When studying crime in Victorian London at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, the London police courts, and the newspaper reports on the proceedings in them, are an invaluable historical resource.
But, what exactly were the police courts, and how did they operate?
On Saturday, 16th July, 1887, The Graphic published the following enlightening article that provides a vivid insight into the 19th century London police courts, and of the type of cases that came before the magistrates:-
A VISIT TO GREAT MARLBOROUGH STREET POLICE COURT
To magistrates, clerks of the court, gaolers, policemen, and all the numerous subordinates attached to police courts and police-stations, the proceedings, as a rule, must be a trifle tedious; there is a dreadful similarity in crime and its consequences, and a sad lack of anything like originality in the general run of proceedings.
This is particularly apparent in the “night-charges,” which are heard first at all the courts.
A TEDIOUS PARADE OF REGULARS
The same procession files in, day after day, month after month, year after year.
The female “loiterers” in the streets – tojours les femnres – with their asseverations of innocence, their protests against their fines, the police favouritism in court, and the levying upon them in the streets of a regular black-mail (a matter that might be inquired into more stringently); the men who have assaulted their wives, and the wives who have assaulted their husbands after a drop too much at the Connubial Arms; the silly swell, who has been noisy at the “Troc’,” or the “Pav’,” or the “Ox’,” and disputatious and pugnacious and very drunk, and the swell’s silly friends who have been dragged with him into the conflict and finally into the station-house; the man who has “done nothing, your honour, but call a cab for the genelman,” and got “collared ” for his officious zeal (there appears to be some misdirected zeal on the other side also in the bagging of this very poor game for the morning’s supply); the cabman who has been insolent to his fare, or overcharged him, or been found asleep on his box, sweetly oblivious to all fares; the mother who has been neglectful of her children, the grown-up children who have been cruel to the mother, and torn her hair out, or set her on fire with a paraffin lamp; the pickpocket, the burglar, the area-sneak; the man who has betrayed his employer’s trust, and stolen his money or forged his name; the little whimpering, red-nosed boy, who has been letting off fireworks in the street, and “didn’t know it was wrong, sir,” till an indefatigable member of the force had run him in for endangering the lives and disturbing the peace of Her Majesty’s subjects.
How tired the presiding magistrate must be of these cases; he knows exactly what is coming, what the policeman will say, what excuse the prisoner will make, and what fine he shall presently impose.
It is all so stale, flat, and unprofitable, and yet he feigns an interest marvellously well.
He acts, with the rest of them; he cannot help acting in these homely, shabby dramas and trumpery little farces, which “play in” the house, and are called “night-charges.”
But he will wake wonderfully to interest in a case that involves new business, or introduces new and striking features. When that is the case, the magistrate wakes up in real earnest.
Here is something that must be thoroughly threshed out – no sensible magistrate will be caught napping in a case of this kind.
TWELVE POLICE COURTS IN LONDON
For the proper administration of justice in its early stages – its unfledged condition, before, in the matter of big cases, it has taken to itself wings and flown to the airy regions of the Central Criminal and the Sessions Houses – London has instituted twelve police courts, irrespective of the Mansion House and Guildhall, where the Lord Mayor and Aldermen (by rotation) dispense law on their own account.
These courts are Bow Street, Clerkenwell, Lambeth, Great Marlborough Street, Marylebone, Southwark, Thames, Westminster, Worship Street, Hammersmith, Greenwich, and West Ham.
The salaries of the magistrates’ are in all instances the neat little sum, and certainly the well-earned sum, of fifteen hundred per annum, the chief magistrate of Bow Street, Sir J. T. Ingham, being the only exception, and having a salary of eighteen hundred per annum.
To most of these courts is attached the chief police-station of the district, so that the official witnesses for the prosecution are handy to be called upon when required.
THE POLICE IN LONDON
The total number of the London police; it may be remembered, is 13,849, exclusive of some 900 constables, sergeants, and inspectors who owe allegiance to the City of London proper.
And London is well served, on the whole, we are disposed to believe, by its police.
That there are a few erring mortals in their midst, it is in the nature of humanity to expect. They are exposed to many temptations and little bribes, their salaries are not large, and there are some districts where “tips” are plentiful.
They are not men of such high orders of intellect, and with such educational advantages to the fore as, say, our army contractors, and the gentlemen who adjudicate on the merits of swords and bayonets; but, notwithstanding, there are heroes in their ranks, men of pluck and fibre, doing their duty honestly, valiantly, and well.
GREAT MARLBOROUGH STREET – WITHIN THE COURT
Business begins punctually at Great Marlborough Street Police Court.
There are many extras to attend to before the important cases come on, and. the “night-charges” are always numerous.
In the matter of night-charges, Great Marlborough Street probably bears the palm as to number and variety, because the great streets in the most fashionable and wealthy part of London draw to one centre the idle, the vicious, and the intemperate, whereupon the predatory classes in all their infinite variety follow at their heels, and wait for their chances of spoil.
ALL SORTS OF CASES
All sorts of all nations constitute the night-charges here; there is not the one common stamp of poverty impressed upon them which is so apparent at the East End police courts, even the industrious classes are chiefly represented by erring cabmen, newspaper boys, match girls, cab-touts, and bus-conductors and drivers who have been careless with their language, or with their vehicles and horses.
WOMEN IN THE COURT
The fair sex is more than well-represented at Great Marlborough Street, and overcrowds the waiting-rooms.
Certain portions of the fair sex “loiter” a great deal in the West End streets, will not go away when told to do so, wax abusive and riotous when shoved, and finally get “run in.”
The fair sex is very penitent next morning, as a rule; is profuse of explanation to the worthy magistrate, prolific of excuses for its last night’s unfortunate condition, is very sorry even, at times, for its sad had life, which makes loitering a stern necessity, according to its own awful reasoning.
One or two out of some dozen or twenty offenders lack prudence, and are still defiant, and a few speak indignantly of the blackmail levied upon them by members of the force, as a fee for leaving them alone.
ENGLISH AND FOREIGN GIRLS
The English girls are the most excitable, and the most easily reduced to tears by the mild remonstrance or reproof of the sitting magistrate; the foreign element is more composed, more conservative, more bland and businesslike.
When a policeman’s evidence is very strong against an offender of this class, the lady will shrug her shoulders, spread out her gloved hands, and appeal to the magistrate direct.
“Oh! m’sieur, ce n’est pas vrai ” escapes in silvery accent and with “tears in the voice.”
THE DUTIES OF THE INTERPRETER
The interpreter is very busy in the early part of the morning’s proceedings – his is a well-known face at Great Marlborough Street, one of the stereotyped institutions here, grim and methodical. To all outward appearance, nothing excites him or arouses him; he is simply the stolid medium – and not always the happy medium – between the prisoner and the police,
the prisoner and the magistrate.
In a precise, clear manner he interprets to the prisoner the evidence – in French, German, Italian, as the case may be – of the prosecutor or the witnesses for the prosecution, and then, after listening to the statement in defence, interprets it into English for the benefit of the prosecution, and the consideration of Mr. Newton or Mr. Mansfield.
MANY SIMILAR CASES
There are many cases of this kind, but they are got over, considering the double nature of the business, with surprising speed.
Here the story again is very much of the same old miserable pattern from day to day; many of the prisoners are well-known to the court, habitues who, after some histrionic declamation or display, retire from the box cool and collected, and pay their fines – the majority of them – with punctuality and despatch.
NIGHT CHARGES SUBMITTED
After the foreign cases are settled – and they are taken seriatim to save time and expense – the rest of the night charges come on and are submitted to the crucial test of magisterial experience.
THE YOUNG MAN
The young man who has dined not wisely but too well, and has acted with an extra degree of un-wisdom afterwards at the music-halls or “outside the Cri’,” or interfered with the police, or quarrelled with a masher contemporary in Regent Street or Piccadilly and “bashed” him on the nose, is read a lecture to and fined, and has taken his crest-fallen and still full-dressed self out of court.
THE OLD SWELLS
The old swells – there are a few greyheads who put in an appearance under exactly the same conditions – seem more bewildered than ashamed in the bright morning which has brought them back to reflection on the error of their ways, or to a wondering sense of how they got there, and whether they shall turn up again in the evening newspapers.
They disappear swiftly from the dock after the fine is proclaimed, trusting very heartily – most of them- that no one has recognised them in court, or doubted the authenticity of the name under which they have taken a temporary shelter.
MORE SERIOUS BUSINESS
Cab cases and light cases generally will probably follow the “mashers,” and then there are signs of more serious business coming on – fresh charges – not to be settled by a few words and a few minutes’ attention to the matter, but necessitating grave “remands” and solid arguments pro and con.
The solicitors turn up at their posts – there are one or two legal gentlemen who seem to have the principal part of the Great Marlborough Street cases in their hands – and once more creep in the reporters with their pencils and notebooks, and a general air of intense wakefulness pervades the establishment.
THE FIRST FELONY OF THE DAY
Felony has its innings, perhaps, to begin with.
A barefooted, half-starved, shivering wretch is hustled into the dock to answer to a charge of stealing a pair of boots, and here is a worthy constable with the boots en evidence.
There is no getting out of this case – the prisoner can only plead as Harold Skimpole pleaded for spring lamb; the shoemaker had boots – plenty of boots in stock – and the former was without them – stockings as well, for the matter of that – and wanted boots badly – the old question of demand and supply.
Did it give all these sturdy officials – the witnesses to his arrest -much trouble to effect his capture, we wonder? It does not look like it in the daylight of Great Marlborough Street Police Court.
FELONY NUMBER TWO
Felony number two follows felony number one.
Here are three thieves all mixed up in one case, two of them passive and unresisting, and the third – the middle one – doing all the talking and examining and cross-examining the witnesses like a man thoroughly used to the position.
An old Marlborough Street hand, and evidently known to the detectives in the background, who swill have a word or two to say presently about the gentlemen in charge.
A WRECK OF POOR HUMANITY
Felony number three comes up, a wreck of poor humanity, and although supported ably by counsel for his defence, is overwhelmed by the horror of his position, hard as he struggles to gather to himself some little fragments of self-possession.
It is all over with him and his prospects, he knows – it is all found out – he is already wondering what will become of him after the sentence is passed, and what his friends in the body of the court are thinking about it already.
He is the untrustworthy servant, the fraudulent bank clerk, who has not been able – unhappy and miserable wight – to resist the temptation of making free with some of the money which has been streaming in under his hands and over the bank counter day after day, which he had thought it possible nobody would miss, if he were only clever enough at manipulation.
And he has been suspected, detected, has made “a bolt of it,” and has been discovered and brought to justice – and this is the black sequel to the story, with a broken-hearted mother – “and she was a widow” – and sobbing sisters in the background, praying in their hearts for a light sentence – no sentence at all, if possible, your worship, and hoping against hope to the last.
SHADOWS OF THE POLICE COURTS
Cases like this are the shadows of the police courts, and are full of sadness to all parties concerned – there is so much of tragedy in the son turned thief; at times such extenuating circumstances, if one only knew the rights and wrongs of it all – which one never does, – and who has been in the background, and played the part of tempter as effectually as Mephisto did to Faust.
Mephisto may be only a rouged woman in a sealskin jacket, or even a betting-man whose “tips” have fired the imagination of young Hopeful, and wrecked him utterly in this world, a vulgar and ordinary tempter in all probability, but doing the devil’s, work very completely for all that.
The court, we should think, must be glad of a relief to these sad scenes, and now and then a light case turns grave to gay, and magistrates and reporters, police and police court clerks will occasionally lose that gravity of demeanour which generally characterises the workings of a court of justice.