‘She then burnt the bones and meat, but kept the body fat, which she sold as best dripping.’

In the mid-nineteenth century, British society was experiencing a significant upheaval and social instability. Increasing urbanisation had led to squalid conditions in the cities. The gas-lit streets of Victorian London hid their own dark truths. Crime was commonplace, from pick-pocketing and house-breaking to violent affray and murder. Vice was easily available from child prostitution to opium dens, and drunkenness was widespread.

Associated forever with dark alleys, foggy rivers, packs of street urchins, damp dwellings, kind-hearted prostitutes and men in top hats and cloaks who stalked the gas-lit courts and alleys. No city of the day faced problems on the scale London did. Urban issues, including overcrowding, pollution, ineffective governance, prostitution, and disease, were an overwhelming presence in the lives of Londoner’s.

From the terror of being strangled by violent thieves to tales that the sewers were infested with a squealing band of pigs, 19th-century Londoners spent much of their time living in fear. The Victorian Era saw enormous changes in the physical and social fabric of the urban realm.

In 1811 there was a vicious multiple murder in the East End of London, which brought about a debate about policing. Until then they had enforced the law, with varying degrees of efficiency, by unpaid constables and watchmen appointed by each parish. In London in 1829, Sir Robert Peel’s police force was established and became a model for other forces in the country. Their uniform made them look more like park‐keepers than soldiers. The new police first appeared on the streets of London, being dressed in blue, were known as ‘raw lobsters’, because people felt that if they got into hot water, they would show their true colours and turn into soldiers 

Harsh punishments faced wrongdoers; forced labour, flogging, the treadmill, transportation, hanging for a range of crimes. Few trials lasted longer than two days. Public interest, stirred up by the popular newspapers, could be intense. They issued tickets to those who knew the right people, such as diplomats and fashionable ladies, but even so the courtroom could be so crowded that the ticket holders had to share the dock with the accused.

Among the crowded slums, there was a thriving criminal underbelly in London, and danger seemed to lurk in every corner. In the 1850s and early 1860s there were panics about street robbery, known then as ‘garrotting.’ A poisonous press campaign against ‘garrotters’ developed following the robbery of an MP on his way home from a late-night sitting of parliament. Hugh Pilkington, the Liberal MP for Blackburn, was walking home from the Commons when he was beaten and robbed.

The press then ramped up its coverage on street violence and the public panicked. Believing that criminals were stalking the streets, searching for victims. Punch magazine produced several cartoons exhibiting how people could handle the risk of garrotting, such as walking back-to-back in pairs.

Most offenders were young males, but most offences were petty thefts. The most common offences committed by women were linked to prostitution, drunkenness and vagrancy. Domestic violence rarely came before the courts. It tended to be committed in the privacy of home. Among some working-class communities it continued to have a degree of tolerance, while amongst other classes the publicising of such behaviour, especially in the courts, would bring a family’s reputation into disrepute.

The press at the time criticised the police force and called for prison reform proposals. Their campaign was so strong, parliament rapidly drew up and passed the Garrotters Act in 1863. Although the panic itself was short-lived, the change to prison reform, favouring deterrence over rehabilitation, ensured harsh attitudes towards criminality endured. The Times noted: ‘It is of far more moment to a Londoner that he should be able at all hours of the day or night to walk safely in the streets of London.’

Nowadays we know of criminal organisations that sell human organs for transplant, but in the Victorian era there was a more gruesome equivalent. Most of us know the famous Victorian story of Sweeney Todd, the London barber with a penchant for killing his customers. Once despatched, his friend Mrs Lovett made meat pies out of them to sell in her pudding shop. Although some claim this is a true story, there isn’t a lot of evidence Todd ever existed.

However, there is a similarly gruesome story from London, which is true. In 1879, Kate Webster was fired from her post as servant to a Mrs Thomas. In revenge, she killed her mistress with an axe to the skull, sliced her body to pieces, and boiled it up in a large pot. She then burnt the bones and meat, but kept the body fat, which she sold as ‘best dripping.’ Beef dripping was a popular food in Victorian time, used to fry foods or just spread straight onto a nice piece of bread.

In prison, hard labour involved a range of unpleasant and useless tasks. Picking oakum involved prisoners sitting all day unravelling thick, tarry ship ropes, which caused bleeding fingers and ruined nails, a particular torment to Oscar Wilde in his time in Reading Gaol. The crank was a box with a ratcheted handle that had to be wound for hours on end, while the tread was a giant wheel with foot-treads in step formation. Prisoners had to make the wheel turn for hours on end by climbing the moving steps. Other forms of hard labour included making prisoners break rocks or lift and move cannon-balls back and forth across a courtyard all day.

They often gave severe punishments out for comparatively minor offenses. For example, in 1888, George Thurgood left a workhouse to look for a job. He was picked up and taken to the magistrates and sentenced to 15 day’s hard labour for searching for work in workhouse clothes. In 1871, 14-year-old Isaac Davies was sentenced to three months with hard labour for stealing 20 oranges and a packet of nuts.

For all the reeking slums and desperate poverty, there were parts of London that oozed colour and invention. For all the tragedies of unemployment and alcoholism and drug abuse. There was also thriving escapism and a rising middle-class living in handsome new terraces and squares.

Books by Paul:

MY NOVELS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH, CRY, AND HAVE YOU GRIPPED. I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers. 

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