‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’

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The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money? 

Petty theft – women sentenced in the police courts

Many of the cases that appeared in front of the magistrates at the Victorian Police Courts related to theft of relatively low value items. Nevertheless, the value of the goods seem to have mattered less than the act of stealing itself. The following accounts are from a single court session on April 22nd, 1860. Included here are prosecutions for theft of a shawl, a single wine glass and, particularly poignant, some plate steel which landed Jemima Ashton with six months in prison, despite having a baby in her arms at the court appearance.

Taken from the Birmingham Daily Post available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives, or free of charge at the Library of Birmingham Local Studies centre.

Police court 1860

Stealing a piece of meat.- An old woman, sixty-nine years of age, named Ann Bowler, was brought up on a charge of stealing a piece of veal from a stall in the Market Hall. She pleaded guilty, but as the prosecutor did not wish to press the case, she was discharged.

Stealing a shawl.- Two young women named Sarah Sponley, Minories, servant, and Mary Ann Costello, Carey’s Court, burnisher, were charged with stealing a shawl, value £1, 1s, 9d, the property of Mr. Bright, draper, Bull Ring. About four o’clock on the previous afternoon, the prisoners went into the prosecutor’s shop and asked to put a shawl by, offering to pay 5s on it. The shopman, who was serving them, saw something under Sponley’s cloak which he believed to be a shawl. He immediately called to the shop walker, “P.Q.”, signifying “Look out”, and caught hold of the bulk under the woman’s cloak, which in the scuffle fell to the ground, and proved to be a shawl belonging to the prosecutor.  Police-Sergeant Frankish was called in and the prisoners were given into custody. Sponley denied her guilt, and was committed to the Sessions; but the other was discharged, the evidence not being sufficient to implicate her.

Robbing an employer.- A married woman, with an infant in her arms, named Jemima Ashton, residing in Barford Street, was charged with stealing several articles of plated ware, the property of her late master, Mr. W. Barker, plated ware manufacturer, Paradise Street. The prosecutor stated that the prisoner had been in his service since October last as a burnisher. Since that period, from time to time, salt cellars and other plated articles have been missed. On the previous day, Mr. Isaac Aaron, pawnbroker, Edgbaston Street, went to the prosecutors warehouse and picking the prisoner out from a number of women stated she had at different times pledged the articles with him. These were, on being produced, identified by Mr. Barker. On being charged with stealing things, she at first denied, but afterward admitted to the robbery, but begged to be forgiven on account of her family. Mr. Welch, after remarking on the serious nature of the case, sentenced the prisoner to six months imprisonment. 

Robbery from a liquor vault.- An old woman named Harriet Jones was charged with stealing a wine glass from the shop of Mr. George F. Greensill, liquor merchant, Digbeth. A witness named Thomas Bingham deposed that he went to Mr. Greensill’s shop on the previous afternoon to have a glass of hot gin. He saw the prisoner with a glass in her hand, and she took it out of the shop with her. Witness informed the prosecutor of the robbery, and he followed and overtook the woman. She instantly produced the glass from underneath her shawl and said “here it is”. She was then given into the custody of Police-constable 189. The prosecutor stated that he must press for a punishment in this case, as robberies of a similar nature are of most frequent occurrence. The prisoner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven days imprisonment. 

A Couple of Swell Pickpockets

From the Daily Post, Friday 26th February 1858

A Couple of Swell Pickpockets.- For some time recently Bull Street has become a more than usual resort of daring and successful conveyancers of the above line, and the Chief Superintendent has caused extra attention to be paid to this locality by his officers. To-day, two very well dressed persons were placed at the bar, giving the names of James Powell and Eliza Allsop. Detective Spokes stated that on the preceding evening he saw and watched the two accused for some time in Bull Street. Going to various shop windows where ladies stood by, the female got close to them and he distinctly saw her, (Powell, standing near) put her hand under a lady’s shawl; but when she had withdrew her hand she had not succeeded in taking anything. She made subsequent visits to other groups of females, and at this time, going into the Coach Yard, Spokes caught the eye of the male prisoner, who came to see who it was. The officer then took him into custody, and Powell shouted out “Eliza” (Allsop) and Spokes soon after took her. At first they denied all knowledge of each other, but subsequently admitted they were acquainted, and it has been found that for some time past this pair has been living together in Park Street as man and wife. Detective Kelly stated that a few days previously he had seen the two prisoners in company in Bull Street, and they then followed the same course as just described by Spokes. Seeing him (Kelly), they quickly made off. The girl had been up before; but Powell, her mate, had hitherto kept himself off that. The Court said there was not the slightest doubt of their object being picking pockets, as detailed by Spokes, and they must go to the House of Correction for six weeks each. From their dress and appearance generally (both young) they would not readily be suspected as bad characters. A second woman, Mary Smith, who was in Allsop’s company was also taken, but she was discharged. 

Birmingham Letter: the Peaky Blinder

On February 5th, 1898, the Leamington Spa Courier carried an item on notorious Birmingham gang the ‘peaky blinders’. The article is written by a ‘correspondent’ and anyone familiar with the television series of the same name will recognise the article was written with tongue very much in cheek. The gang were a great nuisance in Birmingham for decades, from the last decade of the nineteenth century through to the mid-war period of the twentieth. They were divided into rival gangs, fighting amongst themselves as well as with another notorious local gang known as ‘the sloggers’. The ‘peakies’ were particularly notorious for their assaults on local police: in 1897 one officer was killed. In the same year, the Sheffield Evening Telegraph reported that during the second quarter of 1897, there had been no less than 169 assaults on Birmingham police officers, many of these by gang members. Given the apparent intensity of street violence at this time, the sentence for Blackwell’s assault may have appeared pretty lenient.

The Leamington Spa Courier and Sheffield Evening Telegraph are available by subscription to British Newspaper Archives.

Birmingham Letter
[By our own correspondent]

I had always imagined Birmingham to be a very musical town, but if the authorities intend to continue the persecutions of inoffensive musicians, I am afraid people will find it necessary to alter their good opinion. A great deal has been said about the Birmingham rough known commonly known here as “peaky blinder”, and people had come to hold quite a bad opinion of him. It would seem, however, that he is not such a hopeless character after all, since no one possessing a soul for music can be utterly bad. Tired, no doubt, with the desire to elevate themselves above the sordid cares of life, the “peakies” formed themselves into classes, somewhat unkindly described by the policeman as gangs, and paraded Cheapside, discoursing sweet music on their mouth-organs. On being rudely requested by the policeman to stop, the leader of the orchestra, named Blackwell, remonstrated with him in the Birmingham dialect, but finding that words were of no avail, in an outburst of noble indignation, hurled his instrument at the head of the policeman and fled. Upon the policeman pursuing the musician, he encountered various obstacles, in the shape of brushes and bricks, but finally succeeded in capturing his quarry. On being brought before the court, Blackwell denied the soft impeachment of being the leader of the Cheapside orchestra and, as a proof of his words, desired that his eyes might drop out if such were the case. Unfortunately, however, the days of trial by ordeal are over, so that the Bench was unable to put him to the test, and failing further evidence to the contrary, sent him to prison for six weeks with hard labour. 

Predicting a riot: violence as a community response to perceived injustice

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On July 15th, 1839 a large crowd of people gathered at Holloway Head in Birmingham, in expectation of hearing local M.P. Thomas Attwood address the local community on the issue of working class votes. Just a few days before Attwood’s presentation of a million signature petition, demanding an extension of the franchise, had been laughed out of parliament. Attwood never appeared, there is no evidence that expectation of his arrival was any more than a rumour.

As the evening wore on, the crowds dispersed and a large group began to make their way towards the Warwick Road, with the intention of meeting Chartist delegates John Collins and William Lovett, who had been released on bail from the county jail. This group only got as far as Camp Hill, just outside the city centre when a report was received that a man had been assaulted by the visiting Metropolitan police outside the public office. The response was almost instantaneous as a cry went up ‘to the Bull Ring’ and the procession headed back to town, where the windows of the public office were smashed in, and shops were looted and burned.

The events that took place in Birmingham on July 15th attracted a good deal of attention. They appeared in the national press, were raised in Parliament and feature in Queen Victoria’s personal diaries. They have remained a significant representation of agitation for voting reform in all significant histories of Chartism. But there is another narrative underlying the rioting which has tended to be overlooked and it is an important one. I believe that the riots which took place on July 15th 1839 were a violent response to policing tactics that were imposed during a time of heightened tensions. There was a sense of communal injustice which can still be witnessed today, such as during the riots which followed the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011, and of Michael Brown in Ferguson.  In Birmingham, 175 years ago it was the working man who was targeted, subjected to stop and search and ‘offensive’ weapons confiscated. In an artisan community these weapons were most usually tools of their trade, without which many were unable to work.

Below are a few examples of complaints received about the Metropolitan Police, visiting Birmingham who did not have its own professional force until December of that year. When taken together it is possible to see why the local community felt victimised and, while not an excuse for violence, why a single claim of police brutality might have ignited a keg of tensions. These instances, and others which appeared in the local press, will have been the subject of much local discussion, exacerbating already present tensions during a time of economic recession and unemployment. Birmingham was barricaded and subjected to an 8pm curfew,  while troops as well as police were patrolling the streets.

These accounts are taken from The Mirror of Parliament, July 10th, 1839 and the Report of the Committee appointed by the Town Council t investigate the late riots, both of which are available at the Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections, University of Birmingham and the Birmingham Journal, July 13th, 1839, available on microfilm in the Local Studies department of the Library of Birmingham

Eyewitness accounts of incidents of violence by the Metropolitan Police:

William Jones,  journeyman tailor of Aston Rd.,  – detained by up to 20 officers; searched and beaten about the head; charged with striking a police officer, his case dismissed at the assizes

John Rathbone, coach harness maker of Sherlock St., – knocked down by 3 or 4 officers on Allison St. as he was returning from work; unable to work as a result of his injuries

James Smith, plater of No. 4 court, Blucher St., – on July 8th he witnessed police knocking down a neighbour who had been ‘quietly smoking his pipe in his shirt sleeves and without his hat’; Smith intervened and was beaten so severely by the police officers that he was unable to work for 9 days

Henry Green, lamp maker of Fordrough St., – witnessed a police officer knocking down an ‘aged woman’ on New St., and then ‘assaulting a peaceable workman in his trade clothes’. Claims to have seen the same officer confiscate a whet stone from a work man and calling the same workman ‘a damned liar’

Thomas Power, bricklayer of No. 3 court, Thorpe St., – Power is described as a 73 year old man ‘exceedingly emaciated’. He claimed that on July 9th he was knocked down by a body of London police and taken to the jail on Moor St. where he was detained overnight, despite no evidence of misdeed. He was released the following morning without charge

Mr Thomas Redfern, merchant, Birmingham, – claimed to have witnessed London police beating people in an ‘unjustifiable manner’ for around 30 minutes on New St. on July 8th at 9pm. Two men at the scene ‘wearing respectable clothes’ reportedly told Redfern that they had been beaten across the shoulders with police staffs

William Blaxland, Town Councillor, Birmingham, – claimed to have been struck on the arm with a stave by a London policeman on July 8th as he made his way to a council meeting

George Jones, occupation and address unstated, – beaten to the ground by 3 police officers as he walked along Sandy Lane on  Sunday, August 18th. There were a number of witnesses to this event and the accused London police officer was found guilty at the local assizes and fined 40 shillings

July 10th, 1839: House of Commons, – Thomas Duncombe, M.P., claimed reports were coming from Birmingham of a concerted assault on civilians by London police and the military.

While crowds were assembled in the Bull Ring, the military blocked off all entrances and exits, after which no one was allowed to pass these lines. After some time the Metropolitan police divided into sections, each section followed by a troop of dragoons. Immense crowds were congregated and the police commenced an indiscriminate attack with their staves. Men, women and children were thrown down and trampled upon, while the police beleaguered them right and left. Broken heads with other severed wounds were the result. One man, who was returning from work, had his teeth knocked out. Special constables have expressed horror at what took place.

Alternative narratives: John Binnon, an ordinary man in big history

This year marked 175 years since the Newport Rising. It is also 175 years since the Birmingham Bull Ring riots, which took place over several weeks in July 1839. This unrest has also been considered part of the Chartist unrest; three of the men found guilty of being involved in the Birmingham riots were transported to Tasmania on the same ship as John Frost and the other Newport protesters.

Several years of research into Birmingham’s Chartist riots has led me to believe that the outbreaks of violence that took place in 1839 were antagonised by the presence of a body of Metropolitan police. During their secondment to the town, the force introduced an invasive stop and search policy, confiscating the tools of many a local artisan’s trade and establishing a mini reign of terror that included one incident of aggressive ‘kettling’ on New Street. This post is to remember a man called John Binnon. His story has been completely overlooked in the analyses of Birmingham’s Chartist riots, but I found it to reveal another narrative of the prevailing unrest.

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On July 15th, 1839 rioting broke out in Birmingham. It was not the first incident of rioting during that summer. Two weeks earlier a London police officer had been left fighting for his life after a mass brawl had broken out near St. Martin’s church. Rumbling unrest prompted the imposition of an 8pm curfew and dragoons from the local barracks patrolled the streets along with a body of Metropolitan police. The rioting on this evening took a different tone: the windows of the public office were smashed by bricks, shops around the Bull Ring were looted and set ablaze. As residents tried to escape burning buildings down ladders, attending fire officers were assaulted. For some unknown reason, the dragoons and the London police had been given orders by mayor William Scholefield to ‘stand down’ from their recent nightly patrols. It was an unwise move, one which would lead to a criticism from the Duke of Wellington and much heated debate.

John Binnon was described as a ‘quiet young man’ by his landlady and other acquaintances who spoke at his inquest. It was claimed that he had no involvement with the Chartists. On July 15th, perhaps out of curiosity, John crossed the Bull Ring, just as the riots were beginning to disperse.  He stayed close to the market hall, there is no evidence that he had any involvement in the riots.  As he watched the unfolding drama, a foot soldier approached him, ordering him to move along. John replied that he move along when he was ready, a response which must have infuriated the foot soldier who was probably already under a good deal of pressure. The soldier then called on a dragoon who, from atop his horse, made a brutal attack on John, bringing down his sabre and allegedly shouting ‘damn your soul to hell, you will go back’. In his statement to the jury, the dragoon claimed that John had tried to pull the horse down, grabbing the bridle. My own thinking is that John panicked, perhaps putting his hand up to deflect the blows during the terrible encounter.

John’s hat and coat were presented to the jury at the inquest. There were clear sabre slices through both and it was revealed that he had received a substantial cut to his elbow, deep enough to expose the bone. He was treated at the General Hospital, dying from septicaemia after having his arm amputated. At his inquest, the jury first returned a verdict of ‘legally justified homicide’. The coroner advised the jury to reconsider, stating that their wording indicated a ‘disapprobation of the law’. The jury argued that the military had over reacted to John’s refusal, but must have acquiesced and dropped the word ‘legally’, as the coroner’s roll has only the words ‘justified homicide’.

John Binnon’s reaction to being ordered to move along, for me, revealed a sense of frustration at the situation that had been imposed on the town. The Brummies were tired of curfews and the aggressive uniformed presence. The rioting that took place on the 15th began when a crowd marching along Camp Hill received news that the Metropolitan police had assaulted yet another man in the Bull Ring. There is no evidence that this had happened, but the rumour proved to be the spark that lit a very short fuse. His story shows that history has multiple narratives. That the life of the ordinary man and woman is as relevant to our understanding of the past as the grand narratives.

The coroner’s inquest into John Binnon was reported in the national press, including the Times. The information here was taken from The Morning Chronicle, August 13th, 1839. The coroner’s roll can be seen on microfilm in the Local Studies Centre at the Library of Birmingham. Visitors to the permanent exhibition Birmingham, its people, its history at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery will be able to see a brief reference to the Bull Ring riots in a cabinet which contains a Birmingham police officer’s truncheon. The reference ‘one man died’, is to John Binnon. My thesis on the riots can be downloaded here http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/4930/