In the last post in this series, we looked at the inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas by her mother, held at the North Pole tavern on New North Rd. This time I’ll focus on what happened immediately afterwards: the mobbing of two witnesses.
Last time, I mentioned that the jury had no reported qualms about finding that Celestina Sommer, the murdered girl’s mother, had committed ‘wilful murder’. But others, onlookers or locals, disagreed.
As the Wiltshire Independent reported on 24 February 1856, four days after the inquest:
Rachel (or Rachael) Mount (or Munt) was the servant of Charles and Celestina Sommer who overheard the murder of Celestina Christmas, and Elizabeth, her sister, went with her the following day to report it to the police.
They were obviously seen as the star witnesses at the inquest, though the police were also present, as we’ll see.
What happened was this: after the inquest ended, the room at the North Pole was cleared.
Sergeant Edward Townsend, who was one of the two policemen who arrested the Sommers on Sunday, 19 February, had stayed in the pub, along with Sgt George Bexley, also of N (Islington) Division of the Metropolitan Police. Sgt Bexley was the one who’d found Celestina Sommer’s blood-spotted stockings hidden under her bed. Their evidence was obviously important, too.
‘Two or three persons’ rushed into the pub and ‘begged’ the policemen to help Rachel and Elizabeth Mount. The girls had been on their way to their home in Hoxton, just to the south over the Regent’s Canal, when they were ‘waylaid’ by a group of angry people.
The two sergeants hurried southwards down New North Rd, passing Linton St (where Celestina Sommer had lived) on their right.
On the map on this page I’ve marked the pub with a pale blue dot and the first part of their route is shown by a pale blue arrow. 18 Linton St is where the red dot is.
It was only a short walk to the bridge over the canal. At the corner just before the bridge the policemen saw what they’d been called to sort out – ‘a mob of about 200 persons surrounding the house of Mr Hurd, a publican’ (shown in purple).
I did wonder if Mr Hurd might’ve been connected with the North Pole, but a crawl round some pub history websites (I’ve put links at the bottom) shows the publican in 1856 to be one J Thornett, and the outgoing licensee in 1857 as Alexander Young. So Mr Hurd’s profession could be just a coincidence.
So there they were, two peelers against an angry mob. It seems that they were able to get into Mr Hurd’s house, or at least to talk to someone inside it, because they found out that the girls were hiding there ‘for the purpose of avoiding the inexplicable fury of their assailants’.
The sergeants, ‘perceiving the females overwhelmed with alarm, and weeping’, did all they could to get the crowd to disperse. But it was no good – there they stayed, and it looked like stalemate. Luckily the house had a side door, which the mob didn’t seem to have found.
Somehow the peelers arranged for the Mount sisters to be smuggled out of this door unseen, and the terrified girls and two policemen scurried away along Arlington St, parallel to the canal, towards the bridge at the top of Shepherdess’s Walk, ‘a circuitous route to their home in Hoxton’. It’s shown with a purple arrow on the map.
For a few minutes it seemed that they’d got away, but the mob soon worked out the route they’d taken and chased down Arlington St after them, ‘yelling and hooting’.
Things got so heated that ‘the officers, on reaching the next bridge, situate close to the Block tavern, were compelled to make a stand in the narrow pathway…’
That bridge is shown on the map as the Islington Footpath Bridge (yellow dot) and the Block, renamed the ‘Blockmakers’ Arms’ and now converted to private flats, is just on the other side of the bridge (green dot). I’m sure a footbridge would’ve been narrow enough for the policemen to fend off the mob, at least for a while.
There’s no mention of them summoning help, though I’m sure they’d have whirled their rattles as they ran. Policemen didn’t get their iconic whistles until the 1880s. But it’s impossible that the noise of the ‘yelling, hooting’ crowd wouldn’t have drawn others, whether to join in, watch, or try to help the sergeants and the Mount girls.
So at or near the footbridge the officers decided to make their stand ‘and resist, with some violence, the efforts made to get at those under their protection.’
‘Some violence’. It looks as if they used their truncheons vigorously, and no doubt blows would have hit their reinforced top hats in return. Nothing’s said about injuries. But the stand-off had one sort-of-positive result: two ‘gentlemen’ came to the girls’ help. Presumably the Mounts were hiding behind the policemen and in the commotion each of the gentlemen ‘took one under his care’ and hurried them off in separate directions under cover of the flying truncheons.
There are two streets leading away from the footbridge, so it’s likely that one of the girls was taken down Eagle Wharf Rd and the other south along Shepherdess’s Walk.
‘And fortunately,’ says the Lloyd’s Weekly report, ‘thus the matter ended.’
This post’s almost ended, too. But it’s interesting that 200 or so people were so angry with the Mount sisters for giving evidence against Celestina Sommer that they’d chase them, presumably with a beating in mind.
Did they just dislike sneaks, snouts, grasses and other informers? Or were they sympathetic towards the woman who’d killed her illegitimate child, as so many others had done? Was it because she was young and pretty?
There’s plenty of evidence that ‘the most common form of female homicide, the killing of one’s own infant or young child, almost invariably drew pity’, as Martin J Wiener writes in Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy. But these children were usually babies or young children. Celestina Christmas was ten years old when her mother killed her.
Still, there was a widespread and growing unease about the idea of hanging women, and although infanticide was condemned, it was understandable for ‘unmarried young women who were facing lives of social disgrace and destitution, or married women acting incomprehensibly.’
I can write more about the dilemma of what to do about child-killing later, if you like. It’s relevant to Celestina Sommer’s story. Let me know if you’re interested, or if you have any thoughts about the mob and its ‘inexplicable fury’.
* Picture credits:
Stanford’s Library Map 1864: Mapco
Photograph of a group of Metropolitan Police, c 1860, via Epsom and Ewell History Explorer
Wiltshire Independent report: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1851 riot image: via Victorian London
Martin J Wiener’s Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy can be downloaded (PDF) here