The Gray’s Inn Road Fire, or, The Case Against Constable Carter

A fireman on a ladder rescues a child from a blazing building.  Image in The Cottager and Artisan 1 November 1878.

If you read last week’s article on the fire at 98 Gray’s Inn Road, which broke out early on the morning of the 7th of October 1871, you will remember the brave actions of Joseph Andrew Ford, a fireman, and George Carter, a police constable with the E or Holborn Division.  They rescued six residents of the house, perched on ladders, and braving the flames and the smoke.  Ford died—and his story can be found here—but Carter survived.  He needed time to recover from injuries to his hands—he was laid up for six weeks on sick pay—but he was otherwise unharmed.  Indeed, he had been awarded two pounds by the Chief Magistrate of Bow Street, Sir Thomas Henry, in recognition of his selfless actions.

However, the superintendent of E Division, James Jacob Thomson, was not happy that Carter alone had received money from the Police Reward Fund.  In his view Carter had not been the only officer who had behaved with merit on the occasion of the fire.  Accordingly he confiscated the two pounds, and having shared it between four other men returned eight shillings to Carter.

THE LESSER LIGHT
As it so happened, though, the Chief Magistrate had not been alone in wanting to reward the constable, and on the day before the presentation at Bow Street two letters had been printed in the Daily Telegraph expressing a sentiment that must have been felt by many members of the public.  The first, signed only with the initials “E. C.”, read as follows:

Much has been done, and is still doing, on behalf of the family of Ford, the late fireman, and I would not for one moment say anything to his discredit; but often the great lights overshadow the lesser.  The policeman who seems to have run the same risk as Ford, and only by chance escaped his fate, deserves some recognition.  If I mistake not he rescued several persons before Ford arrived, and continued his exertions until all the household were saved.  The places of the two might easily have been reversed, and the policeman have been the hero.  Cannot you suggest some fitting reward for this deserving man?

Photograph of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.  Image in Cassell & Co. The Queen’s London (1896).

The second letter, fully signed, had been written by Robert Dolman, an actor at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.  Dolman pointed out—as did E. C.—that the policeman had faced the same danger as the celebrated fireman.  Therefore

should not something be done by way of subscription for George Carter, 25 E Reserve?  Although not killed he was in great danger.  Geo. Carter is evidently a brave man; and, if you think fit to receive contributions on his behalf, I shall have much pleasure in forwarding my mite.

Dolman did indeed forward his mite, to the tune of ten shillings, which he scraped together with the help of one or two friends.  His contribution was recorded by the Telegraph along with many others, ranging in value from a shilling to one pound three shillings.  While some of the subscribers went by their full name, others, craving anonymity, adopted covers—“A Mother and Three Children”, “No. 731”, “A Poor Woman”—or simply used initials.  They were moving gestures, humble and sincere: a shilling from a widow, four shillings and thruppence from a consortium of “poor folk” in Clerkenwell, one pound one shilling from the Ramsgate Fire Brigade.  One wonders just who the “Friends of the North Pole” were—possibly drinkers at the North Pole public house in Oxford Street Oxford—but they did their bit by collecting one pound three shillings.

At the same time there were very many subscriptions on behalf of the widow and orphans of Joseph Andrew Ford.  The Telegraph published details.  Many contributed to both funds, and once again the names they went under were occasionally bizarre but always reflective of great generosity.  And so alongside sums received “From Admirers of British Pluck” there was a “Collection by a Little Boy”, and a contribution from a person or persons identifying only as “Thankful”, and many more of a similar nature.

A policeman at work in the streets of London.  Image in Once a Week 27 December 1862.

FOR HIS INSUBORDINATION
What happened next is scarcely credible.  On the 19th of January 1872, that is to say three months after the subscription was set up, the Telegraph passed on to Carter the money it had received, a sum of twenty-one pounds ten shillings and tuppence.  That same day Carter informed Thomson, who promptly confiscated the money, just as he had confiscated the two pounds, insisting that it too be shared between five constables.  Carter objected.  “If I am not deserving of it,” he said, “let it be returned to those who subscribed to it.”  Following this act of defiance, Carter was summoned before a panel of police superintendents, who told him to give up his claim as sole recipient of the money.  He said that he would but only if the money went to the police force Widow and Orphan Fund.  When he was told that he was not in a position to set the conditions, he again refused to co-operate, and three days later, on the 22nd of January, he was suspended.

On the 23rd he relinquished his claim on the money, and on the 24th he was reinstated, but a fortnight later, on the 8th of February, he was transferred to the W or Clapham Division.  He was packed off down to the Brixton station with a reduction in his weekly wages, but even then his tormentors were not satisfied, and on the 10th of February he was suspended again.  He was reinstated on the 12th.

Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Henderson, the Chief Commissioner of Police.  Image in The Illustrated London News 13 March 1869.

Clearly, though, Carter’s courageous behaviour on the morning of the Gray’s Inn Road fire had not lost its power to impress, and on the 12th of March he received a sovereign from the Police Reward Fund by order of the Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, Captain William Charles Harris.  But if he thought that his fortunes were about to improve, he was sadly mistaken, for three weeks later, on the 23rd of March, he was reported for misconduct.  The charge was that he had been speaking to a tradesman while on duty in Brixton, a breach of regulations for which he was fined two days’ pay.  In addition to the fine he incurred the costs of the hearing, which amounted to ten shillings and two pence.  He lodged an appeal, and when he went before Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Henderson, the Chief Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, he emphatically argued that he and he alone should be the recipient of the Telegraph subscription.  For his pains he was deemed guilty of insubordination, and dismissed without a reference.

A VICTORY OF SORTS
Even so, Carter continued to enjoy popular support, and on the night of the 17th of May a crowded public meeting was held at the Crown public house on Clerkenwell Green.  Angry speeches were made, following which a committee was appointed to collect further subscriptions, and generally look out for the wretched police constable and his family.  The matter even reached the House of Commons, where the Conservative Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury, Douglas Straight, asked the Home Secretary, Henry Austin Bruce, to review the case and have Carter reinstated.  Bruce replied that Sir Thomas Henry had undertaken to investigate.

Interestingly, Bruce suggested that Carter had been dismissed “virtually at his own request”, which was no doubt a roundabout way of saying that he had resigned.  But the confiscation of the money still rankled, and in November, at the Westminster County Court, Carter brought an action against the Metropolitan Police.  The judge, Francis Bayley, found for the defendants.  In the end, though, following further meetings, and with the support of an energetic barrister by the name of Richard Harris, Carter was allowed to keep the money, and he was taken on as a railway policeman by the Great Northern Railway Company at King’s Cross.

Junction of the Midland, Great Northern and Metropolitan railways at King’s Cross.  Image in The Illustrated London News 8 February 1868.

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
At which point we arrive at the sorriest episode in the whole sorry story of George Carter.  For on the 10th of April 1873 the hero—the other hero—of the Gray’s Inn Road fire was summoned  to appear at the Clerkenwell Police Court.  With him in the dock was Frederick Abrahams, who at eighteen was half his age.  Abrahams was charged with stealing one-and-a-half pints of milk, Carter with receiving the same in the full knowledge that it had been stolen.  And so the man who must have thrown the book at many a miscreant in Holborn, as well as in Brixton and in and around King’s Cross Station, finally had the book thrown at him.

Abrahams was employed by Thomas Camp, a dairyman, to transport the churns sent down on the milk train from his farm in Hatfield to his premises in Argyle Street, which was opposite the station on the south side of Euston Road.  He had got into the habit of parking his cart at the lodge, where Carter was on duty to supervise the movement of goods around the station, enabling the policeman to scoop up some milk in a tin can, a favour which from time to time earned him tuppence beer money.  Unfortunately, on the night of the 9th of April, he and Carter had been spotted by two railway detectives, William Thorogood and John Boniford, who had received complaints from Camp that his churns were being tampered with.  They were questioned, and then taken into custody at the police station in Platt Street in Somers Town.  Carter offered the aggrieved dairyman a sovereign not to press charges, a futile attempt to buy his way out of trouble that was not only richly humiliating but also, in view of his unedifying dispute over money with the police authorities, horribly ironic.

Photograph of a dairyman on his horse-drawn cart.

The case against Abrahams and Carter was tried at the Middlesex Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green on the 15th of April.  Carter was defended by the spirited Richard Harris, who reminded the jury of his client’s irreproachable character and record of good conduct, before clinching the matter with a splendidly emotional appeal:

Did he, when he took the milk, take it with the mind of a thief?  He admitted that it was an irregularity, and was sorry for it afterwards, but he was a man who had many times given evidence in the box in that court, who received substantial rewards, and he trusted that the jury would not desert him in his hour of adversity after the eminent services he had rendered to the public, and not join with those who said he had the mind of a thief when he received the milk that was given to him.  He hoped, therefore, that they would acquit him and restore him as an honest man to that society and the public who had received such services at his hands.

The jury, battered by these arguments, found Carter not guilty.  The judge duly discharged him, but could not resist reminding him, one last time, that he had been jolly foolish.  Meanwhile the wretched Abrahams, having pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three months’ hard labour in Coldbath Fields.

Prisoners in the exercise yard and on the tread-wheel in Coldbath Fields.  Image in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) between pages 306 and 307

COMING FULL CIRCLE
Before leaving the court Carter asked the bench to find him employment.  He claimed that he had two hundred and fifteen witnesses to his good character, which, if true, reflected the sympathy his recent history had generated.  However, London could no longer hold him, and in 1874, following a second marriage, he moved to Northumberland.

There, in the north east of the country, he worked as a coal miner.  In a sense he had come full circle, for, as we have seen, he had been a copper miner in Devon in his younger years.  The life of the Holborn policeman, and the tussles with the bureaucratic police authorities, had in the end been but an interlude.  But he had covered himself in glory on that fateful morning in 1871, and when he died in 1906 he did not entirely disappear from the annals of history.

© london-overlooked 2021

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