Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - The Police-Court

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THE POLICE-COURT

Is an attractive lounge to the seedy, the disreputable, the unwashed. Evidently it is a grand and refreshing and popular sight to see justice doled out in small parcels - to see the righteous flourish, and the wicked put to shame. I fear, however, it is a feeling of a more personal nature that is the chief attraction, after all. Jones goes to see what a mess Davis gets into; Smithes to see if Scroggins keeps "mum" like a brick; the many, to retail a little scandal at the expense of their neighbours,- if at the expense of a friend, of course so much the better. A little before ten a crowd is ranged round the police-office, waiting to see the prisoners, who have been locked up all night, marched into the court, which generally commences its operations at ten. The court itself offers very little accommodation to the most thinking public. At one end of the room is the presiding magistrate; below him is the clerk; on the right of the magistrate is the [-209-] box for complainant and witnesses. Opposite him is the dock in which the defendant is placed; behind some boards, over which only tall people can see, is the public; and on the magistrate's right are the reporters-or, rather, the penny-a-liners-who write on "flimsy," and leave "copy" on spec. at all the daily paper offices. Let me say a word about these exceedingly seedy-looking individuals connected with the fourth estate. That they are not better dressed is, I take it, their own fault, and arises from that daring defiance of conventionalism which is so great a characteristic of the lower orders of gentlemen connected with the press. Let me say, en passant, the public owe these men much. It is they who labour with a perseverance worthy of a better cause, and that deserves to be successful, to describe the cases heard in the police-courts in the most racy and tempting terms. In their peculiar phraseology, every bachelor who gets into a scrape is a gay Lothario, and every young woman that appeals to justice is lady-like in manners and interesting in appearance. The poor wretch that crawls along the street, all rouged and decked out in finery not her own, is "a dashing Cyprian." [-210-] Every Irishman is described as "a native of the Green Isle;" every man in a red coat, "a brave son of Mars;" every sailor, "a jolly tar;" and a man with a little hair on his chin, or under it, is invariably "bearded like the pard;" and if anything causing a smile occurs,- and sometimes on the gravest occasions justice will even grin, - the court is - so they always put it - convulsed with laughter. Knights of the pen, a police-case loving-to-read public should be grateful to you! By the side of the reporters often sit some three or four of those mischief-makers, pettifogging attorneys; men who, in their own opinion, only require a clear stage and no favour, and the mere formality of a call to the bar, to rival, if not surpass, the fame of a Scarlett, or a Brougham, or a Lyndhurst, or an Erskine, or even of a Coke himself; and truly if to bully, to suppress what is true, and insinuate what is false - if to gloss over the injustice done by a client, and to proclaim aloud that of the opposite party - if to speak in an emphatic manner and at a most unmerciful length-if to browbeat witnesses, mislead the court, and astonish the weak nerves of their hearers, constitute a fitness for legal greatness, these gen-[211-]tlemen have only to enter their names at any of the Inns of' Court, and eat the requisite number of dinners, to win at once undying reputation. At the dock appears the trembling culprit, guarded sedulously by the police, who quietly assume his or her guilt, and do all they can in endeavouring to make out a case, - occasionally going so far in their zeal as to state things not exactly true, the esprit de corps of course leading them to aid each other whenever they have a chance.
    In a low neighbourhood the principal cases heard are those arising from intoxication. On this particular morning we will suppose the court opens with what is very common, an assault case between two Irish families who were hereditary foes, and who, emigrating, or rather, like Eneas, "driven by fate," from the mother country at the same time, locate, unfortunately for themselves, in the same neighbourhood,- and who, in accordance with the well-known remark of Horace, continue in St Giles's the amicable quarrels of Tipperary, to the amusement of a congenial neighbourhood, which likes a good fight rather than not, but to the intense terror and annoyance of all such of her Majesty's lieges as [-212-] are well disposed. As generally happens, the case, after a considerable amount of hard swearing on both sides, is dismissed, leaving to each party the inestimable privilege of paying costs. This case creates great interest; complainants and defendants are well-known performers, and the mob comes to see them as people go to see Wright at the Adelphi. When it terminates, the Guelphs and Ghibelines leave the court to discuss the oft-told tale in the nearest public- house. The remaining cases are those of sailors and navvies, charged with being drunk and disorderly, of robberies committed by prostitutes when their victims were stupified by beer, and of ragged urchins with precocious developments, the head and front of whose offending was that they "heaved" stones, or that they declined to "move on" when particularly requested to do so by the police. Poor little outcasts, they are better off in jail than on the streets; and they know it, and own to an astonishing number of convictions, and gladly look forward to the time when they shall be able to achieve greater enormities and manlier offences against law. These cases are soon disposed of; in the majority the magistrate hears the complaint, and simply tells [-213-] the little urchin he "may go down." But let us not leave yet. That is a publican, and he has a charge against this decent-looking woman, - she is not a drunkard; - let us listen.
    "Call Phil. Bird," says the superintendent.
    As Phil. Bird is in court, there is no need to call him, but he is called in stentorian tones nevertheless. Policemen, like other men, love to hear the sound of their own voices. Phil. immediately steps into the witness-box. That he is a favourite with the beer-drinking public around is clear as soon as he kisses the Bible, and promises - a promise lightly made, and lightly broken - to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, "So help me God."
    "Well, Bird," says the magistrate, "will you state your complaint?"
    "Certainly, your honour," is the reply. "I was in my shop on Saturday, when that woman (pointing to the trembling female in the dock) came in kicking up a row, and asking for her husband; well, she spoke to her husband, and wanted to get him away, but her husband did not choose to go; and as she would not leave quietly, I was obliged to go and speak to her, [-214-] upon which she turned round, abusing me, saying I had robbed her of her husband, that I had got his money, and kept making a great many remarks which I was not going to submit to, especially as she had got quite a crowd of people together, and it was interfering with my business; so I called in policeman Brown, and gave her in charge."
    Policeman Brown corroborates the testimony. He has yet to win his spurs, and is glad of an opportunity of distinguishing himself; besides, he has drunk too much of Phil. Bird's fine sparkling ales to refuse to do him a little friendly turn when he has a chance.
    "Mr Bird's house is a well-conducted house, I believe, Mr Superintendent? says the magistrate, more from habit than with any view of eliciting information."
    "Good, your worship," is the answer, - "impossible to be better." The superintendent, perhaps, has received a small cask of Devonshire cyder, as a mark of private friendship and personal esteem, from the complainant, and this might, though I would fain hope not - but flesh is grass, and a superintendent of police is but flesh after all-have influenced the nature of [-215-] his reply. This is the more probable, as one bystander whispers to another, that he believes Phil. Bird's is the worst house in the street, a remark which seems to excite the cordial approbation of the party to whom it is addressed - a remark also which the superintendent hears, and which leads him to cry "silence" in his loudest voice and sternest manner. The whisperer is cowed at once.
    Phil. Bird looks gratefully at the superintendent; the latter is grateful in O'Connell's sense, and has a lively sense of favours to come.
    "And the woman, what about her?" asks the magistrate.
    "I believe generally she's very well behaved," says policeman Brown, as if on the present occasion she had been guilty of an enormous offence.
    "Do you know anything against her?"
    "Not as I know of, yer worship."
    "Well," says the magistrate, addressing the poor washerwoman, nervous and "all of a tremble" she afterwards confidentially informs a friend, looking as if she expected immediate sentence of death passed upon her, "what do you say to the charge? Mr Bird says you went and [-216-] created a disturbance in his shop; now you had no business to do that, you know."
    "I know I hadn't, sir," said the poor woman; but here she burst into tears.
    Had she been alone with the magistrate, who is a kind-hearted man, and wishes to do what is right, she would soon have found her tongue, and her warm appeal, told with natural eloquence, because told out of a full heart, would soon have reached his own; but she is frightened-her energies are paralysed, - she cannot speak at all.
    "Oh, Brown," says the magistrate, as if a bright thought struck him, "was the woman sober?
    "Well, I can't swear that she was drunk," said Brown, reluctantly.
    This by no means helps to soothe the poor woman's nerves, but it drives her to speak in her own behalf.
    "Your worship," she exclaims, "I was as sober as you are now"-she might have added, but she did not, "and a good deal more sober than policeman Brown." "I did go to Phil. Bird's, but it was to fetch my husband out, who had been inveigled in there, and had been led [-217-] into spending all the money he had, and getting drunk."
    "Well, my good woman, the publican must be protected. You should not have created a disturbance. I shan't inflict a fine, but you must pay the costs. You may go down."
    And so the time of the magistrate is taken up; not one case out of ten comes to anything; but the officiousness of the police is shown; the lazy and good-for-nothing part of the public have a gratuitous entertainment provided for them, and the criminal class get an initiation into the secrets of the law, which robs it of its terrorS, as in such matters it is especially true familiarity, breeds contempt. Most of the lads and girls - especially the latter - placed at the bar, rather seem to like the excitement, and go before the bench in their best clothes and with their best looks, as they go to the gallery of the Victoria or the Sunday tea-garden.