Thursday 4 November 2010

A Police Court

A marvellous piece from All the Year Round of 1890 ... a police-court (the magistrate's court) in all its glory ...


To make the acquaintance of a police-court is, at some time or other, the common lot of most of those who bear the burden of life within the limits of the great metropolis. It is not necessary to belong to the criminal classes, whose knowledge of the subject—like Mr. Sam Weller's of London in general—is extensive and peculiar; nor either to be a victim of the predatory race, although, in that case, the experience is likely to be remembered. For there are many other ways in which the jurisdiction of the police-court may be brought; home to you.
    Have you left home on some wintry morning without providing for the clearance of snow from the strip of pavement in front of your dwelling? Has your chimney caught fire, and have the services of the fire brigade been zealously administered to put it out? Has your little dog run out unmuzzled into the street, and been run in by the active officer on the beat? Have you, in fine, offended in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, against the written or unwritten law, whether civil, municipal, or criminal, you have a fair chance of enjoying an evil quarter of an hour about the precincts of a London police-court.
    The police-court is not usually to be sought in busy thoroughfares and well-frequented streets. It is, in most cases, rather difficult to find, and boasts of little outward embellishment. In a quiet, dowdy street, the plain, inconspicuous building may be passed without any particular notice. Sometimes, indeed, the quietude may be broken by the loud, passionate cries of some female, furious at being temporarily deprived of her mate :
    "What, my Bill to 'ave three months' hard for mugging that wretched scoundrel Joe! Oh, let me get at him!"
    And Joe stands a chance of putting in a bad time, if he should encounter wild-eyed Bess in her present mood. But these clamours soon die away in the distance, as discreet friends hurry the girl away from the dangerous neighbourhood, where her riotous demeanour might involve her in the same fate as the beloved one. And the street resumes its accustomed quiet, people slipping in and out of the portals of the police-court in a quiet, undemonstrative way.
    Yet, if some case is going on which excites public interest—such as a prize-fighting prosecution, or the sequel of a gambling club raid—then there will be a rush and a crowd that will startle the neighbourhood from its propriety, and task all the energies of the burly constables on duty to prevent the whole court being carried by a rush.
    But, arriving at the police-court about ten a m., the hour at which business usually commences, there will be found, perhaps, a number of people, chiefly women, clustered about in the lobby, and pressing upon the policeman in charge of the inner door; people of chirpy and chaffy demeanour, and respectable, if homely attire, who seem quite free from the nervous misery which attends an unaccustomed visit to a court of justice, whether as plaintiff or defendant. And these jocular people may prove to be a number of careless matrons and maidens who have lost or mislaid certain valuable securities known as pawn-tickets — a mischance which renders necessary a statutory declaration before a magistrate. And when these are disposed of, a knot of people still remain who are passed into the court one by one, by the attendants. These are applicants for summonses; neighbours, perhaps, who have ceased to be neighbourly, and have come to open warfare; servants who have complaints against former employers ; people who have been beaten, and are not content. With these there may be a few who have come for " advice," it may be upon a matrimonial dispute, or on some knotty question of lodging-house ethics ; while there are, perhaps, one or two females of eccentric costume and deportment who seize every occasion of having a word or two with the magistrate in reference to some treasured grievance.
    When all these applicants have been admitted, and ranged in order, a little time will elapse during which they will have an opportunity of studying the interior aspect of a police-court : the bench, with perhaps a few ornamental festoons of drapery overhead ; but everything else plain and of strictly utilitarian arrangement. The chief clerk is below, arranging his papers and dockets; the solicitors' pew is occupied by a single representative of the profession; while the box reserved for the fourth estate contains a solitary reporter, who seems to be thinking of anything but reporting on his own account, as he sits absorbed in the morning newssheet.
    Indeed, of all that passes in a police-court, a very small portion finds its way to the public press. Only if your case should chance to present anything unusual, grotesque, sentimental, or amusing, it will be picked up as so much treasure-trove by the vigilant reporter, and, multiplied by the ingenious flimsy, will form a paragraph perhaps in every morning paper, and thus disseminate your name and fame to the four quarters of the globe. With all this there is a gentle buzz of conversation ; the public exchange confidences as to the merits of their cases; police officers murmur discreetly to officials; when, suddenly, there is a little stir in the court, the usher calls out "silence!" and the magistrate makes his appearance from his private room, and takes his seat with businesslike alacrity on the bench of justice.
    The police have the first turn, as might be expected; but the list of summonses they require for various infractions of the law is soon gone through, and then the general public has its turn. Each applicant steps up to the witness-box, states his or her case; the magistrate puts a question or two, and then grants a summons or refuses it. If the summons is granted, the applicant passes into an adjoining office, pays two shillings, and, having ascertained on what day the case will come on, has nothing more to do in the matter till then, as the police undertake the duty of serving these summonses. Then follow the applications for advice, and sometimes for relief — for each police-court has a poor-box, which is replenished from time to time by gifts from the charitably-disposed, who have a well-founded confidence that their contributions will be distributed only to deserving and pressing cases.
    When all this light and preliminary business is disposed of, the real, grim, serious work of the police-court begins. The charge-sheet, a document of portentous size, and often containing a formidable catalogue of offenders, is handed in by the police, and the hearing of the night-charges begins.
    And the prisoners—whence come they? Probably from many different quarters, and by various means of transit. Some may have walked, under the charge of police, from a neighbouring police-station ; or a cab may have brought some prisoner of higher pretensions than the ordinary. But the most have arrived some time before the opening of the court, driven up in the spacious, but not individually roomy, police-van. There has been a general gaol delivery of all the police-cells throughout the metropolis—such a delivery as occurs every workaday morning, when omnibuses, trains, and trams are crammed with smart, well-draped, and cheerful-looking young men, and, in these latter days, with a considerable sprinkling of young women, who may answer to the same description, hurrying, with hearts more or less light, to their daily employment. There are not many light hearts in the police-van, probably, although a reckless joviality is often assumed by its more seasoned passengers, and songs and choruses, with a dismal kind of gaiety about them, often enliven the long and dreary passage.
    A certain number of police-courts, indeed, are in direct communication with adjacent police-stations—six of them, to be exact, out of a total of sixteen—and in these cases, the prisoners are brought direct from the police-cells to the dock of the court. But when the first batch of prisoners has been delivered, there is still work for "Black Maria "—the half-affectionate sobriquet of the police-omnibus, although she is not exactly black, but as dark a green as can be painted—for the "remands " have to be brought up from the various prisons, from Holloway, Pentonville, or Millbank. And there is a good deal of "remanding" under the police system of prosecution; and an unfortunate prisoner — presumably innocent — may be jolted about for some hours, as his conveyance deposits passengers at one police-court or another, before he arrives at his destination, and may spend a long day in the police-court cells, only to appear for a moment before a magistrate, while some piece of formal evidence is given to justify a " remand." To the seasoned offender this is a rather agreeable diversion of the monotony of prison life, he enjoys the ribald songs of the police-van, the coarse jokes and highly-seasoned language of the police-court cells with the companionship of birds of a congenial feather. But to the prisoner who is as yet not inoculated with the criminal taint, the experience is sad and depressing enough.
    It is now eleven a.m., and the business of the police-court is in full swing. The night charges are on, and on a Monday morning these charges are rather heavy. Saturday night, with wages paid, and drink in plenty to excite the quarrelsome, brings a good many to spend the Sunday in the weary confinement of the police-cells. And the lobby of the police-court is well packed with a miscellaneous crowd—witnesses, friends of prisoners who have come to see how they get out of their scrapes, people who are waiting to surrender to their bail. Here are shabbily-dressed women with babies, wearied and depressed; a coster's bride, in smart hat and ostrich feather, and brilliant shawl; a knot of sturdy but predacious - looking fellows whispering among themselves, well and warmly clad in corduroys and velveteens ; poor starving creatures in rags and tatters, and wild-looking females in silks and satins, all frayed and faded.
    It is a dreary, drizzling day, well suited to the occasion ; the stone-paved passage is damp, and smeared with mud from the trampling, weary feet which have passed to and fro, and the long, wooden bench by the wall is filed from end to end. Halfway up the passage is the entrance to the court, enclosed within a wooden screen, and jealously guarded by a burly constable. The court is nominally a public one, but practical considerations prescribe the rule, "No admittance except on business," At the extreme end of the passage another door opens into the interior regions of the court; and here are gathered a number of women and youths who watch anxiously for the opening of the door, and hold hurried conferences with the warder. These, we are told, are mostly the friends of prisoners on remand, who hope for the opportunity of communicating with them; and some are provided with baskets or basins or pocket-handkerchiefs containing provisions, for an untried prisoner is permitted to have his meals from the outside world if he has money to pay for them, or friends willing to provide them. If he has neither, and is detained in the police-cells till the afternoon, he is entitled to a meal, cost not exceeding fourpence, at the public expense. But the choky feeling of one awaiting examination is generally meal enough for him, and the allowance is seldom claimed.    
    Next to the prisoner's door is the warrant-room, where uniformed policemen transact the business relating to the issue and execution of those peremptory documents. And beyond this there is nothing to be seen of the economy of the police-court by the weary expectants in the lobby. Women huddle together on the benches and try to keep their babies warm in the folds of old worn shawls ; men hunch up their shoulders and stick their hands in their pockets, Now and then a name is called by the usher, and repeated in stentorian tones by the stalwart policeman. The people called are generally those who do not happen to be there. The friend of overnight, who valiantly promised to bear witness on behalf of the prisoner, is generally found wanting in the cold atmosphere of the morning's reflection.
    But now the doorkeeper thinks he can find room for one or two more, and the interior of the court is revealed, with the magistrate on the bench, a prisoner in the dock, a witness in the box, and the proceedings going on with a slow deliberation that shows something serious to be in progress. The summary cases are disposed of quickly enough ; but this is an Old Bailey business, and the clerk of the court is getting the evidence into the depositions, that bulky bundle of papers which will accompany the prisoner before the Grand Jury, which will be spread before the Judge as he sits on the awful judgement-bench, and finally endorsed with the finding of the Jury, will be buried for all time in the legal archives of the country. The case, indeed, is serious enough. There has been a fight with knives in the slums, and one of the combatants has been desperately wounded, and is now dying in the hospital. His antagonist is here in the dock, a dark, powerful young fellow, stolid enough, and seemingly almost unmoved, as he listens to the slowly-enunciated evidence that is accumulating against him, "Have you any question to ask this witness?" says the magistrate, as a policeman finishes his story. "We begun with fists and we finished with knives, that's all I got to say," he murmurs, doggedly ; and, in effect, it is all that he has on his mind. And when he is remanded he turns away with a look of relief on his face, and returns with alacrity to his cell.
    The next case is one of picking a pocket. The prisoner, a strong, burly young fellow, not at all of the Artful Dodger class, nor belonging to the sleek, slippery class of thieves who wind in and about a crowd like so many eels. Our prisoner evidently belongs to the heavy-handed, rather than the light-fingered gentry; and such is the prosecutor's experience, a respectable, amiable-looking country manufacturer, who complains of having been unceremoniously hustled as well as robbed. That the hustling profession is a profitable one is shown by the result of the search by the police of the prisoner's pockets, which contained, besides five pounds in gold—which happens, curiously enough, to be the exact sum the prosecutor lost—nearly two pounds' worth of silver and copper.
    While this is going on there is a little stir of interest and expectation among a little knot of young men, who are leaning over the barrier of what is called the public part of the court. They are of the same build and general appearance as the prisoner, and probably belong, not exactly to the criminal class, but to that border region which unhappily seems to be growing more extensive in these latter days, whose denizens turn their hands indifferently to honest labour or to deeds of violence, with a general preference for the latter. The cause of this interest is presently manifest when a prison official comes forward to prove a previous conviction against the honest youth in the dock. Upon this the solicitor, who has been defending the prisoner, holds a hurried conference with his client, and announces that, by his advice, the prisoner will plead guilty, in order that the matter may be settled by the magistrate. " Six months' hard labour," is the result of this advice, which was probably wise enough. For although there might have been a slender chance of acquittal before a Jury, who are not allowed to know anything about "previous convictions," yet the sentence, if found guilty, would have been much heavier for previous convictions — and half-a-dozen more might have turned up at the Sessions — which count for a good deal in the allotment of punishment.
    "And what about the money?" asks the now-convicted prisoner. "Is he to have it all?" indicating the prosecutor, whom he evidently considers to be a very unworthy character. The magistrate orders the gold taken from the prosecutor to be restored to him. The rest, the silver and bronze, is the property of the thief, who leaves the court with a hop, skip, and jump, seemingly consoled by the prospect of starting in business with a little capital at the end of his period of retirement. And yet, perhaps, we do the thief injustice, who may have tender feelings, like anybody else. Possibly one of those patient women with a baby, who waits in the lobby, may be the prisoner's wife, and the money may be meant for her, to keep body and soul together till she can find employment.
    A string of cases follow of no particular interest, and some are dismissed rejoicing, and others go, bewailing fine or imprisonment, back to the cells. Again appears a wild, reckless, passionate girl in tawdry, ragged garments, who bursts into loud lamentations as she stands before the magistrate. She has been "put back " for some petty theft, being young, and hitherto unconvicted, to see if some benevolent lady will take charge of her in a Home. The Home is ready if the girl is willing. But no! she loudly and passionately declares that she will not go to any Home. And then the girl's mother is sent for, who is waiting outside-an eminently respectable woman in appearance, who might be housekeeper in a nobleman's family—and mother and daughter exchange looks with the width of the court between them —the decorous-looking woman in black silk, and the wild, unkempt, and draggled creature in the dock. The mother is for the Home, too—one wonders what sort of a home she made for this wild, erring daughter of hers. But the girl is firm enough, amidst her tears, with a decided negative.
    "Then there is nothing for it but a prison," says the magistrate, severely.
    And at the prospect, the girl's resolution breaks down. "Oh, I will be good!" she weeps forth like a froward child.
    And so the incident terminates to everybody's satisfaction. And we will hope that the young woman will come under firm and capable hands.
    After this, "remands" come in thick and fast; prisoners appear and disappear. People who have been "put back" are, perhaps, finally discharged with a caution; others get small fines, which they pay, and they, too, go their way rejoicing. At last the charge sheet is disposed of; it flutters from the hands of the magistrate to those of the chief clerk. And that is a sign that the morning's business is finished, and there is a general clearance of the court as the magistrate disappears into his private room. It is only a break in the day's proceedings. The court will sit again at two, and continue till the business then in hand is disposed of : and that will be business of a more private character. Today may be devoted to the School Board ; and parents and children, school visitors and managers will be in the respective positions of defendants and plaintiffs. Another afternoon will be given to private summonses, the squabbles, grievances, and offences which the police have not taken up. Cabmen and omnibus conductors may have a sitting to themselves. And, after the luncheon hour, the lobby will be filled by a more orderly and respectable crowd than that which usually awaits the disposal of the night charges.
    But the luncheon hour may afford us a good opportunity for examining the interior economy of a police-court, which, in this case, happens to be one of modern construction, and among the most convenient of its kind. To the right of the public court is the private room of the magistrate, and the office where the clerical business of the court is conducted. The other side reveals another phase of the police-court ; it is a gaol as well as a court, a gaol in which no prisoners spend the night, but which has its gaoler, who is responsible for the safety of the prisoners while under his care. A long passage is lined with a row of cells, which are mostly occupied at the present time, each cell holding four or five prisoners. It is not a gloomy place by any means, and the prisoners, a presumably innocent crew—although, perhaps, they do not look it—are not altogether silent or brooding, but seem to cultivate a jocose and cheerful spirit. And such cells as are empty are clean and sweet, with sufficient light and ventilation. The walls are done in white glazed bricks, and the cells warmed with hot-water pipes. And there is plenty of work going on in the way of enlarging and beautifying the present accommodation for prisoners. Opposite the cells is the waiting-room, so called, a room divided into compartments like the old-fashioned chop-house. For the ordinary prisoners from the police-courts, are not placed in cells, or put in charge of the gaoler. Each takes his seat in one of the reserved compartment and the constable whose captive he may be takes up his position in the central passage. Then, as the cases are taken, the prisoners are ranged along the passage with their attendant policemen, who see their charges safely into the dock, and then are quit of them altogether, except in so far as they may have to appear as witnesses in the case. From the dock, the choice is, liberty or the police-court cell. Even those who have the option of paying a fine must go to the cells till the fine is paid, unless they can discharge it on the spot.
    On the floor above there is a similar arrangement of cells; passages, and waiting-room, for the use of female prisoners; and here, too, everything is being renovated and improved—the result of a Commission appointed several years ago to enquire into the accommodation provided for untried prisoners at police-courts. Coming downstairs again, the passage from the cells leads into a roomy courtyard, surrounded by high walls, all the windows looking out on which are strongly barred, while a formidable pair of gate, closed by heavy bars, will presently give admittance to the police-van, and will then be carefully closed till the van has taken up its load. In a general way, the van will arrive at about half-past two, and carry off the bulk of the prisoners detained in the cells. But for any who may be expecting release on bail, or on the payment of flue, or who may be subsequently committed, "Black Maria " calls again as late as seven o'clock, after which nothing further goes ; and those who cannot find bail in money must be driven off to prison. And with the clanging of the gate behind the last batch of prisoners, the police-court is free, till next morning, of the labours and responsibilities of its position.
All the Year Round, 1890

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