Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: history (page 1 of 4)

Review: West Indians – Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police?

The Museum of London at Docklands

This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit –  and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.

However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.

The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,

Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.

A map of the Port of London, focal point of the display

The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.

There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).

I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.

Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames Marine Police

The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.

The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.

West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

When female prisoners helped create a museum

The V&A Museum of Childhood

Many of us know that prisoners were often put to work on meaningless, soul-destroying tasks, from the treadwheel to picking oakum- but did you know that they also created beautiful things on occasion?

Next time you visit the architecturally lovely V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, don’t just look up and around – look down, too.

For the floor you walk on – featuring marble fish-scales – was made by female convicts at Woking Prison in the 19th century.

They might not have been able to see their finished handiwork, but you can: and it’s good to see that the Museum acknowledges their contribution, too. See my slideshow below for a look at the prisoners’ floor…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Crime sites open for Heritage Days

The Bramhall stocks in Cheshire – image from the Stockport Image Archive, taken from Wikipedia

This weekend sees the annual Heritage Open Days take place across Britain, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone who’s interested in the history of crime to access sites relevant to our history of crime and punishment.

The Illingworth stocks – photo by Alexander P Kapp, from Geograph

For example, if you’re near Illingworth in Yorkshire, you can visit the town’s Regency-era gaol and 17th century double (two-seater) stocks (see here for details), and find out more about plans to restore the gaol, together with stories of those who were once held in the gaol.

The gaol is open on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours taking place every 20 minutes (and see here for more details of how one group is trying to preserve both the gaol and stocks).

Unfortunately, unless you’re very quick, you’ll be too late for this afternoon’s walk round Leeds, to find out about the Victorian police constable’s beat (why wasn’t this on at the weekend?!).

Warrington police station, by Richard Vince, on Geograph

However, you can visit the Museum of Policing in Cheshire – located in Warrington – where you can look at the Victorian cells at Warrington Police Station, and find out about the history of policing in Cheshire since 1883. This is open on Saturday, from 10am until 4pm.

Throughout the weekend, there are walks taking place in Hexham, Northumberland, focusing on the town’s House of Correction, with its separate exercise yards and accommodation for each gender.

In Oxfordshire, you can visit the County Police Station in Abingdon, which was built in the 1850s, and see the original police cells. The station is only open on Saturday, from 10.30 until 4pm.

There are undoubtedly lots of other sites to visit; have a search on the Heritage Open Days website, or search local listings, to find out more.

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th  century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.

He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.

Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.

They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.

Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.

The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’

However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.

Plays about thieves might be popular in both the metropolis and the provinces – but the reality wasn’t as entertaining…

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.

One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.

The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.

Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.

You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.

It is available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and all good booksellers.

 

Distracted by a criminal past

One of the perhaps inevitable side-effects of being a crime historian is that wherever I go, I get distracted by a place’s criminal history.

Recently, I’ve been to both Hereford and Worcester on work trips, and both times, I’ve come across parts of its darker history by complete accident, with no knowledge beforehand of what I was walking towards.

In Hereford, Gaol Street is in the city centre, and is home to a building that is immediately obvious as a place related to law and order. This is the ‘new gaol’, built in 1841, but which only served as a gaol for some 30 years.

Most of it was subsequently demolished, but that which remained became part of the old city magistrates’ court (thanks to Herefordshire Past for this information).

Meanwhile, in Worcester, I stopped to take a photograph of the pretty Laslett’s Almshouses, only to spot a sign on the gate stating that these were built on the site of the old city gaol. British History Online notes that in the 17th century, Greyfriars was used as the gaol, before being pulled down and replaced by the almshouses.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

However, Greyfriars still exists today and is run by the National Trust; is this building what BHO describes as ‘a fine two-storied building of timber’ that was possibly the Greyfriars’ guest house? I’m not sure, as the NT describes ‘its’ Greyfriars as a medieval merchant’s house built by Thomas Grene, but perhaps a local reader could clarify this for me!

Lastly, there is a rather lovely building tucked away on Copenhagen Street in Worcester; this served as the police headquarters for the city from 1862 to 1941.

‘Police station’ is still clearly inscribed above the door, but there is also a plaque to the right hand side marking the formation of the City of Worcester Police Force in 1833 (info from Elliott Brown on Flickr).

Today, these sites are architecturally interesting and part of the ‘dark tourism’ that can be undertaken in many towns and cities in England; but it’s also possible to imagine these places, not so long ago, being busy and dramatic buildings, full of action and movement – where our ancestors may have spent time, whether as law enforcers or law breakers.

 

When Swedish Anna was beheaded

The beheading of Anna Mansdotter, as depicted in the Illustrated Police News of 23 August 1890 (via the British Newspaper Archive)

‘The beheading of a woman is, fortunately, a very rare occurrence in Sweden,’ the article in the Illustrated Police News started, with an unusual degree of restraint for the publication.

It was detailing the death of Anna Månsdotter in the summer of 1890, and it was not surprising that the salacious and gossipy IPN sounded so shocked in its report. Anna had apparently kept her eyes open right until the point of her death, refusing to look away from the axe.

Anna was convicted, with her son, of killing her daughter-in-law Hanna Johansdotter – her son Per’s wife – in Yngsjö. Per was sentenced to life in prison, being sent to Karlskrona Gaol, but Anna received the sentence of death after she confessed to taking the larger role in the crime. She took on the ‘whole guilt’ of the crime, in order to ensure that her son survived.

King Oscar II, who voted -twice – for Anna to be beheaded

Her offence and confession shocked Sweden; it had been some 30 years since a woman had died on the scaffold, but in this case, it was universally believed that Anna should suffer the ultimate fate for her crime.

Even the king, Oscar, who was allowed two votes in court as to her punishment, voted for the death sentence to be applied. From the start of the trial process, it was widely believed that Anna’s case was hopeless, and that there would be no chance of mercy.

Anna’s refusal to express emotion after her sentence was passed was seen as a sign of her inhumanity rather than of fear – one of the motives given for the murder was that she may have been in a sexual relationship with Per, and killed Hanna out of sexual jealousy.

She spent her time in prison, prior to being executed, being very still; she refused to express any remorse, and similarly refused to take Holy Communion the nighght before her death. The prison chaplain attempted to speak with her; she refused to listen, or to respond to him.

On the day of her death, the executioner, Albert Gustaf Dahlman, and his assistant prepared outside the jail in Kristianstad. Unfortunately for Anna, she was the executioner’s first professional job, but there was no evidence of nerves as the large, muscly man, in his military-style uniform and white silk tie, prepared the scaffold. He looked confident, as he held his large axe in his hands.

At 8am, the magistrate read the judgement inside, before Anna, and then the prison doors were opened and she started to walk towards the scaffold, clad in a white belted dress. At 47, she still presented a striking figure, walking erect and lady-like, icy calm apart from the nervous twitching of her hands.

A depiction of Anna about to be executed, with her executioner shown on the left.

On the scaffold, the chaplain, who had accompanied her on her short walk, read the Lord’s Prayer. Anna then lay down and uttered a single moan as the executioner swung his axe, severing her head from her body in one motion. His assistant then lent down to pick the head up, displaying it to prove that justice had been served.

It was noted that Anna’s eyes remained open for several seconds after her death, and that her heart continued to pump blood; however, she was certainly dead, and the romantic retelling of her death ended with the more prosaic news that a professor from Lund claimed her body to use for the benefit of his medical students.

Anna was the last woman to be executed in Sweden; her son, Per, was released from prison in 1913, and died five years later.

What value do we put on archival research?

The Northants Archives Twitter page: where local history lives, but at a cost

Most of us who spend time delving into dusty archives as part of our jobs know the pressure county record offices are under financially. Council budgets are being stretched so much that they are about to snap; libraries have already seen the brunt of this, with curtailed opening hours and lack of facilities.  When councils have to cut back, it seems that history and culture are little valued, and are slashed at with little compunction.

The latest archive to try and cut costs is Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service, which is doing so by passing the cost of research onto users. On its Facebook page, it has published the following post:

 

It is basically restricting its ‘free access’ to three mornings a week, plus one Saturday a month; and if you want to visit in the afternoon, you will have to pay for the privilege. It’s not just a nominal sum – it’s a rather hefty £31.50 PER HOUR.

You can see what is going to happen. There will be a reduced footfall, because researchers will balk at the cost of visiting. The council will then state that because fewer people are visiting the archive, its hours can be restricted further – or even, that the archive is not needed at all.

‘Free access’ should be the fundamental part of visiting an archive. Many of those visiting simply do not have the money to pay to view archive documents; many are students, for example, and surely we should be encouraging them to take an interest in their local history, and to gain a curiosity and inquisitiveness about original documents, and to find the stories hidden within them, rather than put measures in that put them off finding out information?

In addition, many people visit archives that are not near where they live. When I was researching in the archives for my PhD, I visited Northampton, a good 90 minute drive from my house, and I know people travel far further than that to access the information they need. Factor in transport costs as well as archive access costs, and researchers may simply not bother. That’s if the archive is accessible in the first place, and many are not, shoved away out of town centres in areas where you have to have a car in order to get there.

In addition, if I had been charged £31.50 for every hour I was in an archive, I would have been financially stuffed. Sometimes, you have to order a bulk load of documents, and spend hours poring through each individual item until you find the one page that is what you were looking for. Sometimes, you may not find that item at all. Think of what you might miss if you are counting the pounds you are spending, anxious to get your work done before you go into your overdraft.

My original piece for The Guardian, from 2013

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The Guardian, expressing concern about the various fees charged to access documents in the archives. My main concern at that time was the photographic copying fees levied by record offices, which could be varied and even prohibitive. I never realised that in 2017, we would be facing charges simply to walk in through an archive’s doors.

This move will be detrimental to all but the wealthiest researchers. It will put many off taking those first steps in archival research, and will further reduce the importance of history in the minds of many. Northamptonshire clearly has little truck with its value, and sees it as a good place to cut costs. That’s both sad, and worrying, as it is setting a precedent that other counties may follow. And the more record offices that set an ‘admission charge’, the less research will get done as a result – and that’s a real loss for historical research.

 

Announcing a week of corset crimes

Yes, corset crimes.

Starting tomorrow, and running every day this week, I’m going to be blogging about corsets, and their connection to crime.

There’s literally no reason for this, apart from the fact that it gives me the excuse to use some great images of corsets that I’ve found in on the British Newspaper Archive website, and it also might get you thinking differently about an item that some women saw as a form of punishment, an inflictor of pain.

So welcome to Corset Week on Criminal Historian, and stop in each day to hear, and see, some historical corsets in action…

Remaking The Victorian Slum

Earlier this month, I gave a talk on life in a Victorian slum at the British Crime Historians Symposium, where I looked at how the press depicted those who lived in a particular Welsh slum at the end of the 19th century.

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Victorian press increasingly, as the century progressed, looked at slum life in very black and white terms, and this was particularly noticeable when newspapers discussed the female residents.

They were either domestic angels – fighting their grim surroundings by trying to present as clean a face to the world as possible (both in terms of their own looks, and those of their house, whitewashing walls, keeping their rooms tidy, and so on) – or slatterns, unfeminine women with their sleeves rolled up, exposing – the horror – bare arms and fighting in the street with other women, whilst their children roamed around with local animals, both kids and animals being hungry and neglected.

This black and white depiction of slum dwellers, its reliance on generalisations rather than the individual experience, has also been evident in two contemporary media items this week.

Firstly, we had the opening episode of The Victorian Slum on BBC2. This ‘reality’ series, fronted, rather oddly, not by a historian but by a scientist, recreates a Victorian slum (apparently a set) and fills it with 21st century residents, in order to show them coping with the trials of life as a member of the 19th century underclass.

The series is arranged in a chronological fashion, so the opening episode was, apparently, the 1860s. We had the familiar tropes of Victorian working-class depictions, so a shared tenement, doss house, outdoor privy, and so on. A range of occupations were shown, including the doss house keeper and matchbox makers.

So far, so good; but the episode was full of sweeping generalisations that failed to show the wide range of experiences of Victorian life.  It’s a drawback of limited time that such programmes assume that our ancestors lived a far more hegemonous life than we do today – yet they had an individual experience, just as we do now.

Not everyone in a doss house slept standing up over ropes, because doss houses were different. Not everyone failed to make a living sufficient to keep their families going, even if they never managed to move out of their working-class area. But this episode of The Victorian Slum made it look like everyone went through the same experience, thus making Victorian history (or this version of it) both simplistic and misleading.

We also had incredibly clean faces and clothes on these individuals; the watercress sellers were sent to Covent Garden, where, unsurprisingly, the tourists were keen to give the strangely dressed people with a TV crew accompanying them lots of money. The money was also modern rather than the 19th century equivalent, which made modern life intrude rather strangely into the programme.

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust's Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust’s Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also very much a London-based programme. Life in the Manchester slums, as Engels described in the 1840s, could be particularly grim; my research into the slums of Birmingham and Newport has revealed differences to the London experience. Therefore, the series provides a generalised, simplistic view of one particular region, rather than a more nuanced account of how life in the slums could vary from place to place – not just form the 1860s to 1870s, for example.

Meanwhile, on the BBC’s online Magazine site today, we had The Victorian Slum‘s presenter, Michael Mosley, give us his guide to ‘how to eat like a Victorian‘. Unsurprisingly, this was a similarly generalised perspective – ‘slum dwellers…lived mainly on bread, gruel and broth’, and ‘the children of the slums were undernourished, anaemic, rickety and very short’ (what, ALL of them?).

Then we are told that ‘most people’ had physically demanding jobs that meant ‘they were active for 50 to 60 hours a week’, and later, that ‘many Victorians’ worked a 12 hour, six day week (so 72 hours a week). Does he mean ‘most people’ or most working class people, or most working class men, or simply, SOME people?

food poisoning in the Victorian era

A Victorian family eating – from Paul Townsend’s Flickr stream


The meals are described as though everyone from a certain class would have eaten the same way, regardless of their job, their location (what about differences between rural agricultural workers and urban workers?), their age, or health.

So although it’s great that there is this continued interest in the press and on television about life for our Victorian ancestors, the generalisations and simplistic recreations of Victorian life actually risk distorting what life was really like, creating a false history that becomes, like Chinese whispers, gradually accepted.

And the biggest disappointment, for me, is the failure to recognise the individuality of life and existence, and to assume, instead, that what life was like for one man or woman was fundamentally identical to others, because of their shared class.

 

 

The second episode of The Victorian Slum is on Monday 17 October at 9pm on BBC2.

Older posts

© 2017 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑