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

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AN extended experience of Police Courts tends to convince me of one of two things especially. The general public, deriving what little they know of the proceedings, from occasional reports printed in the newspapers, can form but an inadequate idea of the quantity, as well as of the quality, of the work through which the Magistrate of a district such as Lambeth contrives usually to get in the course of a single sitting, or of his sore trials of temper arising mainly from the stupidity, wilful evasion, and natural pigheadedness of witnesses, prosecutors, and policemen. It is little short of marvellous how any man can sit for hours dealing with an unsavoury selection from a hotchpotch of crime, drunkeness, and all manner of depravity, and all the while preserve a clear brain a calm and cool judgment, equal at a moment's notice to investigate a case of murderous assault or to patiently sift the dry details of a forgery and fraud case.
    Secondly, my increasing familiarity with the atmosphere of the Police Court, urges me, however [-85-] unwillingly, to the conclusion that the British husband of the lower classes is occasionally even more of a brute, as regards his domestic relations, than he has credit for being. Because he does not so frequently figure as of old in the news columns as a wife-beater, he is popularly supposed to have amended his ways, and to have discovered the superior virtues of moral over physical force. To some extent this may be true. All that I know about it is that, visiting Lambeth Police Court every day for nearly a week, I never saw less than eight or nine wretched women, with their faces cut and bruised, or with their eyes horribly blackened and bloodshot, or with their heads swathed in hospital bandages, crowding the spacious lobby, waiting their turn to speak to the officer on duty at his desk in the outer office as regards taking out an assault summons.
    I don't know who this officer is, or how long he has occupied his present position, but without doubt his services must be of great value to the court. He has a way of tackling applicants for summonses worthy of Mr. Jaggers himself. His first principle evidently is to discourage the grant of a summons on any ground whatever. He will have nothing to do with rigmarole, but is short, sharp, and to the point, and, especially in assault cases between husband and wife, ready with a judicious hint as to "making it up" being the better policy. Somehow he so manages it that not two in half-a-dozen obtain what they came for. In the majority of cases they are but too ready, poor creatures, now that the sting of the blow is numbed a bit and their indignant blood grown cooler, to give fullest weight to the summoning officer's pacific suggestions, and turn their bruised faces sadly towards home again, willing yet once more more to kiss and be friends, and kindly clasp the hand that, clenched as a fist, had used them so cruelly.
    All this morning gipsy folk have been hovering restlessly about the court. There are several men as well as women mingling with the crowd waiting for admission, and two or three of the unmistakably Romany breed, despite their preposterous "get up" in civilised suits of clothes, stick-up collars and pomatumed hair, attend at the witnesses' entrance. There is a flourishing public-house a few doors up the street, and at the bar of it are congregated more gipsies, chiefly women. They wear plaid shawls, with the ends wisped about their waists, girdlewise, and skirts so short that the top laceholes of their ankle-jacks are plain to the beholder. They are imbibing the contents of quart pewter pots with the demeanour of those who require fortification against im-[-86-]pending affliction, rather than as though their merry hearts were in the shining measures. They whisper together anxiously, but not so softly but that the bystander is made aware that the subject of their conversation is one "Josh." He is spoken of as "poor lad" and "poor chap," though the prevailing opinion appears to be that the magisterial sentence on him will be nothing more severe than "two pounds or a month." There is, however, one young creature, whose height is about five feet seven, and who wears a pair of bob-nailed boots like those of a market gardener, who is in tears, and refuses to be comforted. She has a presentiment that the sentence on Josh will be a month, without the option of a fine, and she alludes to an adverse witness as an "interfering faggot," and swears a horrible oath to the effect that she would like to damage her internal organisation by jumping on her. The same female is in the public portion of the court, with her numerous friends, when the case is brought forward, and there are the be-collared and be-greased witnesses; and there, too, is a policeman who has in his custody a heavy-looking, brass-bound, loose-thonged whip. Josh is shown into the dock, and an officer appears with the prosecutor.
    Josh is a gipsy, and about as ill-looking a ruffian as ever occupied his present unenviable position; though there is an unmistakable family likeness between him and his witnesses, who have made guys of themselves with a view of impressing his worship that they are far too respectable to offer false testimony. Josh has a broad brutal face, with no forehead to speak of; and a scowl that brings his eyebrows low down on his eyelashes.
    He has a terribly big fist, too, which is brought into full view as he plants his elbow on the front of the dock and leans his heavy under- jaw on it in sulky defiance. The prosecutor is not a formidable-looking individual. He is a mere child of ten years old-a boy; and there is a bald patch at the back of his head, where the hair has been shaven away to accommodate a large, star-shaped arrangement of surgical sticking-plaster; otherwise there appears nothing the matter with him. He is thoroughbred gipsy as Josh himself-indeed, it presently transpires that the prisoner in the dock is the boy's uncle. Bright-eyed and shrewd- looking, and cool and self-possessed, he grins at the prisoner, and, after looking about for them, recognises and winks at the prisoner's witnesses, and regards with an amused stare the usher in his sable robe, the white-haired magistrate on the bench, and the clerk at the table. Indeed, he is seemingly so unconscious of the responsibility attaching to his position, that it is deemed necessary to examine him as to his fitness for taking the oath ere he gives his evidence.
    "Come here, my little man," says the kindly clerk. "Don't look at the prisoner, listen to me. Do you go to school ?"
    "No, I don't."
    "Not to a Sunday school ?"
    "Yes, I goes to him sometimes."
     "And what do you do there ?"
    "I sings, like the rest of 'em."
    "But don't you read ?"
    "Don't know how to."
    "But somebody reads to you - about God, eh? Don't play with the table. Speak up. You have heard about God ?"
    "And do you know that it is wicked to tell lies ?"
    [-87-] "Yes."
    And having thus satisfied the Court that he was fully aware of the solemn duty about to be imposed on him, and that if he swore falsely he was in peril of all the pains and penalties attaching to the crime of perjury, he was permitted to take the Book in his right hand, &c.
    "There's law for yer!" whispered one gipsy woman to another at my elbow; "swearin' him agin' his own uncle!"
    "Hist! don't you fret about that,'' was the response ; "Davy's wide awake."
    So it presently appeared: for, when he - the ten-year-old witness -came to be examined as to the injury to his head and who had occasioned it, it became unmistakably apparent that if Uncle Josh was to be convicted it would have to be on evidence much more criminating than that the prosecutor was disposed to give. There were two horses in a field, he said, and he went there in a cart with the prisoner (Uncle Josh) to catch them. The horse in the cart fell down, and they had a trouble to get it up. Then the prisoner asked him to go and catch the horses, and he replied "I shan't," and called his uncle by a very wicked name. Without being pressed on the point he volunteered to repeat the expression he had made use of, and undoubtedly it was a very wicked name indeed. On this, the guileless young prosecutor went on to state, the prisoner ran after him with the whip - the brass bound weapon already alluded to - and tapped him on the head with the thin end of it, the thong end of it.
    "Tapped you on the head with the thong end and cut your head open!" the clerk remarked incredulously. "It knocked me down, and p'raps that's how I hurt my head. I d'un know how it was," doggedly replied the audacious young sticker to kith and and kin. On which a gleam of scornful pride twinkled in the eyes of Uncle Josh in the dock, and his craven look gave place to one of undisguised insolence. But the unwilling witness had yet to be taken in hand by the astute magistrate. "Take the whip in your hand, boy, and show me exactly how the prisoner held it when he struck you." And, brought to confusion by the sudden and unexpected request, the child took the whip, and twisting the thong round his hand and shaking it, butt end out, said "He held it so." "You are sure of that?" don't look at the prisoner, answer me. But the boy had already looked at the prisoner, and the prisoner at him; and in a pretty pucker, judging from his frightened face, he at once reversed the weapon in his small fist as he replied, "No, he didn't hold that end, he held this." "You had best call the witnesses if there are any," said the magistrate.
    Luckily for the cause of humanity and justice, though, as it turned out, singularly unfortunate [-88-] for the hulking ruffian in the dock, there were four persons of unimpeachable respectability who had witnessed the cowardly and brutal assault. They all agreed that when the horse fell down in the cart, the prisoner proceeded to kick the poor brute in a most savage manner, and presently swore horribly at the boy who was assisting, and struck at him. On this the boy ran away, and the prisoner, first flinging large stones at him, ran after him, and, after a chase, reached him, and brought him to the ground with a heavy blow on the back of his head with the brass-capped end of the whip, and when he was down, kicked him more than once.
    Seeing all this from the window of her house immediately adjoining, a lady (one of the witnesses) fetched a policeman, and the poor little fellow was found crouched behind the cart, with his head gashed and drenched with blood.
    Ruffian Josh had engaged a solicitor to defend him, and it was urged in his behalf that people generally were so prejudiced against gipsies that their testimony against them was pretty sure to be highly coloured. In the second place, he (the solicitor) had to state that his client, usually the most kindhearted of men, and almost a teetotaller, had been to see a newly born baby, and his joy on the occasion had betrayed him to imbibe somewhat too freely of the cordial prepared for the occasion. Finally, the desperately driven advocate submitted to his worship that the manners and Customs of these gipsy folk were rougher than those of other people. They were in the habit of giving their disobedient children "hasty knocks," and, amongst themselves, nothing was thought of it; and, probably, if no one had interfered in the present affair, the boy himself would have forgotten all about it by this time. Relying on this defence, the solicitor called no witnesses.
    It seemed a pity that so much persuasive eloquence should be wasted. Its effect on brutal Josh was remarkable. Overwhelmed, at blackest scowling point, by the crushing testimony of the four witnesses, he ~vas preparing for the worst; but the oily utterances of his advocate had an effect on his spirits like that of pouring water on a drooping plant. He plucked up perceptibly, and gradually his great under-jaw leant less and less despondingly on his heavy fist, and it came at last to his folding his arms and looking like an injured person who demanded immediate release. All the better, since doubtless he felt the sting of his sentence the more keenly.
    "I can arrive at no other conclusion," said his worship, addressing the prisoner, "than, that you are a savage and brutal fellow, and you wil1 have to go to prison for four months with hard labour."
    And I hardly know which looked most dismayed, the convicted ruffian, or the plucky, poor little wretch whom he had used so [-89-] cruelly, and who, despite of that, had so staunchly stuck to his promise to say as little as possible against his father's brother. His small brown face blanched almost white as he heard the severe sentence, and it was with a scared and beseeching look that he made his way to join his male parent - one of the carefully got-up witnesses already alluded to, but I don't think he had much reason to fear. Judging, however, from the tigerish glare in the eyes of the tall young woman who wore market- gardener's boots, I am afraid it would have gone hard with the lady witness who fetched the policeman, if within half an hour afterwards, she, the vengeful virago, could have met with her enemy in some solitary lane.
    Of all criminals none, as pictured in the mind of the majority of her Majesty's peace-loving subjects, is so terrible as the burglar. Murder has its polished as well as its coarse and vulgar representatives, and romance has dealt with the highwayman, and demonstrated that his calling is not inconsistent with good looks and gallantry, and that the mounted hero of the mask and pistol may pursue his professional duties with gentlemanly politeness, combined with courteous consideration for the fair sex. But the burglar has not one redeeming quality. The mere mention of him is enough to conjure up a vile figure from the depths of bogeydom. There he stands, a muscular monster, with a hairy cap on his head and a bit of black crape veiling his visage as low as his flattened nose, but leaving his bristly muzzle and his brutal mouth visible. The creaking of a stealthily-opened drawer causes the sleeper to rouse to sudden wakefulness and reveals to his affrighted gaze the burly figure looming large against the white hangings of the bed-chamber. His great fist grips a bludgeon, and should his helpless victim dare to cry out, or in a voice louder than a whisper utter a prayer for mercy, with a horrible imprecation the midnight miscreant is at him, and he is lucky indeed if he is left merely stunned and bleeding when his assailant has ransacked the premises and walked off with his booty tied up in a bundle. To what extent I shared in the popular prejudice against the burglarious brotherhood it is unnecessary for me to make known, but I must admit that when I heard it whispered that the next case was one of burglary I was somewhat curious to see the sort of character the court gaoler would presently appear with.
    Expecting a brutal-looking ruffian, I was disappointed. He was a decent-looking young fellow, with rather a pleasant face than otherwise, and he was dressed like an engineer's labourer. He had taken part in an out-and-out burglary nevertheless. A woman at a window had seen him and some others, at one o'clock in the morning, doing something at a parlour window adjoining a baker's shop. She saw the sash presently raised, and two of the men helped in the other two, while they themselves watched outside. In a few minutes the watcher at the window saw the thieves inside raise the sash and throw out certain articles of clothing. A while longer and they both emerged from the house, and all four ran off. It was but small booty the four bold burglars obtained, however; a man's coat, a woman s cloak, and about six-[-90-]teen shillings out of the baker's shop till, most of the money being in farthings. When "on information received," the policeman took the prisoner, who was having a pen'orth of coffee at a stall about two hours after the burglary, he had a share of the farthings stowed in one pocket and some three threepenny pieces, likewise part of the spoil in another pocket. When questioned by the policeman, prisoner, said, according to the constable, "I have just come from the docks," but hearing this, the young fellow looked up with half a grin and muttered. "Come from the 'doss,' I said," but nobody heeded his muttering, and "docks" went down in the depositions; whereas when the young man said doss, he meant thereby that he had just come from his lodging. But it did not make much difference probably in the end. When at the police-station, to account for the farthings found on him, he said he worked at a ginger-beer maker's, and the money was part of his wages. When questioned by the magistrate, however, he had another and a more circumstantial story to tell. "I was a walkin', your washup, through a railway arch up Walworth way, when I hears footsteps and four young men-like what the witness at the winder see - come running along, and I heard one of em say, 'Here's a bobby arter us - I shall chuck mine away,' and then I hears a chink, so when they'd gone I went to the spot, and there I finds the farthings and that tied up in a hankysher." "You will be remanded for a week," was the magistrate's commentary on the ingenious statement, "and perhaps the police may find out something about you." And judging from the scowling expression of the young man's countenance when he heard these words, I think it not unlikely that his worship's conjecture may be justified.
    The young burglar for the time disposed of, next minute there occupies the dock an object that might have moved the hardest heart to pity and compassion. A boy of deplorable aspect, with only a few rags hanging to his body and limbs, shoeless, shirtless, and so horribly thin that it seemed as though his mere trembling would presently shake his more. prominent bones through the skin. Not a gutter-bred patroller of the streets, as might be judged from the softness of his hair and the character of his face, which, with the blue eyes deep set in their orbits, hollowed with starvation, was more like that of a girl.
    "I found the prisoner, your worship," (it sounded odd to hear the weak little scarecrow dubbed with an epithet, one no harder than which had been applied to ruffian Josh) "on the Embankment at two o'clock this morning, and, finding that he was houseless and destitute, I took him to the station."
    The Lambeth Police Court magistrate has a kind heart for poor boys, for which I shall ever hold him in respect.
    "Where do you come from, my lad: who are you?" his worship asked in so commiserating a tone that the miserable little waif might have plucked up heart to answer if he hadn't been brought so terribly low.
    What he replied was in so feeble a voice that the tall gaoler had quite to "make a back" that he might bring his listening ear to the quivering small lips.
" He says, your worship, that [-91-] his father and mother turned him out to find work and keep himself, and that he has been wandering for three weeks, not being able to find work, and afraid to go home."
    "Has he anything else to say?"
    No, that was all. Those few words told the starved boy's pitiful story. Driven from home, just as a troublesome dog might be, and with threats and blows, perhaps, lie had been told to be off, and return no more. And ever since, for twenty days and nights, no one heeding or caring for him, the poor little outcast had wandered the streets or crept into holes and corners to sleep, assuaging the pangs of hunger just as a homeless cur assuages his, while all the time perhaps "father" at home was congratulating himself on the extra slices of bread and the bit more meat that came to his share now that that hateful encumbrance his young son had been sent packing.
    One cannot help wishing that there was virtue in bread to swell in the throat and choke such unfeeling rascals. Are there many such? Human nature shrinks from admitting it; but those who should know - gaol chaplains, superintendents of reformatories-insist that such cases are by no means rare, especially now that the law insists that whatever his position, a man must send his children to school until they have attained a certain amount of education. It is an easy way for a brute to get rid of his unprofitable progeny. "Be off, curse you, and pick up a living for yourself; and dare ever to make known who you are so as to be brought back to me and I'll show you no mercy. It is from such sources that an army of boy thieves is recruited. It is easy enough for a hungry boy to steal the means to obtain a meal if he is reckless of consequences, and the ice once broken, the mischief is done. Imprisonment ensues, and the boy knows, that branded as a thief there is less chance than ever of his being received home again, even if he could muster courage to face the ordeal. With his brutal father's parting words, "Be off and never show your face here again," ringing in his ears, he shrinks from the hopeless attempt for shame's sake, adopting a name that is not his own, takes to thieving for the sake of the means to buy him food and lodging, and is heard of no more except when his crimes lead to his figuring as the principal character in a case tried before the judges at the Central Criminal Court.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883