John Sweeney Drunk

Some of the more intriguing newspaper reports from the 19th century police courts are those that feature exchanges between the magistrate and the prisoners in the dock.

Just for a brief moment we get a glimpse into the everyday lives of those who found themselves exposed to the full might of the law.

Drunkenness was one of the most frequent offences for which people, certainly in the East End of London, tended to appear in court.

Some of the cases were. to say the least, tragic, whilst others found their way into the newspapers because they provided a little courtroom mirth.

Women standing in the dock at court.
Charged At The Court.


The following case was reported by The Edinburgh Evening News on Tuesday the 24th of February, 1874:-

John Sweeney, about 25 years of age, who could scarcely be said to be clothed, so ragged were the coat and trousers, the only articles on his body, he wore, was charged before Mr Hannay with being drunk and disorderly in Spitalfields.

A police constable deposed to finding the prisoner drunk in one of the streets of Spitalfields, with a crowd round him blocking up the thoroughfare. He was acting in excited and strange manner, and, as he refused to go away, he was taken into custody.


Mr Hannay (to the prisoner):- “Do you wish to ask the constable any question?”

The Prisoner:- “Look here, sir, I want to speak to you.”

Mr Hannay:- “This man was here only lately, I believe?

Mr. Baker (the jailer):- “He was here, your Worship, on the 23d January, and the 13th of this month.”

The Police-constable:- “He only came out of prison on Saturday morning, and acts about the street this way.”


Mr Hannay (to the prisoner):-  “What do you wish to say to me?”

The Prisoner:- “Why, look here, sir, I’ve tried a good many fakements in life, and had a good start in the cough-drop line. But that fell off, and now I about the public-houses, giving recitations. I can give you one if you like. (Laughter.)”


Mr. Hannay:- “But you’ll end your days in a lunatic asylum if you act in this strange way about the streets.”

The Prisoner:- “I was in Colney Hatch for 12 months, but they said there was nothing the matter with me. They turned turned me out of Coldbath-fields on Saturday, and this was the pair of boots (taking off one) they gave me in a Christian country. I asked the magistrate at the prison to give me a sovereign for a start, but he would not.”

Mr Hannay:- “You are not to go about this way.”


The Prisoner:- “Look here, sir, let me speak as well as you, although you are a magistrate. You have the power to help man, and, if you will give me something out the poor box for a fresh start, I’ll go away.”


Mr Hannay:- “l don’t wish to send you to prison, but if you behave in this way you will certainly be locked up for life in prison or in an asylum. I’ll let you go now, but you must not come here any more.”

The Prisoner:- Very well, I won’t, if I can help it.”

He then left the Court.