Descended of Rogues and Thieves

Benjamin McMurdo shopbreaking
Benjamin McMurdo was arrested for breaking and entering and theft, along with a gang of four other boys. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Our great great aunt, Jennie Evans, was a Southwark native, born and bred in the Borough, the granddaughter of a Welsh cowkeeper. Jennie married a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, also from Southwark, but unlike his wife, Richard was only the second in his immediate family to be born in London. His roots were in the gently rolling hills and patchwork fields of Barham, Kent, where his father Stephen was the firstborn son of a farm labourer. There were other Vansons in the area, probably relatives, and in the village churchyard the inscription on a headstone gives some insight into the character of at least one of them, perhaps the eponym of our own Southwark-born Richard: “To the memory of Richard Vanson who died June 30th 1828 aged 25 years. In simple guise let this best praise appear. Stranger, an honest man lies buried here.”

There’s no reason to suspect that our Richard was anything less than honest, but the same cannot be said of his father Stephen. Perhaps hoping to escape rural poverty, a young Stephen left the small village of Barham and took a job as a footman in the home of Thomas Barker Bass, a divorced attorney-at-law, in the seaside town of Dover. Stephen’s name appears on the 1851 census beneath that of his employer and two other “general servants.” How long he held his post or why he left it isn’t known, but records place him on HMS Beagle (not of Darwin fame) at some point during the Crimean War, awarded the Medal for the Crimea. Perhaps drawing on his experience as a footman, Stephen was a gun room steward, serving in the junior officer’s mess on Beagle. On the same medal list for HMS Beagle was Ordinary Seaman James Walsh. When the war ended the two young veterans drifted east searching for work, but within a few months things had spiraled out of control.

October 1856 found Stephen and James in the city of Hereford, twenty six kilometres from the Welsh border, their names recorded more infamously than they would have liked. The story of what occurred appeared in the Hereford Times: “Daring Burglary in Hereford – Clever Capture of the Burglars.” Stephen and James were two of the gang. They and another young man, John Davies, all “strangers to [the] city,” had taken rooms at Powell’s lodging house in Berrington Street, and perhaps already had had a target in mind for their dastardly deed. Nearby was the shop of a watchmaker and jeweller, with a residence above, and an hour or so after midnight on October 9th, the would-be thieves slunk to the back of the premises and cut away a wire grate, squeezing themselves into the kitchen. Stephen used a skeleton key to gain access to the shop, and the robbery might have come off undetected but for the pitch darkness of the room. James Walsh struck a match, and as luck would have it, out in the street on his nightly rounds was Sergeant James Griffiths of the city police, who spied the light right away. He knocked on the door, calling the shop owner’s name, but the light was immediately extinguished and no reply came. He hurried around to the back of the shop and saw the three men run from the building and make their escape through the pig market. He shouted for help and gave chase, apprehending Stephen in a granary, while another policeman nabbed James Walsh. John Davies made it back to the lodging house but the police caught up with him there, and in custody at the station house, the men expressed remorse on learning the shop belonged to a widow. Despite being desperate, they’d never have done the job, Stephen claimed, had they known their victim was a widow.

Ellen Woodman hard labour age 11
Just 11 years old, red-headed Ellen Woodman received 7 days of hard labour for stealing some iron. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

At the Assizes in December, a week before Christmas, Stephen and his accomplices stood before Mr. Baron Watson, who listened to their claim that they’d been “weary of a vagabond life,” and with the spoils of the burglary they’d hoped to “set up in a respectable way of business, and hereafter lead a life of honesty and good conduct.” The judge advised them to accomplish such a “praiseworthy object … by honest means” noting that “he had a very strong suspicion that at least one of the prisoners had been engaged in such work before.” He then sentenced the three men to one year hard labour. For Stephen, left waiting was Ellen Douglass, ten years his junior and just sixteen, pregnant with their first child Annie, who would be born in Old Down, Gloucestershire, in 1857 while her father was in jail.

Likely no mug shot ever existed of Stephen Vanson, but it was around the time of Stephen’s troubles that Bedford Prison governor Robert Evans Roberts came up with the idea of photographing convicts as a means of documenting habitual criminals. Some of the images exist today, along with details of their crimes and punishment. Little distinction was made between children and adults, and there was no sympathy for the situations prompting the crimes – hunger, homelessness, sickness, unemployment. Stephen was twenty six when he received his sentence of hard labour, but a similar punishment was frequently meted out to children, as the photographs and their details attest.

James Donneley age 16 two months for theft
Aged 16, young James Donneley had been in and out of prison several times when he was sentenced to two months for stealing some shirts. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Whether Stephen was influenced by the unsavoury types he met in prison, or whether he was himself of that character we can’t know, but in 1859, again a free man, Stephen and his young family of Ellen Douglass and daughter Annie appear in Merthyr-Tydfil, Wales, a place of ill repute. Merthyr-Tydfil was one of the most notorious districts in Wales, nicknamed “China,” probably in reference to Britain’s so-called “opium wars” with China around this time. The propaganda of the day reinforced the idea of China as the enemy, a place of dangerous foreigners, and a no-man’s land. Merthyr-Tydfil’s “China” was a den of thieves, rogues and prostitutes, and respectable people entered at their peril.  Bounded by water and a row of large dwellings, entrance to the district was through a narrow arch, and even the police did not go there.

But Stephen and Ellen did, and lived in Merthyr-Tydfil long enough to have two more children born there. The South Wales Police Museum explains what might have attracted our Vansons, writing that the district saw a steady stream of jobseekers, but those who couldn’t find the work they sought also could not afford to go back where they came from, and many resorted to begging and stealing to scrape together a living. Stephen seems to have learned his lesson in Hereford, though, for there are no further records to suggest he was ever again anything other than a poor hawker, and Ellen a “hawker’s wife.” When they finally married in 1862 it was at St. Saviour’s church in the Borough, Southwark, where they began a new, and sadly short chapter of their lives.

Sources

  • Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
  • South Wales Police Museum
  • “Daring Burglary in Hereford  – Clever Capture of the Burglars.” Hereford Times, 11 October, 1856
  • “Capture of Gang of Burglars in Hereford.” Hereford Journal, 15 October, 1856
  • “The Burglary at Mrs. Lamberts’ Shop.” Hereford Times, 18 October, 1856
  • “Original Mugshots Show the Faces of Victorian Crime.” The Times, 13 February, 2013
  • Barham Village History www.barham-kent.org.uk

 

 

Two Flower Sellers, Poison, and a Mean Old Man

London flower sellers, courtesy New York Public Library

Having been a flower seller of sorts myself in years past, I was curious about Victorian-era flower sellers. A rough world, really, despite the beautiful and fragrant wares. In his 1851 work London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote that many of the flower girls on the streets of London were of “an immoral character,” and worked as prostitutes as well; but others were young children, “very persevering, … who will run along, barefooted, with their ‘Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!’ — ‘Please, kind lady, buy my violets. O, do!'” He estimated there were between 400 and 800 flower sellers on the streets, but said it was impossible to be certain of a number, because when oranges were cheap and tasty, the flower girls sold those instead — or they sold watercress, or onions.

By 1889, the publication Toilers in London put the number of city flower sellers at 2,000. They had not been a fixture on London streets for long, but had become plentiful so quickly that it was hard to imagine the metropolis without them. They stood in the main thoroughfares, and at the entrances to hospitals and cemeteries, and they sold to people of all classes, even “the poorest and the lowest. … The love of flowers is one of the most hopeful symptoms in the condition of the very poor in London.”

Flower sellers in Covent Garden, from the 1877 book Street Life in London, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Courtesy LSE Digital Library.

With so many sellers on the streets, competition was fierce. Newspapers through the late 1800s carry mentions of flower sellers getting in drunken brawls with their rivals, blocking roadways with their laden baskets, and pushing flowers into people’s faces to urge them to buy. It would seem there were too many sellers and not enough buyers, which perhaps had something to do with the bizarre story that unfolded in Hackney in June of 1891.

One Friday, late in the afternoon, a man approached a young girl named Ethel Roundtree. He was carrying a small paper bag and asked, “Will you give these two buns to that woman standing on the corner selling flowers?” Presumably Ethel thought nothing of the request, and brought the bag to flower seller Jane Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. The treats inside looked like Bath buns — normally sweet, sticky and delicious — but when Bass broke one open to have a taste, “some yellow stuff come out of it. … It smelt nasty.” She asked the girl to tell her who had given her the bag, but the man was gone now, and Ethel could only describe him.

Bass brought the buns to the Hackney police station, and an inspector had them analyzed by Dr. Henry Gould, who confirmed they contained phosphorus paste. The police sought out Ethel Roundtree, and she accompanied two constables to the local pub where she pointed out the man who’d given her the bag. She had no trouble finding him, for he was what the papers called “a repulsive-looking elderly man” named Patrick Costello (elsewhere Costella), whose wife sold flowers in the same area as Bass.

“We are police officers,” one of the men told Costello, “and are going to take you into custody for attempting to kill a woman named Jane Bass by administering to her a quantity of phosphorus paste in two bath buns.” In response, Costello claimed, “I never bought no buns.” But on his person police discovered “a box of zinc ointment, some blue stone, and [a] little box containing phosphorus paste marked ‘poison.'”

At the trial, Dr. Gould stated the buns contained enough phosphorus to “destroy life,” and said he could see that a hole had been made in the bottom of each bun and the paste pushed into it.  Though Costello denied the act, and claimed the phosphorus found on him was something he used for his bad leg, the doctor retorted that phosphorus was used to kill vermin — “it is not recommended for bad legs.” Had Bass eaten the buns, she would have experienced a burning sensation in her throat and abdomen, severe abdominal pain, luminescent vomit and diarrhea, shock, jaundice, hemorrhage, renal damage — the list goes on — and if not death then serious, irreversible health problems.

If the case against him wasn’t bad enough, a police officer testified that just days before the buns incident, Costello had approached him and complained about Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. “He came to me and asked me to remove Bass, as she was stopping his customers, and taking his trade away—I refused to do it, and told him she had the same privilege as he had to stand here—he said he and his wife had stood there for a number of years, and the other had only just come, occasionally on a Saturday—next evening, Sunday, he came to me about seven, there were several on the opposite side selling flowers, and he asked me to remove them, and keep them further from him, and if I did so he would make it all right—I refused.”

The Flower Sellers of London by Gustave Dore, 1875.

Once again, poverty is at the core of this story. Costello was no doubt desperate for the money his wife could earn in the vicinity Bass shared. He did indeed have a bad leg — workhouse records show him entering with such a condition years before the poisoning took place, so perhaps there was little work available to him; he was in pain; he was in dire straits. But he was nasty too, whatever had made him so. Newspapers reporting on the case claimed he’d attempted the same poisoning trick before, and that he’d often been in trouble with the law for drunk and disorderly conduct. In fact, just one year before the buns incident, he was convicted for beating his wife:

“Patrick Costello, … a flower seller, of Compton street, Soho, was charged with a brutal assault on his wife, an aged woman. The prosecutrix, who sells flowers at the Hackney Railway Station, spoke of a lengthened experience of brutality at the hands of her husband, adding that he had kicked and stabbed her and already suffered imprisonment in consequence. On the present occasion he struck her a violent blow in the face, and threatened to murder her. The Magistrate said it was an aggravated assault, and sent the prisoner to gaol for six months’ hard labour.”

One wonders about “Mrs. Costello,” who never gets mentioned by name. It is so often difficult to trace women’s stories because their identity disappears in the shadows of their husbands. What did she make of her husband’s crimes, against others but also herself? Patrick Costello was sentenced to nine months for this latest act, so she would be free of him for a time, if that was how it felt to her. Did she quarrel with Jane Bass for the best spot near the railway station? Or did they sell in peaceful proximity, baskets brimming with lavender and roses, enjoying the respite until he returned?

Sources

The Fighting Parson

One of the many colourful stripes that made up the fabric of the Borough in Southwark in the late 1890s was the curate at St. Saviour’s Church known as “the fighting parson.” Charles Pierrepont Edwards was a clergyman who confronted problems head on, and made the papers now and again for his scuffles with local hooligans. He relished the chance to show his “muscular Christianity,” and it was no surprise to see him rush from his house on Newcomen Street, and “place his thews and sinews at the service of the temporal powers.”

Mersea Museum IA004390
Charles Pierrepont Edwards, curate at St. Saviour’s, Southwark and then vicar of West Mersea. Photo credit to the Mersea Museum http://www.merseamuseum.org.uk

Lloyd’s Weekly recounted the court appearance of a fellow who’d apparently stolen a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the White Horse pub on Union Street. The prisoner was a big man, and powerfully built, but he stood in the dock with his head bandaged, and the worse for wear. Testimony in court revealed that Pierrepont Edwards had been holding a confirmation class when he heard the shrill of a whistle, and he ran into the street to rescue a potman being accosted by the accused. The parson tackled the would-be whiskey thief and held him down until the police could take over. The magistrate eyed the bandaged prisoner and decided he’d been sufficiently punished by the parson, and let the man go. On another occasion, kids were playing in Newcomen Street when an old woman stepped into the road to avoid them and was trampled by a horse-drawn van. Hearing her screams, Pierrepont Edwards burst from his house, and carried the woman to the hospital. It was too late to save her, but he was no less lauded as a hero.

He’d been born in 1864 in Erith, Kent, the son of a gentleman. His family had fallen on hard times when he was just a boy, and he’d left school to make his way as a clerk at the West India Docks, so perhaps he’d learned his fighting skills from the dockworkers. Eventually, he’d won a scholarship to a theological college, and taken holy orders, but he’d always felt “the most intense sympathy for the poor. ‘They know it,’ he claimed, ‘and they come to me for advice and assistance in all circumstances. I have been called out in the night to murders and fires, to bail out husbands arrested for wife beating, to accidents and disasters of all kinds. So far as I can,’ he vowed, ‘I live their life.'” And though the roughs of the Borough were the ones he tussled with, even they developed a grudging respect for the curate’s “pugilistic ability.”

Yet despite his fame throughout the Borough, or even because of it, Pierrepont Edwards left for a provincial vicarage, taking a substantial salary cut to move to the village of West Mersea, Essex. Before he left Southwark, the police presented him with a silver tea service, saying they were “sincerely sorry that so able a recruit to the forces of law and order [was] leaving the vicinity.” Later, he served as a chaplain in the Great War, was awarded the Military Cross, and worked for a while with the War Graves Commission, but returned to Mersea to live out his days. He was never far from controversy, though, and when he died the notices cited his “interesting career,” recalling that he “invariably wore a top hat, … was exceedingly quick at repartee, … and proved more than a match for many hecklers.”

Pierrepont Edwards in Gallipoli
Pierrepont Edwards, right, in Gallipoli, 1919. Image © IWM (Q14313)

Sources

  •  Mersea Museum, Mersea Island, Essex
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 3 April, 1898
  • “London Week by Week.” Leeds Times, 17 September, 1898
  • “The Fighting Parson.” South Wales Echo, 6 September, 1898
  • Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 April, 1898

Inspector of Nuisances

Chapter 1 - Cowkeeper Benjamin Jones
Our cowkeeper, Benjamin Jones, likely taken in the 1860s, some time after his first run-in with the Inspector of Nuisances.

Some Victorian occupations have such colourful names you just can’t resist finding out more. That was the case when we came upon the term “Inspector of Nuisances.” John Errington was the first such inspector for Southwark, and from the 1850s  on he prowled the streets south of the Thames sniffing out foul smells and unsanitary conditions, and bringing them to the attention of the Medical Officer of Health. We first discovered him in 1855, when he accused our great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Jones, of keeping his stables in a deplorable condition and allowing dung and filth to accumulate in his yard.

Twenty years later Errington was still a thorn in Benjamin’s side; he’d had complaints from a local business to which Benjamin supplied milk, so he hid in the office of that establishment one day, and when Benjamin arrived with his delivery, Errington popped out and declared himself, and took the sample away for testing. It was discovered to be more than half water, and deemed an egregious case.

St Saviour's Board of Works copy
Courtesy the Wellcome Library

Scanning through newspapers, and through health reports available at the Wellcome Library, it seems this was a typical part of Errington’s work. If you sold bad fish or rotten cherries, he’d be after you if he found out about it, for his mission was “the discovery and abatement of nuisances” and the protection of the public’s health. And in an area so steeped in poverty, there was plenty to put that health in danger.

In June of 1866, he received a complaint about an “intolerable effluvium” coming from a house in Gravel Lane. Upon inspecting, he discovered the premises belonged to an undertaker named Mr. Hodges, who was in possession of a female body dead some three weeks. The corpse was rapidly decomposing, and Errington found the stench unbearable. Neighbours were decidedly anxious.

But Hodges claimed he was in a difficult position. A fortnight earlier, two sisters had come to him and asked him to remove their mother’s body from the workhouse, where she had died a week before; he took their word that they would pay the transport and burial expenses, and fetched the body and put it in his shed. Later the sisters denied having promised to pay him, and he was a poor man, he told Errington, and could not afford to pay the expenses himself. So the body sat there, decomposing further each day.

When the sanitary committee met to discuss the issue, Mr. Hodges was ordered to bury the woman at once, or face charges. He could “make the relatives pay the necessary expenses afterwards,” though there was no suggestion as to how he might do that, given it seems he’d already tried. And with their mother finally interred, what motivation would there be for the sisters to pay?

So many questions arise from this one little story. Under the Anatomy Act, unclaimed bodies of workhouse inmates, prisoners and so on could be used for medical research. Was this why the dead woman’s daughters wanted their mother removed from the workhouse? And did they wish to avoid the stigma of a so-called pauper burial? Was Hodges telling the whole truth as he knew it? Were the sisters as heartless as Hodges suggests? Or so poor that they couldn’t afford to bury their mother, despite best intentions? And if so, why didn’t the parish cover the costs in the end? Presumably they would have if she’d been left unclaimed at the workhouse.

Sadly the topic of bodies unburied wasn’t new to Errington and the Medical Officer of Health for whom he worked. Dr. Robert Bianchi, in hearing Hodges’ tale, reflected on another Southwark death two years earlier: a family had vacated their lodgings and left a body behind. Bianchi himself paid for the burial, “as no one else would do it.”

Sources

  • “A Dead Body Unburied for Three Weeks.” South London Press, 16 June, 1866
  • Medical Officer of Health Reports, Southwark. Wellcome Library