In the early to mid 19th century, Bleeding Heart Yard was the beating heart of working class life in London. It was synonymous with the slums, with criminality, and with poverty. In the 1850s, Charles Dickens wrote about it in Little Dorrit, as a place ‘inhabited by poor people’ and reduced in fortune – a fact that alerted the press to its horrors.
When journalists wrote about the precursors of benefits cheats and scammers, they wrote about the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard, who they accused of being prolific writers of begging letters and adverts in the press that proclaimed their own poverty and hardship in order to get financial help.
They pondered how people who claimed to be ‘utterly destitute’ could afford to pay for newspaper adverts that set out their distress, and commented:
‘You may assist them to emigrate to Australia half a dozen times, but they are always to be heard in Bleeding Heart Yard…imprisonment and hard labour have been tried in vain with these incorrigible rogues.’
These ‘rogues’ lived in a crowded yard within Saffron Hill, part of Clerkenwell, within the district of Holborn. Its notoriety stemmed as much from its name as from its inhabitants; there was much speculation about where the name derived from, but it was commonly believed that it stemmed from a murder.
One such story was that the Devil threw Lady Elizabeth Hatton, from a second-floor window in nearby Hatton Gardens in 1626, ‘dashing her to pieces’ and causing a water-pump to pump blood rather than water every year on the anniversary of her death. It was said that Bleeding Heart Yard was so named because it the violence of her death led to her heart being flung out of her body, landing in the yard.
Other, more prosaic, people knew that the yard was simply named after the Bleeding Heart Tavern next door, and that the name was either the result of a pre-Reformation Catholicism that presented the ‘mystery’ of the rosary as the Virgin Mary’s heart being pierced by five swords, or a misspelling of ‘hart’, the pub name therefore denoting a wounded deer in some bucolic rural past.
This rural idyll was, by the 1860s, well and truly past. As the comments from contemporary newspapers suggest, it was now a rough, poor, urban area; it was also a centre for Italian migrants. There was antagonism from both the English-born residents, and from earlier Irish immigrants, towards these ‘strangers’, and even when some of these individuals had lived in London for some years, the resentment towards them by the English and Irish failed to abate.
The Italian men tended to work hard and play hard – but they had respectable jobs, and worked to keep their families afloat. Yet it was reported that the English residents regarded every ‘foreigner’ as ‘a knife-bearing, commandment-breaking scoundrel’ and therefore meted out harsh treatment towards these individuals.
On Boxing Day 1864, this antagonism between English-born locals and the Italian arrivals spilled over – and in turn, blood was also spilled. Around 20 Englishmen, resident in the area, had gone to the Golden Anchor pub in Saffron Hill in the late afternoon, seemingly intent on trouble. A small group of Italian men then arrived, arguments started, and a mass brawl then erupted in the bagatelle room. By the end of it, one man, Michael Harrington, was dead.
A man was arrested at the scene, and taken into custody, where he was charged with murder. The arrested man was one of the Italians, 32-year-old Seraphini Polioni. On 30 January 1865, he appeared in the Central Criminal Court on an indictment of murder.
The landlord of the Golden Anchor, Frederick Shaw, told the court that Polioni had been known to him for around three months, but that around 6pm on Boxing Day, he had come to the bar of the “very busy” pub, and said something along the lines of “I could settle any such six Englishmen as Shaw”. He then wandered off.
Shaw then said he was hit by someone who then walked off to the taproom; Shaw went to follow and noticed that “there were several foreigners in the taproom” before he was pushed into the bar’s parlour by several others. When he looked out of the door, he saw ‘some of the Italians rushing out of the house.’
It was clear that the pub landlord saw the entire affair as being the fault of ‘the Italians’. He later said that Polioni had said he could kill six Englishmen, and was pulled up on it in court – causing him to splutter, “I might have made the mistake in the confusion – I should think it is to the same effect!”
He had no idea how many Italians there were in the pub; there were around 12 to 15 men in the bagatelle room, all English, and no Italians, yet he was clear that “Italians were distributed about the room, they go in and out of the taproom very freely…there were only Italians in the taproom, no English at all to my knowledge”, but was then forced to admit that he hadn’t actually gone into the taproom so really had little clue as to who was in there, and of what nationality.
His potman, Alfred Rebbeck, was also called to give evidence, where he stated that he saw “a great many Italians all together” in the taproom, including an Italian “named John”. He saw one Italian knock a woman down; and was clear that it was Seraphini who drew a knife and stabbed him, Rebbeck, with him. Rebbeck then hit him on the head with a broom-handle.
Rebbeck was clear that the English were in the bagatelle room, and the Italians gathered in the taproom. The pub was clearly segregated, albeit by the drinkers themselves rather than the landlord’s orders. There was also an Irish contingent – Alfred Rebbeck noted that there were ‘one or two Irishmen’ including one perhaps inevitably, given the racism present within this society, as ‘Pikey’.
Several witnesses with English names stated that Seraphini had been the man responsible for Harrington’s murder, and that they had seen no other Italians who could have been able to stab the man.
A statement by another Italian man, Pietro Mazzneli, who stated that another Italian at the pub that night, named Gregorio, looked very like Seraphini, seems to have been almost ignored; in fact, other Italian witnesses also put the blame onto this Gregorio with one, Pietro Maralizzi, who gave evidence through an interpreter, stating that he had seen this man with a knife in his hand, and that he had said to him, “For God’s sake, Gregorio, put away that knife.”
The trial also heard gossip from a woman at the pub that she had heard “three or four” of the Italians were using their knives – but this evidence was dismissed as ‘hearsay’. Reading the account of the trial, it seems a mish-mash of different stories being put forward by different people, but there seems little concrete evidence that Seraphini was involved in Harrington’s death. And yet he was convicted, and sentenced to death.
Seraphini now languished in Newgate Prison, awaiting his execution. Conditions were dire, and he soon began to lose his health. The end of this story seems clear.
But things were not so straightforward.
The man named by several in Seraphini’s trial, his doppelganger Gregorio, had been in the pub that fateful night, and had fled to Birmingham. Henry Negretti – either a police constable or perhaps another member of the Italian community in London – had tracked him down to accuse him of having actually committed the murder for which Seraphini had been convicted – and Gregorio voluntarily surrendered to him, confessing to the murder of Michael Harrington.
On 27 February, 41-year-old Gregorio Mogni appeared at the Central Criminal Court. He was asked if he was guilty or not guilty, and responded:
“It is my misfortune. I am guilty; but I did it in my self-defence.”
The first witness called at this new trial was the man who had been referred to as ‘John’ the Italian in the former trial – who was, in fact, Gregorio’s brother, Giovanni Mogni, a picture frame maker who stated that he had lived in England for the past ten years.
Contrary to much of the evidence heard at Seraphini’s trial, Giovanni said that he was in the bagatelle room of the Golden Anchor, together with his brother and another Italian, Pietro Marazzi – a looking glass maker who lived in Bleeding Heart Yard. They were outnumbered by nearly 20 Englishmen in the room.
Gregorio had an argument with Shaw, the landlord, and then the Englishmen started to beat Giovanni. His brother then drew a knife, shouting “They are beating my brother!” Marazzi saw the knife, and cried, “Gregorio, for God’s sake, put away that knife!”, grabbing him, but Gregorio demanded to be let go, “Otherwise we shall not go out of this room alive.”
After the melee ended, and the men had fled, Marazzi saw Gregorio in a nearby street. The latter put his arms around Pietro’s neck, and said,
“My dear Marazzi, what have I done? I stabbed three or four. Goodbye, I am going home.”
The greatest shock for Gregorio at his trial was the calling of Seraphini Polioni as a witness. He was ill and frail from his stay in Newgate, and his appearance in the witness box caused Gregorio to weep – realising, perhaps, what his prior silence had done to his countryman.
Now, Polioni gave his evidence, starting by saying that he was under sentence of death in Newgate, but had previously lived for some time in England. He said that he had been at another inn, Pietro Bordessa’s Three Tuns, the evening of 26 December, when another Italian had come in to tell him an argument had broken out at the Golden Anchor “between my two cousins” – perhaps simply a reference to fellow Italians rather than to actual relatives. Polioni had gone there to try and stop the fight between two of his countrymen, but instead found himself charged with murder.
Now, Gregorio found himself convicted – but of manslaughter rather than murder, with the jury believing that he acted in self-defence. The jury asked for mercy, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, a far more lenient punishment than poor, innocent Seraphini had received. He, in turn, was now tried for the felonious wounding of Alfred the potman, but was found not guilty.
A drunken fight between a couple of Italian men and a larger group of territorial Englishmen had led to one innocent man being put on trial twice, and once being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The man who actually committed that crime only received a five year prison term. Michael Harrington’s death shows how the Victorian criminal justice system could be flawed, and that anti-immigrant feeling caused violence and misperceptions about individuals, just as it still does today.
And what of the notorious Bleeding Heart Yard? By the 1880s, many of the tenants had been moved out, and the yard stood almost deserted, neglected, and waiting to be demolished. A couple of costermongers’ barrows stood there as remnants of the lives of those who previously peopled the area; a few petty criminals used the yard as a place to hide. But the Italian picture frame makers, one of whom gave evidence after the Golden Anchor death, and the advert-placing destitute ‘conners’ were no longer there.
Sources include: Glasgow Evening Post, 6 January 1885; Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1891; Newcastle Journal, 3 March 1865; Islington Gazette, 30 August 1897; Bristol Mercury, 2 January 1885; London Evening Standard, 3 May 1866; Old Bailey Online (refs t18650130-218; t18650227-333; t18650410-454; t18650410-455).