‘ A revolting’ scene: The Pritchett Street Murder

backtoback

At 8:15 am on Sunday, March 5th 1876,  Police Constable Oram of the Third Division found himself in the kitchen of Isaac Elwell. He had been called to number 4 court, 5 house, Pritchett Street by a woman in some distress. Oram described the kitchen as ‘having the appearance of a slaughter house’. Isaac Elwell was lying on an old coat on the floor of the kitchen, still alive, but in a very dangerous state. The Daily Post reported that ‘the floor was covered for a space of several yards with blood, among which were a number of small pieces of flesh’. Elwell himself was in a pool of blood, his right arm described in the report as ‘frightfully mutilated’, providing a further and very graphic account of numerous cuts along Elwell’s arm, right to the shoulder. When PC Oram lifted the poor man’s body, he found a small clasp knife, which was presumed to have been the weapon used to inflict the injuries.

Elwell was barely clinging to life, crying out for water as the surgeon, Mr. Joyce (who had been called for at the same time as Oram) carried out an examination. The surgeon shook his head and advised the police officer that  Elwell’s case was ‘hopeless’. Nevertheless he was sent to the General Hospital, transported on a handcart with an old door for a stretcher on which to carry his rapidly failing body. At the hospital it was discovered that a main artery had been sliced and Elwell, ‘in spite of every attention’ died within half an hour of his arrival.

An inspection of Elwell’s house revealed a scene of great disarray. The furniture was ‘very much disarranged’ and spattered with blood, ‘as if a great struggle had taken place’, and spots of blood were also found on the pantry door. Oram began making enquiries among the neighbours, and by 11:30 am a 36 year old woman named  Mary Ann Boswell was under arrest on suspicion of the murder. Mary Ann was described as a nail stamper, and lived at the same address as Elwell. In fact, she was his common law wife of more than a decade, and the pair had three children together. According to witnesses it was not a happy relationship,  that ‘they were both of dissipated habits, and that he was addicted to drinking’. Elwell was married to another woman, with whom he also had children, but they had been separated for a number of years.

On Saturday afternoon Elwell and Boswell went out together, returning to the house on Pritchett Street around 4pm. After tea ‘as was his custom’ Elwell headed back out ‘evidently for the purpose of drinking’. At around 10pm on Saturday night Elwell and Boswell were seen quarrelling on Brearley Street and Elwell was reported to have assaulted Boswell and pulled her bonnet off. The witness stated that Elwell was clearly drunk. Neighbours heard arguing coming from the Pritchett Street house at 1am on Sunday morning, and a ‘noise resembling the smashing of crockery’. Shortly after this time a widow named Mrs Tain saw Mary Ann Boswell and her three children out on the street; Mary Ann was crying and said that Elwell had ‘turned them all out on the street’. The kind widow offered to take Mary Ann and the children in for the night.

At 8am on Sunday morning, Caroline Clements, a relative of Mary Ann, went to the house on Pritchett Street. She said that the door was locked and, upon knocking, was aware of the sound of low groans and ‘her suspicions excited that something was wrong’, she alerted the neighbours who helped her to break the door down, finding Elwell in the condition as described above.

Mary Ann Boswell’s statement:- Emphatically denying the charge, Mary Ann confirmed that she and Elwell had argued in Brearley Street and after he assaulted her she went ‘elsewhere’, only going back to the house to check on him at around half past midnight. She claimed that ‘he was drunk, kicking about and making a great disturbance’. It was then that she left with her children and went to stay with Mrs Tain. She said that when she last saw Elwell he did not appear to be injured.  However, she did ‘intimate’ that she had  two men, whom she did not name, had entered the house and assaulted the victim. It is not clear if Mary Ann actually saw this happen, and if so at what time she witnessed it. But Elwell had been subjected to a violent assault just a few weeks earlier, when he had been so badly injured that he had to attend the General Hospital for his wounds. This happened shortly after yet another violent altercation with Mary Ann.

What do you think? Was Elwell the victim of ‘persons unknown’, or did Mary Ann reach the end of her tether and resort to horrific violence? What about the story of Mrs Tain? It seems a bit different to Mary Ann’s – and how had the door come to be locked, if there had been intruders?

St. John Ambulance Association: Nurses for Egypt (1882)

From Birmingham Daily PostSeptember 12th, 1882

St. John Ambulance Association:- Nurses for Egypt

To the Editor of the Daily Post,

Sir,- Will you permit me to inform numerous local applicants who have addressed me on this subject – some of whom (men and women) have most generously volunteered their services – that the conditions upon which they are accepted are these: All travelling and other necessary expenses of the nurses and ambulance pupils who may be selected for service at the seat of war are paid; and although the committee’s list is fully complete, further increase of the number, which is much required, will depend on the pecuniary support received from the public, who are earnestly appealed to for contribution to enable dispatch of this expedition on its mission of humanity. Subscriptions – however small – will be gratefully received, acknowledged, and forwarded to the promoters of the Egyptian Relief Fund by,
Yours faithfully,
G. King Patten, Hon. Secretary
105, Colmore Row
Birmingham
September 11

In 1882 the British government staged an intervention in Egypt, sending a fleet of ships to the coast in July, with an army of more than 40,000 men heading across land towards the Suez Canal zone and on to Cairo and other key towns/ports. Britain maintained an occupation of Egypt until after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty. The St. John Ambulance Association was founded in 1877, developing and forming into a uniformed brigade a decade later. There was a military nursing corp at this time, ‘The Army Nursing Service’, which had been active during the first Boer (Zulu) War. The conditions must have been extremely challenging for women travelling to North Africa at this time.

Some interesting background on the Army Nursing Service can be found here:

http://www.scarletfinders.co.uk/8.html

 

Soup for the poor

SpitalfieldsSoupKitchenILN1867

The food bank is rapidly becoming a vital addition to local communities across twenty-first century Britain. In the nineteenth century, soup shops played an equally important role in the rapidly expanding towns that had been spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Back then, people in need were dependent upon the parish, which, under an act that had been passed in the time of Elizabeth I,  had a legal obligation to care for its poor. Everyone in the parish contributed to a poor rate, which was distributed to those deemed to be in need and worthy of assistance. In times of extreme economic distress communities often took further action and those who had the means would provide blankets and set up soup shops as large sections of local society struggled to survive on the few shillings a week from the poor fund.  The following is taken from the very first edition of The Birmingham Inspector,  a short lived newspaper published in 1817. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 would bring in the workhouse system that we tend to associate with Victorian poverty (although Birmingham was a slightly different case), but prior to that the precarious lives of the indigent poor could often be dependent on the provision of cheap soup. This notion of a nutritious and cheap ration of food had come from the continent at the beginning of the century, the brain child of Count Rumford, an advisor to the Bavarian monarchy and possibly the founder of soup kitchens. The suggestion presented by the newspaper is for the setting up of a soup shop in Birmingham.

The Inspector article begins by first decrying the national obsession with eating meat and suggests that it will therefore be fortunate, both as respect to the finances and the health of the community, if the expedients of a hard time should render a simpler diet habitual and that the consumption of meat should be reduced to its proper and moderate degree. The article then moves on to extol the virtues of soup, as first presented by Rumford:

The action of water in the preparation of food is perhaps not sufficiently known, or not considered. It was early observed by Count Rumford that the quantity of solid food necessary to form soup, amply nutritious, was so very small as to excite astonishment, how a person could possibly exist upon it…this is effected by the long-continued application of gentle heat to a mixture of water and vegetable matter; as barley-meal, oatmeal or potatoes. 

The economy of this method of food preparation was further ‘scientifically’ explained in such a way that it made soup sound like some new-fangled invention of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a simple method of cooking that has been around, probably forever!

The fairinaceous and gelatinous particles thus become completely suspended and diffused through the water, and when received into the stomach, draw it, as it were, with themselves, into a course of decomposition and consequent digestion. 

The best and most economical recipe to ensure maximum nutrition at minimum cost should be,

One pound of solid matter, in the form of grain or meal, would probably be  amply sufficient to thicken a gallon of water; or twenty ounces if a large proportion of potatoes are to be used. These proportions should be considered…as the basis of this soup, which ought to be kept several hours in a state of simmering, not boiling; the principal intention of other additions is to give flavour. The use of potatoes is strongly recommended as highly nutritious and greatly reducing the expense, they should be reduced in boiling to an uniform pulp. 

The addition of other vegetables to this most basic of soup were presented only as flavourings and these should be of the finest and strongest flavour, such as celery, onions, turnip and carrot &c., all cut into small and thin slices; herbs &c….and the whole, if well seasoned with salt and pepper will absolutely not require the addition of meat, either in point of nutriment, flavour or solidity. 

The writer of the article concludes by stating that the foregoing hints have not been thrown out at random: they have been verified by actual experiment and once more congratulates the name of Rumford a name which, after all the ridicule which is affected to be cast upon it, stands foremost in the list of those who have soberly and effectually exerted themselves to remedy the evils which the madness and folly of the rich and the great, in all countries, bring down upon the poor and lowly.

Report from Samuel Jones, Inspector of Smoke Nuisance

Widnes_Smoke

Birmingham had a very different landscape to that other great product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  There were few of those great ‘satanic mills’ that came to characterise  early nineteenth-century Northern England in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, this was a town of remarkable innovation and mass production and Birmingham certainly did have a problem with smoke pollution. When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1835, he described a town where everything is black, dirty and dark, although every moment breeds gold and silver (‘Journeys to England and Ireland’).

The dirt and the smoke that blighted Birmingham came from the numerous steam engines that drove the town’s metal rolling mills, glass houses and numerous furnaces. In 1818 the Street Commissioners received a letter from Walter Hopper Esq., complaining that the smoke from steam engines at the New Union Mill was exposing his estate, near Five Ways, to ‘volumes of smoke’ which rendered the land ‘quite disagreeable’. When looking through the Street Commissioners minutes this appears as a perennial complaint across several decades and across the town.

By the 1840s there was an increasing interest in issues of health and personal comfort and the Street Commissioners appointed a full time inspector of steam engine smoke in 1844. Jones was responsible to the Steam Engine Committee and would present official reports annually. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal system for measuring smoke at this time, other than timing the emissions and inspecting the engines. This report is taken from the original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners, which can be viewed by appointment at Birmingham Heritage, Archives and Photography at the Library of Birmingham, reference MS 2818/1/8 (please be aware that, as a result of severe staff cut backs, opening times for the archives is now restricted, I would recommend phoning first)

Report of Samuel Jones to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act
February 5th 1849

‘When I commenced my duties in 1844 there were 173 steam engine chimneys, large and small, with 225 furnaces. Several parties had at that time applied means for consuming smoke but they were very seldom used, there being 111 chimneys that emitted dense black smoke from 16 to 35 minutes within every working hour, others varying from 6 to 16 minutes per hour. At the present time there are 224 steam engine chimneys, with 297 furnaces and 2 more now in course of erection. Which makes an increase in the last five years of 57 chimneys and 72 furnaces, the nominal power of the various engines amounting to about 3500 Horse Power. The quantity of fuel used for working of this power alone amounts to about 300 tons per day and most of it of the very commonest description. There are 17 of these chimneys, including some with flues from muffles in them that emit dense black smoke from 12 to 18 minutes within the hour, and 50 others though greatly improved since first under inspection, are still indifferent, they smoke from causes that may be avoided from 6 to 10 minutes within the hour, the others vary from 2 to 6 minutes per hour. There are 50 chimneys used exclusively for muffles, annealing pots and stoves – 22 for puddling and tube furnaces, 6 for glass houses, 2 for gas works – making a total of 304 chimneys (exclusive of smiths forges) from which such a quantity of dense smoke would arise as would envelop the whole town were it not for the many and excellent means adopted for its consumption. This shews that the nuisance is greatly abated but it is not to the extent it could be, as I am convinced that all steam engine proprietors ought to be in such a position, for their own advantage, as would enable them to work their engines without making so much smoke as would either injure the health of or be a nuisance to the Public’

Using Google Ngram viewer

There are all sorts of useful websites and digital tools for research. I’m not a particularly technical person and many of them go over my head. I tend to avoid things that require installation of extra software too. But Google Ngram viewer is free and very easy to use – just type it in your search engine bar and it should come up straight off.

https://books.google.com/ngrams

You’ll see an interesting looking graph and a few boxes, Google have included some sample search terms as an example (Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein). What the lines on the graph are showing are the comparative books written on those subjects across the space of 200 years (in this case 1800-2000). I tried this out myself by inputting the words ‘Municipal Corporations Act’ and got the following results

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.08.30 - Edited

This shows that the peak in publications of books about the Municipal Corporations Act was in 1906 – this makes sense as this was the year that Beatrice and Sidney Webb published their great tome on English Local Government. Below the graph there are links to publications by year, which is really useful if you’re looking up a specific topic and unsure where to start. The search is limited to publications available on Google Books, but there are lots of those, particularly older publications, so it does offer a decent overview.

I’m sure there are lots of uses for this tool. Another that I tried was testing out how much interest there was in municipal towns in the early 19th century. This time I changed the date range to the period 1800-1850, which is my area of interest. It’s simple to do, you can see a small pair of boxes with ‘between’ next to them, just in the top left hand corner. In the search box I typed the towns I wanted to compare, separating each with a comma (this is important). So, this graph reveals the number of publications on Birmingham, between 1800-1850 and in comparison to the number of publications written on two other major centres of industry and urbanization

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.16.25 - Edited

It’s interesting to note a peak for each of the towns in 1838, the year that Birmingham and Manchester were first granted their Charters of Incorporation. Overall, there appears to have been far greater interest in writing about Manchester than there was for either Birmingham or Leeds. And again, there are links beneath the graph to numerous books available on Google Books for the topics from this date range.

Finally, it is possible to search books published in other languages – I changed this in the drop down box marked ‘corpus’ next to the date range boxes and selected German – I have highlighted 1845 here because that was the year that Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class was published, originally for a German audience. There is a small peak for Manchester at this point.

Screenshot 2016-01-18 at 17.35.09 - Edited

The numbers on the left of the chart are revealing the percentage of Google Books that these publications represent – a very, very tiny number in these rather specialist cases. But I think the tool is good fun and has the potential to be interesting for research, if only as a way of locating free to download books on specific topics in certain years. Or to just gauge how much interest there has been in your topic over an extended period of time.

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Martin Spychal, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act

The History of Parliament

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Martin Spychal, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on Thomas Drummond and the 1832 Reform Act. Here Martin gives an overview of his paper…

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond is best known for his invention of a portable limelight device (which would illuminate the world of nineteenth-century theatre) and his tireless efforts as Under-Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1840, which would contribute to his premature death at the age of 43. Comparatively less is known about his work supervising the English and Welsh borough boundary commission for the Grey ministry between August 1831 and September 1832. This is something of an anomaly given that so much historical ink has been spilled over Britain’s first Reform Act. Whereas Whig reforms to the…

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Why Peaky Blinders tells us all we need to know (and more) about the 1920s

Modern British Studies Birmingham

Matt Houlbrook Matt Houlbrook

Two episodes into the second season of the BBC television series Peaky Blinders and I’m already reminded of why the exploits of Thomas, Polly, and the rest of the Shelby family tell us all we need to know (and more) about 1920s Britain. Or, at least, give us all the questions we need to ask to understand the aftermath of the Great War.

Let’s get this straight: I know that the Birmingham gang the series riffs on were around in the 1890s rather than the 1920s. And sure, the story plays fast and loose with historical figures like Billy Kimber and Darby Sabini, two of the most notorious leaders of the violent race course gangs of the period. But (with all due respect to one of my colleagues here), if all you have to say about an imaginative and engaging piece of television is that it doesn’t…

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