Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Worship Street Police Court

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As one or the general public curious to learn something of the business daily transacted at our metropolitan Police Courts, I can bear personal testimony as to the formidable difficulties that have to be fearlessly faced and overcome before the said craving may be gratified at the Court in Worship Street. Let no one essay the perilous task who is not sound of wind and limb, or [-19-] whose toes are encumbered with sensitive corns, or who would regard it as a great grievance to be half suffocated in the midst of a mob of lusty young roughs and rowdies of the neighbourhood whose custom it is to while away a few hours of the tedious and unprofitable daylight by flocking hither to hear the "cases" tried. There may be some, of course, who take a personal and friendly interest in the prisoners of the day's batch, but the majority no doubt attend generally for the fun of the thing, not the least enjoyable feature of the entertainment being the "scrouging" to get in.
    On a small scale the door of Worship Street Police Court, is every morning beset by just such a crowd as pack about the gallery door of a cheap theatre on a pantomime night. Nor does the inconvenience and annoyance arising from such a discreditable state of things, affect only the respectable few who wait with the others for admission. There is other, besides, what may be called the "regular" business of the Court to be transacted, and it has to be begun and finished before the public are let in. Every day there are dozens of persons-for the greater part women-who apply for magisterial advice and for summonses, and these, having been attended to, have, when they emerge from the chamber of justice, to struggle through the compact mob that grudges to budge an inch from their places of vantage.
    True, the officials of the Court have a novel and ingenious manner of arranging matters after the door is opened. By virtue of unscrupulous elbows and shoulders used to pushing, the roughs are, of course, to the fore, but an officer just within the sacred portal, is there ready to receive and stern the ugly rush. He turns some to the right, into the space appointed for the public, and some to the left, which is the body of the Court itself, and all this with a suavity of demeanour denoting that his only design is to find comfortable accommodation for all. When all are in, however, with unabated politeness he orders an officer to "clear the Court," and in a twinkling the left side customers find themselves out in the passage that leads to the street. Then the door is closed and bolted, and the magistrate takes his seat, to deal first of all with those whose temporary trouble is due to intemperance.
    Even the drunk and disorderly cases present varieties of character interesting to the speculative observer, though possibly his worship on the the bench has long since come to the conclusion that this branch of his judicial duties is the least pleasant of all. There is the well-dressed and respectable- looking individual, the pallid penitent who somehow or other has been able to divest himself of every trace of last night's "disorder." His linen is spotless, the hat he carries in his hand is sleek and shining, his clothing is innocent of even a mud-splash. His collar and neckerchief are adjusted with mathematical precision, and he has taken pains with his hair, as though he wished it to. appear to the magistrate that its straight and even parting might be regard-[-20-]ed as symbolical of the virtuous path he intended in future to unhesitatingly pursue. He stands subdued and abashed before the bar of justice, and no maiden at the marriage altar ever made the ceremonial responses more shyly than he whispers his name to the gaoler by his side, and who in turn repeats it to the clerk loud enough for that functionary to hear if he had been outside in Worship Street instead of within five yards of him. An unhelmeted guardian of the night steps into the witness- box.
    "This morning, about half-past one, your worship," the man gives evidence, "I was on duty in the City Road, when I saw the prisoner very drunk, with his coat off, and trying to find a peg to hang it on on the lamp-post he was holding on to. When I requested him to go away he abused me and said he shouldn't. He insisted that he lived there. A mob got round, your worship, and as he was very noisy I was obliged to take him into custody."
    "What have you to say, prisoner?"
    "Only that I am very sorry, sir," murmurs the pale man sadly; "it shall never occur again, sir."
    "Mind it does not. You are discharged."
    Quicker than Mr. Punch replaces one puppet with another, there stands where the ashamed gentleman just now stood, a "drunk" of the scarecrow type. It is as though between the twilights of night and morning there flit about London birds of the human bat kind that never come out at any other time, and are never seen in daylight unless they get lamed so that they cannot get hack to their hiding-place, or blunder and are caught in mid-flight. A most miserable-looking wretch this-gaunt, famished, with face and hands horribly dirty, and with his ribs as disagreeably distinct as the wooden hooping of an unclean cask; without a shirt, without a cap, without shoes, and with his naked feet and shins tan-coloured.
    "At one o'clock this morning, your worship," says the constable, "I found him lying close aside a wall like a dead man, too drunk to move or speak, so I took him to the station."
    "Have you any question to ask the constable?" the clerk remarks.
    On which the dreadful object grins in a ghastly manner at the gaoler, who, resenting the familiarity, sternly repeats the clerk's question. Hoarsely and behind his hand the object whispers a few words to the gaoler, of which the only one audible is "soldiers."
    "He says," remarks the gaoler, "that he was made drunk by soldiers."
    "He may go this time," says his worship, compassionately.
    It was very kind of him, perhaps, but one could not but think that the magistrate's mandate was merely the policeman's "move on" put in polite language. Where was the ragged wretch who hobbled out of Court like a released [-21-] hobgoblin that had been hurt in the snaring, where was he to "go" to? Back to where he came from? Back to the "soldiers?" Nothing could have been more barefaced than that military tarradiddle. The privates of Her Majesty's army have, it is true, a reputation for generously "standing treat" to any affable stranger they may happen to meet in the street, but surely they draw the line somewhere. No; that poor animated bundle of bones and rags never got drunk "with the soldiers."
    Where then? How did he get the money to buy a surfeit of gin or beer, and what is the madness that possesses him that he will get drunk, though he go hungry and naked? He must have a home of some kind-a fireside and a cupboard. It is certain that he is not in the habit of seeking a casual-pauper lodging, or he would be clean. There is not a common lodging-house "deputy" in London but would indignantly reject his threepence were such an unclean creature to apply for a bed. Where, then, is the retreat to which he retires during daylight, and is he the father of a family all addicted to his old peculiar manners and customs? It would have been worth while, when the magistrate said "You may go," to watch where he went.
    As a rule the drunk and incapable cases were disposed of at the rate of one in two minutes. There were exceptions, however; and notably one in which two policemen attached to the G Division figured to some disadvantage. Two persons were charged, a respectable-looking young man, and a young woman whose personal appearance was equally unexceptionable. Constable Number One, being sworn to tell nothing but the truth, deposed that at half-past twelve on Saturday night he heard a great disturbance in a street, and hurrying thither found the male and female prisoners quarrelling. He endeavoured to separate them, when the male prisoner, who was very drunk, abused him, and refused to go away, and fell down in the road. He, the constable, endeavoured to raise him, but he resisted with much violence, in which he was seconded by the female prisoner. Constable Number Two likewise gave evidence. He was on duty, and heard a great shouting and uproar, and hastening to the spot, found both prisoners very drunk and violent, and assisted his comrade to take them into custody, when the male prisoner broke away, and ran a hundred yards or so, and was then recaptured, and the two were taken to the station- house. Questioned by the male prisoner, as to what had caused a large bruise that nearly covered his (the prisoner's) right ear, and what he knew of the other bruise and the ugly abrasion on his (the prisoner's) face, the constable smiled as he replied that he supposed the injuries mentioned were the result of prisoner falling about in his drunken condition.
    [-22-] "You are quite sure we were drunk ?" asked the male prisoner.
    "There could be no doubt about that," returned the constable, with an emphasis and a shrug of his broad shoulders, as though he wondered that the prisoner could have the audacity to ask such a question.
    "Have you anything to say, prisoner?" remarked the magistrate.
    "I have this to say, your worship," answered the young man quietly, "the policemen have told a pack of falsehoods from beginning to end. This young woman, who works at the same trade as myself and me were standing in the street bidding each other good night, just after a mate of mine had left us, when the policeman came up and said, 'Now, then, move on here,' on which I replied, 'Well, it is rather late, policeman; we are just going.' on which he shook me with great violence, and said, 'Go, then.' I didn't want any bother, and I said to him, 'You are exceeding your duty, ain't you ? I don't think if I was a policeman, I would serve a man like that,' when he came at me again, and struck me with his fist on the ear, and I stumbled down. I said, 'If I have broken the law, I will go to the station with you, but I won't be ill-used for nothing,' and I called out for my mate, who had just before left us, and who lived just close by, and who knew that I was quite sober. Then the other policeman came up, and dragged me away from my friend's door, just as I was about to knock at it, and between them they ill-used me shamefully-one having me by the throat, and the other bumping my back with his knee - and dragged me off, treading on my heels as we went, as though to exasperate me.
    "Have you any witnesses?" asked the magistrate.
    Yes, there were two. One, a young woman, who, roused by the noise, had looked out of the window, and saw and heard it all, and the other the shopmate, a respectable working man.
    The latter swore that both prisoners were quite sober when he bade them good-night and left them; that he had gone straight up to bed, and before he could take his clothes off he heard his friend's voice in the street, calling him by name, and begging of someone not to illuse him; that he hurried out of the house, and witnessed the cruel violence with which both policemen treated the male prisoner on the way to the station-house. That was the case, and judging from the almost amused expression on the faces of the two constables, as they listened to the prisoner's defence, and the testimony of his witnesses, they had no suspicion of the storm that was brewing for them in the mind of the worthy magistrate as he sat awhile pondering over his idle pen.
    At length said he, "I have listened to this case with great attention, and can come to no other conclusion than to discharge both prisoners. I am not satisfied with the evidence given by the constables, nor can I understand how a man who is so drunk as to be unable to stand could break away and run off with such speed that he covers a space of a hundred yards before he can be overtaken. I have heard what the witnesses have said about the unnecessary violence used, and I am so impressed with it that I shall order strict enquiry to be made into the matter. I may [-23-] further say that I am the more anxious that this should be done because of the repeated complaints that of late have reached me respecting the unnecessary violence resorted to by policemen in this district." The two G's no longer smiled with self-complacency. Indeed, during the past two minutes their visages had been lengthening and they left the Court with the mien of men cast down with the prospect of a rod in pickle for them.
    But the inebriate list ~vas at length at an end, and next came a dainty dish or two of domestic broils to set before his worship. A strongly flavoured one the first, and enough to satisfy the most ravenous appetite for such sort of fare. Waiting amongst the other witnesses was an awful spectacle to behold -a man whose cracked sconce seemed held together only by the complete skullcap of bandages that enveloped it, and who, moreover, had a black eye and a large chip out of the bridge of his nose. There had been a disagreement between himself and a female lodger, who now occupied the dock - a robust woman, middle-aged, and of masculine build. The assault was made in the presence of the injured man's wife and she gave evidence. The tow, whatever it may have been about, took place in the kitchen, and the prisoner, catching up a heavy earthenware baking-dish, deliberately smashed it over her landlord's head. The poor man had brought the fractured crockery with him in a little leather bag, and when the evidence reached this point he took it up from the seat beside him and shook it so that its many pieces might attest to the violence of the blow. The prisoner did not deny the assault, but pleaded provocation. The prosecutor "had called her names." She expressed no contrition, nor did she appear in the least sorry for what she had done.
    "You may think yourself very fortunate, prisoner," remarked the magistrate, "that you are not standing there to answer for a much more serious offence than you are now charged with."
    And such, undoubtedly, was the opinion of everyone in Court. And good luck continued to favour her. It would have surprised no one had the ferocious virago been sentenced to six months.
    "You will go to prison with hard labour for two months, prisoner," said his worship.
    There was a gentleman standing immediately behind me, whose chin was larger than his forehead, and who smelt strongly of fish and dead-ripe fruit. He clutched in his hand - used as a pocket handkerchief in fact - a hairy cap, the like of which never was seen since Rogue Riderhood lost his in the River Thames. He knew the prisoner, it seemed, arid flicking me on the back of the neck with the mangy abomination to bespeak my attention, he whispered hotly in my ear,-
    "And a thunderin' lucky let off, too. She'll do that bit as easy as shellin' peas. She'd ha' got more if she had nicked a bakin' dish stead o' smashing it in the way wot she did. What do you say, guv'nor?"
[-24-] I did not say anything, for the eye of the usher was glaring in our direction, and he called " Silence." Whereon the critical costermonger coughed in his hairy cap, and held his peace.
    More bad blood between landlord and lodger, and a sufficient spilling of it to have floated the aggressor to the gallows but for a mere chance. A man in the dock this time, and, from all that appeared, one who in his cups was a mad and most formidable enemy.
    Witnesses thereto appeared in shape of the various weapons he had wielded in his sanguinary rage, and which included a poker in two pieces. a large sharp-edged triangular file, and a piece of iron, all of which the policeman found in his room after the fray, wet with blood. Assailing his landlord (with whom he had had a few words) in a dark passage of the house, he gashed him severely in the thick part of the arm , and then retreated to his own room, locking the door. The wounded man's wife appeared on the scene, whereon the prisoner, a tall, broad- shouldered, and muscular fellow, darted out in the dark again, armed with the poker, and gave her such a violent blow on the skull with it that the poker was broken on the head of his victim  - a delicate little middle-aged woman - so seriously damaged as to necessitate an elaborate arrangement of hospital bandaging. Again, the landlord's nephew, a lad, came in the furious man's way-, and got prodded in the hip and bruised on the back. The prisoner, who admitted using the poker, was remanded for the production of a witness he wished to call in proof of provocation.
    These little affairs disposed of; the gaoler leads in a young girl, seemingly not older than sixteen or seventeen, delicate-looking, and with a pleasant face, but deadly pale, as one who has recently passed the crisis of a malady that, but for almost a miracle, would have terminated fatally.
    "She doesn't look much like a thief; do she?" one woman whispers to another at my elbow.
    "More she ain't," remarks the man with the hairy cap, "she's a marnder."
    I had never heard of a crime or misdenieanour so named, and was on the point of asking what he meant when he amended his first statement by adding,-
    "Tempted sooicide. Marndered from last week."
    "Lor! how did she do it? What for?" asked both women, in an eager whisper.
    "Pison, I believe, though I don't rightly know," whispered back the communicative coster. "Sweetheart chucked her over, or summat of that. Marnded, so that the chapling might have a say to her. Here conies her mother - poor old gal."
    It was the prisoner's mother, and her father as well, who at that moment entered the court, decent working folk, he in his carpenter's jacket and clutching his cloth cap hard in his fist as a check on his [-25-]  emotion, which well nigh got the upper hand of him as the girl turned her face towards him, and he tried to smile and give her an encouraging nod. As for the mother, when, in the midst of her choking sobs, she looked towards her daughter, and the latter, her eyes filled with tears and her white lips trembling, held out her hand towards her, it seemed that there would have ensued a "scene," had not the usher opportunely jerked out a stern "silence". The costermonger had given a truthful outline of the affair.
    "I did not hear the beginning of this case," presently remarked his worship, "but I have here a letter from the chaplain in which he states that you, prisoner, have been brought to see the folly and wickedness of attempting to destroy your life. It will be unnecessary for me at the present time to enter into the details of the sad affair, especially as I feel quite sure that I could not appeal to you so effectually as your parents will do when you are restored to them. The time will, I have no doubt, come, when you will look back with amazement on the wicked and foolish act that has placed you where you now stand. You are discharged."
    Swift as thought, and with a murmured "Thank God!" the mother is out from her place against the wall to reach her child as she steps down from the dock, and it would have puzzled the keenest eyes and ears in court to have decided which was the quickest to embrace the other, and from which breast broke that great sob of sorrowful thankfulness, or whether it was a blending of the two.