him received a note declaring that he would never deceive them, and that they could choose whether or not to believe his predictions of the future, it was noted in court that this did not offer Charles any protection legally – not even the ‘smallest possible protection’.

A contemporary drawing of Charles Stephenson, aka Professor Keiro

Customers using the Stephensons’ services often wanted to know information such as when they would get married, how many children they would have, or how long they would live. Other services were also sought, such as in the case of one young man who was panicking about his forthcoming exams, and who asked Charles to hypnotise him into better revision habits.

As part of their evidence gathering for the case, the police had employed ex-Scotland Yard inspector Charles Richards, now working as a private detective. Keiro had boasted to him that he had read the hands of President McKinley and that he had also foretold the death of Queen Victoria. Another witness detailed a reading she had received from Keiro, in which he told her that her husband would be asked to build a big asylum. When questioned further, she said this was unlikely, given that her husband was ‘really a clerk in the works department of the Stores’.

In summing up, the prosecution stated that ‘this was a gross, impudent fraud, this getting of a guinea or two from credulous, foolish, stupid people who had an extraordinary capacity for believing any form of rubbish, no matter how outrageous, offered to them.’

The case also had important connotations in terms of class, for it was noted that there had been many prosecutions of poorer fortune-tellers – those genuinely from traveller backgrounds, or otherwise from the lower echelons of society – and that it would not look good to convict these people, but not middle-class frauds such as the Stephensons. At the conclusion of the case, both Charles and Martha were found guilty of attempted fraud, as well as of pretending to tell fortunes. They escaped jail, instead being bound over to come up for sentencing if called on – and they were ordered not to practice palmistry again.

The 1904 case was part of a concerted effort by the authorities to clamp down on unscrupulous and fraudulent fortune tellers, but in the case of the Keiros, the same authorities were not completely successful. ‘Madame Keiro’ continued to work for another decade, and it was only in 1917 – after the now 61-year-old was sentenced to two months in prison, bursting into tears in court on hearing her punishment – that she appears to have stopped practicing palmistry. She now started to sell a hair remover for 6s 6d a go.

Charles, meanwhile, wrote an ‘apology’ in the form of a book on palmistry, followed by another book – the ‘autobiography’ of his tabby cat. After telling other people’s fortunes for so many years, one wonders if they foresaw what their own fortunes would now be: a gentle fade into obscurity.

This article originally appeared in the Discover Your Ancestors online magazine, and is reproduced with permission. To subscribe to this monthly history magazine, or to find out more, visit the DYA website here. All illustrations taken from newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive.

Why I won’t be at BCHS

‘Merry’ female students at Oxford, in The Sphere, 28 October 1922 (from British Newspaper Archive)

Today, I should be making the 40-minute car journey followed by three train changes journey up to Ormskirk to spend a couple of days with fellow crime historians at the British Crime Historians Symposium.

Held every two years, I’ve attended the last three – at Edinburgh, Liverpool and Milton Keynes – and have found it to be a valuable experience. Not only do you get to talk about your research to people who are genuinely interested and involved in related fields, but you also network with others, make or renew friendships, and feel that you are part of a supportive community.

However, I won’t be there today. Very reluctantly – and after having managed to write both my own conference paper and its accompanying PowerPoint, which always feels like an achievement in itself – I’ve had to withdraw. It’s the second conference I was supposed to be speaking at this year, and the second I’ve had to cancel, with less notice than I’d like to have given.

Why won’t I be there? Basically, I’ve realised I’m not superwoman. Other people seem to be able to do everything (and if that’s you, I have huge admiration for you) – but I can’t, and I think because I straddle two different areas – academia and freelance writing – I struggle to keep up.

If you work full-time in academia, or are doing a research degree, speaking at conferences is pretty much expected of you. There’s a clear benefit both to you and your institution that this is a valuable activity, one to add to your profile or CV. You may also get funding – some, at least – towards the costs of attending the conference, even.

I finished my PhD three years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to get a lectureship, as my university was unable to give me any teaching experience over the course of my studies, and this is required for all the posts I’ve seen advertised (understandably, I hasten to add). I am also at a disadvantage in terms of applying for sought-after postdocs because I have family commitments that mean I can’t just up sticks and move around the country to take on jobs that are on fixed term contracts.

I therefore work as a freelance writer and editor, juggling projects and commissions for different companies (in addition to also trying to get my next book written!). I love doing this – I’ve been doing it for over a decade, so I must do! – but it’s not a 9 to 5 job, and it’s not regular hours throughout the year.

I never know when I’m going to be busy, and when I’m not – although if the last couple of years are anything to go by, it seems that the summer holidays tend to be my most frenetic time. But it means that paid work has to come first, and that when I become busy, I have to let other commitments go.

This year, conferences have been the commitment I’ve had to let go, and it’s made me realise that I need to stop trying to attend them for a while. It’s costing me too much in terms of time, stress and money – as I have to pay conference fees, travel and accommodation out of my own pocket, and the conferences I want to attend invariably seem to be quite far away, meaning I spend a lot of time travelling with dodgy or non-existent wifi, so that I can’t guarantee being able to work whilst on the move.

It does make me sad, and feel sometimes that I’m struggling just to keep one foot in academia – but I’m just going to have to find other ways to do it (and thanks to Oxford Brookes University, who have given me an honorary research associate position, which is very much appreciated)!

Luckily, I know lots of lovely academic historians on social media, and if any of them ever fancy a coffee in Oxford or London – the places I can get to easily – then shout! And in the meantime, all the best to everyone taking part in BCHS this weekend; do tweet, blog or otherwise communicate what’s happening up at Edge Hill University so that those of us who would love to have been there, but can’t, feel like we’re still involved. 🙂

Book review: Death on the Victorian Beat

There’s something about the violent deaths of police officers that grabs our attention. These are men and women who dedicate their working lives to helping to make communities safer, and so when they die in the course of their duties, we are shocked.

At a time when there is debate about economic cuts to the police, resulting in fewer ‘bobbies on the beat’, and the possible correlation between that and violent crime in places such as London, we should remember that there has always been crime – and that those whose job it is to ensure our safety have always been the targets for violence themselves (Wikipedia, for example, has a page listing the deaths of police officers in the line of duty since 1900).

In the last couple of years, a few books have been published focusing on some of these individuals; there have recently been two books looking at the life and violent death of PC Cock at the hands of Charles Peace in Manchester in 1876, for example – Angela Buckley’s Who Killed Constable Cock? (2017) and Ben Johnson’s book on Peace’s life, Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise (2016).

The latest to join them is Martin Baggoley’s Death on the Victorian Beat, published by Pen & Sword (who previously published a book looking at more modern cases involving the deaths of police officers – Dirk Kirby’s Death on the Beat (2013)).

This book is not for those wanting a comprehensive history of violence (for that, read JA Sharpe’s humungous book) or one of the origins or development of policing (try Clive Emsley’s books, especially The Great British Bobby).

Charles, or Charlie, Peace, who killed a constable in Manchester in 1876

However, if you want a readable introduction to the subject of Victorian policing, it’s recommended. Baggoley’s approach is to let the stories tell themselves, to a large extent; so he presents several case studies, drawn from original archives and newspaper reports, to show the different situations that could result in individual police officers being killed throughout the 19th century.

Each chapter comprises a single case study; one, perhaps inevitably, is about PC Cock’s death, but other cases are less well-known or written about, and so offer a range of examples of how Victorian policing, like modern day law enforcement, could be a dangerous job.

Baggoley’s book is a good introduction to the subject of Victorian policing and to the individuals who lost their lives through their policing of communities; it also serves as a useful companion to Gaynor Halliday’s more detailed Victorian Policing (similarly published byPen & Sword, in 2017).

Death on the Victorian Beat, by Martin Baggoley, is published by Pen & Sword. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

A visit to Cork City Gaol

The city of Cork formerly had a gaol at Northgate Bridge, but this old site had, by the start of the 19th century, become overcrowded, with poor hygiene conditions. It was recognised that a new gaol was needed, one better suited to ‘modern’ times, and so, in 1806, an Act of Parliament was passed to build a new prison – the Cork City Gaol.

This new site was at Sunday’s Well, on a hill overlooking the city, although it took a further decade from the passing the Act of Parliament for work to begin on constructing roads up to the site, and then for the prison itself to be built. It finally opened in 1824 as a prison for both male and female criminals who had committed crimes within the city’s boundary (those committing crimes outside the boundary would be sent to the County Gaol instead).

Prior to public hangings being stopped in 1868, those condemned to death would be hanged from the gatehouse of the prison, it being the place visible to onlookers and passersby (the main part of the prison being behind the gatehouse – even today, you can only really see the prison once you have passed through the gatehouse). Therefore, although the building was grand, it had a dark purpose that was often all too visible to the city’s residents.

The gaol became a women’s only building from 1878, now housing female prisoners from both the city and county of Cork (the county gaol became the men’s prison). It housed political prisoners during the Civil War, before closing in 1923. Then, rather bizarrely, the building was used as a home for radio stations until the 1950s. Finally, after a period of dereliction, it reopened as a museum and heritage centre 25 years ago.

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Today, it is a good place to visit to learn more about Cork’s criminal heritage; it’s fairly low key, with visitors able to choose whether to have a guided tour, or to use an audio tour, or just to wander round on their own. There are the almost ubiquitous (and always strange) wax dummies of prisoners and staff, but the visitor map clearly lays out some history and detail about both former prisoners and the structure of the building.

It’s all very simple, with only one main use of audio-visual gimmickry; this plays recreated trials, featuring actors, onto the walls of one room and is incredibly effective, highlighting how the lives of famous prisoners are generally focused on by history, leaving the lives of the ordinary – the desperate thieves, the children caught up in the criminal justice system, and the women struggling with poverty and death – to be forgotten, erased or ignored.

Because of its relative simplicity, largely letting its rooms speak for themselves (don’t miss the prisoners’ graffiti still visible in several cells), Cork City Gaol is well worth a visit, and it is a moving experience. Guides and volunteers are low-key but there to answer any questions you might have. There is both a cafe and a small gift shop, but these are both almost hidden away, so the focus of your visit remains on the history rather than the merchandising opportunities – and that’s exactly as it should be.


Bring the WM Police Museum to Steelhouse Lane

Steelhouse Lane police station (photo by Andy Mabbett – used under Creative Commons)

I’m a great fan of police museums. These tend to be smaller museums, often manned by volunteers including retired officers, with not only a good knowledge of their collections, but also a huge amount of enthusiasm and a desire to impart their knowledge to their visitors.

I’ve been to many police museums around England – from Tetbury to the City of London, via the Thames Valley Police Museum. There are several more on my to-do list, including the Essex Police Museum, which, from its social media feeds at least, looks great, offering a wide range of activities to get younger visitors involved.

But, as always with the heritage sector, funding remains an issue. Personally, I don’t think that, in this country at least, we value heritage and museum sites enough. They have been at the forefront of funding cuts for the past few years, along with libraries, part of the government’s inability to value the arts and our history, and to fully recognise their value within local communities.

Now, due to the cuts to police funding (and don’t get me started on that, either), another police museum is in need of help and generosity from those interested in police history.

The West Midlands Police Museum needs a new home, and the old Victorian Steelhouse Lane lock-up in Birmingham would make an ideal location. However, there is no funding available to turn the building into an effective home for the museum – and so those behind it have launched a GoFundMe campaign to try and finance the conversion of the lock-up into a museum.

The Lock-up is already seeing a steady stream of visitors come and investigate its history, and that of the local police force, through regular open days and talks. It would be great to see it extend this work, and one of WMP’s aims is to have this new museum site take on a programme of work with the local community – from schools to history groups.

It would also become home to WMP’s historic collection of helmets, uniforms and so on, and enable it to further explore the stories it has relating to police heroism and bravery.

Funds raised through the campaign would be used to separate the Lock-up from its neighbouring police station, create better access (including a lift and a stairwell), new visitor facilities and exhibition displays. It is hoped that funding will be in place by summer 2019, with the aim of relaunching the museum by summer 2020.

If you would like to contribute to this project, you can do so via the GoFundMe page here. You can also find out more via the website, the WMPHistory twitter account, or its Facebook page.


I found this in a 1916 Prison Directory online; it’s a fascinating insight into how prisoners used to be punished. In this case, prior to the city bridewell being built in the mid 19th century, Chicago’s criminals were made to clean the streets whilst their leg was attached to a ball and chain, which had unintended consequences…


Who Do You Think You Are? Probably a man, that’s who

Comedian Lee Mack (photo by Amanda Benson via Wikimedia Commons)

I have a confession. Despite being a historian, keen amateur genealogist and former editor of a family history magazine, I don’t avidly watch every single episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on television. Instead, I dip in and out, choosing to watch specific episodes where I either like the person being featured (hello, Olivia Colman), or a story featuring in the episode is flagged up by the media beforehand, and piques my curiosity.

Therefore, I watched this Monday’s episode, focusing on the family of comedian Lee Mack, because it was looking partly at one of his forebears – Billy Mac – who had been a music hall entertainer. As my ancestors were on the stage, I am always interested in similar stories and advice on how to research these individuals, and in the event, I enjoyed the journey Mack took from the Midlands to the trenches of World War 1, looking at his ancestor’s involvement in wartime troop morale as part of an entertainment troupe, The Optimists.

Billy Mac’s entry in the WW1 medal rolls index on Ancestry

Obviously, it’s difficult to condense everything into an hour’s programme, and facts and stories necessarily get omitted. So we didn’t hear of Billy Mac’s life before World War 1 (had he done any entertaining prior to joining the Liverpool Pals? If not, what was he doing? He must have had a job before 1914, as he was 25 when he enlisted), and his life post-marriage was glossed over in five minutes, as though anything he had done outside of comedy was somehow uninteresting or irrelevant.

But the greatest omission came when the programme moved on to look at Mack’s maternal line, and in particular his great-grandfather (I think), Joe. He was born in Southport, but the family story was that his mother had abandoned him as a baby and emigrated to Canada. The programme explored a fascinating story of Joe’s moving to County Mayo in 1911 to be raised by his grandparents; he was born Mathew Felix Kingsley, a fact he may have never known, for he had no birth certificate and his grandparents appear to have renamed him Joseph Francis at a young age.

The 1911 census showed that his mother was still present in his life when he was one; she is recorded, with baby ‘Mathew’ in the returns for Ballina, living in the home of her parents, Thomas and Mary Farrell. Her surname, like her child’s, is recorded as Kingsley. The programme hinted at the fact that she was probably not married – despite what the census stated – and that Kingsley had been adopted as her and her child’s name in order to mask the fact of his illegitimacy. Judging by the family tree shown on screen during the programme, the baby – later Joe – remained a Kingsley throughout his life, when he should have been a Farrell (or an O’Farrell, as both permutations of the name are found in online sources).

It was what happened to Joe’s mother Delia that was most unsatisfactory. She remained a cipher throughout the programme: the emphasis was on her father’s illegal shebeens that regularly brought him before the magistrates at petty sessions, and on the males in the family. This is fairly common in researching and writing about family history, for men tend to be better documented in official records and occupational information than women. Yet it also gives the impression that it is the men’s lives that are worthy of note, worth going into detail about, with women being sidelined or even erased from the story.

There is also a tendency to criticise the woman where a man would escape censure. Lee Mack acknowledged that he felt critical towards Delia for ‘abandoning’ a young child and fleeing to another country, even though he later commented that her parents may have been responsible for making her leave.

There was an acknowledgement that illegitimacy was stigmatised and that life would have been hard for Delia as an unmarried mother; she also had to maintain the falsehood of her marriage to an imaginary man named Kingsley. Yet from the start, there was a perception of her as somewhat flighty, and lacking in maternal feelings (perhaps inadvertently emphasised by the use of a photo of her grinning as though she didn’t have a care in the world).

There was no mention of the man who got Delia pregnant and failed to keep in touch (as far as we know), let alone marry her (if she had wanted to do so, of course). There was no mention of her father’s inability, as a labourer and unlicensed drink seller, to adequately maintain her, to protect her and keep her within the household, bringing her child up with the support of her family.

Perhaps, then, he tried to help her by putting her in touch with the Canadians who paid for domestic staff to be schlepped across the Atlantic to work as servants there? It seems unlikely, but more that Delia recognised that this was an opportunity to make something more of her life, to earn money that could help her son, or help herself. There appeared to be no interest in following Delia’s story, to see what happened to her.

This was such a gaping omission that I ended up, after the programme aired, going online to see if I could find anything further out about Delia.

Delia was born as Bridget Farrell, at the end of 1888, in the family house at Ballyna. The 1901 census records her, aged 12, living with her parents and six other siblings there. By 1910, she had migrated – as many other Irishmen and women had over the 19th and early 20th centuries – to the Liverpool area, in search of domestic work.

There is one family tree listed on Ancestry that states that Delia ‘fell pregnant by a Mr Kingsley, out of wedlock’.  In 1910, she gave birth to Mathew Felix Kingsley (presumably named after her brother Mathew), but failed to record his birth. Within a year of his birth, she had returned to her family home in Ireland, where the 1911 census records her again, listing her as having been married for two years.

Five months after the census was taken, Delia left Ireland for Montreal, to seek work as a domestic, her passage funded, as mentioned on WDYTYA?. She appears to have met and married a man there – marrying only a year after emigrating. In 1924, her father died, but it seems unlikely that Delia would have returned to see him buried, even if she could have got there in time. She then seems to have several children by another man, who she would only marry two years after the death of her first husband (this information is all from this user family tree on Ancestry).

Delia’s burial record, from Ancestry

Delia died in 1936, still only in her 40s. Her life took her from rural Ireland, to the north-west of England, and from there to Quebec.

She saw more of the world than her illegitimate child probably did; she appears to have married twice, seen several children die in infancy, been widowed, all within fewer than five decades. Her life was unusually well recorded, and has so much potential as a story looking at how women’s sexuality was dealt with at this time (and within a Catholic family), and how schemes to recruit domestic workers overseas might have helped such women, as well as opening up a new world and life to them. This is the story I would have liked to see focused on during WDYTYA? this week.

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