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.

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 CRIME: MURDER IN THE SUBURBS

Today, I’m very happy to be hosting a guest post by Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian true crime. Read on for the shocking story of the murder of PC Nicholas Cock in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, one of Manchester’s suburbs, back in 1876.

MURDER IN THE SUBURBS

Chorlton-cum-Hardy is a suburb of Manchester, four and a half miles south-west of the city centre, now characterised by small shops, street cafés and delicatessens. Originally a rural village, the tranquil farming community was surrounded by fields and meadows, and nursery gardens. By the end of the nineteenth century, Chorlton had begun to develop into a more distinct suburb of the industrialised metropolis of Manchester. Factory owners and businesspeople moved out to the township’s leafy streets to escape the dirt and noise of the textile mills and factories. They built attractive red-brick villas with walled gardens, on tree-lined avenues, travelling into the city by the omnibus service or twice-daily packet boats on the canal. Crime was low, compared to the dangerous streets of the city centre, making it: ‘one of the most respectable suburbs of Manchester…covered by villa residences of some considerable pretension’ (Manchester Courier, 27 November 1876).

The quiet suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy (copyright free)

In the quiet township of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, there were occasional burglaries and robberies, yet many of the criminal activities were still rural in nature, such as poaching and theft of farm animals. In the early 1880s, there were two murders, one of a young woman on her way home from the market, which was never solved, and another resulting from a drunken argument, which had an uncanny link with shocking events some 30 years later. 

In May 1847, market gardener Francis Deakin was drinking in a beerhouse with his friend George Leach, whose wife owned the establishment. An afternoon of beer and rum led to an argument between the couple, and when George started to hurl insults his wife, Francis stepped in to defend her. Enraged, George ran into the kitchen and grabbed a carving knife, meeting Francis in the passage. Shouting, ‘I’ll have no man interfering with me and my wife,’ he lunged at Francis and stabbed him. George was immediately sorry for what he had done and expressed the desperate hope that he had not killed his friend, but Francis Deakin died from his wounds. George Leach was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and transported for life.

Francis’s wife, Martha, was left alone with six children, ranging from 15 years to a few days old. Helped by her family, she took over the management of their market garden business and supported her children until her death, 11 years later at the age of 46. The younger members of the Deakin family were left in the care of 16-year-old Francis junior, who looked after his brother and two sisters, whilst assuming responsibility for the market garden. Francis married in 1864 and had one son before his wife died. By the mid-1870s, he had become a prosperous nurseryman and was re-married with three more children. He lived at Firs Farm, which would become the focus of another murder, after the prime suspects were arrested on his property.

PC Cock was murdered at the junction of West Point, Chorlton-cum-Hardy (copyright free)

On 1 August 1876, 21-year-old PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight, from the township of Chorlton towards the junction of West Point where three main thoroughfares joined, when he met a law student on his way home, and a colleague. The three men stopped for a chat at the junction and, after a few minutes, went their separate ways. Shortly after, two shots rang back out in the dark. The student and PC Beanland ran back to West Point to find PC Cock lying on the ground – he had been shot in the chest.


PC Nicholas Cock of the Lancashire Constabulary (copyright free)


As soon as he heard of his officer’s death, Superintendent James Bent knew exactly who the culprits were. He proceeded immediately to the farm of Francis Deakin and apprehended the three Habron brothers, who worked in his nursery garden. Superintendent Bent’s investigation led to a murder conviction and ended with a startling twist and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar, which finally revealed the truth of this heinous crime.

A big thank you to Angela for writing such an interesting post, packed with Victorian period detail. Was anyone in your family tree a victim of violent crime? Please do get in touch if you have a story to tell about your Victorian ancestors.

Angela writes about Victorian crime and you can find out more about her work on her website
http://victorian-supersleuth.com.

Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. Angela is also the author of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders and The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword). 
 

Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley

VICTORIAN CHILDCARE: BABY FARMING

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post by the fabulous Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. Angela tells us the sad story of the infant victims of Amelia Dyer, the notorious baby farmer; many of their mothers were domestic servants who had no choice but to entrust their children to the care of women like Dyer.

Victorian Childcare: Baby Farming

Life was particularly harsh for single mothers in the nineteenth century. Young women who fell pregnant outside wedlock lost their homes and jobs, and were shunned by society. Domestic servants were amongst the most vulnerable and their plight was brought to light by a series of dreadful discoveries in the river Thames at Caversham, in the spring of 1896.

On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast upriver and, as he approached Caversham Weir near Reading, he spotted a brown paper parcel in the water. He and his mate hooked the package to take a closer look. Once on the towpath, they cut through layers of newspaper and flannel to expose a tiny human foot and part of a leg. When the police opened the parcel fully at the mortuary, they found the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and a year. She had been strangled by a piece of white tape tied around her neck and knotted under her ear. A faint name and address on the sodden parcel led the officers to Amelia Dyer, a local baby farmer. A letter found at her home suggested that the child recovered from the river might have been Helena Fry, daughter of Mary Fry, a domestic servant.

Amelia Dyer (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)

Victorian servants who had illegitimate children were usually dismissed from their post, despite the fact that they may have been sexually exploited by a member of their employer’s family. Encumbered with an infant, they may not have been able to return home and they would not have found another position. Their choices were limited – there was no state assistance and they often ended up in the workhouse, where they were separated from their child. The only other viable option, if they could afford it, was to place the child with a baby farmer.

Baby farmers, who were usually women, advertised in the local newspapers for children to adopt for a fee, either a weekly payment of about five shillings, or a one-off premium of around £10, which was a large proportion of a domestic servant’s annual wage. Transactions were organised by letter, and once the mother was satisfied that her baby would be taken care of, she handed over the child to the baby farmer, with the money, and often never saw them again.

Newspaper advertisements placed by baby farmers (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)

The reality for farmed-out children was bleak. Although there were some reputable baby farmers, many of them were unscrupulous practitioners who neglected the infants in their charge, drugging them with opiates, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, and starving them to death. The high infant mortality rate at the time masked the deaths of these poor mites. The practice was unregulated and completely legal.

When the body of baby Helena Fry was found in the Thames in 1896, the police investigated Amelia Dyer, who had been running her baby farming business for some 30 years. Many of the parents who had entrusted their children to her were in domestic service. The bodies of at least six children were discovered in the Thames at Caversham Weir, one of whom was Frances Jesse Goulding, illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Goulding, who worked as a servant in a public house in Gloucester. The baby’s father was a married man and so Elizabeth made the heartbreaking decision to give her child up for adoption. When she saw an advertisement in the paper, she arranged with Amelia Dyer’s daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, to have baby Frances adopted. She met Palmer on Gloucester station and paid her £10 to take the child, who was later identified by a lock of her hair, after her body was found in the river.

On 22 May 1896, Amelia Dyer was convicted of the wilful murder of baby Doris Marmon, whose body was found in the Thames in a carpet bag together with another child, Harry Simmons. Three weeks later Dyer went to the gallows. Following her execution, legislation was introduced to protect children like Frances Jesse Goulding and the other infants who perished at the hands of the notorious Victorian baby farmer.


A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating, yet poignant post. Please get in touch if baby farming has cropped up in your family tree or if you have a story to tell about your Victorian servant ancestors.


Angela writes about Victorian crime and you can find out more about her work  on her website www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth

Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. Angela is also the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword).



LIFE AS A POLICE CONSTABLE IN LATE VICTORIAN LONDON

As the current series of Ripper Street draws to a close on BBC1, I decided to devote this blog post to policing in late Victorian London. I’ve been impressed by the character of P.C. Bobby Grace in Series 3 and will look forward to his development in the next series. But how were police constables recruited and what were their day-to-day duties?

In 1901, a journalist for Living London observed the Metropolitan Police Force at work. When referring to police constables, he wrote: “Any young man in possession of good health and character, between twenty-one and twenty-seven years of age and not less than 5 ft 9 in. in height, may apply for admission to the force; and, if preliminary inquiries prove satisfactory, he will be directed to attend at headquarters on a specified Tuesday. There, in company with some fifty other candidates, he must undergo a searching examination at the hands of the Chief Surgeon, and if pronounced physically fit for police duty will be further tested as to his general intelligence and his ability to read and to write well.”

Afterwards, the budding constable was sent for three weeks as a ‘candidate on probation’ to the Candidates’ Section House in Kennington Lane. While there, he was drilled twice daily in squad exercises by an instructor at Wellington Barracks, and also trained in the use of the ambulance. He was then sworn in as a constable “from which moment his career as a guardian of the public peace begins”. He was then posted to fill a vacancy at one or other of the twenty-two divisions of the force.

‘Drilling Recruits (Wellington Barracks)’ from Living London (1901)

At his division, the new young constable was given his number and a uniform. His on-the-job training continued: “After attending the local police court to observe how police cases are conducted, he is sent out for a little while under the charge of an experienced officer to gain practical knowledge of his duties, and is given leisure for the study of his ‘police instruction book’ – a vellum-bound volume, full of statutes and regulations, and apt to prove a very indigestible mental diet to the ‘new chum’. And at last he finds himself a recognised ‘duty man’ taking his share with the rest in the police control of London.”

In 1901, a police constable’s pay started at 25s. 6d. weekly, “rising a shilling annually to the modest limit of 33s. 6d.” But if he was a efficient officer, a policeman like P.C. Bobby Grace could “rise through the grades of sergeant, station officer, and inspector to the rank of superintendent, at a salary of £400 a year.” Along with his uniform, the police constable was given “an armlet, to be worn on the left sleeve when on duty, a whistle and chain, and a stout boxwood truncheon – his sole weapon of defence.” By 1901, handcuffs were no longer carried unless some violent or dangerous offender was to be apprehended. The young officer was then sent to do eight hours’ duty daily in the London streets, either in two terms of four hours each or in a single spell.

‘Going on Duty’ from Living London (1901)

The work was extremely varied with “disturbances to be quelled and crowds dispersed, doubtful characters to be watched and obstructive costermongers and street vendors to be ‘moved on’, endless questions to be answered and directions given; stray dogs to be seized, pickpockets, beggars, drunken persons, and other actual or suspected offenders to be arrested, besides innumerable minor breaches of the law to be reported.”

The single men of each division were housed in the ‘divisional section house’, “a sort of police barracks, but roomy, well-appointed, and homely, as soldiers’ quarters are not”. For a subscription of six or seven shillings weekly, the constable was entitled to a comfortable bed in this building, a hot dinner or supper daily, and the use of the police library and common rooms.  After his duty was over, “he amuses himself with billiards, chess, boxing, and gymnastics, or, if he prefers, can read or study for promotion undisturbed. There are cricket and football clubs in each division, a band for musical members of the force, a sick room and medical care for the suffering.”

‘In a Section House: A Wrestling Bout’ from Living London (1901)

 The journalist for Living London was at pains to point out the benefits of working in the police force: “reserve pay, snug billets as caretakers, special payments for doing duty at London theatres and museums, and so on. Thus, arduous and trying as is police life in London, it has its compensations. And it is rewarded, besides, after twenty-six years’ service, with a life-pension of two-thirds of the officer’s pay – a fitting conclusion to the career of this long-suffering guardian and useful servant of the London public.”

It will be interesting to see how far P.C. Bobby Grace progresses up the ranks – if he doesn’t get killed off, that is!

A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO VICTORIAN MANCHESTER

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Angela Buckley as part of her blog tour to promote her wonderful new book, The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada. It’s selling like hot-cakes! 

Caminada’s groundbreaking detective work led to the unravelling of classic crime cases such as the Hackney Carriage Murder in 1889, secret government missions and a deadly confrontation with his arch-rival, a ruthless and violent thief. Angela has very kindly written a post about Victorian Manchester, which was Caminada’s home beat as a policeman and detective:

If you’re interested in visiting nineteenth century Manchester, then my advice would be: DON’T GO! It is one of the most dangerous places in Victorian England and you’ll be lucky if you only lose your money and valuables. Worst-case scenario is that you won’t make it out alive. However, if you really have to go, it’s important to have your wits about you and to be aware of what you might face when you get there.

Deansgate, Manchester

 Official police returns in 1866 reported that there were some 13,000 arrests in Manchester, with theft and pickpocketing being the most common crimes. Other offences included assault, breach of the peace, drunkenness, robbery and prostitution. By 1870 the number of arrests had doubled and the city’s crime rate was almost two crimes per capita – four times higher than in London during the same period. Only five per cent of those crimes resulted in conviction. 

In 1843, Thomas Carlyle described Manchester as ‘wonderful, fearful and unimaginable’. The Industrial Revolution and the construction of the world’s first railway line were swiftly followed by prolific construction: magnificent hotels, luxurious shops and imposing offices but beware, for behind those dazzling façades lie some of the worst rookeries in the country. It is likely that you will be tempted to start your tour in the main thoroughfare of Deansgate, near the fashionable boutiques of St Ann’s Square and King Street. Do not stray from the central area, as lurking behind ‘Devil’s Gate’ is a dark labyrinth of impenetrable alleyways and closed courts, teeming with shady characters and ruthless criminals. 

A street criminal

Even during the daytime you will encounter gangs of thieves, convincing con artists and nimble pickpockets. ‘Sharps’ and ‘magsmen’ are waiting on every corner to swindle innocent passersby, especially those who are well heeled. Fake sailors, out-of-work colliers and crippled ex-soldiers will call out to you for a few pennies to ease their distress. Do not engage with them – walk straight on – for they will empty your pockets in a flash. If you are a woman, try to turn a blind eye to the pathetic bundles of rags who will whimper for money to feed their pitiful children. Know that they ‘hire’ these infants for the purpose and they are often drugged. If you are a man, be particularly wary of the young woman who shouts for your help. In great distress and with tears in her eyes, she will beckon you into a dark alleyway. If you follow her, you will likely be robbed and beaten, possibly even garrotted by her violent companions.

A female criminal

These words of warning are not intended to deter you from your journey. Manchester in the nineteenth century is an exciting place, with cutting-edge technology, thriving businesses and impressive buildings. There is much to see – visit the newly built Town Hall in all its splendour, sample the street food in the Italian district or take in a show at one of the renowned theatres of the city. But if you go, heed this advice:

1. Always take a walking stick or an umbrella to defend yourself, in the case of unwanted attention.
2. Do not carry valuables or large amounts of money anywhere on your person. Do not leave them in your hotel either – they are safest in the bank.
3. Hop on a passing omnibus or hail a hansom cab, if you need to get yourself out of a sticky situation.
4. Try to pick up some of the street language – Mancunians are very friendly and love to chat – just be very careful whom you engage in conversation.
5. Turn to the police for help and if you are there during the last three decades of the century, ask for Detective Caminada – he will know what to do.

  
A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating post. Victorian cities like Manchester were definitely not for the fainthearted!

Angela’s book The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available now. To find out more, see her blog: http://victoriansupersleuth.com