VICTORIAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: WHEN A HANGING WAS A DAY OUT

The weather on the morning of Saturday 14 June 1856 was wet with persistent drizzle, but it did not deter the crowds gathering in Stafford. From the early hours, thousands of people had been arriving on foot and by train, and an air of eager anticipation was building. Was Queen Victoria or another famous dignitary visiting? Or was a travelling fair or circus due in town? In fact, none of these explanations were correct; the crowds were waiting to witness justice meted out to convicted murderer, Dr William Palmer, dubbed by the press the ‘Prince of Poisoners’. In an age before cinema, the Victorians loved a spectacle and the drama of a hanging was certainly that.

Until the 1820s, there were some four hundred criminal offences which carried the death penalty including picking someone’s pocket of anything worth one shilling (5p) or more and stealing anything worth £2. The number of capital offences was gradually reduced by successive governments until 1861 when the Offences Against the Persons Act specified that only wilful murder and treason were punishable by death. 

From the mid-nineteenth century, even when the death sentence was passed on a convicted murderer, there was still a chance that he or she could be reprieved and instead spend the rest of his or her life in penal servitude. In such cases, the prisoner might have to wait several weeks to know whether he or she was to live or die. 

For Dr William Palmer, there was to be no reprieve. On 27 May 1856, he was convicted of murdering his friend, John Parsons Cook by administering strychnine in November 1855 in Rugeley, Staffordshire. Palmer was constantly in debt and regularly gambled on the horses. On 13 November at the Shrewsbury Races, Cook had won about £3,000 but the following day, Palmer lost heavily on another horse. Cook became ill after having a meal with Palmer that evening at the Raven Inn, Shrewsbury. The next day, Cook was slightly better so he and Palmer returned to Rugeley where Cook took a room at the Talbot Arms opposite Palmer’s house.

The Shrew Pub, Rugeley, originally the Talbot Arms, where John Parsons Cook died (Credit: canalandriversidepubs.co.uk)

Over the following days, Cook continued to be sick and Palmer regularly visited his friend to check up on him. On 19 November, Palmer took Cook’s betting books to obtain the various winnings on his behalf. Two days later, Palmer prescribed what he called ‘ammonia pills’ for Cook after which a ‘terrible scene’ ensued:

‘Wildly shrieking, the patient tossed about in fearful convulsions; his limbs were so rigid that it was impossible to raise him, though he entreated that they would do so, as he felt that he was suffocating. Every muscle was convulsed; his body bent upwards like a bow; they turned him over on his left side; the action of the heart gradually ceased; and he was dead.’

The Illustrated Times (2 February 1856)

A coroner’s inquest followed and a botched post-mortem was held in which Palmer himself interfered with the examination; the resulting samples were of such poor quality that the toxicologist, Dr Alfred Swaine Taylor, could not make use of them. A second post-mortem was ordered and although no traces of poison were found, Dr Taylor still believed Cook had been poisoned. On 15 December, the jury at the inquest stated that the deceased had ‘died of poison wilfully administered to him by William Palmer’. Palmer was duly arrested and charged with Cook’s murder.

In the weeks and months after Cook’s death, the newspapers printed various rumours and allegations about Palmer and other possible victims he may have poisoned, including his wife, brother, mother-in-law and four infant children. This trial by the press effectively found him guilty before he had even stepped inside a court. It was felt that local prejudice against him was very strong in the community in which the crime was committed and it was highly unlikely that a jury could be unbiased. As a result, Palmer’s twelve-day-trial in May 1856 took place at the Central Criminal Court (the ‘Old Bailey’) in London, where he was found guilty.

William Palmer (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Palmer’s execution was scheduled to take place at 8am on Saturday 14 June outside Stafford Prison. As the trial had attracted so much public interest, huge crowds were expected that rainy morning to witness the hanging. The Times reported that ‘Balconies and platforms were erected on several of the housetops and in almost every imaginable place commanding a view of the spectacle and the windows of the houses in the front and near the scaffold had their full complement of eager spectators. The express train and others from London on Friday night brought down a great number of well-dressed persons…the crowds…kept constantly arriving during the night by railway and other means of conveyance from the adjacent towns for 50 miles around, including the Pottery districts, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Tipton and the rest of what is called “the black country”. The great bulk of the people were young men and lads, labourers and artisans, thousands of whom had left their ordinary occupations and travelled many miles to witness the spectacle…’

Interestingly, the Staffordshire Advertiser, the local newspaper best placed to report on the execution, was at pains to point out the incorrect descriptions of the crowd’s behaviour that appeared in other publications, believing that ‘some of the reports were written by anticipation, which is the only excuse we can find for their strange inaccuracy’. One account had claimed that ‘as soon as Palmer appeared on the scaffold, there was a universal shout of execration. From every part of the dense multitude there issued shrieks, groans and curses, mingled with cries expressing indignant abhorrence.’ Another described the crowd as ‘extremely indecorous and blasphemous’ while yet another said that ‘deep sympathy and pity’ was the predominant feeling of the spectators. The Staffordshire Advertiser was adamant that none of these descriptions were accurate. It did, however, approve of the report in The Times, which was ‘given with much care and correctness’ although special constables were not deployed as had been stated.

According to the Staffordshire Advertiser, on the morning of the execution, ‘people were gradually admitted within the barriers, and the rain helped to keep the crowd thinner than otherwise would have been the case… Precautions were taken by having ladders within the lower walls outside the gaol to remove any who might faint, and the necessity for this was soon evident, as instances of fainting presented themselves at an early hour.’ The newspaper went on to state there were between 30,000 and 35,000 people in the crowd but no more than one in twelve were females ‘none being admitted within the barriers’. The spectators appeared to be ‘chiefly respectable working people and tradesmen, and not to any large extent “swells” and low blackguards. Their demeanour was highly decorous, and the patience with which they awaited the period fixed for the execution was really remarkable. So far as our observation went, no oath was uttered, and the hoarse murmur of voices never rose above the accumulated hum of multitudes speaking in an ordinary tone.’

At seven minutes to eight, the minute bell gave the first toll, announcing to the crowd the departure of the melancholy procession from the cell of the condemned convict. At once

‘the hoarse murmur of the crowd arose into a loud buzz of excited expectation, which the multitude of voices swelled into a roar. A cry of “hats off” was raised…the noise subsided and a respectful, if not solemn, silence succeeded. Every face was eagerly upturned to catch the first glimpse of the wretched culprit. Here and there there was a laugh, but popular feeling was against it, and at the rebukes of the more serious it ceased. The condemned man ascended the steps with a quick, firm step, and placed himself on the centre of the drop, with his face towards the Gaol-square…He never flinched or shuddered as the executioner placed the rope around his neck and drew the white cap over his face. That done, the bolt was immediately withdrawn, and the drop fell. Being a stout heavy man he never struggled at all; a few convulsive twitchings of his arms and legs alone ensued, and after a few seconds his limbs hung motionless in death. The crowd did not shout or yell as do often such gatherings at the Old Bailey, but behaved with the utmost decorum, and in a few minutes after the drop fell began quietly to disperse. The body, after hanging an hour, as prescribed by law, was cut down and removed.’

The death mask of William Palmer (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Reports of reactions after previous hangings tend to suggest that the crowd would have been disappointed by Palmer’s lack of struggle and relatively quick death. Yet the Staffordshire Advertiser makes no mention of this. It also appears that the well-organised policing of the event prevented any deaths from suffocation among the spectators, as had happened at Newgate in 1807 when 27 people died and 70 needed hospital treatment. At William Palmer’s execution, it seems that the crowd was unusually well-behaved. Such events had a reputation for drunknenness and crime such as pickpocketing, but the Staffordshire Advertiser had not heard ‘of a single case in which the police have had to make an arrest, or a complaint of any theft having been committed, and no accident whatever occurred’.

Public executions were originally designed to act as a deterrent to would-be criminals and a moral lesson, and they were always well-attended. By the 1860s, for the upper- and middle-classes, it became distasteful to witness executions and legislation was introduced to ban public hangings. The last public execution in England took place in 1868. After this date, executions were carried out in private behind closed doors in prison. Crowds still gathered in large numbers outside to see the black flag hoisted above the prison, a sign that the sentence had successfully taken place.

To read more Victorian newspaper reports about criminal cases in the UK, visit the British Newspaper Archive (affiliate link). For further information about the history of capital punishment in the UK, see Richard Clark’s excellent Capital Punishment website. To find out more about the William Palmer case, visit Dave Lewis’s meticulously researched William Palmer the infamous Rugeley poisoner website.

VICTORIAN MUSIC HALL MAYHEM

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Nell Darby, a crime and social historian, whose ancestors were Victorian performers. This post explores the phenomenon of Victorian music halls and how dangerous they could be, both for the audience and those taking part in the shows.

Queen Victoria’s unwarranted posthumous reputation for being ‘not amused’ has tarnished our view of the Victorians somewhat. Many perceive them as having been serious, moralistic individuals who demanded that table legs be covered up and that ankles were rather dangerous things.

Yet in reality, our Victorian ancestors wanted to be amused as much as we do today, and many enjoyed a naughty song lyric, or a knowing look, often enjoyed at the theatre. The development of a new type of theatrical entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century enabled many Victorians, including those from the lower echelons of society, to be entertained on a regular basis.

This new form of theatre was the music hall – an often bawdy, rowdy place where a variety of acts could be enjoyed. Audiences knew that even if they didn’t like a particular act, another would be along soon that might be more to their taste. Songs and comedy were key parts of the music hall’s programme of acts, that could be enjoyed alongside food and drink. To cater for the keen music hall patron, new theatres and halls were built or adapted, with bars and other facilities. The V&A has described these music halls as the successors to the taverns and coffee shops of earlier times, and it’s easy to see why: all were places where you could meet other like-minded souls, to chat, to drink, to learn what was happening in the world – and to escape that world, too. The music hall was a place of escapism, where you could laugh or shout away from the stresses of everyday life.

The Oxford Music Hall in London, c.1875
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_hall#/media/File:1875_Oxford_Music_Hall.jpg [public domain]

By the early Victorian era, many taverns, such as the Coal Hole, near Covent Garden, had started to put on musical entertainment several times a week, catering for the labouring classes, while supper rooms, for those in the middle ranks, served songs alongside food. Both men and women were catered for in the taverns, which could often be rather raucous places – the audience was not quiet during performances, and made their feelings known if they didn’t like a performer or act.  Similarly, the new music halls had both male and female performers on their books, with entertainment providing women of few means with a way of earning their own independent living.

One of these women was Kate Garstone (referred to by some contemporaries as the ‘fascinating serio-comic’) who in the early 1870s was a regular at several of the London and provincial music halls. She performed, for example, at the Bedford and Marylebone music halls, where she sang her own adaptations of Offenbach’s operatic creations. She advertised her services in the newspapers, as did several of her contemporaries, making clear her adaptability and willingness to perform either multiple sets, or, alternatively, a single ‘turn’. In fact, one of the perhaps surprising aspects of some of the music hall bills of the late 19th century is the high percentage of female performers listed – for example, the Bow Music Hall, which later became Marlowe’s New Palace of Varieties, included in one programme a theatrical sketch show that included primarily women – actresses playing boys, duettists, vocalists, burlesque actresses, and so on.

Nelly Power, one of the female music hall performers popular with Victorian audiences
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelly_Power#/media/File:Nelly_Power.jpg [public domain]

The music hall – whether in London or the provinces – had a reputation for coarse acts, something many theatrical agents and music hall owners were keen to rectify. Performances would be publicised as offering ‘fun without vulgarity’, and stress the more salubrious places where entertainers had previously worked (‘New Music Hall, every evening, Mr WG Robson, Artiste, from the Philharmonic Hall’ read one 1860s advert in Lancashire). Yet alongside these efforts were descriptions of performers that read awkwardly to our modern eyes: Mr Taylor, ‘the funny little man’, and a female dwarf described as ‘the little wonder’, to name two examples. But the most popular acts were those in the middle of the camp: comics, impersonators, character singers and child actors.

The music hall, however, was not always a safe place to be. Some were built or adapted hastily, and did not have adequate facilities such as fire escapes or exits, and these resulted in some significant disasters, such as in 1868, when twenty-three theatregoers were killed at the Victoria Music Hall in Manchester. During a performance, somebody shouted, “Fire!” and the audience duly rushed for the staircase, forming a crush that resulted in panic-stricken audience members being crushed to death or suffocated. Music halls were also, pre-electricity, lit by paraffin lamps, and these could be dangerous both to audiences and performers. Of course, this was the same at home; in 1892, music hall performer William Amery Orr – known professionally as Will Lyons, and aged only 24 – died at his home, when a paraffin lamp exploded, pouring boiling oil on him. He had been due to perform on stage at Stockton a couple of days later, and so the music hall would have had to draft in someone else – or get an existing performer to do an additional ‘turn’ – to replace him.

The stage at Wilton’s Music Hall, in east London, which is still putting on a varied programme for audiences today (Credit: Nell Darby)

Danger was not just inherent in how the music halls were constructed or managed – even performances could be dangerous. In 1881, when an accident at the Oxford Music Hall, or Theatre of Varieties, in Brighton led to a Chinese juggler, Ali Long Look (known as the ‘Great Chinese Salamander’), and his wife, Caroline, appearing at the Sussex Assizes, accused of a 15-year-old boy’s manslaughter at the theatre, during a performance. Ling Look had fired a cannon, as he regularly did, but the ball hit the boy, George Smythe, who was leaning over a rail to watch, and killed him. The accident took place just two days after Christmas. Both performers were found not guilty, though, with a charge against the music hall proprietor, Mrs Ellen Botham, being dropped earlier. You can read more about this case on the Benjamin William Botham Brighton Photographer and Music Hall Proprietor website.

Two years earlier, in a similar incident, John Holtum, known ominously as King of the Cannon, was charged at Leeds with unlawfully wounding labourer Elijah Fenton. 59-year-old Elijah had been an audience member at the Princess’s Palace Music Hall, watching Holtum. Holtum had offered to give £50 to anyone who could catch a ball shot from a cannon, having previously demonstrated that he himself could do this. Fenton accepted the challenge, but instead of catching the ball, it hit him on the forehead, resulting in a fractured skull. At the time of Holtum being charged, Fenton was described as lying ‘in the infirmary in a dying state’ and he did, indeed, die shortly after. Holtum’s immediate reaction was simply to say ‘he would not issue any more challenges’.

These accidents could be varied: some could not have been foreseen, whereas others were, perhaps, an inevitable result of risk-taking. In 1889, Madame Alphonsine, also known as the Queen of the Spiral, was seriously injured at a London music hall when she fell off a suspended ball, falling onto the spiral structure that was the heart of her acrobatics, and then slipping off that, falling 30 feet to the ground. As time went on, there were increasing calls for the buildings to be made safer, both for performers and audiences alike, but the newspapers continued to include tales of mishaps and mayhem, suggesting that these calls did not always result in improvements.

The music hall declined in popularity after World War 1, as entertainment tastes changed, and cinema proved an increasing competition for traditional entertainment – followed, of course, by television. Yet even into fairly modern times, we have been gripped by on-stage (or literal off-stage) dramas, with the deaths of performers such as Eric Morecambe and Sid James gaining increased attention due to the theatre locations where their collapses took place. Theatrical deaths, disasters and dramas have always been part of the entertainment, in a dark way; and in Victorian times, the dangers associated with performing in some music halls may have been part of the attraction for an audience always looking to see something different.

A big thank you to Nell for writing such a fascinating post! You can read more from Nell on her blog www.criminalhistorian.com . Her book on the Victorian theatre, Life on the Victorian Stage, is published by Pen & Sword.

EATING OUT IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND: RESTAURANTS

If they had money in their pockets, the Victorians could find plenty of places to eat out, especially in the towns and cities. From rough-and-ready chop houses and public houses, elegant tea rooms and refreshment rooms, through to oyster bars and high-class restaurants, there was a plethora of eateries for different social classes and budgets.

In the mid-nineteenth century, women were a rare sight in restaurants. The American Stranger’s Guide to London and Liverpool at Table (1859) highlighted that in London and other cities, it was difficult to find restaurants where women could dine: ‘It is true that some have been opened where gentlemen may take their wives and daughters, but it has not yet become a recognised custom, although at Blackwall, Greenwich, Hampton Court, Windsor, Slough, Richmond, ladies are to be found as in the Parisan Cafes, and in London at ‘Verey’s’ in Pall Mall and Regent Street; but to give a private dinner with ladies, it is necessary to go to the ‘Albion’ or ‘London Tavern’ where nothing can exceed the magnificence of the rooms.’ By the 1880s, it had become acceptable for women and girls to eat out, even unaccompanied by men, and the male-dominated world of restaurants was no more.

For the middle classes, restaurants offering table d’hôte (set menus at a fixed price) were extremely popular. Pope’s Restaurant in Birmingham, called the ‘Vatican’ by its proprietor. offered table d’hôte between 5pm and 8.30pm for 3s 6d. The menu included olives stuffed with anchovies; soups (macaroni or hare); fish (boiled turbot and lobster sauce or fried eels); entrées (mutton cutlets and tomato sauce or sauti of rabbit); joints (roast gosling); game (partridge or wild duck); sweets (sweet omelette); savoury (devilled sardines on toast); and cheese and salad. It’s no wonder that indigestion remedies were part and parcel of daily life…

Kitchen scene at the Carlton (from Living London, 1901)

British restaurants were not known for serving high-quality food. In Notes on England (1872), the Frenchman Hippolyte Taine observed that:

‘excepting in the very best clubs and among continentalised English people, who have a French or Italian chef, [the cooking] is devoid of savour. I have dined, deliberately, in twenty different inns, from the highest to the lowest, in London and elsewhere: huge helpings of greasy meat and vegetable without sauce; one is amply and wholesomely fed, but one can take no pleasure in eating. The best restaurant in Liverpool cannot dress a chicken. If your palate demands enjoyment, here is a dish of pimentos, peppers, condiments, Indian vinegars: on one occasion I carelessly put two drops into my mouth. I might just as well have been swallowing a red-hot coal. At Greenwich, having had a helping of ordinary ‘white bait’, I helped myself to more but from another dish: it was a dish of curried whitebait – excellent for taking the skin off one’s tongue.’

By the 1890s, an increasing number of restaurants had developed a reputation for good food, and this even applied to eateries catering for customers lower down the social scale. According to the periodical Living London, Slaters’ in Piccadilly served lunches for ‘the people of modest incomes and half-an-hour to spare’. By the afternoon, it was frequented by ladies looking for tea after shopping, which had now become a leisure pursuit.

Slaters’ Restaurant, Piccadilly, Afternoon (from Living London, 1901)

The Trocadero Restaurant in London is a good example of the new style of restaurant designed to appeal to a wide range of customers. It was opened in 1896 by J Lyons & Co, famous for its tea shops which had been introduced two years earlier. The Trocadero Restaurant was built on the site of the old Trocadero music hall. According to advertisements of the time, it offered ‘the finest cuisine in London’ with a choice of wines. On the ground floor was the entrance hall with its marble staircase, a palatial dining hall in the style of Louis XIV and a grand saloon with decorations from the Louis XV period. Upstairs, there was a large banqueting hall and ‘charming suites of rooms’ for private dining for small and large parties, as well as for weddings, receptions and balls. The orchestra of the Coldstream Guards performed every afternoon and evening when the restaurant first opened.

The managers at the Trocadero were deliberately targeting customers with many different budgets, offering ‘luxury with economy’. Lunches (à la carte and table d’hôte) were 3 shillings while dinners cost 5 shillings; 7s 6d or 10s 6d; suppers were 3s 6d. For those of more modest means, there was the popular half a crown (2s 6d) table d’hôte grill in the Flemish-style grill room.

Table d’hôte at the Trocadero (from Living London, 1901)

You can find out more about the history of the Trocadero Restaurant, and the famous Trocadero music hall that preceded it, on the Arthur Lloyd website. There is also an amazing Trocadero Restaurant banquet book, owned by the Bennett family. Dating from the first few years of the restaurant’s existence, it lists hundreds of menus for banquets staged for individuals, companies and societies. Find out more at the Trocadero Banquet Book website.

VICTORIAN PAWNBROKERS

I’ve written before about pawnbrokers but they were such an integral part of life for the Victorian working classes that I thought they deserved another post. Colloquially known as ‘Uncle’, the pawnbroker offered a vital service for people living close to the bread-line who were in regular, yet poorly paid work. He was always there in times of need and provided loans secured on domestic items as diverse as clothing, shoes and jewellery through to flat irons and occupational tools.

For the majority of the working classes, pawning was simply a way of life. The only way to make ends meet was to pledge their belongings to raise cash for the week ahead. When in work, they used their clothing, especially their Sunday best, as capital. This was why Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days. Clothing was frequently pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This cycle of pledging and redeeming, week in, week out, might continue for years, and pawnbrokers made their profits on the interest charged.

‘The Weekly Pledge Room’ from Living London (1901)

Pawnshops, with their distinctive symbol of three golden balls, were an urban phenomenon and the number of pawnbrokers increased dramatically with the rising population; some streets even had more pawnbrokers than public houses. In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens described a pawnshop near Drury Lane, London as being situated at the corner of a court, ‘which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street’. The door of the ‘low, dirty-looking, dusty shop’ always stood halfway open, ‘half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then cautiously looking round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in…’

The entrance to a pawnbroker’s shop was usually up a side street. Pledging could be done at an open counter or in separate compartments known as ‘boxes’, which offered some privacy to those ashamed of their predicament. It was not just the working classes who went to ‘Uncle’ for help; any member of the middle or upper classes who had experienced a change in fortunes might find themselves needing to pledge personal belongings for instant cash. The pawnbroker would carefully examine the item to be pledged, offer a sum and if accepted, he would give the pledger a pawn ticket.

From 1872, for loans of ten shillings or less, the interest rate was one halfpenny per calendar month on each two shillings or part of two shillings lent. After the first calendar month, any time not exceeding fourteen days was to be reckoned as half a month only. The pawnbroker could also charge a halfpenny for the ticket, although for very small sums, he might waive this fee. Under the previous legislation, there was no charge for the ticket if the pledge was under five shillings. On loans of between ten and forty shillings, a penny was charged for the ticket, and the interest was one halfpenny per two shillings per calendar month. Loans of more than forty shillings and less than ten pounds attracted interest of a halfpenny on every two and a half shillings per month, and a penny for the ticket. There was also an optional one penny fee for special storage, such as hanging boots and clothes to prevent creases.    

‘Saturday Night at a Pawnbroker’s’ from Living London (1901)

On redemption days, usually Saturdays, pawnshops were extremely noisy with hundreds of people redeeming their belongings. ‘Pawnbroking London’ in Living London (1901) described one such day: “It is a strangely animated scene, with nearly all the characters played by women. It is a rarity to see a man among them… They betray no sense of shame if they feel it. They talk and gossip while waiting for their bundles, and are wonderfully polite to the perspiring assistants behind the counter.” An average of 2,000 bundles were redeemed each Saturday at this particular shop.  

Despite the high interest rates, pawnbrokers provided a vital service to the working classes. The writer of the article in Living London pointed out: “They mean food for the wife and children when cupboard and pocket are empty – a little money to keep things going till next pay-day; they mean to thousands shelter, warmth, and something to eat; and although many consider the pawnbroker’s shop an encouragement to improvidence and unthriftiness, every philanthropist who would abolish it admits that he would have to substitute some municipal or charitable pawnshop in its place.” 

The pawnshops’ dusty window displays featured unredeemed items pledged for less than ten shillings, which the pawnbroker was entitled to keep and sell after the redemption period of one year and seven days. According to Dickens, this sad collection of once-cherished belongings included ‘several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles…some gaudily-bound prayer books and testaments, two rows of silver watches…numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons….cards of rings and brooches….cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes…silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description…’ Unredeemed pledges of more than ten shillings did not automatically become the pawnbroker’s property; these items had to be sold at a public auction, although he could set a reserve to avoid making a loss.  

‘Sale of Unredeemed Stock’ from Living London (1901)

VICTORIAN FASHION: WHAT TO WEAR IN MAY (1885)

Today, I’m returning to one of my favourite Victorian periodicals: Cassell’s Family Magazine. This illustrated publication was firmly aimed at the middle classes and featured interesting articles on a plethora of subjects such as student life at Edinburgh University, the benefits of Turkish bathing and how to cook fish. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month.

In ‘What to Wear’ for May, the writer commented:

‘This is the month par excellence when wardrobes want fresh supplies, and half-worn costumes fresh trimmings. Neither in new materials nor in garnitures is there any lack this season. Checks, stripes, dots, figures, plain, shot, broché and chiné are all in vogue… Stripes are decidedly fashionable; they are worn in vivid contrasts, and this season they are not monotonous.

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

Victorian women did not throw out hardly-worn dresses each season unless they were extremely wealthy. Instead, they would use ribbons, lace and embroidery to give their outfits a new look, perhaps by changing the waistbands, sleeve trimmings or necklines, or by adding flowers to a bonnet or hat. This method of refreshing garments was particularly important to those women who had to economise and simply could not afford new dresses. That’s why the illustrations for the ‘Chit-Chat on Dress’ section were aspirational and for guidance only.

The correspondent wrote that ‘the new colour called ficelle is a most convenient one to adopt, for it can be brightened up with ribbons of almost every brilliant hue. It reigns supreme in silks, muslins, woollen stuffs, laces, millinery, embroidery, and the rest.’ This colour was called twine or string-colour, which sounds very like a neutral shade. Other fashionable colours included ‘porcelain-blue, clover, a terra-cotta which is red rather than terra-cotta, Havannah brown, and a Quakerish grey’ which were considered ‘the best and most artistic tones.’ Pinks and buttercup-colour, with eau de Nil, dark greens and dark browns were preferred for evening wear.

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

Then, as now, high fashion was only designed to fit slim people. Although paniers were a feature of the season’s costumes, the correspondent wrote that ‘slender figures may wear them full and bunchy if so inclined, but stout women (if they adopt them at all) should have them indicated by the merest folds. The new padded sleeves likewise require judgement in adopting them; otherwise they make their wearers look high instead of square-shouldered.’

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

 

HARD LABOUR IN VICTORIAN PRISONS

Read any Victorian newspaper and you’ll come across regular reports of criminal trials that had taken place at the assizes, quarter sessions or petty sessions. The accused is named, the case is described and the verdict is given. Where someone was found guilty of an offence such as theft, the punishment was usually hard labour for a specified number of days or months, unless there was a previous conviction that had to be taken into account.

Take the case of William Anderson, a labourer from Lancashire born in 1837. He committed his first criminal offence in 1852 when he was aged just fifteen. With another boy, he was convicted at the Manchester Petty Sessions of stealing brass fittings from an empty house in Francis Street, Strangeways and was sentenced to three calendar months’ hard labour. 

But what did ‘hard labour’ consist of, and what was in store for William at the New Bailey Prison in Salford where he would have served his sentence? (Strangeways Prison was not built until 1868).

Under prison regulations, if a male prisoner over the age of sixteen was sentenced to hard labour, this was to be of the first class ‘during the whole of his sentence, where it does not exceed three months, and during the first three months of his sentence where it exceeds three months’. He was to work for not more than ten or less than six hours (exclusive of meals), subject to the medical officer’s approval. After three months, the justices could prescribe second class labour, which was less severe than labour of the first class. By 1877, the maximum period in which a prisoner was to undertake first class hard labour was reduced from three months to one.

If the medical officer deemed any prisoner to be unfit for hard labour of the first class, he could order he be kept at hard labour of the second class. The surgeon could also certify that a prisoner was unfit to be kept at either class of labour. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour for periods not exceeding fourteen days could be kept in separate confinement at hard labour of the second class. Those who were not fit enough for hard labour of either class were to be employed in a trade. There was no hard labour on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday or on days appointed for public fasts or thanksgivings.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Under the Prisons Act of 1865, prisons were to be a deterrent providing ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’. It was decreed that ‘the treadwheel, crank, capstan, shot-drill and stone-breaking were listed as acceptable types of first class hard labour, and such others as the justices wished to provide had to be approved by the Secretary of State’. However, before 1877, local prisons like the New Bailey were run by county justices and they all had a different interpretation of hard labour. As late as 1879, it was discovered that ‘mat-making, coir-plaiting, oakum-picking, weaving, rope beating, net-making, twine-spinning, sugar chopping and blacksmithing were all variously used and represented as first class labour’.

The treadwheel was undisputably the most feared and hated of all hard labour. Invented by William Cubitt in 1818, there was no ambiguity about whether or not it was appropriate for hard labour of the first class. When working the treadwheel, the prisoner had to lift ‘his body up three feet at each step’. Until 1880, the task was not standardised and the height the prisoners were required to climb varied from prison to prison. The Prison Discipline Society advised that each male individual should complete ‘12,000 feet of ascent per diem’ which was akin to climbing the Matterhorn. However, at York prisoners climbed 6,000 feet, at Stafford it was 16,630 feet while at Salford’s New Bailey where William Anderson served his sentence, it was 19,400 in summer and 14,450 in winter. Treadwheels were usually unproductive and part of the Victorian prison’s aim to deter criminals, rather than rehabilitate them.

The intense physical effort required by prisoners working the treadwheel raised concerns about their state of health and whether the quantity of diet allowed to them was sufficient.  In June 1868 at Worcester Prison, it was recommended by the medical officer George Edwin Hyde that ‘no prisoner be worked on the treadwheel before breakfast, and that a corresponding period of hard labour in the cell be substituted…’ By June 1872, he recommended that the class 1 prisoners working on the treadwheel ‘be allowed one pint of gruel for breakfast and supper daily, in addition to the ordinary diet of that class’.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that:

‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that: ‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Working the treadwheel could be extremely dangerous for those new to the task, or those who were simply exhausted. At Stafford, ‘one man fell off the wheel from sheer exhaustion. The cry “a man down” was soon raised, and the mill at once stopped, but not until he had been terribly crushed by it…one of his legs was broken’.

By 1880, a standardised six hour treadwheel task was introduced which prisoners worked in two equal shifts. Prisoners were allowed five minutes’ rest between each fifteen minute session on the wheel and the speed of the wheel was regulated to allow an ascent of thirty-two feet a minute. However, the high cost of replacing treadwheels with standardised versions meant that many prisons used the crank, capstan and stone-breaking instead. By 1890, there were still cranks connected to pumps, mills operated by prisoners in separate compartments, water-pumping capstans and unproductive fixed-resistance cranks in cells. The treadwheel was finally abolished in 1895.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

If you ever get the opportunity, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. It still has an original treadwheel, which is believed to be the last one in Britain. Unusually, it was productive and was designed so that water could be pumped to the roof tanks, and from there to the cells.

William Anderson appears to be have been undeterred by the years of hard labour he undertook as part of his numerous prison sentences, including five separate periods of penal servitude in convict prisons. His criminal career spanned over fifty years and he used multiple aliases including Thomas Johnson, James McGuinness, William Pearson, William Edwards, William Robson and William Evans. His offences ranged from stealing clothing and umbrellas through to attempted theft and receiving stolen property. Old hands like William clearly got used to the work and the routine in prisons, and appreciated the guarantee of three meals a day.

VICTORIAN WORKHOUSES: THE MEDICAL OFFICER

I really enjoyed the first episode of the BBC’s new series of A House Through Time, presented by historian David Olusoga. Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle is a beautiful Georgian house and the researchers and producers have done an amazing job in uncovering the stories of the people who lived there. I was particularly interested in the surgeon/doctor Nicholas Hardcastle, who was also the medical officer at Newcastle Union Workhouse. His competence was called into question several times; the first complaint about the non-treatment of children with ‘the itch’ (scabies) was made not long after his appointment in 1854. A more serious charge was made against him in 1887 when his treatment of scarlet fever patients was criticised; this led to Nicholas’s resignation as the workhouse medical officer but did not adversely affect his career in private practice or his other role as gaol surgeon.

When I researched Life in the Victorian and Edwardian Workhouse and Tracing Your Medical Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians, I discovered that complaints about workhouse medical officers and those who looked after the poor in the various districts were fairly common. These men were publicly accountable and whenever there was an alleged case of neglect or incompetence, the guardians of the relevant poor law union undertook an investigation to uncover the truth. As it was a matter of interest to the ratepayers, local newspapers reported on the inquiries. You can read about cases in your area by searching The British Newspaper Archive.

Applicants for the post of workhouse medical officer and district medical officer needed a diploma or degree as a surgeon from a Royal College or University in England, Scotland or Ireland. In addition, they needed a degree in medicine or a diploma or licence of the Royal Physicians of London or a certificate to practice as an apothecary from the Society of Apothecaries of London. They could also apply if they had been in practice as an apothecary on 1 August 1815 or if they had a warrant or commission as surgeon or assistant-surgeon in Her Majesty’s Navy, Her Majesty’s Army or the Honourable East India Company prior to 1 August 1826.

People Queuing at St Marylebone Workhouse, circa 190. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

The main duty of the workhouse medical officer was to medically examine the paupers as they were admitted to the receiving ward. If any paupers were found to be ill, he had to direct the master to send them to the sick ward; the medical officer would then oversee their treatment. He also had to decide if those of unsound mind were fit to stay in the workhouse, or whether they were too dangerous to themselves and others, and therefore should be sent to a lunatic asylum. In addition to these duties, workhouse medical officers had to issue medical certificates for every sick pauper, record the death of anyone who died in the institution and keep meticulous records regarding the dietary of sick paupers

The district medical officer also had very specific duties. He was to ‘attend duly and punctually upon all poor persons requiring medical attendance within the District of the Union assigned to him, and according to his agreement to supply the requisite medicines to such persons…’ It was important that he only attended paupers ‘with a written or printed order of the Guardians, or of a Relieving Officer of the Union, or of an Overseer.’ Like the workhouse medical officer, he also had to keep meticulous records for the guardians of the medical relief he had provided and make sure he informed the relieving officer of ‘any poor person whom he may attend without an order’.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the guardians of poor law unions relied on the workhouse medical officers to supply drugs for the inmates from their own salaries. This was an extremely contentious issue and medical officers often recommended extras like food and beer to provide nourishment for the sick paupers under their care. As these extras were part of the workhouse diet, they did not have to be funded from the medical officers’ own pockets.

Old Men’s Ward in a Workhouse (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

The main problem faced by medical officers for poor law unions was that they undertook their roles alongside their private practice and other posts in public service. Yet their duties were seemingly never-ending, leading to many cases of alleged neglect. For my books, I looked at the career of John McNab Ballenden who was born in Stromness, Orkney in 1813. The Medical Register records that he became a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1847. He obtained his MD from the University of St Andrews in 1850 and became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in London in the same year.

It’s not known why John chose to settle in Staffordshire but he commenced general practice in Sedgley and raised a family there. The Medical Directory states that he had a number of additional appointments. He was a member of the Hunterian Society, a Poor Law Medical Officer, a Police Surgeon, a Certifying Factory Surgeon and a Medical Referee for the London & Liverpool Assurance Society. As a police surgeon, John was regularly called upon to offer his professional opinion about suspicious deaths and to carry out post-mortems, the results of which were reported in local newspapers.

John’s long association with the Dudley Poor Law Union began in November 1859 when he was appointed Medical Officer for the Upper Sedgley District (also known as No. 1 District). He had the difficult task of visiting paupers in their homes to administer medical relief across a wide, geographical area, at the same time as attending to patients from his own practice.

In April 1877, it was alleged that John had neglected his duties by ‘not having given proper Medical Attention to…Mary Edwards during her confinement’ and that she died as a result. The guardians suspended him while investigations were carried out. An inquest into Mary Edwards’ death confirmed she ‘died from exhaustion, consequent upon the weak state of the Heart, the laceration of the peritoneum and Vagina consequent on the cross-birth and protracted Labour’. 

John McNab Ballenden wrote to the guardians explaining his actions:

‘I prescribed some opium Pills, and gave a Saline mixture with Tartrate of Antimony, and left the case in charge of a midwife, to whom I gave the necessary directions, and told her if any alteration took place, to send for me again. Having had a very extensive midwifery practice extending over many years and amounting to about 9000 Patients, the case presented no difficulty to me, it was one requiring time, and medicine to allay irritation and help natural relaxation… During my evening Surgery hours I had been told that another Doctor was attending Mrs Edwards…’

If he had returned to attend to Mary Edwards, John had intended to carry out a craniotomy procedure, something he termed ‘breaking up the child’. He explained: ‘I would not when it is necessary hesitate to sacrifice the child to save the Mother…Any man of experience with common sense would say in such a case, use every means to increase the natural dilation and diminish the bulk of the object to be passed through’.

The guardians were satisfied with his explanation for not attending Mary Edwards a second time and his suspension was removed. He continued as the district medical officer for the First Sedgley District until 1894 when he resigned due to ill-health and infirmity, dying the following year. In his obituary, the guardians of the Dudley Union Workhouse described him as the ‘oldest officer of the union who discharged his duties very satisfactorily’.

Obituary for John McNab Ballenden, 1895 (Dudley Herald)

This will be my last post for a few weeks as I take a break over Easter. I will return to Victorian England in early May – see you then!

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