The Rugby Romance

Drury Lane, looking south towards St. Mary-le-Strand, circa 1870. This end of Drury Lane was obliterated by the Aldwych/Kingsway development of the early 20th century.

In London, that city gorged with wealth, and where palaces filled to the full with treasures extend over a space of several leagues, there are frightful dens,—dens without a name, inhabited by cadaverous souls in hideous bodies,—dens, the like of which do not exist on any point of the globe. Louis Blanc, writing on the ‘Rugby Romance’, Letters on England, September 21st, 1861

As we saw last week, child neglect is common currency in the lives of the Victorian poor, the tales of misery so extreme as to invite parody. But The Rugby Romance was the name given to a startling news item from 1861, a story that made the news because a child’s plight crossed class boundaries.

January, 1859. Richard Guinness Hill, a brewer from Dublin (but no relation to the famed Guinness dynasty), was visiting England in the company of his heavily pregnant wife, Amy Georgina. Mrs Hill was ‘a young lady of great personal attractions and large fortune, the granddaughter of the late Sir Francis Burdett, and niece of Miss Burdett Coutts, who had taken a great interest in her welfare.’ Amy Georgina was only eighteen when she married Hill and her youth and sheltered upbringing may account for some of the events that followed. The couple were en route to London from Liverpool when Amy went into labour; they were forced to break their journey in Rugby and the baby was delivered in a room in a local inn, the only lodgings that were available. As his wife was recuperating, Hill visited the local registrar’s office and registered the child, a boy, under a false name. He then insisted that the newborn should be put out to nurse and went ahead to London to seek ‘appropriate care’ for the child. Upon arrival in the capital, Hill traipsed from Euston to Piccadilly, where he noticed a woman begging in Great Windmill Street; the woman was parading a pair of shivering, barefoot children to elicit pity and Hill spotted an opportunity. He slipped her a coin and made his proposition:

‘Will you take charge of a child? It will not be necessary for you to treat him as if he really belonged to you, and you can dispose of him by putting him into a workhouse, or into an asylum.’

After a little prevarication, the woman conferred with a friend and both women agreed to accept the child and Hill’s offer of £16 ‘ a year’ for the infant’s care. He then wrote to Amy in Rugby and assured her that he had secured suitable provision for the child and asked for the infant to be sent to London by a specific train, in the care of a fourteen-year old serving girl from the inn. This girl, Catherine, was to be a crucial witness, as was the begging woman with whom Hill had contracted the deal. Catherine later testified that she cradled the ten-day old child from Rugby to London, arriving at Euston at midnight. There, she was met by the child’s father and two shabby women, both of whom were drunk. In Catherine’s presence, the father gave his child into the care of the pair of street drinkers. The baby was wrapped in a shawl that had sentimental value for Amy, and she had specifically asked for it to be returned; but the new nursemaid obstreperously insisted on keeping it, and so the shawl went with the child. On returning to Rugby, Catherine voiced her misgivings to the child’s mother but Hill emphatically dismissed the child’s protestations; and Amy, presumably browbeaten by her controlling husband, acquiesced.

Two years passed. Mrs. Hill’s anxieties for her son grew as her husband’s assurances of his welfare became more spotty. Finally, he changed his story and said that the child was dead. Or that he had been sent to Australia. Clearly, Hill was ‘gaslighting’ Amy to an appalling degree, and by now was physically abusing her as well. The couple separated and Amy’s family instigated a search for her missing toddler. The Burdetts’ solicitor hired a sharp London detective, officer Brett, who posted a £20 reward for information. After searching ‘all the holes and corners of St. Giles’, Brett finally arrived in Lincoln’s Court, a ‘filthy alley’ off Drury Lane. This is how the story was reported in The Annual Register’s chronicle of 1861:

After searching various rooms, Brett proceeded to a small apartment on the second floor. In one corner lay a man, nearly naked and apparently dying, and squatting all over the floor were several women in a most ragged and miserable condition. … On the floor in this horrible den Brett discovered the heir to £14,000 almost nude, and covered with vermin and filth. No shoes were on his feet, and only one dirty rag enveloped the entire body. One of his thighs had been broken and had been badly mis-set, his toes were terribly scarred with wounds, and the head and body generally showed unmistakable marks of neglect and ill-usage. The house, from top to bottom, appeared to be occupied by prostitutes and beggars.’ 

The child was positively identified by the recovery of the shawl, which the beggar had pawned, and of a box that had once contained the child’s linen. For eighteen months the woman had used the child as a beggar’s prop, holding it in her arms when panhandling in the street, and leaving it in a workhouse for a couple of spells when she’d been in prison. £14,000 in 1861 would be worth something like £1.4 M today, and that would have been the child’s annual income. Hill’s motivation seems to have been pure greed; if Amy had no children, he would receive her inheritance upon her death. (One really does recall the plot of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, from which the term ‘gaslighting’ derives.) The boy was reunited with Amy, who had gone to stay with family in Brussels; rather incredibly, Hill followed them there in an attempt to effect a reconciliation. Unable to arrest Hill on the continent, the police lured him into a trap: Amy returned to London, Hill followed in pursuit and was promptly arrested when he tried to make contact. When the case finally came to court, Hill was charged merely with false register of a child’s birth, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of seven years hard labour, and ‘ …therefore out of all proportion to the cruelty and unnatural conduct of the prisoner; but it seems to have been the only legal mode of securing his apprehension’. Hill’s solicitor made unsavoury implications about Amy’s character, implying that Amy’s child was not fathered by Hill. But public sympathy was firmly on the side of the poor child, even if there was widespread incredulity at the credulousness of the boy’s mother. This was a famous case in its day and reads like the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel. However, I’m afraid I can’t tell you the outcome of the trial. I read that Hill couldn’t find anyone to stand bail for him, in spite of him writing ‘copious letters‘ and having ‘an unlimited supply’ of writing paper. But I hit a brick wall; the ultimate fate of the family is obscure. What happened to the son and heir in later life? Maybe I’ll find out when the libraries re-open.

‘The story itself is strange and romantic enough, and yet it is at the same time sufficiently commonplace. It is very like the story books, and as nearly as possible fills out the recognised and traditional tale familiar to nurseries and school-rooms, of the little boy who, being a bad little boy, was given to the gipsies.’

‘The Crawler’: photograph by John Thomson from ‘Street Life in London’ 1877. The woman in this photo was the widow of a tailor, here minding another woman’s child for a few pennies. I don’t wish to infer that this unfortunate woman was in any way a criminal, but this is one of the most penetrating images ever made of London street life (or, for that matter, of human misery).

Flogging A Dead Thing

The Fortune of War, circa 1900. Note the Golden Boy.

Every trade has its pub. And The Fortune of War, Giltspur Street, Smithfield, was a speakeasy for the bodysnatching fraternity. At one time, it was said that the pub accommodated its clientele to the extent that the landlord allowed customers to leave corpses under the benches – with tags attached – whilst they went to try to strike a deal with the surgeons at St. Barts, just around the corner (the porters at Barts left empty hampers outside the hospital, a tacit invitation for them to be taken and filled with fresh ‘specimens’ by those in the ‘resurrection’ business’). And if Barts didn’t want what you were offering, there were plenty of other places you could try.

Saturday 5th November 1831. A ferry carrying two men arrived at the riverside entrance of Robert Smirke’s handsome new King’s College (so new that a mason was still working on site) to enquire whether the resident surgeons might be interested in a body – or, as they said in the trade, a ‘Thing’. The two men, one of whom was drunk, were trying to sell a ‘Big Small’, and wanted ten guineas for it. (A dead child was a ‘Small’; a ‘Big Small’ was a dead adolescent. Ten guineas would be worth something in excess of £1,000 today.) They had been trying to sell the Thing since the previous day and had traipsed all over London in search of a good price (as well as hospitals, there were private academies where anatomy was taught), fortified by frequent visits to the pubs en route. The surgeon said he might be interested – but would only offer nine guineas. The men went away and returned later with two accomplices and a hamper containing the body of a boy of about 14, which they tipped onto the floor. ‘It’ s a good ‘un’, said one of the men trying to make the sale. The dissecting room porter and the college anatomist were suspicious of the freshness of the corpse and called in the Covent Garden police.

At the start of the 19th century the science of anatomy advanced and the ‘bloody code’ of the 18th century receded, resulting in fewer executions and, thus, fewer bodies available for study. Surgeons had to make a queasy compact with those who were prepared to furnish subjects by illegal means, and prices were high. But although the trade aroused public revulsion, it was seen as a relatively trivial crime, as a human body was not considered to be anyone’s actual property. The commonest method of obtaining a body was simply to dig up a newly-dug grave, but other ruses included posing as a relative of the recently deceased to claim their remains, or stealing them from homes where they were awaiting burial. But some in the trade resorted to murder, and the notoriety of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare in 1828 exposed the medical profession’s indifference to the sources of their research material. In London in 1831 the murder of ‘The Italian Boy’ threw the furtive relationship between body- snatcher and man of science into sharp relief, and shone a searchlight into London’s darkest corners.

John Bishop, the ringleader of the gang collared at King’s College (and who claimed to have sold over five hundred Things), later confessed that the ‘Italian Boy’ was actually a drover from Lincolnshire that he had picked up on market day in Smithfield and enticed back to his family home in Nova Scotia Gardens, Bethnal Green: a swampy, semi-rural slum. There, Bishop and his son-in-law accomplice Thomas Williams stupefied the boy with rum and laudanum, then drowned him in a well at the back of the house. Bishop admitted to using this method on another child and a woman. (In his confession Bishop exonerated his grave-robbing colleague James May of knowledge of the murders. The party who carried the body to King’s was a Covent Garden porter and sometime corpse-hauler who was not charged in connection with the killings.) It is at least possible that the real number of Bishop and Williams’s victims was far greater but no-one was in a position to prove it. Many women and children went missing in the capital but institutions kept very few records of their transactions with bodysnatchers, and human remains were totally consumed by dissection. As no-one reported a Lincolnshire drover missing, the corpse was formally identified as Carlo Ferrari: the lost ‘Italian boy’, trafficked from northern Italy by a ‘master’ who sent him out to exhibit animals for pennies on London’s streets.

Sarah Wise’s magnificent book on the case depicts London in that nameless age in the reign of William IV, the same city that terrified the young Dickens and formed the setting for his greatest novels.* An unlit, unpaved, undrained, festering town that has more in common with Hogarth’s London than the city of the high Victorian era. A stinking metropolis of rookeries and public executions, of cattle driven to slaughter through busy streets, overflowing cesspools, vagrant children and numberless poor. In this context the body-snatchers sound like almost any other street trader, hawking their wares around the teaching hospitals and schools of anatomy before the produce went off. What is really striking is the social aspect of the trade in the dead; as Ms Wise comments, convivial drinking was central to the enterprise, and a pub like The Fortune of War was a safe space for those in the trade to share tips and compare notes on the going rate for a Thing. On Friday, the day before the trip to King’s and during one of the gang’s many trips to the pub, James May stood at the Fortune’s bar rinsing blood and flesh from a set of teeth he produced from his handkerchief. The teeth belonged to the dead boy, and he nonchalantly discussed their potential value with the barman: May was confident that he could get two pounds for them. (He managed to sell them to a dentist before his arrest; the dentist later displayed them in his window as ‘the teeth of the murdered Italian Boy’.) The Fortune of War was only a few yards up the hill from Newgate Gaol, and it was outside the Debtor’s Door of that prison that Bishop and Williams were hanged before a large crowd on 5 December, 1831, just four weeks after their arrest. Their bodies were promptly handed over for dissection. James May was sentenced to transportation to Australia, but died on board a prison ship before the voyage began. The Fortune of War was demolished in 1910.

* Sarah Wise suggests that Dickens might actually have been present at the Old Bailey for the climax of the trial of the Bishop gang: an anonymous published account of the reading of the verdict bears a striking resemblance to Fagin’s court appearance in Oliver Twist.

Newgate’s Debtor’s Door, photographed shortly before the prison was demolished in 1904.

Valentine’s Day Veg

Spot the missing theatre … The Golden Lion, King St., St. James’s., December 2019.

The Golden Lion on King Street is a theatre pub that has lost its theatre. Until 1957 it was the stage door watering hole for The St. James’s Theatre, one of those grand 19th century monuments so enthusiastically demolished by 20th century bureaucrats. Despite the protests of some of the greatest actors of the age, the theatre was pulled down for no very good reason: it was just old at a time when being old was unforgivable. A great pity. Apart from anything else, The St. James’s Theatre was the scene of Oscar Wilde’s greatest triumph, and one of the settings for his tragic fall. It’s a very familiar story but it remains endlessly fascinating, and more complex than the legend allows.

On Valentine’s Day 1895 the St. James’s saw the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, a production starring the St. James’s charismatic manager George Alexander, a regular collaborator of Wilde’s. As the play was in progress, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry lurked outside, clutching a bouquet of vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde. Queensberry was furious with Wilde because of the playwright’s association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, forever known by his pet name of ‘Bosie’. But Wilde had been tipped off, Queensberry’s ticket to the show was cancelled and he was denied entry to the theatre. The premiere of Earnest was the apotheosis of Wilde’s career – but Queensberry was soon to have his revenge.

Four days after Earnest‘s first night, Queensberry visited Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, 13 Albermarle St., just north of Piccadilly; unable to find Wilde, he scrawled a note on one of his visiting cards and left it with the hall porter. The message read:

To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.

The porter read it and wrote the time and date of its receipt on the reverse. It was unseen by anyone else until Wilde went to his club ten days later. On receiving the note Wilde considered leaving the country – but he was staying at a Piccadilly hotel, couldn’t pay his bill and thus felt trapped. Wilde was hounded not just by the mad Marquess but by the mad son: the toxic combination of the provocative note left at his club and the spitting hatred Bosie felt for his father pushed Wilde into suing Queensberry for libel. This was an extraordinarily bad idea. For all his brilliance, Wilde was a vulnerable outsider: an Irish writer of ambiguous sexuality, with expensive tastes but an uncertain income, he was ill-placed to launch a libel action against a vengeful aristocrat with a taste for pugilism. Years later, in a letter to Bosie, he deplored the way he was goaded into pursuing the case: ‘… on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. […] Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles’. With a pithy turn of phase, he also recalled the preliminary consultations with his lawyer: ‘… in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man …’.

Queensberry’s note to Wilde: exhibits A and B in Wilde’s doomed libel case, as kept at the National Archives.

Queensberry’s homophobic fury was driven by grief. In 1893 his eldest son Drumlanrig had died in a hunting accident, killed by a round from his own shotgun. At the time of his death Drumlanrig was Private Secretary to Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Earl Rosebery. The verdict was accidental death but rumours of suicide abounded, implying that Drumlanrig had sacrificed himself to spare Rosebery scandalous revelations. Queensberry suspected that Drumlanrig was having an affair with Rosebery and blamed him for his son’s death. Queensberry followed Rosebery across Europe in the hope of confronting him publicly but was prevented from doing so. Thwarted in pursuit of his primary quarry, Queensberry was further incensed by Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, which he saw as mirroring the one between Rosebery and Drumlanrig. (Ironically, news of Drumlanrig’s tragedy caused Wilde to scrap his plan to dump the troublesome Bosie.) Wilde was a far easier target for Queensberry’s rage: by the time Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the Albermarle Club, Rosebery had become Prime Minister.

As per the Cleveland Street Scandal of a few years earlier, the establishment was vulnerable when it came to homosexuality, with sexual transgression across class boundaries being especially taboo. Wilde’s lunatic libel case merely exposed his own sexual tastes, as Queensberry’s legal counsel announced his intention to call rent boys known to Wilde as witnesses for the defence. Wilde withdrew his suit, leading to Queensberry’s formal acquittal. Within hours, Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and Gross Indecency. The Crown prosecuted Wilde (now bankrupt as a result of costs from his libel suit) not once but twice, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury. Once Rosebery’s name was invoked by Queensberry in connection with Wilde it was inevitable that Wilde would have to fall. He was convicted at the second trial and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde’s demise is generally viewed as a pristine example of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, but sympathy for Wilde’s persecution (exemplified by Richard Ellmann’s deeply-felt but very partisan biography) tends to obscure an element of coercion in his dealings with at least some of his sexual partners. If Wilde came to court today, it’s likely that the outcome would be much the same; one doesn’t have to look far for recent parallels.

The site of the St. James’s Theatre is now occupied by a bombastic office block, although Wilde’s portrait appears on a commemorative wall frieze that merely emphasises the theatre’s absence. (As with the plaque commemorating the vanished Adelphi Terrace, what is the bloody point of memorialising buildings that should never have been pulled down in the first place?) The Golden Lion remains an engaging pub, and one can imagine how exciting and atmospheric it must have been after a first night. Whether or not Wilde himself ever came here to drink is uncertain; he probably would have swanned off to Kettners or The Cafe Royal straight after a show. But I bet Queensberry came in for a sharpener, vegetables in hand, blood on his mind.

Commemorative plaque, Angel Court, on the site of The St. James’s Theatre. Wilde is pictured centre.