Sunday 6 December 2009

Bang! You're dead!


One of the things I'm always trying to tell people about the Victorians, is - contrary to our traditional view - how much they liked to have fun. Public entertainments of all types flourished in the Victorian period, and one that is largely forgotten is the shooting-gallery. There were no restrictions on fire-arms ownership, and I suspect they weren't even licensed. These establishments were, I think, predominantly small side-show type experiences with air-rifles by the end of the century (cf. the shooting-gallery described in 1850s Bleak House, which is a larger, more professional affair). I'm thinking of including one in my next book, and I've been trawling the press. They were very common places of amusement, and - yes, you guessed it - rather dangerous. Here's two examples of accidents (many can be found!):

Samuel Porter, 38, a gentleman described as an engineer of Magheramorne, Ireland, was charged on Tuesday with unlawfully shooting Charles Cresswell, an attendant at one of the rifle saloons of the Royal Aquarium, Westminster. Mr. E. Duncan Rymer, solicitor, who appeared for the accused said he wished at the outset to say that no one regretted this sad occurrence more than his client did. It will be shown that it was a pure accident. - Mr. Safford, the chief clerk, mentioned that the injured man was in Westminster hospital, and he was informed progressing favourably. - Inspector Noviss deposed that at a quarter to nine o'clock on Monday night, he was on duty at the Aquarium and was called to the shooting-gallery, where he found one of the attendants named Cresswell, lying on his back with a bullet-wound in the left breast. The defendant was pointed out as the person who had shot the man. Mr. Porter, who appearance greatly distressed, said he was handed a pistol by Cresswell, and it went off accidentally. He (the inspector) had examined and produced the pistol. He found that there was no trigger guard, and scarcely any trigger. The slightest pressure would discharge the weapon. - Mr. Rymer observed that it was a most dangerous weapon to be used in a place of public entertainment. - The magistrate, after examining the pistol, said he quite agreed with Mr. Rymer's opinion. There was no guard to it, and if a man took it up with the least pressure it must explode. It appeared that the attendant handed the pistol to the accused with the barrel pointed at his own breast. It was a more deplorable accident, but the defendant was not to blame in the least. He was discharged.
POLICEMAN SHOT IN HOLBORN. - David Purcell, 44, confectioner, 39, Verulam-street, Holborn, was charged with being drunk and discharging an air-gun in Leather-lane, to the common danger of the public. Police-constable Scoveil, 471 G, said that on the afternoon of Good Friday he was on duty in Leather-lane, and noticed the prisoner at a shooting-gallery stall. On getting some twelve yards past the stall, he felt something strike the back of his helmet. He turned round sharp, and saw the prisoner with an air-gun to his shoulder, the muzzle pointing at witness. The prisoner, who was under the influence of drink, said he knew nothing about it. The pellet lodging inside the helmet. In defence, the Prisoner said he was having "four shots a penny" and was twisting the gun round, when it went off accidentally. It was stated that the prisoner had only come out of gaol on Thursday. There were several previous convictions against the prisoner for assaults. Mr. Horace Smith now sent Purcell to prison for six months for assaulting the constable.


  1. wow, interesting. Since I know guns, for the most part, are banned in the UK, so this post was a nice, surprising read!

  2. Yep, gun licences are a 20th c. invention. Gun ownership had no particular stigma and crimes involving guns were, from my own impressions reading the papers, relatively common and unremarked upon (at least, as far as 'guns' being singled out for criticism).

  3. Interesting post. There's an entry for our parish for the 1870s I think, where a poor servant girl was killed when the gun being cleaned by a 15 year old lad went off with fatal consequences. The poor lad ran away in terror but it was deemed an accident.

    I wonder if they still have the shooting booths at travelling fairs? I can remember trying to hit a playing card at something like 3 paces and still missing as the damnty little .22s were in such poor order.