Whipping Tom: He Makes Your Butt Cry Spanko

The legend of Whipping Tom, the so-called ‘enemy of Milk-wenches Bums’, seems to date from the 1670s. It involves women of all ages, shapes and distinctions having their buttocks smacked at random by a strange man dressed in black, occasionally accompanied by the victorious cry of ‘Spanko!’

One version of the story is found in a broadside/news-sheet published in London in 1681, titled ‘Whipping tom brought to light and exposed to view, in an account of several late adventures of the pretended whipping spirit. Giving a full relation of several maids, widows and wives etc that have been by him used in a most barbarous and shameful manner in and about the City of London, within six weeks last past, as also an account of the various reports that are spread abroad concerning him.

It’s such an entertaining read (apart from the last paragraph) that it’s worth including in full so you don’t have to go and dig it out at the British Library:

There having of late been much Discourse in this City, in relation to Whipping Tom, (a Name so much dreaded by the Female Sex) his being abroad again, of whose late Exploits (for the better satisfaction of such as are Inquisitive, and desirous to be informed) and for the benefit of such Husbands as are troubled with gadding Wives, we shall give this following Account of the places that he usually frequents and haunts: Know then, that according to common Fame, he is of the Generation of that Whipping Tom, that about Nine years since proved such an enemy to the Milk-wenches Bums, and often times occasioned the Country Dames to hire a Guard for the security of their Posteriors; whose name so overawed Joan and Ciss that they durst not stir out after Candlelight to meet their Sweet-hearts, for fear of having an Alarum beaten upon their Tobies, and that he being tired with Country Exercise, and not well brooking to take up his Lodgings in Woods and Barnes, nor to turn up any longer, Tales draged at least a quarter of a yard deep, he has thought it expedient to Exercise his Tyranny over the Backsides of the cleanly, tite City Ladies, and for some weeks past, has lurked about in Alleys and Courts in Fleet-street, Chancery-lane, Shooe-lane, Fetter-lane, the Strand, Holbourn, and other places, and at unawares seazes upon such as he can conveniently light on, and turning them up as nimble as an Eeel, makes their Butt ends cry Spanko; and then (according to the Report of those who have felt the weight of his Paws) vanished; for you must know, that having left the Country, he has not the advantage of getting Rods, and therefore is obliged to use his hands instead thereof; His first Adventure, as near as we can learn, was on a Servant Maid in New Street, who being sent out to look her Master, as she was turning a Corner, perceived a Tall black Man standing up against the wall, as if he had been making water, but she had not passed far, but with great speed and violence seized her, and in a trice, laying her cross his knee, took up her Linnen, and lay’d so hard upon her Backside, as made her cry out most piteously for help, the which he no sooner perceiving to approach (as she declares) but he vanished; and although diligent search was made, no person could be found. Another likewise tasted of the same sawce a little after in VVine-Office Court in Fleet-street.

Another time the Woman that cries hot Gray Pease about the Streets, coming up Ram Alley in Fleet-street, whilst she was bawling out her Trade, perceived a long black thing standing bolt upright a little distance from her, but not Dreaming of what after happened, came on, but was no sooner within reach, but a cold hand was lay’d upon her, and up flew her heels, and down fell the Pease Tub, when (as she has farther related) her fences was so charmed, that she lost all power of Resistance, and left him to Tyranize over her Posteriors at Pleasure, the which when he had done, he left her to scrape up her Ware as well as she could, for the use of such longing Ladies as are affected with such Diet.

A Gentlewoman some few Nights past, coming through Flowerdeluce Court, near Fetter-lane, was set upon in the like manner by a person in Black, which (as she affirmed) had Armour on to prevent any private stab with Sizers or Penknife, as is supposed; but e’re he could accomplish his designe, the Watch hearing her Shriek out, came to her assistance, and one of the Watchmen (as it is credibly reported) laid hold of him, but could not secure him, he either being too strong (or a Spirit as some will have him) might flip through his fingers. At another time its reported, a Gentlewoman coming through Fetter-Lane, (at the end which comes into Holbourn) she was set upon, and abused as the Gray Pease Woman was, and there left for some time in a Sound.

And farther its said, that he like Death, spares neither old nor young; for some Nights since, scouting about Whetstones Park, met with an old piece of Mortality, or Hegler in Haman Flesh, who taking him to be a Well timber’d Gentleman, would needs be inviting him to her House, but she had scarce made him a Curtesie e’re he turn’d up the unweildy Mass of Kitchen-stuff, and by his hard claps made her Sing to the TUne of Lacrime; Another time as we are informed, he meeting with a demure rack or Miss of the Town, (who came to accost him) he so swinged her Tail, that tis thought, she will not be capable of her Trade for some considerable time. These and many other Pranks (as we are credibly Informed) has been his late Exercise, to the great Terror of the Female Sex, insomuch that a great number dare not stir abroad after the Shops are shut up. And father it is reported of him, that altho great wait has been laid to apprehend him by Men attired in Womens habit, yet he is so Cunning, that he will not venture upon them, but passes them by, which is one main reason that induces the Lasses to believe he is a Spirit; and because they will be sure to know whether he is so or not, a great many when their Masters and Mistresses sends them on Errands late, go Armed with Penknives, sharp Bodkins, Sizzars, and the like, resolving if they meet with him to turn the Comedy into a Tragedy (if he should prove MOrtal) for a fence against which, it is reported, as we have before recited, he goes in Armour, resolving to continue at utter Enmity with the Female Sex.

Besides these Outrages, we hear that about three weeks since, he met with a Gentlewoman great with Child, who lived in Fleet-street, and so affrighted her with the suddain surprise, that notwithstanding he was prevented his usual designe, yet through the fright (as most believe) she Miscarried, and about a week after Died in Child-Bed.

This story suggests there was an earlier ‘Whipping Tom’ in around 1672. Forty years later another ‘Whipping Tom’ emerged, real name Thomas Wallis, after a campaign of buttock-punishment across east London. At his trial, Wallis is said to have declared that ‘unless woman be whipped out of their wicked pride and baseness, mankind will become women’s slaves.’ According to one report his punishment was to be whipped weekly by two women in Bridewell prison for 12 months before being forced to ‘run the gauntlet’ between 200 maids, wives and widows in Cheapside.

For more on Whipping Tom (who has his own Wikipedia page) see the long-ago blog by Lucy Inglis at georgianlondon.com.

It’s just like the 1880s…

Capitalism is in crisis. Riots sweep through London and protestors occupy famous public spaces. An Old Etonian Prime Minster struggles to steer the country through an economic depression while vast sums are spent for the Jubilee celebrations of an elderly queen. There are concerns about crime and rising immigration. The Metropolitan Police is under pressure and morale is low. Talk of revolution is in the air.

We could be talking about recent history – but this description also applies to the late 19th century. It was a time when Britain effectively ruled the globe, economically, politically and culturally. At its heart was London, the symbolic centre of the world.

The Victorians tackled the problems of their society by moving towards what was then dismissed as ‘state socialism’ – government intervention to help the poorest and most vulnerable. Trade Unionism was on the rise and in 1900 the Labour Party was formed. And in 1906 the Liberal Government brought in health insurance and the old age pension.

Now we seem to be going into reverse, cutting benefits and opening up the health service to competition in an attempt to save money. So should we dismantle the expensive welfare state built up over the last hundred years? And if so, are we in danger of returning to the hideous inequalities of the Victorian era? Can we learn anything from the crisis of the 1880s?

London then and now – Fleet Street from David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page


Then: The ‘Great Depression’ began in 1873 with a European stock market panic and allowed the US to overtake Britain as the world’s leading industrial power by the 1880s. Although historians now suggest it ended in 1879, to many at the time the country appeared to stagnate for more than 20 years until 1896. Britain’s overall share of world trade fell from about 33% in 1870 to 17% in 1913.

Now: This financial crisis began in 2007 and shows no sign of letting up in the near future. Our banks had to be bailed out by the government, the stock market plunged and the government debt now stands at more than £1 trillion – 85 per cent of GDP. And now people are talking about a ‘triple dip recession’.


Then: In the 1880s there was a huge public outcry about the state of the poor in Britain and particularly in the slums of London. The East End of the capital was so notorious that the upper classes would go ‘slumming’ to see bare-footed children running about the dirty streets. In 1884 one company even offered guided ‘slumming tours’ of the area. Four years later the East End was again the focus as Jack the Ripper murdered a series of prostitutes in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. The researcher Charles Booth calculated that around 30 per cent of Londoners were living below the poverty line.

Now: Critics of the government claim the period of ‘austerity’, involving cuts to budgets and benefits combined with stagnant wages and rising food prices, threaten to plunge more people into poverty. In 2008/9 it was calculated that around 22 per cent of the population were living in poverty (incomes at under 60 per cent of the median). However, unemployment figures continue to fall – suggesting more and more people are finding work, even if it is only part-time.



The 1887 Bloody Sunday riot in Trafalgar Square and rioters in Chalk Farm in 2011 (from hughepaul Flickr)

Then: The ‘West End Riots’ of 8 February 1886 saw a crowd of 5,000 unemployed and casual labourers go on a window-smashing rampage through the West End after a demonstration by socialist groups in Trafalgar Square. It caused such a scandal that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had to resign. The unemployed and members of radical, socialist and Irish National organisations continued to gather in Trafalgar Square until in November 1887 the new Commissioner Sir Charles Warren banned public meetings there. The result was a clash between protestors and the police on 13 November, now remembered as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and 400 soldiers had to be called up to restore order.

Now: In 2010 students protested across the country after the coalition government proposed raising the cap on tuition fees to £9,000. On 10 November demonstrators clashed with police and smashed their way into Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank. Further vandalism took place in Whitehall and the West End on 24 and 30 November, and one protestor spray-painted Nelson’s column with the word ‘Revolution.’ A year later on 6 August 2011 the London riots broke after Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham, north London, and spread to other cities including Manchester and Birmingham. Buildings were set on fire, shops were looted and rioters clashed with police in the streets.


Then: The homeless, unemployed and poor casual workers staged a virtual occupation of Trafalgar Square throughout 1886 and 1887 and the landmark became a focus for socialist agitators. One parade of the Socialist Democratic Federation on February 27, 1887, ended in a meeting in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. Thousands of demonstrators filled the cathedral and the surrounding areas with banners carrying slogans like ‘the wages of sin is death but the wages of the worker are slow starvation.’ Newspapers and magazines also took notice of the large number of Homeless people occupying open spaces like St James’ Park (see below).


Homeless people at midday in St James’ Park in 1887, from the Graphic newspaper.

Now: The Occupy movement spread to London in October 2011 when protestors set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. They took up the ‘We are the 99 per cent’ slogan in reference to power, influence and wealth of the richest 1 per cent of the population. The group also staged protests at stores owned by major companies like Vodafone who are said to avoid paying their fair share of tax.

The Occupy protest at St Paul’s in 2011/12


Then: In the 1880s the main threat to British jobs, particularly in London, was believed to be posed by Jews fleeing from persecution in Russia. It was claimed that the unchecked influx of Jewish immigrants was forcing down wages and pushing out English workers. The Jews were also accused of setting up sweatshops, gambling dens, and other criminal enterprises. Arnold White, a campaigner and journalist, wrote that ‘England will cease to be England if our rulers do not show that they love the English more than the frugal, unlovable foreigner.’ Immigration controls were introduced for the first time with the Aliens Act of 1905.

Now: The 2011 Census has revealed that Polish is now England’s second language with 546,000 speakers in England and Wales. Fears of unchecked immigration, particularly from Eastern European countries, may explain the increase in support for the right-wing political party UKIP, who oppose the ending of controls on Romania and Bulgaria in January 2014.

The Queen’s Jubilee

Then: The first British monarch to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee was Queen Victoria in 1897. Her Golden Jubilee in 1887 came just a few months before the Bloody Sunday riots and at a time of growing class conflict.

Now: 2012 was a time of celebration with both the Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. In June the Queen celebrated by overseeing a pageant on the Thames featuring hundreds of boats from around the world. The four-day extravaganza ended with a million people turning out to see the royal procession to Buckingham Palace. But the contrast between rich and poor was made clear by headlines such as ‘Queen’s Jubilee costs £3bn while the poorest starve’.

An Old Etonian Prime Minister

David Cameron and Robert Cecil

David Cameron and Robert Cecil

Then: Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, otherwise known as the Marquess of Salisbury, was the first Prime Minister of the 20th Century and was in power for most of the period between 1885 and 1902. He was a child of privilege – at five years old he was bounced on the knee of the Duke of Wellington and at 11 he was sent to Eton, where he suffered four years of merciless bullying before being taken out to be schooled at home. Oxford University was the obvious next step and at 23 he was elected to Parliament unopposed for the ‘pocket borough’ of Stamford. Salisbury was a natural Tory and an advocate of the free market, but by the 1880s he also supported gradual reform such as improvements in housing for the poorest in society – leading to newspapers suggesting he was in favour of ‘state socialism’.

Now: David Cameron gets a lot of flack for being an Old Etonian and member of the notorious Bullingdon Club – particularly after George Osborne’s famous ‘We’re all in this together’ speech. His background opens him up to criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary member of the public. It doesn’t help that he is descended from King William IV through his paternal grandmother, and his mother is the daughter of a Baronet. Despite this, Cameron attempts to appeal to a wide section of the public and describes himself as a ‘liberal conservative’ and a ‘modern compassionate conservative’ – in 2006 he tried to soften his image with his ‘hug a hoodie’ speech.

Newspaper scandals:

Then: The ‘dead tree press’ was booming in the 1880s as newspapers attracted growing numbers of readers with tales of Jack the Ripper and other sensational murders. There were few tabloids in those days apart from the Pall Mall Gazette but that does not mean there was any lack of scandal. In 1885 the editor of the Gazette, W.T.Stead – perhaps the first ‘tabloid hack’ – published an investigation into the ‘white slave trade’, the sale of young English girls into prostitution across the world. Stead arranged to buy a 13 year-old girl from her alcoholic mother and had her drugged and taken to a brothel where he would pose as a prospective client. The scandalous story prompted the Government to pass a law raising the age of consent from 13 to 16. It also saw Stead jailed for three months for kidnapping and sexual assault. Then in 1887 The Times newspaper published a letter purporting to show a link between the murder of the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Irish MP Charles Parnell. After an exhaustive 128-day government inquiry, it emerged the letter was a forgery and the Times was forced to pay £5,000 in damages and an estimated £200,000 in costs.

Now: The last few years have seen journalism come under fire for its harassment of celebrities and cosy links to the police and politicians. The phone hacking allegations first came to light in 2006 and five years later brought down the News of the World. Soon the foulest practices of the whole tabloid press were being aired on live TV at the Leveson Inquiry. And all this as newspapers slowly withered and died under the relentless pressure of instant online media.


Then: In the 1880s Victorians were astounded by the new ‘electric light’ being used in some parts of London, Edison’s phonograph recordings of speech and music, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The Victorian version of the internet was the telegraph, capable of sending messages quickly over long distances by copper cable. This was astounding to those who were used to waiting days, weeks and months to communicate with the rest of the world. But the real breakthrough didn’t arrive until wireless transmission was developed in the first years of 20th century, paving the way for radio and TV.

Now: The last twenty years have seen the emergence of something truly revolutionary – the internet. We now have phones that can take pictures, record video and sound, play music and download vast amounts of information at the click of a button or the swipe of a finger. Who can predict what life will be like in another 125 years?

Britain Overseas:

Then: The Second Anglo Afghan War ended in 1880 after 40,000 troops were sent to occupy Afghanistan and install Britain’s choose of ruler. Five years later General Charles Gordon was killed defending the city of Khartoum in Sudan (then a British protectorate) from Islamic Mahdi rebels. The fall of Khartoum was one of the reasons William Gladstone ‘s Liberal government collapsed to make way for Salisbury’s Tories. During the 1880s and 1890s Britain also fought in Burma, Tibet, Zanzibar, China (the Boxer Rebellion) and South Africa (the Boer War). At the time the British Empire was the envy of the world – although cracks were starting to appear.

Now: There are still 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan although there are plans to pull out by the end of 2014. Our armed forces are also still providing ‘military support’ in Iraq after combat operations ceased in 2011. Meanwhile the dispute over the Falksland Islands with Argentina continues.

Other tenuous comparisons (suggestions welcome):

The Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889 involved a homosexual brothel rumoured to be visited by Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Victoria and second in line to the throne. Today’s equivalent Prince William appears content with his marriage – but in August 2012 Prince Harry was caught naked on camera during a trip to Las Vegas...

Mary Mudge: Cross-dressing in the 19th Century

The history of cross-dressing is full of fascinating personalities: Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 because she persisted in wearing pants; Mary Read was a notorious 18th Century female pirate; Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a male soldier to fight in the trenches of World War One.

Others like the music hall star Vesta Tilley openly impersonated men as part of a successful theatre act.

Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, ‘in and out of drag’, photos from Wikipedia

Many of Shakespeare’s plays also feature female characters dressing up as men, although the actors playing them in his day were young men. More recently the TV comedy Little Britain featured two men wandering around town in female dress while insisting: ‘I’m a lady.’

Mary Mudge, however, never sought the limelight. Her ‘secret’ only emerged after her death, aged 85, in the market town of Tavistock, Devon, the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake.

Reynold’s Newspaper reported on March 31, 1889:


There has just died in Tavistock Workhouse an old person eighty five years of age, who was known to the authorities as Mary Mudge, and until some years ago kept a small dairy in that town. On the body being prepared for burial, it was discovered to be that of a man, although previously no suspicion had been entertained as to the sex of Miss Mudge, as deceased had long been called, and had all outward appearance of a woman. No cause has been assigned for the disguise.

Further details were given in The Bury and Norwich Post:

Not even the oldest inhabitant had any recollection of Mary’s childhood and there is no registration to be found. The earliest recollection of her in the village is a full grown young woman, when she was then noticeable for her particularly large size. ‘That girl ought to have been a boy’ seems to have ben a common saying at the time. ‘She seemed a very quiet retiring sort,’ said the old villager. ‘We never suspected anything. I was never so struck in my life as when I heard of it after her death.’ Nobody seemed to have known much about Mary. She had lived by herself since her sister’s death, shut up in her lonely house. The two or three cows supplied her bodily needs, and the village doctor does not remember ever giving her medicine; but sickness entered her house four years ago and found Mary Mudge alone in her lonely dwelling. She was recommended to the union infirmary where she entered in July 1885, and has since remained until her death.

It seems unlikely the newspapers (or the news agency supplying the story) would make it all up. And census records do show a Mary Mudge of the right age living as a dairy farmer in Milton Abbot, six miles from Tavistock, between 1851 and 1881.

In 1851 she was listed, age 48, at the Old House in Milton Abbot, an unmarried farm labourer, along with a 59 year-old lodger called Elizabeth Condon (or possibly Langdon).

Ten years later Mary, now said to be a 56 year-old farmer of nine acres, was still living there with  Elizabeth and three other boarders.

In 1871 Mary Mudge, 66, unmarried, occupation ‘formerly dairymaid’, was staying alone at Cottage No. 3 on the Duke of Bedford’s estate. Her birthplace was said to be Lamerton in Devon.

Finally in 1881 she was living at ‘Green, Milton Abbot’, aged 77, with Richard Northcott, a 31 year-old gardener, his wife and two daughters. Mary was described as an ‘aunt.’

Further confirmation is provided by the registered death of a Mary Mudge, aged 85, in the Tavistock district, between April and June 1889.

The rest of her life remains unknown. Which is perhaps what Mary Mudge would have wanted.

Sarah Brown, 19th Century Supermodel

Moulin Rouge poster from 1891 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Four years after the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris in 1889, it hosted an event which was so scandalous that four of the performers were prosecuted for outraging public decency.

The Bal des Quat’z-Arts featured a procession of floats, banners and models dressed as famous historical characters from Ancient Rome and Greece. The famous Cancan dancer La Gouloue (‘The Glutton’) was there in the guise of an ‘Indienne’.

But the highlight of the show was undoubtedly the artist’s model Sarah Brown as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, held aloft by men clad only in white loincloths.

The red-haired model Sarah Brown, purportedly in the Bal des Quat’z-Arts costume

Her performance has since been described as ‘the world’s first striptease’ although descriptions of her costume vary wildly – some say she was completely naked while others describe a black velour g-string, stockings and a black shirt. Georges Montogueil, writing in Paris Dansant (1898), says:

The parade covers a long space. Here is part of the triumphal procession of Cleopatra. On a palanquin, she appears, dressed in a few rows of pearls and gold nets, the world-conquering beauty, it is the model Rochegrosse painted in the Death of Sardanapalus, the stunning redhead Sarah Brown. The people cheer. She welcomes the delirium with Oriental nonchalance.

When Sarah Brown was hauled before the court, she said she was only wearing the what she had posed in for the artist Georges Rochegrosse:

‘I had on a belt, large necklaces and sequins.’
‘Did you have on tights?’
‘No, why would I? I was dressed.’
‘Did you walk about the ball with your bust naked?’
‘I only appeared in the procession; during the entire ball I was in a loge.’
‘Who gave you the idea for that costume?’
‘Nobody, I am a model. I’m the one who posed for Rochegrosse’s Cleopatra. I naturally chose that costume.’

Sarah Brown was found guilty and fined 100 Francs or face six months in prison.

A few hours later as many as 2,000 of her student fans marched through Paris in protest wearing a symbolic fig leaf on their hats. The demonstration began peacefully but ended with street battles with the police and four days of riots.

Sarah, still only 24 years old, was celebrated as ‘one of the most notorious women in Paris’. The English painter William Rothenstein later wrote: ‘Sarah was fair, and her figure, small bosomed, had the creamy unity of a Titian’, while the author W.C. Morrow recalled: ‘She was the mistress of one great painter after another, and she lived and reigned like a queen. Impulsive, headstrong, passionate, she would do the most reckless things. But no one could resist Sarah.’

Her exploits were legendary: she asked for an audience with the poet Paul Verlaine only to faint in shock at the sight of his ‘terrifying’ face; she fell in love with a black model called Bamboulo, who claimed he could eat a whole rabbit alive, fur, bones and all; she liked to flounce out of the studio before the artist had finished his masterpiece; she changed her costumes at will and deliberately knocked down the painters’ easels for kicks; she was the model for Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Lady Godiva and Clemence Isaure.

Clemence Isaure by Lefebvre

Lady Godiva by Lefebvre (1890)

But the Bal des Quat’z-Arts was to be the high point of her career and it is said she lost her looks and lovers as her wild life took its toll. Three years later on 12 February 1896 the Daily News in London reported her death from consumption.

Sarah Brown was once before the courts and everybody wondered at the reputation she won in the studios for in a bonnet and ladylike clothing she looked commonplace and indeed vulgar. Models generally are well-behaved girls and many live like anchorites for fear of spoiling their plastic beauty and losing the power to exact high fees. But Sarah Brown lived the life of a bacchante.


Links / Sources:

Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model (2001), p243

Lela Felter-Kerley, The Art of Posing Nude: Models, Moralists and the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts, French Historical Studies, volume 33, number 1, p69-98. Sarah Brown’s performance is said to mark a ‘shift in sexual attitudes’.

Quotations from Paris Dansant (apologies for my poor French translation) and Rothenstein’s Men and Memories. Robert Henri is quoted in His Life and Art as saying ‘Paris has two Sarahs; one is Sarah Bernhardt, the other is Sarah Brown, the model, who is one of the most notorious women in Paris.’

For more on La Goulue (and some very racy pictures of her), see The Burns Archive blog

There is another photograph, said to be of Sarah Brown, included in the book ‘Victorian Life in Photographs’. The caption describes her as a music hall dancer and says she was jailed for indecency. It seems almost certain that this is not the Sarah Brown, and most likely is someone else posing in a similar costume for her own pleasure. See my blog for The Victorianist on Sarah Brown in August 2012.

Professor Baldwin, the Victorian Daredevil

In the summer of 1888 Londoners flocked in their thousands to marvel at the feats of a dashing American daredevil calling himself Professor Baldwin.

The adverts placed in the Times promised it would be ‘the greatest scientific sensation of the age’ but only hinted at what was planned:

Professor Baldwin has succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

Baldwin’s act was in fact the Victorian equivalent of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive earlier this week, albeit only from a few thousand feet rather than 120,000ft.

Like Baumgartner, he ascended in a balloon before jumping off and parachuting down to safety. This being 1888, the modern parachute was still in its infancy, and illustrations from the Illustrated London News reveal how ‘amateur’ the stunt was compared to Baumgartner’s.

Professor Baldwin

First the balloon is filled with hydrogen gas, while kept weighted to the ground

Professor Baldwin

The parachute is fixed to the side of the balloon

Professor Baldwin

Professor Baldwin kisses his wife goodbye. I bet that moustache tickles.

Professor Baldwin

The moment before Professor Baldwin is lifted up into the air by the balloon. Note how he is sitting on a trapeze, holding the balloon with one hand and the cords of the parachute in the other.

Professor Baldwin leaps

Baldwin (inset) leaps from the balloon holding on to the parachute. The force of his fall snaps the tie holding the parachute to the balloon.

Professor Baldwin floats down to earth

The parachute fills with air and Professor Baldwin floats down to the ground

Baldwin, who had perfected his act in America before travelling to England, made his first jump at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, July 28, 1888. As The Times reported:

The aeronaut, who went up alone, and was dressed in tights, held on by the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon and the umbrella hanging by his side. The balloon speedily attained a great height and then the aeronaut leaped or dropped away from it. A moment afterwards he was seen at some distance from the balloon high up in the air beyond the racecourse of the Palace, gracefully, steadily, and quickly descending with his umbrella opened out above him like a monster mushroom.

After landing Baldwin returned to the Palace to be ‘enthusiastically cheered by the thousands of spectators in the Palace grounds and the adjoining fields.’ Although the Times reporter doubted whether Baldwin reached the height of 1,000ft being claimed, he noted that ‘it was certainly one of the most extraordinary and successful sensational feats of modern times.’

Thomas Scott Baldwin is now remembered as ‘The Father of the Modern Parachute’ (previous versions having ribs like umbrellas) and its worth was proved 23 years later when Grant Morton made the first successful jump from an aeroplane in California in 1911.

One-hundred-and-one years later Felix Baumgartner did this:

Half Way Round the World in 30 Days

In 2012 it takes just under a day to travel from Australia to the UK thanks to long haul flights, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the journey was much more of an adventure in itself. Passengers must have felt a little like the fictional character Phileas Fogg as they boarded the steam-powered ships that would carry them half way round the world, often in conditions that would reacquaint even the hardiest seaman with his breakfast.

One of these vessels was the Ormuz, forged in the Glasgow shipyards in 1886 and capable of reaching London from Sydney in just 30 days (although it usually took six weeks with passengers). Its owners, the Orient Line, were so proud of it that they mounted an inscription above the entrance to the first class saloon: ‘Were the world a ring of gold, Ormuz would be its diamond.’

Photo of the RMS Ormuz

On November 21, 1887, it was described by The Melbourne Daily Telegraph as ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’ on the basis that it had ‘placed the metropolis of the world within twenty-seven days six hours of its antipodes.’

Nearly everybody who reads what is written here will remember the days – not a long time ago at all – when merchants, everybody, stopped on another in the street  – “Fine passage, sixty days from London. Wonderful ship the Thermopylae.” But then they had been used to seventy, eighty, and ninety days, a whole three months of waiting for their English letters.’

So what was it like to travel 10,000 miles on this smoke-belching monster of the seas? One passenger, a Mrs Eliza Cripps, kept a diary of her voyage on board the Ormuz from Sydney to Plymouth in 1888. It was surprisingly eventful, involving injury and death, shipping accidents, seasickness, and extreme weather conditions.

The Ormuz left Sydney on April 10th, stopping off at Melbourne on the 13th, Adelaide on the 15th and Albany on the 19th before heading across the Indian Ocean towards Aden and the Red Sea.

Friday 20th April. Another fine day, ship going along splendid. Making 304 miles this afternoon, she commenced to roll very much, one lady passenger was hurt with the vessel giving a lurch.

Four days later, as they headed north towards the equator, Mrs Cripps noted that it was so hot and stuffy in her cabin ‘that I feel as bad as if I was in a bath, and come out wet through.’

One solution to the hot weather was to sleep on the promenade deck, which was usually ‘nice and cool’, particularly at night.

The Promenade deck of the Ormuz

But even the hot weather doesn’t appear to have put people off enjoying themselves.

Wednesday 25th April. We passed a terribly hot night, passengers lying about in all directions. Ship made 344 miles today. Singing and music every day.

Two days later the mood on board changed dramatically.

This morning there is quite a gloom laid over the ship. A gentleman by the name of Mr Lisbet broke a blood vessel and died in about half an hour after, poor fellow. Only the other night he was playing the violin while his sister played the piano. He was buried at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A very solemn projection there has been 3 or 4 accidents on board.

One feature of the journey were religious services every Sunday given by the Captain in the first class saloon. There were also services in the afternoon and evening on the deck – although on 29th April the Rev Mr Reblard was interrupted by ‘a sudden squall which sent everything flying.’

The following day the weather decided to interrupt a more secular activity.

We have 2 violins and harps playing on the second saloon deck 3 times a day. Tonight while dancing was going on, it rained so suddenly it was just like a sheet of water, it send the people in all directions down below, it’s a regular piece of fun to see them.

Other activities included fancy dress balls and lectures on astronomy. Some, like Mrs Cripps, found pleasure in simply getting up early to watch the sun rise.

It is one of the beautifulest sights I ever saw… the sun reflects on the water which makes it look like land, the clouds rise up and seem to stand like castles and trees – all looks like a green valley.

The ship arrived at Aden on 5th May, to be greeted by naked Arab boys shouting at the passengers ‘throw down a shilling, you got big ship, you got plenty money.’ Some of the passengers obliged, just to see the boys dive into the water ‘like so many rats after a bait.’

At this point the ship took on passengers rescued from another steamer which had sunk after a collision with a P&O ship called the ‘Garonne.’ Two people drowned in the accident.

Then it was off towards Suez and the canal (opened in 1869) which would take them to the Mediterranean. There was plenty of opportunity for sightseeing from the deck, with ducks, camels, donkeys, well-dressed Egyptians and dozens of other steamers making the same journey in the opposite direction.

After leaving Suez and passing Crete the Ormuz stopped off at Naples on May 14th and Gibraltar three days later before beginning the final leg to Plymouth.

Friday 18th May. This morning is what most of the passengers called rough. A great number are absent from the tables which shows they are sick. Now we will be getting into the Atlantic Ocean which makes the ship roll a little.

Mrs Cripps spent her last evening on the ship at a religious service in the second class saloon, where there was ‘a subscription on behalf of three motherless children in the third class.’

The Second Class Saloon

The Second Class Saloon

The contrast between second class (tickets £30 to £40) and first class (£70) is made clear by the opulent appearance of the first class saloon and drawing room. Third class cost between £15 and £18 (according to the National Archives currency calculator, that roughly equates to £1,000.)

Dining in First Class on the Ormuz

The Drawing Room and Library

The Drawing Room and Library

The cheapest way of travelling on the Ormuz was as a stowaway, who once discovered were usually put to work as a member of the crew. One such stowaway was James McKill, a 22 year-old chemist’s son making his way back home to Hamilton in Scotland in August 1888.

For the appropriately named McKill, the drama really began when he disembarked at Tilbury Docks and travelled to St Pancras station to catch a train to Glasgow with a group of fellow passengers, including a 39 year-old engineer called John King.

Mr King was found dead by the side of the track in Haverstock Hill (Belsize) Tunnel the following morning and it was at first thought he had fallen from the carriage by accident. But a few days later two passengers told police that McKill had confessed to pushing him out the door during a fight. He was charged with murder and went on trial at the Old Bailey the following month. McKill was acquitted by the jury after explaining he was drunk when he made the supposed confession and that Mr King probably fell from the train trying to retrieve a bottle of whisky from another carriage.

Excepts from the diary of Eliza Cripps, and photo of the RMS Ormuz, courtesy of David Cripps. The other pictures are courtesy of Chris Tyrer, who has a fine collection of ship postcards on his website.

The story of John King is told in the recently-published book 1888 London Murders in the Year of the Ripper.

Predicting the Ripper: Howard J. Goldsmid goes undercover in the East End

The Nemesis of Neglect, from Punch magazine at the time of the Ripper Murders in 1888.

Two years before Jack the Ripper made his name in the notorious East End of London, a 19 year-old journalist travelled to the capital from Birmingham. Disguised as a tramp, Howard Joseph Goldsmid visited the same kind of ‘common lodging houses’ that the murder victims called home in the days before their deaths.

What he found there shocked him so much that he issued a startling warning:

Should we elect to go on in the old rut, strong in the consciousness and confidence of our own wealth and power… what might once, not long since, have been Reform, has grown and swelled and gathered force and volume until the torrent can no longer be stemmed, and we are confronted by REVOLUTION.

This seems melodramatic now, but when he wrote those lines in 1886 there was some justification for the fear that the country was slipping into anarchy. In February of that year rioters rampaged through the West End following a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, and as a result the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was forced to resign.

Goldsmid believed most of the rioters had come from ‘the low lodging houses’ which were found throughout London, but particularly in the East End. He had already read about the Whitechapel and Spitalfields in sensational books like ‘How the Poor Live’ and ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’, but, like any true journalist, wanted to see them for himself.

He decided the best way to do this was to go undercover, in the tradition begun by James Greenwood twenty years earlier. He smeared mud over his face, put on a dirty shirt, broken boots and a deerstalker hat, slipped a short clay pipe between his teeth and took on the mannerisms of ‘a returned convict who has allowed his hair to grow.’ He then wilfully endured the terror of spending the night at a series of ‘doss houses’, beginning with ‘The Beehive’ in Brick Lane and ending in Whitechapel Chambers in Old Montague Street.

Goldsmid’s experiences were set down in the book Dottings of a Dosser, published in October 1886. His warnings of a possible revolution were accompanied by a prediction that in hindsight seems particularly chilling. For he wrote that should public sympathy return to sleep,

its slumbers will probably last until the curtain which shrouds the only partially depicted scenes of London wretchedness be lifted with a ruder hand, and the “bitter cry” sound more bitter and perhaps more menacing.

Two years later the ‘ruder hand’ of Jack the Ripper shocked the whole country.

As for Howard Goldsmid, his journalistic career sadly came to an end in 1892 when his father committed suicide and he was forced to take over the family jewellery business. Then on August 7, 1895, Howard followed his father’s footsteps by poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. He was only 28 years old.


Dottings of a Dosser can be read online (for free) on Lee Jackson’s excellent Victorian London website.

A selection of Howard Goldsmid’s journalism from 1887 can be found in the Kindle e-book ‘A Midnight Prowl Through Victorian London‘ (it also contains a short biography).

Anyone interested in the Ripper victims will no doubt already know about the Casebook website.

Whatever Happened to the Age Of Leisure?

Villemard Predictions for the Year 2000

Age of Leisure: In 1910 Villemard imagined life in 2000. Note how it involves a lot of sitting down. Presumably all the bricklayers are off reading books about Plato and Aristotle.

At the beginning of the last Great Depression, in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes offered us hope. In the future the wonders of technology would deliver us from our lives of toil and bring forth an Age of Leisure.

For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.*

It would be a world where ‘the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance’, a world of three-hour days and 15-hour weeks.

The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach, 1536. Note the lack of work going on.

This dream of a return to the Garden of Eden (ah, if only God had tasked us with doing some weeding instead of leaving us to temptation), was popular in the booming 1950s. It was thought that atomic power and electronic gadgets would remove the need for human labour almost completely – and therefore that we’d all be left hanging around wondering what to do with ourselves.

A worried Charles Darwin (not that one, but his grandson Sir Charles Galton Darwin) wrote an article about the forthcoming Age of Leisure for the New Scientist in 1956.

Take it that there are fifty hours a week of possible working time. The technologists, working for fifty hours a week, will be making inventions so the rest of the world need only work twenty-five hours a week. The more leisured members of the community will have to play games for the other twenty-five hours so they may be kept out of mischief.

Is the majority of mankind really able to face the choice of leisure enjoyments, or will it not be necessary to provide adults with something like the compulsory games of the schoolboy?

More positively, Ralph Blumenfeld, the editor of the Daily Express, believed in 1933 that ‘as the rush of life slows down, people will have time to read their newspapers properly.’

Now fast track to the present day, and this Age of Leisure sounds like a naive socialist utopia.** Sure, most of us don’t have to do back-breaking work in the fields, down the pits and up chimneys, but I’d guess a majority of the population would laugh at the idea they had any more free time than their grandparents.

*John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

**Recently five ‘rising Conservative MPs’ suggested that British people work too few hours, have too long a lie-in and retire too early.

The Hibernian Canibal

Hogarth’s Evening, painted in 1736, shows Sadler’s Wells in the background.

One of the most notorious stories about Sadler’s Wells Theatre involves the so-called ‘Hibernian Canibal’ who performed there in 1699. His act was eating a whole Cockerel – feathers, bones, internal organs, and all. The audience, understandably, began chain-vomiting at the sight. But is it actually true?

The main source is the writer Ned Ward’s magazine Weekly Comedy from May 1699. The report is set out as a short drama involving several characters including ‘Snarl, a Disbanded Captain’, ‘All-craft, a Turncoat’, ‘Prim, a Beau’, and ‘Whim, a Projector.’

After a short discussion about ‘writing and fighting’, it begins:

Snarl: What News do you hear abroad? You, Mr Whim, I know are never without a Budget full.

Whim: There’s none stirring, that I know on, in relation to the State. But, I believe, i can give you such a piece of news from Sadler’s Wells, of an Exploit perform’d there, by a Hibernian Canibal, that will operate as well upon a foul Stomach, as a Gallon of Cardus Posset-drink. But I won’t venture to tell it you, unless you assure me first of your Strength of Constitution, that no gentle Purgative will work with you; for otherways, I know not but I may put you into the Condition of the Spendthrift’s Ale-Firkin, Tap you at both ends, that you may run out the sooner.

Snarl: Prithee, Mr Whim, let’s hear what News this is that carries these Physical Virtues along with it; as for my part, there’s no danger of bringing up my Dinner, if you story be never so Beastly; for this day I have kept as a Fast, in Memorandum of the Parliaments kindness to us for the Hazards and Fatigues we’ve run thro’, in the Service of an Ingrateful Nation […] But pray, Mr Whim, as to the News you were talking of?

Whim: Why truly Captain, it’s only an unusual piece of Gluttonism, perform’d by one of St Patrick’s Cormorants, which if he can bring his manner of Eating into Fashion, amongst our Voluptuous Epicureans, it will certainly be the Ruin of all Cooks and Coal-Merchants.

Snarl: Pray, Mr Whim, proceed to the Matter; never fear the turning of my Stomach; I have not Din’d so often with Colonel Walker, at the Siege of Londondery, upon Salt Hides and Horse Flesh, but sure I am able to hear a story about eating, if he tug’d as hard at a Cows Countenance, as a hungry Bear will at the stinking Haunches of a dead CoachHorse.

Whim: Why then I will venture to tell you, and when you begin to Keck, I’ll leave off. My Friend Mr All-craft and I, took a Walk yesterday to the New River Head, where we observ’d abundance of Inns-of-Court Beaus, and Lady Bumfitters, mingled with an innumerable swarm of the Blew-Frock Order, flock into Miles’s Musick-House, which occasion’d us to believe, there was something Extraordinary to be done, which encourag’d the Sweating Multitude to so crowd in, after an unusual manner, which made us equally desirous, with the rest, of seeing what was to be seen, tho’ we knew not what to expect; accordingly we mix’d with the Herd, and jostled into the House amongst ’em, which we found as full, as if an Elephant had been to Dance a Jigg, or the Salamanca Doctor to have Preach’d a Sermon. With much difficulty we crouded up Stairs, where we soon got Intelligence of the Beastly Scene in agitation, that had drawn such a Numberless body of Spectators to disturb their stomachs. At last a Table was spread with a dirty Cloth, in the middle of the Room, furnish’d with Bread, Pepper, Oyl and Vinegar; but neither Knife, Plate, Fork, or Napkin; and when the Beholders had conveniently mounted themselves upon one anothers Shoulders, to take a fair view of his Beastlyness’s Banquet, in comes the Lord of the Feast, Disguis’d, in an Antick’s Cap, and with Smutty Face, like a Country Hang-man, attended with an ill-looking Train of Newmarket Executioners. When a Chair was set, and he had plac’d himself in sight of the whole Assembly, a live Cock was given into the Ravenous Paws of the Ingurgitating Monster, who, after he had pluck’d out a few of the Tail and Pinion Feathers, he clap’d a few Oats in his Mouth, which he extended to the width of a Ladies Chamber-pot, then held up his Living Morsel, who peck’d out several Corns, and play’d at Bob-Cherry with him a considerable time, to the great Diversion of the Company, till at last, he catch’d him behind the Gills, and snap’d off his Head with as much Slight and Expedition, as a New-England Hog will an Acorn from a Dwarf-Oake, cracking the Skull as nimbly, to come at the Brains, as a Squirrel does a Nutshell, to come at the Kernel; then dipping on’t in a Platter of Sawce, gave it all Mastication together, except the Beak, and down he swallow’d it, Feathers and all, that it might sit the lighter upon his Stomach: Then he clap’d the Fundament to his Mouth, and dragging out several Yards of Guts, he laid those by him, to Eat at last; as People do Cheese for Digestion. Then laying each Hand upon a Leg, he tore them asunder with as Angry a force, as if he had learn’d to Carve his Dinner of the Tyger; And when he had lug’d off a Quarter, he pick’d off the flesh as clean as a Dog would a Marrow-bone; showing as greedy an Appetite, as a Bear that had been kept at short commons would over a plentiful dish of Guts and Garnish. At this rate he dispatch’d the whole Body; and then takes a piece of the Skin he had laid by for a second Course, turns the Feathers inside, and gulp’d it down at once, as a Bawdy Sinner would a Bolus. Then takes up the Guts in his Hand, quoild up like a pound of Sausages, and dandled them about in his Hand as a lady would a Necklace, and at last tosses them into his Mouth and when one end was down in his Stomach, he drag’d it up again by the other, to scowre his Throat from little Bones or Feathers that might obstruct the passage of his delicious Morsel. Then Rowles ‘em up, as a Man would a bundle of Whip-cord, and communicates them very dexterously like a Juggler, to his Jaws, where he toss’d ‘em, and turn’d ‘em, and chew’d ‘em, and tu’d ‘em about, till the unsavory stuffing of the reaking Puddings run down from each corner of his Mouth, like the Grease of fat Pork from between the Lips of a hungry Plough-man. This made the Spectators begin to change Colour, and be sadly troubled with the Hickup; and with those that were most squeamish it began first to Operate; but their Reaching and Exgurgitating, soon made the rest sympathize, that at last there was such a Hawking, Spitting, Slabbering and Drivelling, that I thought some of them would have left him their Intrals too, for an afternoons Luncheon. By this time he had thoroughly compleated his Meal, and, as well as himself, had given everybody else a Belly-full; and was reconvey’d by his guard De Mobile, to his own private Apartment.

Snarl: Prithee Tom make haste and give us some Brandy, or I shall run over at such a rate that I shant leave as much, what d’ye call it within me, as will fill the Bowl of a Tobacco-pipe.

Prim: O dear! (Yauks) my Stomach is so Sick and Head so Giddy, (Yauks) That if you don’t lead me to, (Yauks) the Necessary-House, I shall be forc’d to do something that I should not do.

Whim: I told you, Gentlemen, what would be the effect of my Story. Methinks you look like so many Jacobites that had taken the Oath, against your Consciences, and were hauking of them up again, that they should not lie heavy upon you Stomacks.


The story of the ‘Hibernian Canibal’ seems too good (or disgusting) to be true, but the local historian William J. Pinks states that the performance was also reported in Dawk’s Protestant Mercury of May 24, 1699: ‘On Tuesday last a fellow at Sadler’s Wells near Islington, after he had dined heartily on a buttock of beef, for the lucre of five guineas, ate a live cock, feathers guts and all, with only a plate of oil and vinegar for sawce, and half a pint of brandy to wash it down, and afterwards proffered to lay down five guineas more that he could do the same again in two hours time. This is attested by many credible people who were eyewitnesses of the same.’

Pinks also claims the same Hibernian Canibal ate a live cat at a music house in St Katherine’s on January 24 the same year.

This kind of performance doesn’t seem to have been that unusual, either. In the late 18th century, a French showman called Tarrare ate live cats, snakes, lizards, eels and puppies to test his stomach capacity.

It was also reported in March 13, 1788 that the Duke of Bedford had bet Lord Barrymore 1,000 guineas that he could not eat a live cat. The Lord doesn’t appear to have followed through, but in January 1790 the Sporting Magazine claimed a man had devoured a nine-pound cat, leaving only the bones behind.

Update: There’s also a story from ‘Kirby’s Wonderful and scientific museum’ (free online at Google Books) about a French soldier who was captured and taken to prison in Liverpool in February 1799. Charles Domery, 21, claimed he ate 174 cats, dead or alive, in a single year while serving in the army. ‘Sometimes he killed them before eating, but when very hungry, did not wait to perform this humane office.’ Domery also claimed to have eaten human body parts. ‘Finding himself hungry, and nothing else in his way but a man’s leg, which was shot off, lying before him, he attacked it greedily, and was feeding heartily, when a sailor snatched it from him, and threw it overboard.’

‘That’s old Mary Pradd, wot was murdered in the Borough’

PC Charles Shelton of the Metropolitan Police arrived at number 40 Kent Street in the early hours of Thursday 16th November, 1876. It was one of the poorest roads in the Borough, a land of street sellers, market traders, gypsies, nomads and thieves. Not far away was the notorious Mint Street, famed as the ‘nastiest street in London.’

So it was with some trepidation that he climbed the stairs and entered the bedroom to examine the scene of a suspected murder. Fifty-five year-old Mary Pratt lay on the floor near the fireplace, covered in blood. Her stockings were stained a dark red. It seemed that a piece of quilt had been used to try to mop up some of the pools of blood on the ground. A few feet away, two men were lying on the bed, both apparently fast asleep.

‘Get up Ned, your wife is dead,’ shouted a woman, one of the small crowd of people already gathered in the room. At that Edward Roland awoke, staggered to his feet and stumbled about a while before sitting back on the bed. PC Shelton noticed a bite mark on his right hand.

After being informed a second time that Mary Pratt was dead, Roland replied: ‘I don’t believe it.’ He remembered going out drinking with Mary and the other man on the bed, James Gumble, on the Wednesday night but denied there was any quarrel or fight. They arrived home, Roland asked Mary to go to bed with him, but she refused, and so he got undressed and went to sleep. He had nothing to do with the blood.

Gumble remembered seeing Mary Pratt on the floor when he entered the room on Wednesday night. He said something to her, but could not remember whether she answered. He then went to sleep.

It was at one o’clock in the morning that Gumble’s girlfriend Caroline Brewington went to 40 Kent Street to look for him and found Mary Pratt lying on the floor. Noticing she was cold to the touch, Ms Brewington went to fetch the landlady on the ground floor, Susan Hill, who contacted the police.

Later that morning the police surgeon Charles Downs examined the body and found a ‘lacerated wound about three-quarters of an inch in length’ which cut through the blood vessels beneath the skin. Mr Downs thought the injury had been caused with a sharp, jagged instrument of some kind.* Mary may also have been kicked.

Rowland and Gumble were both arrested ‘on suspicion of ill-using the deceased’ but both denied all knowledge of what happened to Mary Pratt. There was no blood on Gumble’s hands to tie him to the dead woman and no proof of what had really happened. Two days later on Saturday, 18 May, an inquest jury returned their verdict ‘that the deceased died from injuries, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how such injuries were caused.’

But Mary Pratt’s story does not end there: a few weeks earlier she had been visiting friends staying in a gypsy caravan on a vacant plot of land in Battersea when a 39 year-old photographer named John Thomson stopped by and asked for permission to take their picture.

London Nomades, by John Thomson, in Victorian London Street Life (1877)

London Nomades, by John Thomson, in Victorian London Street Life (1877). Mary Pratt is sat on the steps of the caravan.

Thomson found out about Mary’s tragic death when he took a copy of the photograph to the owner of the caravan, William Hampton, described as ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman.’

On seeing the picture, Hampton exclaimed: ‘Bless ye! That’s old Mary Pradd, sitting on the steps of the wan, wot was murdered in the Borough, middle of last month.’

Further details of Mary’s life emerged: she had once been the wife of a tinker called Lamb but when he passed away she began roaming the country with Rowland and Gumble, looking for items to sell, or ‘hawk’, to pay for food, lodging and booze.

Her daughter Harriet Lamb, who lived in Fox’s Buildings in Kent Street (you can see a 1913 photograph of Fox’s buildings at the City of London Collage website), had last seen her mother on the day before her death. Mary was very drunk.

Thomson wrote in his book Victorian London Street Life: ‘The poor woman who met her end in so mysterious a manner had in life the look of being a decent, inoffensive creature. Clean and respectable in her dress, she might in her youth have been even of comely appearance, but now she wore the indelible stamp of a woman who had been dulled and deadened by a hard life.’

As for Kent Street, it changed its name to Tabard Street a year after Mary Pratt’s death. Its reputation as a ‘thieves’ den’ led to a series of attempts to improve it and in the early 20th Century the London County Council tore down the east side of the road to make room for new housing blocks and the green space of Tabard Gardens. (see 1955 Survey of London). These days, it looks very different from how it would in 1876.


*The exact location of the wound was not disclosed by the newspapers, who referred only to it being ‘on her person.’ This probably indicates that it was in the area of her groin.

Reports of Mary’s death in the Daily News of November 20, 1876, and the Manchester Times of November 25 (which for some reason gives her name as Mary Ann Hunter).

John Thomson, Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs (1877) (Click here to see it on Amazon)