A Free Fight In Leytonstone

Much of Whitechapel in the 19th century had a reputation for all manner of violence and criminality.

One of the big problems, as far as law and order went, was the prevalence of gangs of ruffians who would pick on people without fear of being arrested by the police.

It often happened that the gangs of Whitechapel would head out of the area to inflict their criminality on members of more rural communities.

But, on the last Sunday in May, 1881, one gang of Whitechapel ruffians got a little more than they bargained for when they tried to throw their weight around amongst the rural community at Leytonstone, where the people were more than used to dealing with highwaymen and other ne’er-do-wells.

The story of what happened was covered by The Leytonstone Express and Independent in its edition of Saturday the 4th of June 1881:-


An incident happened last Sunday night in Leytonstone which points to the necessity of an increase in the police force in Leytonstone on Sundays and on other days when large numbers of people come down from London.

Last Sunday a respectable tradesman of Leytonstone was taking a walk in the direction of Wanstead accompanied by his dog who was carrying his walking stick in his mouth.


They met four or five men who took the stick from the dog and refused to give it up to the dog’s master.

There was some altercation about it, and it was not until the dog’s master appealed to the police that these gentlemen would give the stick up, and they did so, vowing vengeance against the dog’s master, and threatening to “do for him” when they got the chance.


Between nine and ten o’clock they went into the Red Lion, looking for the owner of the stick and uttering threats.

They could not find him; but there happened be standing at the bar a man with a tall hat on, which they appeared to consider a great offence, for they afterwards fell foul of him, knocked him down and smashed his hat.


It is probable that the refusal to serve them with drink increased their savageness, but whether or not, they set too to knock every one down indiscriminately as soon as they were out of the house.

People who had said nothing to them, and were mere lookers-on were knocked down like nine pins.

A policeman came up and took one of them into custody; but he was set upon and his prisoner rescued in an instant.

By this time a crowd of people had assembled at the end of the Harvey-road, and the fight became less one-sided.

The attack of the Whitechapel ruffians had been so well organised and so sudden that for a time they carried everything before them; and it seemed as if – following the tactics of Samuel Weller in the scrimmage at Ipswich – one man was knocked down for another malt to fall upon.


However, the tide soon turned.

Two or three of the natives having been knocked down once or twice, thought it was high time to be “on the job” and being joined by one or two friends, they lost no time in getting to work.

One of the Londoners had kicked a native, after knocking him down, whereupon the native got up and returned the kick with as much steam as he could put into it, and the Londoner went limping up to another native and asked him to direct him to a chemist.

“Oh, you don’t want no chemist’s shop,” said the native, “You wants to go to a hospital, take that.”

“That,” was what in pugilistic phraseology is called an “upper cut “under the chin, which sent him to the ground like a log, and very likely made him feel as if his teeth were being driven out at the top of his head.


Whilst this was going on, the other Londoners had each found a native who was polishing him off in scientific style.

Three or four policemen had by this time come up, but they could do but little, and in the confusion and not knowing who the aggressors were, had taken one of the natives into custody.

He was, however, released upon an explanation being made.


By this time the Londoners had been polished rather more than they wanted, and began to clear off.

One or two took refuge in the Stratford omnibus which was standing at the corner, but they were not to get off so easily.

They were followed into the bus, pommelled over the face and head, dragged out of the bus, and pommelled again.

They yelled for mercy, and at last managed to get off not quite so triumphantly as they anticipated, vowing vengeance, and threatening to come down to Leytonstone next Sunday, largely reinforced by a contingent of their “pals,” to revenge themselves upon their conquerors.