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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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The Magpie and Stump in Old Bailey was famously a venue where – if you could afford it – you could get your kicks on a Monday morning watching the hanging outside Newgate Prison opposite. Although its building is now modern, the new licencee has refurbished the place to remind us of its macabre past. Here, beer historian Martyn Cornell ponders how far back we can trace this historical tavern.

A guest post by Martyn Cornell.

My library of pub books only seems to have a few brief mentions of the Magpie and Stump and none gives a definite age, though we can certainly push it back to nearly 300 years old at least. City of London Pubs (Richards and Curl, 1973) says it changed its name to the King of Denmark “[w]hen James I married Anne, a daughter of King Christian IV”, changing it back to the Magpie and Stump only after “many years elapsed”. If correct, this would mean the pub was around in 1589, which was when the marriage took place. There are a couple of problems here, though: Anne was the daughter of Frederick II, not Christian IV, who was her brother (though he WAS king of Denmark at the time of his sister’s marriage to James), and while James was, of course, heir presumptive to Elizabeth I in 1589, I’m not sure a pub in London would name itself after the royal brother-in-law of the ruler of a rival kingdom.

However, after James succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, Christian IV came to visit his sister and brother-in-law, in 1606, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the pub was renamed then: though according to this book  even before Christian’s visit, the Danes and their king had a reputation in England for being heavy drinkers. If the pub wasn’t actually renamed at the time of Charles IV’s visit to London, which seems perfectly possible, it seems just as likely it would have been renamed at some slightly earlier time around after a well-known heavy drinker with strong family links to the new king of England.

Whatever the true story here, the pub appears as “the Magpie” in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the rhyming “good pub guide” probably written by Edward “Ned” Ward and published around 1718, with the entry revealing that the inn sign showed the bird sitting on a stump, so it is definitely that old, at least, albeit under a shorter version of today’s name: The scan shows that it appears to have been a hangout of supporters of the (long-vanished) Commonwealth, as well as the “thieves, thieftakers and turnkeys” you might expect from its position by the prison, that the landlord’s name was “Sk–ck” (Skeock would be my guess – a rare North East of England/Scottish surname), and that the house tipple was Twopenny, which was a type of pale ale.

magpie and stump

Its politics look to be confirmed by a mention in Larwood and Hotten’s History of Signboards, which says that the Magpie and Stump “was the sign of one of the Whig pothouses in the Old Bailey during the riots of 1715”, that is, the Mug-House riots between supporters of the Hanoverians and the Stuarts, something confirmed by this entry from Chamber’s Book of Days  which again says the pub was just “the Magpie” in the early 18th century: presumably “and stump” was added because of what the inn sign showed.

HE Popham’s The Taverns In the Town (1937) says the Magpie and Stump at that time “bears a sign telling that it has been established over two hundred years”, which appears to have been an under-estimate even then. It also gives the story of “the gentry” hiring rooms at the pub to watch the public hangings that took place at Newgate Prison from 1783 to 1868. The Old Inns of London (Stanley, 1957) pretty much rehashes what Popham says.

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Martyn Cornell, who is a journalist and award-winning author, is one of our leading authorities on the history of British beer, the subject of his book, Amber, Gold and Black (2010). He also has an excellent blog: Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile.

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The Profligate SonIf this were a novel by Dickens or Thackeray, you may well nod approvingly at exaggeration for effect. But this book is a morality tale which is all true.

The principals are the upright William Jackson Senior and his wastrel son, William Jackson Junior. Other leading characters include the boy’s long-suffering, loving mother, and other intimates who mainly comprise fond uncles, in-laws, servants and sundry accomplices. The whole story runs to the late 1820s but he main action takes place from 1807 and 1814.

Jackson père had made a modest fortune as so many before and after him as an employee of the East India Company, in his case as a Collector in the Madras presidency. He blotted his copybook somewhat through the mishandling of an incident involving a recalcitrant local prince. It took him years back in London to restore his reputation.

Choosing not to return to India, Jackson instead opted to go into semi-retirement as a pillar of the London middle-class and country squire, putting all his hopes in the assumed future achievements of young William, his only surviving child. He deemed the Law was the best option for the young chap.

Unfortunately, young William had other ideas turning out to be the epitome of the dissolute, Regency wastrel, a Beau Brummel in miniature. He had vague ideas of soldiering, a romantic enough notion given the period. Sent away to be educated in the classics, he was from the start completely out-of-control. By his mid-teens he had been expelled from several schools, fought a duel, contracted venereal disease and swindled dozens of shopkeepers, landlords and sundry suppliers around town.

Dressed to the nines and with a handsome prostitute on his arm, page after jaw-dropping page, William descends further and relentlessly into criminality. Nobody – parents, teachers, the military, the courts – can curb his excesses. Everyone loves a naughty anti-hero, but William is shocking.

In total contrast, his father is a dull, upright, moralistic fellow, but one cannot help feeling for the man.

The primary source for this entertaining book is Jackson Senior’s detailed but unpublished account of his son’s every action and his own response to it. Filial Ingratitude was written in three volumes and in addition to its author’s account included meticulously copied correspondence between the main parties and much commentary, margin notes and so on. To him, reputation counted for everything; it seems he felt that getting everything down on paper protected him somehow.

Nicola Philips takes the Jackson story and places it in the broader environment they inhabit, making us familiar not just with London’s streets but  with the city’s major London criminal justice institutions. Bow Street, Marlborough Street, and Old Bailey. The prisons of Newgate, the Fleet and Clerkenwell. The hulks at Woolwich, and indeed lock-ups and courts further afield, but at the risk of spoilers, I shall leave it at that.

Our period is during the Napoleonic Wars when specie was in very short supply. Much of the economy ran on bills of exchange, promissory notes etc. The system relied totally on men’s reputation and their word, otherwise the whole economy would come crashing down. And no formal police force! This created a perfect hunting ground for gentlemen swindlers and fraudsters of young William Jackson’s ilk.

It is extraordinary too,  just how sophisticated, intricate and extensive were social and business networks during the period. The reader – no less than Jackson senior – is left astounded at which hapless members of his family’s network the young Jackson was prepared callously to exploit, using all the low cunning of the amoral desperado. He was always one step ahead of his astonished and fuming parent, but in the end within the grasp of certain creditors – and the law.

Ultimately the father, and then the obedient mother, withdraws protection and all support, leaving the profligate son completely exposed. The story by no means ends there but you’ll have to buy the book to find out.

Even though we only really get the father’s side of the story, and taken that the louche Regency dandy fraudster was a far from uncommon type during our period, I found it very difficult to sympathise with William Jackson the younger. Except maybe a tiny bit at the end.

A true Regency tale, with dollops of absorbing social, legal and criminal history thrown in, beautifully told.

Warmly recommended.

The Profligate Son (332 pp) by Nicola Phillips is published by OUP on 24 October with a cover price of £20.00, although available for less.

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A guest post by Wendy Wallace.

old bailey

The 20 tonne gilded statue of Justice by F.W. Pomeroy.

On a bitterly cold March evening, a group of London Historians had the opportunity to look around the Old Bailey – London’s most famous and historic criminal court.

There’s been a court on the site since the 1500s and much of the pomp and gravitas attached to this venerable institution survives. Dressed in an elaborate lace bib over a specially tailored suit, a black rosette hanging down from the collar at the back (a wig guard, for catching the powder from the syrup someone in his position would traditionally have worn) our guide and host had a title as elaborate as his garb.

Charles Henty, Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark, is an ex-military man who’s been running the Bailey for the last eight years. Disarmingly, when asked how long it took him to master the job, he replied that he is still learning.

And it is quite a job. The Bailey contains 18 courts and what the Secondary’s talk made clear above all else is that it’s a business. Each court costs around £80-100 per minute to operate and keeping courts running, with defendants, counsel, judges, press, relatives and public all in the right place at the right time, is a mighty exercise in logistics and security.

The Bailey – so known for the street on which it sits, is in its current incarnation an architectural mix, with the old building opened by Edward V11 in 1907 and the ‘new’ extension built in the 1970s. Its courtrooms and steps are familiar to all of us through television dramas and news programmes; trials ranging from the Kray twins to that of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and the quashing of the convictions of the Guilford Four, have occurred here.

In the sombre grandeur of court number one with its scarred wooden desks, curtained witness box, wide dock and under a dome through which pours what looks like natural light but is in fact electric light, Secondary, as he is addressed, gave a witty and passionate talk about an institution which lies at the heart of British justice. He expressed his concern over the ever-younger ages of defendants. Eleven and twelve year old children have in recent years appeared in this dock charged with murder, and rape.

Outside the main courts, briefs congregate in a magnificent marbled hall, its domed ceilings decorated with painted allegories of justice by the artist Gerald Moira. (Moira slipped in his own face in to a couple of these, showing himself as a artist in one and, in his painting of the Blitz, a tea-drinking crone.)

High on a wall in the new building, an embedded shard of glass has been allowed to remain; it’s a tiny and telling reminder of the IRA bomb that partially destroyed the building in 1973.

Down two or three storeys, in the bowels of the building, carpet gives way to quarry tiles. Here the walls are not Carrera marble but the most utilitarian painted brick. Here, in small cells, prisoners are held on their way in to and out of court.

And beyond this holding area, outside the building, in the most sombre and spine-chilling aspect of the visit, Secondary walked us by torchlight down Dead Man’s Walk – a series of brick doorways of ever decreasing size through which condemned prisoners once made their lonely way to the gallows.

The Old Bailey seems to indicate in its architecture the range of social positions, from the most exalted to the lowliest. One can’t help wondering how many of the defendants down the ages – if they’d had the advantages of those who run the system – would never have been ended up in the dock.

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Wendy Wallace is an author and journalist, whose first novel – The Painted Bridge – was published in 2012.

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Our visit was also covered by London Historians member, the writer Vic Keegan here.

Here’s a video clip showing interiors of the Old Bailey and featuring Charles Henty, Esq – Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark.

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Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer

On this day in 1896, Amelia Dyer –  having been tried and found guilty at the Old Bailey – was hanged at Newgate prison for murder. Her victim was a baby called Doris Marmon. But baby Doris was one of possibly hundreds of babies murdered by Dyer in her role as a “baby farmer”. Baby farming was a late Victorian profession, or service. At at a time when having an illigitimate child carried considerable social stigma, contraception was virtually non-existent and abortion both illegal and highly dangerous, unmarried mothers frequently handed their babies over to baby farmers, i.e. surrogate mothers. The fee was usually £10 – £12, with normally a monthly payment on top, around five shillings.

Unfortunately, not a few baby farmers took the cash and murdered the babies. The most notorious and prolific was Dyer. She was a trained nurse from Bristol who managed to continue her foul deeds by staying on the move, changing her name and other slippery tactics. Her orbit was the south west, in an area encompassing Somerset, Berkshire, Gloucestershire and Bristol. Her only connection to London was her trial and death. But London did have its own baby farm murderers, who included: Margaret Waters, convicted in 1870 of murdering five children in the Brixton area; Anna Chard-Williams of Barnes, the last woman to be hanged at Newgate, in 1899; partners in crime Annie Walters and Amelia Sach – the “Finchley Baby Farmers” – who were the first prisoners to be executed at the new Holloway Prison in 1903.

Wikipedia is very good on the Amelia Dyer story, and there’s a good background on baby farm murderers here.

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In the late 1780s, a violent pervert prowled the streets of London.

His strange and unique modus operandi was to stab his victims in the buttocks or thighs, all the while assailing them with a stream of filthy language. The women of the capital were understandibly terrified. These attacks occurred from May 1788 onwards. When the Monster (as he had become known) increased his attacks in the first months of 1790, the authorities became under increasing pressure to make an arrest. The problem was the huge variety of victim descriptions of the perpetrator. Short, tall, old, young, thin, stocky, vulgar, gentlemanly: there was hardly any consistency whatsoever.

London insurance magnate John Julius Angerstein put up a reward of £100 for the capture of the Monster resulting in a spate of false citizen’s arrests which simply confused matters further.

Eventually, one of the victims, Anne Porter, identified a man she saw in the street as the Monster and the man was detained and charged. His name was Rhynwick Williams, an unemployed and impecunious artificial-flower maker. At the trial, held at the Old Bailey, much of the evidence against Williams was contradictory or plain false. He had solid alibis for the Anne Porter and other attacks, he was supported by a host of glowing character references and even Angerstein himself was doubtful about his guilt. Despite all of this, Williams was found guilty.

But of what? The judge, Sir Francis Buller, could  not decide whether the crimes were felonies or misdemeanours, so referred the case to an appeal tribunal which decided that the crimes were misdemeanours. The upshot of this was that Williams had to be re-tried and the same farce was conducted for a second time, with the same result: guilty.

Williams was sentenced to six years in prison at Newgate. It would seem that his stay there was not especially unpleasant. His unsought notoriety meant that he had plenty of visitors and he picked up his trade of making artificial flowers which he was able to sell. The happy ending to this tale is that his girlfriend Elizabeth bore him a son, conceived in the prison. The boy was baptised at St Sepulchre across the road, and after his release in 1796, Williams and Elizabeth were married.

You can read more about the Monster here. A more complete and entertaining account can be found in Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, p192-204. There is also a whole book dedicated to this case: The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson.

Update: I have found several images of Rhynwick Williams, but unfortunately they are in the hands of Getty Images, whose prices start at £34 a pop. So go take a look on their site, here.

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newgate: london's prototype of hellBack from freezing France where I was, at least, able to do some chunky reading, quickly despatching the above-titled narrative history of Newgate prison by Stephen Halliday. The descpription “prototype of Hell” comes from Henry Fielding, one of the 18th century’s big personalities. A dramatist, writer and impressario, on becoming the chief magistrate of Bow Street, he set to work cleaning up the local criminal justice and penal landscape which had become saturated in corruption. Unfortunately, after the death of his brother John who succeeded him, the system soon returned to its old ways.

The Fieldings were two participants of dozens who populate the Newgate story. The prison, sited next door to the Old Bailey, witnessed the trials, incarceration and deaths of many thousands of men and women for some seven centuries. More died from disease within its walls than ever did at the gallows. Along with petty criminals and debtors, its inmates included celebrities such as Dr Dodd, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, political agitators, traitors, sex offenders and those deemed to be a general thorn in the side of authority such as the writer Daniel Defoe. All the significant dramatis personae of the Newgate story here are given separate pen-portraits, an approach I really like. One can take a break from the narrative and make a mental note to find out more later about those whose story extends beyond their relationship with the prison.

The value of this book is not just in the absorbing tale of Britain’s most notorious prison, but the history of crime and punishment in England across the ages and society’s response to them. One soon gets the measure of the essentially medieval system that persisted through to the late Georgian period and how it failed to contain crime, despite the “Bloody Code”, in the world’s most populous city. But the most interesting part of the story is how the penal system was thorougly transformed, from its faltering beginnings with the Fieldings through the Victorian era and into the 20th Century.

One would think it not too challenging to write a story as colourful as Newgate’s that was thoroughly entertaining and indeed, Stephen Halliday achieves this with ease. But the reward of a good history book is to leave the reader truly enlightened on a particular subject and in this the author is throroughly successful.

Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, The History Press, 2006. 317 pp. ISBN 978-0-7509-3896-9,

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