The police cell household

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The police cell household

What can census records tell us about the life and crimes of Covent Garden?

Written by Jon Short

The first UK Census was compiled in 1801 and has been undertaken at 10 yearly intervals ever since, barring one omission in 1941 due to the ongoing war. The primary objective was to compile a population count based on every individual and their location on a given night in order to avoid double counting. Each district recruited a team of respectable citizens, known as Enumerators, that for a small payment took responsibility for delivery, completion and collection of the necessary forms per property and/or household.[1]

The first 3 exercises collated aggregate population totals per district but in 1841 simple personal information was recorded for every individual and over time the level of data required per person has been extended.

Page from completed 1901 Census form showing persons at Bow Street Police Station on 31st March ©The National Archives

The Enumerator, with the assistance of the relevant officials, would also have been required to record anyone spending the Census night in an institution such as workhouses, prisons, hospitals and also police cells. The records are held by The National Archives and those from 1841 to 1921 inclusive are available for public examination and, thanks to their digitisation projects in conjunction with agencies such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, much of the data can be accessed online. These services are a staple tool for anyone researching their family history with the census record providing a small insight into a lifestyle at a given time

Using similar methods we have been able to find the names of those held in Bow Street Police Station and been able to find the resulting charge and punishment for many.

The starting point for the family researcher is usually a name with maybe an approximate location; alas we did not have the former but was able to establish the need to focus on the St Paul district of Covent Garden, Middlesex and was further aided by the fact the household relationship was often given as “Prisoner”. The 1841 documents proved a little more challenging as the building number was not recorded, only a street name and a list of habitants in that street segregated by building. Random googling identified, from a list of pub landlords, a Henry Henbest as the licensee in 1841 of The Grapes which was at 1 Bow Street plus a Thomas Jackson of the Globe Tavern (now known as the Bow Street Tavern) at number 37 and this information was corroborated with the Census data. By process of elimination the Police Station occupants could be presumed.

Page from completed 1841 Census return showing persons at Bow Street Police Station on 6th June ©The National Archives

The detainees would have been brought before the magistrates the following morning, and it is anticipated that the majority of the charges would relate to social disorder resulting in a dismissal, fine or short custodial sentence.

Unfortunately 19th century records are not available but the London Metropolitan Archives stores the physical documents  from 1900 that carry a brief description of the daily activity at Bow Street Magistrates court. From these documents it has been possible to find the relevant case outcome which confirms the predominance of anti-social behaviour as exemplified by the 1901 Census taken on Sunday 31st March cross referenced against the court records for 1st April per the table below.

Elizabeth Porter33TailoressDrunk & Disorderly Sex Work7 days or 7 shillings
Rosina Power23Hawk Flower SellerDrunk & DisorderlyDischarged
Margaret Collins63LaundressDrunk & DisorderlyDischarged
Alice Foster29Domestic ServantDrunk & Obscene Language1 month hard labour
Louisa Lane45CharwomanDrunk & DisorderlyDischarged
John Hitchings31Window CleanerSuspect on enclosed premisesDischarged
Arthur Alsford27Window CleanerSuspect on enclosed premisesDischarged
William Lambeth34Journeyman BakerGross IndecencyCommitted to trial at Old Bailey
Peter Anderson16General LabourerGross IndecencyCommitted to trial at Old Bailey
George Johnson39Commercial ClerkDrunk & Fighting5 days or 5 shillings
John Cornish52General LabourerDrunk & Obscene Language5 days or 5 shillings
Alex Barber27ElectricianDrunk & DisorderlyDischarged
Charles Turney32PrinterDrunk & Fighting5 days or 5 shillings
Timothy Healey49General LabourerDrunk & Obscene Language Begging5 days or 5 shillings
Frank Prudames40General LabourerBegging14 days hard labour
John Sweeney35General LabourerDrunk & Disorderly5 days or 5 shillings
John Evans28General LabourerBegging Obscene Language5 days or 5 shillings
Henry Levett42General LabourerBegging1 day
Alfred Addelsee26Helmet MakerDrunk & DisorderlyDischarged

Looking at the 1901 activity also throws up some reflection on the early 20th century morality.

  • The most serious charge, against William Lambeth and Peter Andersen resulted in convictions for Sodomy and sentences of 18 months hard labour and 1 months hard labour respectively. The former having a previous conviction, combined with the age of the two defendants may be a reason but the summary of the hearing is suppressed and only the verdict is recorded in the Old Bailey proceedings.
  • John Hitchings and Arthur Alsford were arrested as being a “Suspect on enclosed premises”, which could be used as a catch-all for anyone believed to be wrongdoing but for which evidence of (attempted) burglary could not be found. The pair had declared themselves to be Window Cleaners, and were arrested at 100 High Holborn, which at that time was the White Horse public house and were cleared by the magistrates. Are these facts in any way connected and suggest their innocence or that they were lucky on this occasion?
  • The most common crime was for drunkenness and often resulted in a 5 or 7 shilling fine, unless the prison option was taken, which was the equivalent of the average weekly rent for one room in Soho district.[2] We have ascertained that Frank Prudames had multiple previous convictions for theft as well as begging but there is a slight disparity in that  a couple of the drunk and disorderly cases were discharged.

Was this a case of a “friendly drunk” causing only a minor nuisance or did the defendant’s skilled occupations count in their favour or were there other means to influence the outcome?

One other quirky observation; across the various returns we found a couple of those held at the Police Station overnight were also declared in the census return for the household at their usual address. Families trying to hide potential embarrassment by inadvertently or intentionally breaking the law at the same time?

[1] [27/10/2022]

[2] Arthur Sherwell – Life in West London (1897) – ISBN-13 978-1331933885

The police cell household

The first UK Census was compiled in 1801 and has been undertaken at 10 yearly intervals ever since. Information includes anyone spending the Census night in an institution such as workhouses, prisons, hospitals and also police cells. What they reveal offers some reflection on the early 20th century morality.