A woman who made a living stealing clothes from children

Mall Floyd was a wicked woman who developed an unpleasant line in criminal activity. She would steal or kidnap children, take them somewhere far from their parents or guardians and then relieve them of their clothes and valuables. They’d then be left to fend for themselves as best they could.

In 1674, Mall Floyd found a girl of about eight years of age in Shoe Street. I may be wrong but I think Shoe Street now corresponds to what’s called Shoe Lane in Farringdon. In the seventeenth century, that thoroughfare would have been just outside the ancient city walls.

The road ran parallel to the Fleet River, which is now hidden away in a sewer. It was there then that Mall Floyd chanced upon this refined girl who looked very finely dressed. Our thief figured the girl’s clothes would make a pretty penny or two.

Approaching the eight year old, she claimed to be from her mother and then carried off the child as far as St Giles.  That was a pretty run down village where Centre Point stands, at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The parish church of St Giles is still there behind Centre Point. St Giles was a notorious slum that contributed a great number of villains to the hanging tree at nearby Tyburn.

So, Mall Floyd took the child to an ale house and seeing that it was about to rain, suggested that the girl should remove her expensive laces and linens as they would be spoilt. Now with her hands on the goodies, Mall Floyd took the girl to the churchyard of St Giles. Luckily for our villain, there was a burial going on with a big crowd. Without a second thought, Mall Floyd simply dumped the girl in the crowd and melted away.

Tyburn gallows
Mall Floyd was lucky not to end up here

The distressed kid burst into tears and a charitable individual took pity and very gallantly escorted her back to the house of her parents.

The girl recounted everything that had happened – the women claiming to be a friend of her mothers, taking her to a pub, removing her pricey garments and then disappearing. The family were furious but what could they do? Then a remarkable thing happened.

The child’s mother was walking through Holborn when she saw her daughter’s lost clothes hanging up for sale in a shop window. She raised hell with the shopkeeper and after some investigating – there were no police in those days remember – the family found the culprit. Mall Floyd was dragged before the courts.

Incredibly, she confessed everything and was sent to Newgate prison. When she returned for sentencing, Mall Floyd might have expected to dangle from a rope for the amusement of the crowd at Tyburn. Instead, she was “transported to some of the plantations beyond the seas”. Most likely the Americas where Mall Floyd, if she survived the journey, undoubtedly breathed her last.


American “lunatic” shames the British into reform!

My mother worked in one of London’s many psychiatric asylums that were all closed at the end of the 1980s. She was a nurse at Claybury Hospital in north east London. The Victorian complex of buildings was set in beautiful grounds with two big churches, a cinema and other facilities.

There was a combination of locked wards and open wards. I remember as a child seeing patients roaming round outside in their dressing gowns dosed up to the eyeballs with lithium.

By the late nineteenth century, Britain had begun a long journey of trying to understand mental illness and treat it with compassion as opposed to fear and hatred. Up until the mid-1800s, mental patients were pretty much classified as prisoners. Bethlem Hospital was where the city’s insane ended up.

Chained to walls or restrained in other ways. Even as early as 1598, a committee appointed to look at the workings of Bethlem damned the place as loathsome.

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action
William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

Always eager to raise money, Bethlem used to charge members of the public to come and gawp at its inmates.

By the eighteenth century, it was making about £400 a year from letting anybody in who fancied a laugh at the expense of the insane.

One observer, Ned Ward, said people visited Bethlem much as they’d go and see lions in the zoo. Even those who had family or friends at Bethlem had to pay the same amount as inquisitive strangers to see them.

One of the people who admitted to popping in for a look around wrote a damning account:

One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall or to sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only.

Things came to a head when members of the public saw one particular man, William Norris, restrained with iron bands to a wall – and apparently kept like this for years. The year was 1814 and attitudes were slowly starting to change. Norris found himself being quizzed by members of parliament who dropped in to see this pathetic sight.

So incensed were parliamentarians that they set about freeing Norris and reforming the system. However, the governors of Bethlem put up a spirited fight against these external meddlers in their affairs spending an eye-watering £600 to oppose the bill for regulating asylums.

Bear baiter tragically eaten by one of his bears

If you’re going to run a bear-baiting arena – it’s best not to get eaten by one of your bears.

In 1709, that was the fate of Christopher Preston who ran the Bear Garden at Hockley-in-the-Hole, a very dodgy part of the Clerkenwell district of London. It roughly corresponds to where Ray Street is today and there’s a little warren of streets in the vicinity that still has a slightly old world feel. But back to Mr Preston and his hungry friend.

Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700
Bears had a rough time in Clerkenwell circa 1700

Apparently the bear had got loose from its cage and Preston was “almost devoured” before his mates noticed. The Reverend Dr Pead apparently preached a very touching sermon afterwards at the church of St James’s in Clerkenwell. Though it’s hard to imagine what he could have said. No doubt a pithy parable summed up the tragedy.

On Mondays and Thursdays, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to drum up business for the baiting. In 1700, the Daily Post ran its first recorded advertisement for the proceedings. It also included references to bare knuckle fighting and the kind of wrestling that left men blinded or maimed. Not everybody was enthralled. Local Christian folk distributed leaflets and petitioned the courts to close the whole thing down. This is the sort of notice that distressed them so:

At the Bear Garden, Hockley-in-the-Hole, 1710 – This is to give notice to all gentlemen gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate Market against one from Hony Lane Market, at a bull, for a guinea, to be spent. Five let-goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. Likewise a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before, and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; and also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three o’clock.

And Hockley thrived in these years with bulls and bears meeting a bloody fate and swordsmen duelling for the amusement of socially very mixed crowds – from fancy fops to thieves and cut-purses. They’d all eat furmenty and hasty pudding while enjoying the bestial carnage. The old dwelling house that adjoined the Bear Garden was a pub called the Coach and Horses that is still there today.

(Source: Old and New London – 19th century publication)

Daniel Wildman – the bee tamer!

In a 19th century book from my personal library called Old and New London comes the bizarre tale of Daniel Wildman – bee tamer extraordinaire! This Barnum of the bees put on a show at Jubilee Gardens in 1772 called “Exhibition of the Bees on Horseback”.

At the Jubilee Gardens, late Dobney’s, this evening and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted), the celebrated Mr Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before.

Where Wildman rode with bees - now stands Pentonville prison
Where Wildman rode with bees – now stands Pentonville prison

The experiment would involve Wildman – said to be an American but possibly from the west country (accents can be so confusing!) – standing with one foot on the saddle of a horse and the other on the animal’s neck.

While riding round he would also have a mask of live bees on his head and face. Just to vary things a bit, Wildman also stood upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth and by firing a pistol, he could make one part of the bees march over a table while another part swarmed in the air then returned to their hive. Must have been quite a show!

Doors opened at six and the stinging commenced at 6.45pm. Admittance in the boxes and gallery was two shillings, cheaper seats were shilling and Wildman seems to have sold swarms of bees to punters.

The venue for this weirdness, Jubilee Gardens, was on a site in north London near Pentonville prison. As with many of these entertainment spaces, they tended to slide into decline, get built over and forgotten about. Not even Wildman’s bees could stop the rot.

Ever wondered what Londoners died of in the year 1791?

One book in my collection of antiquarian guides to London dates from 1791 – and in the appendices details what Londoners in that year died of.  If any of you are medics, I need your help working out what some of these illnesses are.

I’m aware that “lethargy” meant a stroke for example. But what about “rising of the lights” as a cause of death. Sounds very dramatic – if it’s painless, I’d like to go that way please.

So – what did Georgian Londoners die of in 1791?  By far the biggest cause is “Consumption” – which could mean tuberculosis but also other chest related diseases. Not surprising given that TB was incurable.

Also, the air was thick with poisonous fumes from domestic chimneys and factories located right in the heart of the city, giving rise to other pulmonary diseases. “Convulsions” account for 4,485 deaths and various fevers swept away 2,769 Londoners including Malignant Fever, Scarlet Fever, Spotted Fever and “Purples”.

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot - James Gillray cartoon
Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot – James Gillray cartoon

Gout only accounted for 58 people – but it was a very common problem at the time. Large scale port wine drinking didn’t help matters. Gentlemen of distinction could be seen hobbling in agony round the city and would have to prop their legs up on an Ottomon to get the acid flowing out of their feet. Leaving their club or the coffee house, they’d need a sedan chair to take their pained bodies back home.

One of you doctors can describe Headmouldshot, Horseshoehead and Water in the Head that struck 44 individuals. Measles was still a killer – as was flu – but how on earth did eleven people succumb to “Evil”!!?  “Surfeit” I assume means eating way too much and keeling over. And “ague” is malaria in modern parlance – a condition which prevailed with undrained marshes, especially to the east of London and in Essex.

Infant mortality was horrendous in the 18th century.  The biggest number of deaths in 1791 were under two years of age by a big margin – 6,138. The next largest figure is 2,086 between 40 and 50 years of age. Contrary to what you might assume, plenty of people made it into their fifties and sixties and 460 people died that year between 80 and 90 years of age. Seven were a hundred years old while one was reputedly 113 years old.

There were 35 executions in Middlesex and Surrey, which covered much of what is now called London. In 1791, pirates were still being put to death at Wapping. The gallows were deliberately placed at the low-water mark to be viewed by incoming boats. However, the guidebook says the habit of leaving the body to be washed over by three river tides had been discontinued.

Protein and the perils of sex – the life of Stanley Green

Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977
Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977

Throughout my childhood, I’d see this curious man on Oxford Street walking slowly up and down with a huge placard strapped to his back.

Like the Hare Krishna groups chanting round Oxford Circus, this odd chap was a regular fixture you kind of screened out after a while. He was omnipresent on London’s main shopping thoroughfare.

Stanley Green believed that a surfeit of protein caused harmful urges and he’d sell a pamphlet to passers by explaining the point. Born in 1915, he was a fixture on the street from 1968 to his death in 1993.

Must admit I had no idea what he was going on about and never bought one of his pamphlets. But I did notice when he wasn’t there anymore. It was as if something was suddenly missing on Oxford Street.

Other Londoners obviously felt similarly as his distinctive placard is now in the Museum of London.

The Knights Templar, the Nazis and a rebellious noble

What Geoffrey de Mandeville looked like before the Nazi bombs
What Geoffrey de Mandeville looked like before the Nazi bombs

Geoffrey de Mandeville – first Earl of Essex – had a rocky life and a bloody death.

Being a noble in the early 12th century meant keeping your head above water during a period sometimes called the ‘great anarchy’.

In the year 1135, king Henry I died. His cousin Stephen declared himself the new king but the late king’s daughter Matilda had different ideas. Taking Stephen on with her own army, the two parties engulfed England in a vicious civil war.

To protect his lands and social position, Geoffrey rather treacherously swapped sides on more than one occasion. When Stephen eventually prevailed against Matilda, he arrested the earl who was forced to surrender his castles. Furious with his treatment by the king, Geoffrey launched a rebellion. For a year, he holed up in the marshes of East Anglia – reduced to becoming a bandit.

Eventually, the king’s forces surrounded the troublesome earl and he was shot through with arrows. A traitor to his king and rejected by the church for raiding Ramsey Abbey – Geoffrey’s body couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground.

In fact, nobody knew what to do with his remains. Until the Knights Templar stepped in. They took his carcass to their London headquarters in a lead coffin and hung it from the branches of an apple tree. That way it was in their protection without being placed in the ground.

What Geoffrey looks like today
What Geoffrey looks like today

At some point, a burial was made possible and his son arranged for an effigy of his father to be placed in the Templar church. It can still be seen today. But it’s taken a bit of a bashing.

Up until the 10th March, 1941, the effigy was in almost pristine condition. But this was the Second World War and the Blitz meant Nazi bombs were raining down on the city. One exploded in the circular church bringing the roof crashing down on top of the effigy. As you can see – he took quite a pounding.

Even in death – Geoffrey has had a rough time.

The prince who wanted an execution in front of his own house

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan revolution were a thing of the past. The monarchy was restored. Charles II and the Restoration were in full swing.

But in 1683, there were some aristocrats who didn’t like the way things were going in the royal court. King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York, were suspected of being crypto-Catholics bent on restoring the old religion to England.

Charles was secretive in his sympathies but James left no doubt that he was an ardent Catholic. Some leading politicians took the view that James had to be blocked from ever becoming king. Some went a step further and concluded that both Charles and James must be killed.

Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution
Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution

The resulting Rye House Plot was uncovered and several peers of the realm including Lord William Russell were put on trial.

Almost inevitably, Russell was found guilty. Being found guilty of treason meant death. The only problem for the king was that Russell and his views had some support with the London mob.

So an execution at Tower Hill could have led to a riot in favour of the condemned man. There were already rumours of an attempt that would be made to rescue Russell while on the way from Newgate prison to the executioner’s block.

The Duke of York, the king’s brother James, came up with a novel solution. He hated Russell’s guts. After all, Russell and his friends had wanted to exclude James from the royal succession.

Therefore – James asked Charles – could Russell possible be executed at his front door in Southampton Square? James and his buddies would therefore be able to watch Russell’s head depart from his shoulders over an agreeable claret from an upstairs window. The king decided this was a bit indecent.

Instead, Russell was taken down Holborn to be decapitated in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I worked at a digital agency on that London square for ten years – a big idyllic space in the centre of the city. Today, you can see office workers taking a lunchtime stroll or the tennis courts being used by the more energetic in the mornings. But on the 21st July, 1683 – Londoners would have been there to watch Russell meet his maker.

The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door
The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door

As Russell was led down Holborn, some of the crowds insulted him while others wept. By all accounts, he sang psalms most of the way. Looking at the mass of people who’d gathered for their fun day out watching his beheading, Russell said he looked forward to being in better company very soon.

Regrettably, his executioner wasn’t going to despatch him so quickly. Jack Ketch made a total mess of the job taking at least two axe strikes to get Russell’s head off. He later penned a pamphlet blaming Russell for distracting him!! Ketch later took five strikes to behead the Duke of Monmouth – so he had form.

James, Duke of York, never got to have that execution at his front door. But he did go on to become king for four years. As expected, he pursued policies sympathetic to Catholics. And for that, he was duly overthrown.

Politicians with Russell’s leanings invited a Dutch prince, William, to invade England and become king instead – which he duly did.

Two men executed in south London for being gay – in 1743

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people we see in Iran these days. But this was London – and barely 250 years ago.

Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place
Kennington Park (formerly Common) where executions once took place

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay. Who wouldn’t?

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter.

As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him. Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court. Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now.

Richard Rose – London chef – boiled to death

Never let it be said that the Tudors lacked a sense of humour – especially when it came to one of their favourite pastimes: execution.

Anne Boleyn - paid a cook to poison a bishop?
Anne Boleyn – paid a cook to poison a bishop?

Smithfield, where I worked for a few years in the 1990s, was for centuries a meat market. It was also a place where people were put to death – most famously Braveheart or William Wallace to be more precise. But by the late Middle Ages, most executions had moved on to Tyburn.

However, Smithfield would still play host to the burning of heretics, especially under “Bloody” Queen Mary who sent about 277 people up in smoke for being Protestants. She was an ardent Catholic.

During the reign of Mary’s father, the great religious upheavals of the Reformation got underway. The tide switched between Catholic and Protestant as Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, deposed the Pope’s authority but couldn’t quite decide how far to go down the Protestant path. It was tough reading his majesty’s mind but worse if you deliberately decided to disagree on religious matters.

Bishop John Fisher decided to disagree very publicly about the king usurping the pope’s authority. So it was rather suspicious when Fisher’s cook was revealed as something of a poisoner.  The terrible truth came to light at a dinner thrown by Fisher, who was Bishop of Rochester, at his palace.

His cook, Richard Rose, concocted a pottage that was intended to be Fisher’s last supper. Unfortunately, the bishop didn’t eat the meal but two of his guests wolfed it down and died in agony. As did the grateful poor of Lambeth to whom the bishop handed out his leftovers as a fatal act of charity. Rose was apprehended, dragged to Smithfield and then cooked in front of a baying crowd.

Given the religious ferment of the time, some wagging tongues accused the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, of having a hand in the poisoned gruel. Had the Protestant queen paid Rose to poison the Catholic bishop? There’s no evidence to support this. And the decision to boil Rose suggests that the king had zero tolerance for low-born types trying to murder his prelates, no matter what their theological views.

POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.