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.
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    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.

 

 

 

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!

London Monster

The 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.