Victorian London - Police and Policing - Perception of - recollections of a policeman


Under the title of "Notes by a Night Policeman," I fulfilled a promise I was induced to make to the author, an ex-member of the Metropolitan Police force, who, after many years of service, was dismissed pensionless. According to his, John Brownjohn's showing, he had been harshly treated, his only fault being that he was severely afflicted with rheumatism, and the origin of which, no doubt, w as his continued exposure to inclement weather. Pressed on the point, however, his wife-it was she who brought me the MS., her husband being still an invalid - admitted that the terms of her husband's discharge- note might, as read by a prejudiced person, bear an interpretation other than what was the fair one. For being found inebriated while on night duty, after repeated cautions and reprimands, was the notification of his superintendent, whereas Mrs. Brownson's explanation of that damaging insinuation was, that her husband certainly was addicted to taking doses of rum, but he took them medicinally, and of no greater quantity than served to allay his rheumatic pains, and if it was true that by prescribing for himself thus cautiously he was rendered physically incapable, no stronger proof was needed of the powerful hold the disease in question had got on his constitution-a circumstance that should have gained for him the sympathy of the authorities rather than their censure. With that, however, I had no concern.. The proposition with which ex-Constable Brownjohn, in the first instance, sent his wife to me was that I would kindly look through his amateur literary production, and if I thought it good enough, recommend it for publication to some London bookseller. For obvious reasons I declined that awful responsibility. " What I will do," said I, "is this. I will look through your husband's ' Notes and Observations,' and, if they are readable, the public shall be treated to a few samples of their quality, and as the readers of The Daily Telegraph, of course, include all the publishers in the City of London and every other city, you will thus have a better chance of accomplishing your purpose, and probably on far more advantageous terms than if I furnished you with a letter of recommendation simply. Ex-Constable Brown john has since written to me despondently, and to the effect that he has been vainly expecting a communication from one or other of the leading publishing firms ever since the morning when my first notice of his work appeared, and which treated of "Suicides from the Bridge, Projectcd and Postponed," but he had been disappointed. He begs of mec to grant him a further chance by giving the public another taste of his notes, especially the portion that touches on the " Ghosts of London Midnight," and some curiosities of natural history, on which he has brought to bear the midnight bull's-eye, and which probably would have remained undiscovered but for the agency of that searching nocturnal illuminant.
    In assenting to his wish, it will no doubt occur to the reader, as it did to me, that as regards the after-dark spectres of London streets, he is quite mistaken if he imagines that he has broken new ground ; they are as old as the hills, as the saying is. The reason why they do not excite more of public curiosity probably is, that of the few persons abroad between midnight and grey of morning many are in scarcely a fit condition for spiritualistic study, while those who are returning from their protracted labour are too weary to trouble themselves with anything besides the immediate object they have in view, and which is to hurry home and get to bed. There they are, however. They emerge from their hiding, if any man can guess where that may happen to be, as unfailingly as the rat leaves its burrow and the beetle its chink, but, unlike such creatures, their purpose is not a predatory one. They have no purpose that is apparent, and therein lies the mystery. As my Night Policeman says of them, "They are not to be confounded with those who are seen abroad at such unseasonable hours simply because they have no home to go to, and are without the necessary fourpence to pay for the poorest of poor lodgings. Generally speaking, these midnight spectres have an air of gentility -of a faded and threadbare sort, very likely, but still unmistakable. The females wear veils, and the males, most of whom are middle-aged or old, have their outer garments buttoned close to the chin, and their hats brought far down over the forehead, as though to avoid possible recognition. They are one and all pinched, and pale, and haggard-looking, and whenever suspicious that they have attracted observation, they walk with a quick step, pretending to be on urgent business, but when they think the watchful eye is removed from them, resuming the listless walk as though it mattered nothing to them which way they took, their only object being to wear out the weary night hours, which for them are clothed with horrors ; and hail, rain, or wind, they prefer to spend them in the streets to being shut up alone with them in the solitude of their bed-chambers. Whether these mysterious night-walkers are poor demented folk not responsible for their actions or victims of insomnia, or, like Macbeth, they have " murdered sleep," must remain matter for conjecture. Ex-Constable Brownjohn inclines to the last-mentioned surmise. I will give one of several instances he quotes in support of his view.
    "There was the Blank Street tragedy. A young woman had been living with a foreigner, and had one child by him, a beautiful little girl, three years old, but after a furious quarrel between the man and the young woman, which was heard by the people living in the house, and during which he was understood to threaten to ' do worse than murder her,' he disappeared. A short time afterwards their child was found strangled and dead in the cellar, which was seldom entered, but to which anyone might gain admission, the street door being generally left open. Suspicion, of course, pointed strongly to the foreigner, the child's father, who, although he had never been seen since the quarrel, might easily have slipped into the house unperceived ; but the police could not trace him, and the coroner's verdict of 'wilful murder by a person or persons unknown,' remained unsatisfied. The young woman took the murder of her child terribly to heart. It was in the district where I was on duty, and it did not much surprise me when I found that she had taken to wander the streets at night-time. Not that I for a moment suspected her of the crime. Want of sleep on account of the loss of her child had unhinged her mind, I thought, and though I met her often between midnight and morning, walking and looking pretty much like any other 'spectre' I never spoke to her. But, after a while, she too was missing, and her body was found in the Thames, and there was a letter in the pocket of her dress. I helped to carry the body, and I heard the letter read. It was pronounced to he the ravings of a mad woman, and was treated as such ; and it may have been. But it contained a confession of the murder by the woman herself, her declared object in committing the dreadful deed being that ' Jules loved the little one so very clearly.' Mad enough that, from one point of view, but not, as I take it, from another."
    As I have already mentioned, the "Notes of a Night Policeman" include several other instances that point, in Mr. Brownjohn's opinion, to the "Ghosts of London midnight being," in the main, undetected murderers and manslayers; but unless that publisher he is still in hopes of captivating makes his appearance, they will, I am afraid, be lost to the world. Animal life comes in for a share of Mr. Brownjohn's nocturnal observations; and he has something to say respecting night cab-horses, homeless dogs, and cats. According to his showing, owing to the vigilance of the proper authorities, there is no better chance for an unscrupulous cabman to work a lame or a diseased poor beast by night than by day; but one's sympathy for the unfortunate quadrupeds, harnessed to the ramshackle vehicle that would not bear daylight inspection, must be increased if it is true that in many instances the horses so employed are not of common extraction, but creatures of blood and breeding, who in the days of their prime had a painstaking groom for their humble servant, and the silver of their trappings was not brighter than their own silken coat. They never could have dreamt - I believe it is an ascertained fact that horses do dream - that the time would come when, partially or wholly blind, with their proud necks bowed with age, and their aristocratic noses rounded on the grindstone of adversity, weak at the knees, and bald in many places as an old hair trunk, they would be doomed to drag out the distressing tether of a wretched existence, ill-used, shabbily stabled, and half-fed, and with no more encouraging stimulants than curses and the whip to warm their rheumatic limbs, and enable them to make a passable pace, after freezing in the night winds, and drenching in the rain on the dreary "rank," waiting for a " call." Night cabmen, with but few pounds to spare, not more than five or six, perhaps, to buy a horse good enough to work in a "growler," have a liking for these old "bloods". They will keep on doing their best while they can set one foot before another, and "never say die," until, of course, while in harness, they succumb to sudden death, as though shot with a bullet.
    As regards canine creatures, Mr. Brownjohn's experience, as might have been expected, is that there are comparatively few now of the homeless and masterless kind to be seen wandering about the streets during the small hours, or coiled up asleep in doorways and retired corners. They .have been swept away by the Extermination Act. I was not aware, however, until enlightened by a perusal of the "notes," that during their first few months of active service it was at night-time that the appointed catchers made their best hauls. During the hours of daylight it was easy enough for a dog possessed of average sagacity and shrewdness to evade the man with the lasso, and the gutter-bred cur - the mongrel that probably was littered in a cellar, who never in its life was beholden to man for so much as a pennyworth of paunch, and who from its earliest puppyhood has been driven from the society of respectable dogs, while its education has been entirely neglected, as no one will deny - is usually endowed with the qualities in question to a remarkable degree. With necessity for its schoolmaster, it is able to take care of itself from very early age indeed, and has ever a keen eye and a quick nose for discerning friends from enemies. Having once had its attention drawn to the legalised destroyer, and, as the vulgar saying is, taken stock of him - with his leather leggings, and his tooth-proof gloves, and his crook and cord - there is no doubt as to its ability to recognise him again next time they meet; and, given half-a-dozen yards start, it is long odds on the street cur escaping the impending danger, in the day-time, that is to say, and when there are plenty of carts and carriages in the road, and the multitudinous legs of the pedestrian public provide fair opportunity for dodging. Even at a time of panic, such has as prevailed during the past twelve mouths, the unmuzzled tyke that the catcher has marked as his own, although it found no favour, was pretty sure of an unimpeded field, and it would be its own fault if it did not get away. But at night-time it is different. The liveliest dog of the mongrel pack cannot be always wide awake ; its very liveliness, in fact, during business hours, would necessitate the refreshment of sleep at night-time, and in nobody's way, it was quite content to seek midnight repose, curled up nose and tail, in some snug corner. It was then that he became an easy prey to the snarer, who, as need not be said, carried no lantern. Under the cloak of night, and with stealthy steps, the victim was approached, and before it could make an effort to escape, before it was more than half awake even, the noose was round its neck, and it was death-doomed, and bound for B attersea.
    I was glad to discover, as regards creatures of this class, that the opinion of ex-Constable Brown john agrees with mine, to the extent of it being a pity that the successful raid has involved the destruction of many a dog who, although a vagabond bred and born, and an outcast, possessed virtues in which the cherished of the tribe are generally found to be lamentably deficient. They are not all idle riff-raff these dogs of the homeless sort, nor arc they invariably pledged to a life of vice and depravity, scorning to make themselves useful. Many of them, given a fair chance, would acquit themselves creditably, and earn the respect of a master. Brownjohn, in his "notes?, makes mention of more than one such instance. "Last night" he writes under date, " Black Bob was taken by a dog-catcher, which I was sorry to see; but, of course, it didn't do for me to intcrefere, and his appearance was the last thing that would recommend him to mercy, so it's all over with him. Bob was about as ugly a brute as you would meet in a day's walk, but he was one of the willing-to-work kind. I don't know how he got a living at other times, or where he came from, but on cattle-market days, at about four in the morning, I never failed to meet him trotting towards the bridge, where he would lie down in a recess, and wait for the chance of a job at sheep-driving. Not that there were any sheep to go at on the spot, but a good many drovers came that way, and some had dogs .and some hadn't, and I never saw Bob chum on with a man who had. He knew that he wasn't wanted. But he would always try it on with a drover who hadn't got a dog. Then, in his barking way, he would offer himself, fair and honest, and if he got swore at, or aimed at with the stick, he took it quietly as an answer, and went and laid down till another drover came along without a dog, when he would have another try, and another, until he succeeded. I can't make out, says Brownjohn, concluding this entry, " how Bob was so easily taken, unless it was that, in the half-dark, he was taken in by the stick amid the leather leggings. If so, it makes his fate all the harder."
    Nor was this the only dog of parts brought to an untimely end in that neighbourhood by the innexorable Act. "Another good dog gone wrong," he writes, within a week of recording the above- mentioned incident. " This time Sibley, the chemist's. Though not exactly Sibley's, since, as far as I know, he never regularly took to it, and pr'aps it was by his orders, and pr'aps not, that the shopman gave him his breakfast of mornings. But he was fair on the road to get took on regular, as he deserved to be, if only for his cleverness. So I expressed it to Mr. Sibley himself, when he told me about it ; but be isn't a believer, as I am, in the uncommon knowingness of some dogs, and said, laughing, that I might as well give the strange one credit for bringing his old clog a poisoned bone he had picked up somewhere, or perhaps prepared himself so as to cause his death, and provide an opening for himself. Of course I couldn't go as far as that, not being able to answer for it as a fact ; but what I can answer for is, that when Sibley's dog was alive - an old retriever he was - he used to lie all night on an old mat in the shop doorway, and, though there was room for half-a-dozen besides himself, he would fly out at any homeless dog that so much as showed his nose there, and chivy him out of the street. I have seen him do it often, especially to the white dog, who seemed to have a hankering for that door-way, and of wet nights w ould often be there, as though begging of the other for a lodging. A rare sharp old dog the retriever was, and might be heard barking half the night at one thing or another. But at last it died, and the very next night the white dog, who was a cur of no breed at all, and not much bark either, as far as I ever heard, took his place ; but not to go to sleep, and nothing else. He went regularly in for the situation, if I may so express myself, and for showing that he was worthy of it. Which only shows, continues ex-Constable Brownjohn, "how wonderfully dogs are like men, as regards their worser qualities. One might have supposed, since he was such a sensible fellow, knowing, as no doubt he did, the hardships of having no home in the winter time, and being acquainted with lots of dogs who were as bad off, he would have made no objection to their sharing the doorway, if not the old mat, with him. But that wasn't part of his plan. His plan was to play to the old retriever's lead, and to imitate him in all things, even to his bark, as far as his own was loud enough; and he couldn't have done it better if all along he had been studying for the part, hoping one day to turn it to account. He never, as I can answer for it, made his appearance there till the shutters were put up, but always before the shop door was closed for the night, as though those who closed it might see that he was sharp to time and ready for duty. And next morning, if they had any scraps to give him, he'd eat em and take himself off; and be seen no more till shutting-up time. I saw the chap lugging him to the station one night with the cord round his neck, and told the chemist about it; but, as I have already remarked, he isn't a man who believes in wonderful dogs, and when I had explained to him what I had been eye-witness to, in his light-hearted way he said that this one was evidently much too clever to live, and he couldn't say that he was sorry to be rich of him.''
    It should stand as substantial testimony to the fact that Mr. Brownjohn, despite his weakness for rum, did not often, at all events, retire to some secluded spot and sleep away the time he should have been vigilantly employed on night duty, or he could not have paid such minute attention to subjects suitable for recording in his note-book. He did not even overlook the cats. Indeed, he professes to have made a discovery that exhibits in a new light the behaviour of our domesticated feline creatures who congregate when the neighbourhood is hushed in sleep, and make night hideous with their agonised shrieks and purgatorial wailings. It has hitherto been supposed that those meetings are of love-making origin, and that the noises made are declarations of love or lamentations elicited by a discovery of misplaced affection. Nothing of the kind. They are the clarion sounds of challenge with which one champion of a street defies another, daring him to meet the challenger on roof, in area, or on the open road, and prove his title to supremacy by combat. Night-Constable Brownjohn has witnessed these encounters frequently, and with much interest. Love or jealousy does not enter into the business at all. The one side having, musically speaking, thrown down the gauntlet, ear-piercing notes in the distance announce that the warlike Thomas, whose prowess is appealed to, is eager for the fray, and is coming on. He comes, and either side being attended usually by several female admirers, they range in opposition, and the male belligerents having, as it were, stepped into the ring, while they are sparring and walking round, the females raise their voices, each trying to outscreech the other, in recounting the past deeds of bravery of the Tom of their choice, and in mocking and deriding the pretensions of the enemy. When sufficiently "worked up," the two Toms go at it tooth and nail, the female onlookers growing more and more excited and clamorous until one of the warriors is beaten and routed from the field, on which there ensues a general stampede, and unless another meeting has been arranged by other felines of the neighbourhood to come off the same night, peace is restored.

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