Ten weird things about London at the time of the BBC drama series “Taboo”

TabooIf you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time.

That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.

These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.

  1. Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!
  2. pillory1
    Always something to see in London!

    See somebody condemned to death: Incredibly, you could pay a shilling to a door-keeper at the Old Bailey and watch a trial for a capital crime. The death penalty wasn’t just for murder. There was a whole range of offences that could lead to the rope. These included counterfeiting money or stealing. And children could still be hanged in public at this time. If a trial was high profile, the doorkeepers would increase the entrance fee to as much as a guinea.

  3. Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”
  4. You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.
  5. Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.
  6. Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria  – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.
  7. f79da947962a9096e88f6373d5d25a77--william-hogarth-anatomy
    A dissection before dinner perhaps?

    Watch a medical operation: If your day in London had proved to be rather dull, it could be enlivened by going to watch a medical operation. The operating table at Guy’s Hospital was circled by viewing galleries where students and the curious could breathe their germs down on the poor afflicted patient. Amputations normally resulted in death due to infection but the removal of kidney stones through the urethra (I’m crossing my legs just thinking of it) had an excellent survival rate

  8. Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.
  9. Observe the diseases killing Londoners:  In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.
  10. Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.

 

 

 

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The wife who bought rope for her husband to be hanged

Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.

Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious.

He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.

Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff's rope
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope

During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!

Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:

I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.

Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.

Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

Grim business being in debt in the old days – a debtor could expect to end up behind bars!

London had its fair share of prisons located very centrally and one of them was the Fleet – where debtors were flung. The location is quite hard to imagine now but it would have been roughly where Limeburner Lane and Fleet Place are today – bordered by Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey and what is now Farringdon Street. That street was originally the Fleet river, which still runs underneath channeled into the sewers.

Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison in 1691 – note the inmates begging for passing charity

The prison was pulled down in 1846 after 700 years of banging up criminals. The site was sold off to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and there’s still a City Thameslink station nearby. I can remember in the 1970s when there was a now removed railway bridge across the road. All traces of the miserable prison disappeared long ago but it was a notorious place in its heyday. A poem in 1738 summed up the horror:

A starving life all day we lead; No comfort here is found; At Night we make one Common bed; Upon the boarded ground

And the prisoners often grumbled that there were plenty in high society who were committing worse crimes than they had but got away it because of their social position:

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live; Yet we may Boldly say; Worse Villains often Credit give; Than those that never pay

For wealthy knaves can with applause; Cheat on, and ne’er be try’d; But in contempt of human Laws; In Coaches Safely ride

The Fleet was mainly a debtors prison from the 17th century onwards and run by a warden who had almost dictatorial powers. He also had the right to “farm” the prisoners – that is, extort fees from them for their upkeep. This may seem unusual to us now, but prisoners on arrival at the Fleet had to cough up six shillings, bring their own bedding or hire some or sleep on the floor. Conditions were appalling and abuse was rife. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was notorious for holding prisoners in irons and refusing to let them leave after their sentences had expired.

Fleet Prison in 1830 - note the racket court
Fleet Prison in 1830 – note the racket court

During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Fleet was burnt down but after repairs, it carried on in business. Prisoners would beg passers by for charity. Raising some money was their only forlorn hope of escaping this four storey hell with its high walls, chapel, coffee-room and tap-rooms. It was badly lit and a countless number of doors opened up onto rooms averaging 14 by 12 feet. Walking down the dark corridors, you would have heard an endless clanging of doors to jar your nerves. If the prisoners were lucky, a wealthy passer-by clutching scented herbs to their nose, would approach the barred windows and press a coin in to their hands.

There was a recreation yard that included a racket court. Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, three

people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed”.  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners!Fleet prison

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus:

To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

The terrifying London garroters of the 1860s

1862 saw a new crime trend hit the streets of London.  The criminals robbed well-to-do people while an accomplice gripped the victim by the throat from behind.  This outbreak of “garroting” horrified the great and the powerful – especially when a member of parliament fell victim. In 1863, an indignant Lord Norton demanded that the garroters should be flogged in prison and the measure was passed with ease.

London garroters in action!
London garroters in action!

In the century before, thieves and robbers could still be tied to a cart and whipped in public. But these garroters were punished in private at Newgate. Well, not entirely in private. Because wealthy folks could gain access to the room with the “whipping press” to watch the brutal action unfold. They just had to get a ticket from the sheriff and demand was high!

A journalist who attended one flogging described it:

We entered a long, low room, ignorant of furniture, except a sort of press, waist-high against one wall and a long deal table by the other. What I liken unto the press was the whipping apparatus with stocks for the prisoner’s feet and holdfasts for his hands. He stepped into this appartus and his feet were forthwith imprisoned. Extending his arms, he placed them in the crescent hollow of a plank before him, another plank was let down and his wrists were pinioned in rings.

Then a jailer picked up a whip with nine cords and knots at the end of each – the infamous cat o’nine tails! The first garroter led in to be punished was, according to the journalist, a “sullen, lumpish thick-skinned brute, with an evil forehead”. I’ll spare you the full description in the book before me (the Victorians loved to describe a good beating!) though it says the jailer “plied the scourge airily, as a fly-fisher would his line”. A nice angling motif!

Supporters of corporal punishment in prisons – which did continue well into the 20th century – claimed it stopped the garrotting epidemic in its tracks. But even at the end of the 19th century, looking back at this very odd crime, the Liberal Home Secretary Lord Asquith (1892-95) said the crime had already subsided before Norton brought his flogging measure to the House. This view was supported by another Home Secretary, Lord Ridley (1895-1900).

Still – the throttlers had given the rich a big scare – and they’d retaliated with the whip!

Who was the notorious London Monster?

Everybody knows about Jack the Ripper but there have – regrettably – been other men who have attacked women in the metropolis. And they had equal notoriety.

One such was the London Monster.

He didn’t actually murder women, unlike the Ripper, but slashed at them in the face or backside. The knives or daggers were reputedly strapped to his knees – as the illustration shows – or concealed in other ways to take his victims by surprise.

London Monster
The London Monster at work – note knives attached to his knees!

Most of the women he attacked seemed to have been ladies of substance – unlike the prostitutes targeted by Jack the Ripper.

And he appears to have suffered from some psychopathic condition that necessitated this curious lashing out.

Eventually, a man, Rhynwick Williams, was apprehended after allegedly attacking a spinster called Ann Porter. It seems to have been his intention to rip at her clothes more than the person inside them.

The court proceedings stated:

RENWICK WILLIAMS , was indicted, for that he, on the 18th of January last, with force and arms, at the parish of St. James, Westminster, in the king’s highway, in a certain public street there, called St. James’s-street , unlawfully, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did make an assault on Ann Porter , spinster , with an intent to tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments and clothes; and on the same day, with force and arms, in the same public street, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments: to wit, one silk gown, value 20 s. a pair of stays, value 5 s. a silk petticoat, value 5 s. one other petticoat, value 5 s. a linen petticoat, value 5 s. and a shift, value 5 s. her property, part of her apparel which she had on her person, against the form of the statute, and against the king’s peace, &c.

The opening of the trial was full of hyperbole. The Monster had captured the jaded imaginations of Londoners who had feigned terror at being set upon by this madman. Here’s the opening comments from the trial (source: Old Bailey online):

It is an unpleasant task to call your minds to a scene so new in the annals of mankind; a scene so unaccountable: a scene so unnatural to the honour of human nature, that it could not have been believed ever to have existed, unless it had been demonstrated by that proof which the senses cannot resist: but while we are trying the prisoner at the bar, for this unnatural, unaccountable, and until now, unknown offence, we should not forget that he is our fellow being, and give him an attentive hearing.

The attacks, the prosecution railed, had been against women who were “the most beautiful! the most innocent! the most lovely!” But what puzzled the court was that William didn’t seem to be after their money or any riches.

His attack on Ann Porter had occurred as she returned from a ball in St James’s, Westminster. Unfortunately for Williams, having torn at her clothes, he then paused to stare at her. As a result, his face was etched on her mind. A little later, she spotted Williams in St James’s Park and a male friend chased him to his dwellings. From there he was arrested and put on trial.

Only some historians cast doubt on whether Williams was the London Monster or indeed if such a person even existed. Was it an example of a kind of urban hysteria? Was Ann Porter leaping on the bandwagon of other reported attacks? Or was Williams just mistakenly identified?

Whatever the truth – he got six years in prison.

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.