Victorian London - Crime - Violence and assault - 'the man-basher'


I have no hesitation in declaring that there is no creature for whom I entertain abhorrence so deeply rooted as for that most mongrel of mankind, the "rough." Amongst the very few acts of mine that may have tended to benefit the public at large, I am proud to boast that it was my great good fortune and privilege to help to make the cowardly scoundrel in question acquainted with the "cat" in its acutest integrity. I am now speaking of ten years since, when this social pest was rendering himself conspicuous as a lurker in retired spots for old ladies and gentlemen, and timid young people, brutally to assault and rifle them. The righteous indignation of the law was aroused, and, in order the more effectually to put a stop to such outrages, in many instances the sentence passed on those convicted of this cowardly crime included a liberal allowance of cat-o'-nine tails. But somehow or other the stinging thongs seemed to be wielded with but little effect, and it came to be rumoured that "claws for breakfast" at Newgate was spoken of among the criminal fraternity as rather a joke than as a punishment to be dreaded. So, happening to learn that a flogging was to take place at the Old Bailey establishment, it occurred to me to look in and witness the performance with a view to ascertaining the reason why it had so strangely failed in its salutary effect. A couple of notorious villains were to be triced up - the one for savagely hauling at the gold .neckchain of a lady whom he met at a lonely spot until the links cut deep into her throat ; the other a ruffian, who had beguiled a drunken man at midnight into a dark entry to rob him, and, finding he had no more than fourpence-halfpenny in his pockets, took his revenge by flinging his inebriated victim down and kicking out one of his eyes. Neither had as yet tasted "claws," and their horrible funk, as they were led in naked to the waist, except for the blue-striped prison shirt tied by the sleeves round their necks, was a sight to behold. The hair of the fellow who had kicked out the eye of a fellow-creature was as short as the bristles of a scrubbing-brush, and the morning sun, shining on it through the prison-window, showed it to be glistering with perspiration as dew is seen shining in short grass. His teeth chattered and his thick knees shook, and when the warders whisked off his shirt and proceeded to fix him, with his arms in the sockets and his legs in the box, he betrayed his abject terror in a succession of shivering whines that a schoolboy about to be birched would have scorned to give utterance to. But, although the rascal did not at the moment know it, the horrors of anticipation were not justified by realisation. The ancient hangman, Mr. Calcraft, was the operator, and age and the anxieties of office had so told on his nerves, as well as on his physical powers, that Mrs. Joe Gargery, armed with "Tickler," would have done more effective execution. Notwithstanding, the flogged one howled and yelled till the roof rang. At every "swish" he expanded his capacious mouth with a hideous cry, and bellowed and blubbered for mercy. Even poor old Mr. Calcraft was visibly affected, and deemed it his duty to apologise for assisting in such a painful business. "Why don't you try and take it more quiet," he exclaimed, pityingly; "you hurt yourself more in wriggling about than I hurt you." But it was not until the twenty-fifth lash had been administered that he ceased to squirm and squeal, and his brother brute was brought in for similar treatment. The end of it all was that though the backs of both rascals were considerably discoloured, the skin was unbroken, and the pipe-clayed cat was as new-looking as at first. There was no need for the doctor to inform me that in a very few days the pair of ruffians would be none the worse for the flogging, and that the pain inflicted was so slight that the remembrance of it would last probably even less time than the trifling scars. So I took the liberty of drawing the attention of the authorities to the last-mentioned facts, and with a result that must have occasioned a most dreadful surprise for the next ruffian, who, advised of the farce a Newgate flogging was, came jauntily up to the "scratch." There stood, awaiting him, two brawny six-foot warders from Millbank - the one to give him twelve, and the other a baker's dozen, to make up the twenty-five lashes to which he had been sentenced. From that time highway robberies with violence have been much less frequent. 
    But another crime, quite as cowardly, and, perhaps, more dastardly, has increased of late, that which is known as "unprovoked assault." Judging from the accounts that the victims themselves give of the mysterious encounter, out of which they emerge battered and bruised, and in some instances maimed for the remainder of their lives, the most courageous of us, who has occasion to be out late at night in the quiet and deserted streets, might well think himself safer at home. It is the apparently utter absence of motive on the part of the ruffian aggressor that makes such assaults so difficult, if not impossible, to guard against. An unfortunate individual is discovered lying bleeding and insensible on the pavement by a chance passer or by a policeman. Taken to the station-house and restored to his senses, his story is that he was pursuing his way along, and peacefully, when a fellow, seemingly the worse for liquor, jostled against him, and almost before he could utter a word of remonstrance, a savage and powerful blow of a fist felled him to the ground, and that afterwards, beyond a faint recollection of being kicked about the head and body, he remembered nothing. He has not been robbed, though he had a watch and money in his possession, and there was ample opportunity for the assaulter, had plunder been his object. The attack could not have originated in malice or revenge, the victim feels certain, for he saw the face of the aggressor, and he was quite a stranger to him. Did such accounts appear in the newspaper but rarely it might be fairly assumed that the wanton brutality was done by some muscular blackguard who had drunk himself to the same condition of mind as the savage who, armed with a club and a hatchet, "runs amuck" through his village, maiming and killing everyone he meets. But when such cases occur, sometimes three or four times a-week, and the attendant circumstances are very much the same, one cannot help thinking that, at least in some instances, more responsible persons than men mad with drink are the evil-doers. Speaking for myself, I have no doubt of it. But then I have had the opportunity of finding any suspicions I may previously have harboured much strengthened and confirmed lately. My advice to persons who have had the misfortune to suffer from "unprovoked attack" in the public street is to reflect on the possibility of their possessing a vengeful enemy- such an one as would not venture personally to apply his spite and malice against the object of his ill-will, but would not scruple to pay to a hired ruffian a sum of money to do the dastardly work for him. Should the victim unhappily reckon among his unfriendly acquaintances such an individual, he may rest assured that the latter can easily enough, provided he is at all familiar with the under-currents of London life, find "the man for his money" who will give him full satisfaction according to his instructions and the rate of remuneration. Thank goodness, I have no enemies. It is notorious that literary men are invariably exempt from such social afflictions. But if I had, and I was vindictive and cowardly, I know where I could apply, and with very little difficulty, secure the services of an able-bodied scoundrel, who, for a sovereign, would waylay the object of my hatred, dog his steps till he got him in a quiet spot and all alone, and there and then assault and batter him according to my sense of his deservings.
    How I came to acquire the following useful information is nothing to the purpose. It is my duty at times to mix in strange company, and make acquaintance with individuals not commonly met with in polite society. In this last-mentioned category may fairly be included the proprietor of the flourishing beer-shop (whose name and address, for obvious reasons, I suppress), at the bar of which I was enlightened on the subject of punishment by proxy. The establishment in question does not openly announce itself as a house of call for "roughs," but it might have done so without fear of contradiction. I suppose the landlord, had he been asked to define the character of his house, would have claimed for it that it was patronised chiefly by the "fancy," including in that comprehensive term, pigeon-fliers, owners of fighting dogs, and sportsmen of the rat-pit, and the various members of the honourable fraternity whose harvest-time is when the racing season is at its height and business is brisk among welshers, bullies, and fifth-rate fighting men. To the number of at least twenty the occupations enumerated were represented by those present-some lounging on seats and barrels before the bar, but the majority drunk and hilarious in the tap-room, and a more repulsive and ill-looking lot I never set eyes on. The friend who accompanied me, and who was on friendly terms with the landlord, remarked to the latter to this effect, and he cheerfully agreed that it was so, but philosophically and charitably added that we must all live somehow or other, he supposed. "If a man wanted a bit of bashing' done," my friend remarked, in a jocular manner-we were at the end of the bar where no customers were lounging- " I suppose you couldn't recommend him to a likely party?" The landlord, who was a shrewd-looking fellow, bulky and broken-nosed, and physically more than a match for any ruffian that drinks on his premises, directed a quick glance in my direction, as though he had divined what had brought me there, and then replied, with sudden seriousness, and shaking his head, " I don't know anything about likely parties or unlikely parties; it ain't for me to recommend ' em or to be mixed up with ' em in any way. It is a thing I don't hold with. At the same time, mind you," he continued, with another glance at me, but talking to my friend, " I don't say but that in certain cases there may be no more harm in a gentleman paying a fellow to bash' another one than there is in one man paying another to do a job what's so heavy or so dirty that he'd rather pay than sue his hands a touching of it. That's how I look' at it. And if a man has got to be bashed, what difference can it make to him who bashes him?" I think he added this last remark for my encouragement, and because he fancied he perceived that I was faltering in my purpose. "I'm a big ' un and a rough ' un," he continued pleasantly, "and would liefer have a slap at a man than stand so much as a half-pint to have it done for me. But, I dessay, if I had a nose I walued the shape of and was pertickler as to a black eye or two, I shouldn't think a bit of money bad laid out to buy the other one a ' bashing' while I stood safe and sound t' other side of the way to see it done." "Much depends, of course, on the sort of man employed," remarked my friend. "If a person found himself in need of such assistance he would like to feel that he was in safe hands. "Very likely," replied the landlord, shortly; "but as I told you just now, I don't hold with it, and I never mixed up with anything of the kind." And at that instant he seemed to recollect suddenly that he was wanted in the bar-parlour, whither he retreated, his wife taking his place. And, singularly enough, he had not retreated more than a minute when one of the broken-nosed brigade, an unclean-looking scoundrel, broad built, and powerful looking, came and clapped his empty pot on the counter near to where we were standing, at the same time remarking, in a whisper, that he supposed we did not know of a job of work a chap might turn his hand to. We shook our heads. "Oh, I beg your pardon; I thought as I overheerd you askin' the landlord about summat of the kind," he continued meaningly. "Well, if we did want someone to do a job of work, we should like to know something about a man before we employed him. "What do you want to know about him? "Well, he'd be no good to us unless he had been used to the work we wished to set him about." The ruffian grinned contemptuously, as he laid his enormous open hand, of the complexion of rhinoceros hide, on the shining counter, and made a fist of it. "Them's the sort of tools I work with," said he, in a cautious voice. " Fill that there pint, and let's talk about bisiness. I'm thought forad, I am; I ain't like a lot on 'em, who want a bit in hand which they flog you for. I don't want a farden down, and if the job ain't done to your liking, don't you pay for it arterwards." We replenished his measure for the sake of keeping him in conversation, and then I remarked that it would be, of course, impossible to arrange an exact time and place, and that I supposed the pay he expected would depend on the amount of time and trouble it would cost him. "That's coming to the point," he replied, licking his lips after his swig of beer, and evidently regarding the matter as settled. "I ain't one of them wot'll eat you up in expenses. It's like this," he continued, sinking his voice still lower; "if you could take me there, wherever it may be, straight now, and the spot was a good one, and you was to say, He'll pass this way sometime atwixt this and twelve o'clock, I'd say done with you for three arf-crowns, and mind yer it should be done to rights. But if there's to be oncertainty, and follerin', and waitin' about, which there is sometimes for a week or more, before it can be pulled off safe and comfortable, what the charge'll be is three arf-crowns a-day, with half-a-sov for the finishing. And you won't get it done cheaper than that, I'll bet a wager." "Does that mean for simply knocking him down, or what?" my friend inquired. "It means whatever you mean," returned the professional "basher," with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders ; "it wont make no odds to me, when I'm once set about him."
    We promised further to consider the matter, and to come and see him again if we resolved to avail ourselves of his services. I need not say that I have not since renewed our brief acquaintance, but the conversation lives in my mind, when I read of Embankment roughs, and people found hurt or dying by "unprovoked assaults."

James Greenwood, The policeman's lantern. Strange stories of London life, 1888