On the evening of Thursday, 4th June, 1897, a gang-fight in Clerkenwell resulted in an appalling tragedy when an innocent twelve-year-old girl, by the name of Margaret Jane Smith, was accidentyl shot and killed by one of the combatants.
The Exeter Flying Post broke the story on Friday, 4th June, 1897:-
GIRL SHOT IN CLERKENWELL
“Two boys of a gang who have for sometime disturbed the peace of Islington and Clerkenwell by the carrying of revolvers, were last night concerned in a shooting tragedy.
One of the youths is named Stedman, whilst the name of the other has not yet transpired.
They quarrelled and fought in Noble Street, Clerkenwell. Stedman worsted his antagonist and they parted, but the latter, running down the street lay in wait for Stedman, at whom he fired with a revolver.
Stedman, however, had been warned, and managed to avoid the shot, which struck the forehead of Margaret Jane Smith.
The unfortunate girl, who is twelve years of age, and was returning home after discharging an errand, was at once removed to the Royal Free Hospital, where, upon arrival, she was pronounced to be dead.
The boy who fired the shot is believed to have evaded immediate arrest, but he is known to the police, who have secured some half dozen others of the gang.”
SOMETHING MUST BE DONE
Later that day, The Globe fumed that the gang problem in London was out of control and urged that something had to be done to tackle the issue:-
Now that a little girl has been shot dead in the streets of Clerkenwell it may perhaps be hoped that something will be done to stop the carrying of firearms by boys.
Two larrikins quarrelled and fought last night, one of them ran away, and his antagonist, firing after him at large with a revolver, killed Margaret Jane Smith, aged twelve, who was quietly returning home from an errand upon which she had been sent.
It is probable enough that the unintending murderer will receive adequate punishment, but it is not punishment that is needed so much as prevention.
That is surely not impossible. Parliament has only to enact that no fire-arms shall be sold to a person under age, and that any minor found in possession of one shall have it taken from him the police.”
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, on Sunday, 6th June, 1897, published the proceedings from the previous day’s inquest into the death of Margaret Smith:-
“Yesterday Dr. Danford Thomas opened an inquiry at St. Pancras concerning the death of Margaret Jane Smith, aged 12 years, daughter of a cabman residing at 21, Noble-street, Farringdon-road, Clerkenwell.
Four lads are under remand from Clerkenwell police-court in connection with the case, two of whom are charged with being concerned in shooting the girl.
They declined to appear before the coroner.
Charles Henry Smith, a cabman, stated that the girl was sent out to get some blacking, and later on he heard that she had been shot and had been taken to the Royal Free Hospital, where he found that she was dead.
Alfred Smith, a carman, living at 81, Wilmington-place, Clerkenwell, stated that at half-past nine on Thursday night he was in Margaret-street when he saw a number of rough boys and girls making a disturbance.
Some of them were playing mouth organs. The coroner asked how many there were. The witness replied about thirty lads.
A young man was wheeling a barrow along, when one of the lads went up and quarrelled with him.
BAKER FIRED A SHOT
Witness went away, and suddenly he heard some of the girls shouting out, “Baker, fire!” after which he saw Baker put his hand behind his coat and take something from behind, and then Baker fired. He saw a flash and some smoke came from a revolver, and then he saw the deceased, who was passing, fall to the ground.
The coroner asked if the lad Baker took any aim at anyone. The witness said that Baker fired at the two men that were engaged in fighting. In answer to the coroner, the witness said that the deceased was crossing the roadway when she was shot.
The witness continued that Baker, whose proper name was Robson, was in the habit, to his knowledge, of carrying a six-chambered revolver about with him. He had seen Robson with a revolver similar to the one produced, and also another one.
It was the practice of the gang from Chapel-street to carry revolvers, and he remembered before Christmas that the Chapel-street boys stood in a line and fired for the purpose of letting their antagonists know that they were coming.
THEY CARRIED REVOLVERS
In answer to the coroner, the witness said that he belonged to the Lion and Lamb party.
A juror wished to know if there was a leader to any of these gangs. Inspector Briggs said that there was none. The faction fights generally were caused by some girls, and then the lads interfered, and there was a fight, and often revolvers were used.
The witness, in answer to Inspector Briggs, said that Goody, who also had a revolver, only fired once, and that was after the deceased had been shot.
HENRY BEE’S TESTIMONY
Henry Bee, a schoolboy, living at 117, Rosoman-street, Clerkenwell, stated that on Thursday night he saw a crowd of boys running down Amwell-street having sticks and irons in their hands.
At the bottom, he saw a number of girls, and he heard them call out, “Baker, fire.” He saw Baker, or Robson, take a revolver out of his pocket and put a bullet in it, after which he said, “All you kids get out of the way.” Robson then pointed and fired at two big boys that were some distance away.
The deceased, who was running across the roadway, was struck and fell down, and then all the boys and girls ran away.
FURTHER WITNESS ACCOUNTS
Peter Crabb, aged 16 years, living at 32, St. Helena-place, Clerkenwell, a member of the Lion and Lamb gang, stated that he saw one lad whom he believed to be Robson shoot off a revolver on different occasions.
John Reed, a newspaper vendor, living at Payne-street, alleged that Robson was in the habit of carrying two revolvers. Robson had a belt and had places made each side to keep revolvers in.
Police-constable William Err, 380 G, proved removing the deceased to the hospital, where she died shortly afterwards.
Dr. Levick, one of the house surgeons of the Royal Free Hospital, stated that the deceased died two minutes after admission, a bullet having entered the brain.
Inspector Briggs said Robson had made a statement that he went with some other lads to Margaret-street to frighten some boys. His friends began to fight with the boys of Margaret Street. One went to strike one with a knife. He went to fire his revolver in the air, but it missed fire. He brought it down straight and was trying to work the trigger when it went off, after which he ran away, throwing the revolver away in Amwell-street.
He then gave the names of a number of lads that were present, and when one of them, named Beaumont, was arrested for riotous conduct a revolver was found on him.
A VERDICT OF MANSLAUGHTER
The jury returned a verdict of “Manslaughter” against George Robson, alias Baker, adding a rider in which they urged the necessity of further legislation with a view to the licensing of revolvers, and the imposing of a fine or imprisonment on all persons found carrying loaded firearms without such licence within the jurisdiction of the London County council.”
A GIRL SHOT DEAD IN THE STREET
In the same edition, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper reported on the court appearance by the main suspects in the tragic case:-
The ruffianly gang of boys who have for some time disturbed the peace of Islington and Clerkenwell by the carrying of revolvers have, at length, caused the death of a passer-by.
At Clerkenwell police-court on Friday John Goodey, 17, a beer bottler, of Whidbourne-buildings, Cromer-street, St. Pancras; Michael Reed, 16, a capsule maker, of Payne-street, Caledonian-road; William Spiers, 16, a bookbinder, of Cynthia- street, Pentonville; and George Robson, 17, a van guard, of Russell-place, Islington, were charged with riotous conduct at Margaret-street, Clerkenwell.
Goodey and Robson were further charged with being concerned together in causing the death of Margaret Jane Smith, aged 12 years, by shooting her in the head.
INSPECTOR BRIGGS’S EVIDENCE
Police-inspector Briggs, G division, said that at ten o’clock the previous night, from information received, he went to the Royal Free Hospital, Gray’s-inn-road, where he saw the dead body of the child, Margaret Jane Smith. There was a bullet wound in the forehead, and her body was covered with blood.
Later on, he returned to King’s-cross-road police-station and there saw the prisoner Goodey. He said to Goodey, “From inquiries I have made, you will be charged with causing the death of a girl by shooting her.” Goodey made no reply.
Reed and Spiers were also present, and he charged them with riotous conduct. They made no reply.
Upon Spiers witness found a portion of a letter, which ran as follows:- “See the Lion boys (this refers to the boys who muster outside the Lion and Lamb, Clerkenwell) in the street at night. They will be ready to fight, not like others, with pistols and sticks, but will bring a few iron railings and kerbstones.”
Continuing, the witness said that that morning, shortly after six o’clock, he saw Robson in custody, and told him that he was seen to fire a revolver at a girl now dead, and would be charged with causing her death.
He replied, “I never had a revolver.”
A VERY SERIOUS CHARGE
Mr. Horace Smith, addressing the prisoners, said:- “This is a very serious charge; it will probably be one of wilful murder. You must not treat the matter lightly. Do you wish to ask the inspector any questions?
The prisoners said they wished to make statements, but were not allowed to do so at this stage of the case.
Mr. H. Smith remanded them.”
THE PRISONERS NEXT COURT APPEARANCE
The St James’s Gazette on Friday, 18th June, 1897, reported on the next court appearance of the accused:-
“At Clerkenwell Police Court yesterday, John Goodey, aged seventeen, Michael Reed, sixteen, William Spiers, sixteen, and George Robert Robson, seventeen, were charged on remand before Mr. Horace Smith with riotous conduct at Margaret-street, Clerkenwell. Goodey and Robson were further charged with causing the death of Margaret Jane Smith, aged twelve, by shooting her in the head on the 3rd inst.
Eliza Walters, aged fifteen a factory girl, and James Beaumont, fifteen, a machine boy, who were arrested and brought before the magistrate after the other prisoners were charged, were also charged on remand with riotous conduct and with being concerned in causing the death of the girl.
Mr. Ricketts, solicitor, defended Spiers.
Mr. Byron, who prosecuted on behalf of the Treasury, said the facts of the case disclosed a most extraordinary state of affairs in Clerkenwell, especially in the neighbourhood of Margaret-street.
INFESTED BY OPPOSING GANGS
For some months past the streets in this part of London had been infested by two opposing gangs of young roughs, known the “Chapel-street Gang” and the “Lion Gang.”
Since last Christmas, there had been three pitched battles between these gangs, the lads fighting with sticks, belts, etc. Sometimes there would be girls in the gangs. Some of the boys in the Chapel-street faction were known to have possessed pistols and revolvers, which they fired at doors and other objects after the fights were over.
THE UNFORTUNATE GIRL
On June 3, after the third fight, Robson, who was known as “Baker,” fired a revolver in the direction of some of the lads in the Lion Gang. The unfortunate girl Smith, the daughter of a cab-driver, who was crossing Margaret-street at that moment, was shot in the head and died soon afterwards.
The prisoner Eliza Walters, who was standing near Robson, cried out “Fire, Baker !” just before the shot was fired.
The lad Spiers, when arrested, had a document in his possession, written in pencil, which was apparently a form of challenge to his gang from the Lion Gang.
Fights had taken place between the girls of the opposing factions as well as between the boys.
HE KNEW THE GIRL
Alfred Smith, van-guard, of Wilmington-street, Clerkenwell, said he knew the deceased girl Smith, but was no relation of hers. He saw the shot fired and heard Walters say, “Fire, Baker!”
Some of the lads in Robson’s gang also cried out “Fire!” before the girl was shot.
He saw a boy named Steadman, a member of the other gang, some distance down Margaret-street at the time. The Lion Gang were in the habit of congregating outside the Lion and Lamb public-house in Margaret-street.
Beaumont was a spy, who used to bring intelligence to his comrades of the movements of the other gang.
Cross-examined, the witness said he was a member of the Lion Gang, but had never taken any part in the fights.
Further questioned, he said he only fought with his fists. If “anyone interfered with him he had a whack at ’em back.”
He did not see Spiers in Margaret-street when the girl Smith was shot.
The prisoners were again remanded.”
THE OUTCOME – LIGHT SENTENCE
On Monday, 5th July, 1897, George Robson appeared before Mr, Justice Hawkins at the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey).
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, on Tuesday, 6th July, 1897, was just one of many newspapers that expressed surprise at the leniency of the sentence that was meted out against him:-
“At the Old Bailey yesterday George Robson, 17, who while out with a gang of disorderly boys at Clerkenwell fatally shot a little girl in the street with a revolver, was sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
Mr. Justice Hawkins remarked that he was satisfied that the act was not wilful.
The lads who were with the prisoner at the time were sentenced short terms of imprisonment for riotous assembly.”