If you read my recent piece on butcher’s boys you will remember the name of Alfred Rosling Bennett, an electrical engineer who published reminiscences of the London he remembered as a child in the 1850s and 1860s. Bennett was a man of many parts. As well as making important advances in his chosen field, with a number of impressive patents to his credit, he had a passion for railways. On this subject too he put pen to paper more than once.
Bennett tells a rather good story, which concerns neither electricity nor railways, about his childhood in south east London. When he was ten years old, his family moved from Camberwell to Greenwich, where they lived hard by Deptford Creek at no.6 Norman Road. He was the second of seven children, all of whom, rather remarkably, were boys. His father, John, and his mother, Martha, certainly had their hands full.
Later in life Bennett would recall these early days with an unerring eye for detail. As well as the architectural splendours of the Observatory and the Hospital he recalled the docile deer in the park, the donkey rides and coconut shies on Blackheath, and the never-ending stream of ships on the river. The maritime importance of Greenwich was a thing of the past, and Bennett, writing in later life, found his memory cluttered with
the wooden houses, narrow streets, steamer pier, railway viaduct and station, alms-houses, toll-bridges over Deptford Creek, and general flavour of a bygone age, and that age one not too particular about smells and cleanliness.
ENTER THE BLUEBOTTLES
Bennett had a particular fondness for distinctive clothing. He painted a pin-sharp picture of the inmates of the Hospital dressed in their square-coat blue coats with their generous cuffs, with long waistcoats and white cravats and three-cornered hats completing the uniform. Elsewhere, writing about his earlier days in Camberwell, he demonstrated a subtle palette in distinguishing the light-blue smocks of the butchers and their assistants from their dark-blue aprons, adding for good measure that they made entries in order books in bright-blue ink. More than any other costume, though, he remembered those of the metropolitan police.
Here, too, we find the cerulean theme, for Bennett noted, as a matter of antiquarian interest, that policemen were once called “Bluebottles” on account of the colour of their uniform. Warming to his theme he observed that
the new policeman wore a tall “pot” hat, built strongly of varnished leather and warranted to withstand all sorts of assaults and batteries; a brass-buttoned, bob-tailed, stiff-collared coat, and large-legged trousers, all dark blue, although I seem to have some recollection of white unmentionables for summer wear. A black-varnished belt with truncheon, lamp, and rattle completed the awe-inspiring get-up, which in winter was concealed under a long overcoat.
The rattle, incidentally, which was of course superseded by the whistle, was a hangover from the days of the Charlies, or watchmen. When a watchman or a policeman sprung his rattle—a reference to the spring that pressed the wooden tongue against the ratchet-wheel—the deafening noise alerted even those colleagues who were some way off.
WALK ON THERE!
Well, one such Bluebottle, with whom the young Bennett was apparently well acquainted, was a policeman by the name of Jenkins. He was the neighbourhood constable, and although a lot about him is unknown, such as his full name and his age, we have it on good authority that he was not popular with the local children. That authority, it goes without saying, is the juvenile Bennett, whose experience of the wretched Jenkins would stay with him for the rest of his days.
Nothing, it would seem, raised the constable’s hackles as surely as the sight, and presumably the sound, of children playing in the street. He invariably pounced on all such infractions—as he saw them—of the law. Should a child be caught bowling the hoop, the hoop was impounded and taken to the police station in Blackheath Road. To retrieve the hoop its owner had to submit to a stern rebuke by the grizzled inspector, who would reinforce his disapproving comments with threats of penalties. So often had Jenkins ordered groups of loitering boys to “Walk on there!” that they nicknamed him Walk On Jenkins. The boys would wait for him to march on down the street, and then, when he was at a safe distance, they would yell out his nickname before nipping round a corner to escape detection.
Now Walk On Jenkins had a nemesis, and his nemesis also had a nickname, which was Slogger Ward. Slogger Ward, like Walk On Jenkins, is hard to pin down. He might have been any of the several Wards who lived in that part of Greenwich, who included John Ward, a farrier, and William Ward, a French polisher. But what we know for certain—because Bennett tells us so—is that Slogger Ward was a local hard man.
To be precise, he was a pugilist, and it is just possible that he was the Ward of Greenwich who squared up to Kendall of Birmingham and Deptford, in the late spring of 1846, in an epic encounter that earned a paragraph in the sporting press. If so, then he was probably past his best by 1861. No doubt in 1861 he was not as hard as he had been in 1846, but, as we shall see, he was still hard enough for Walk On Jenkins.
NATURE’S GREATEST BOON
In truth Slogger Ward sounds more like a street-fighter than the exponent of the noble art of boxing praised in the pages of Fistiana; or, The Oracle of the Ring. This slim publication, written by Vincent George Dowling, and later by his son Frank Lewis Dowling, came out at regular intervals in the middle years of the nineteenth century. The Dowlings took it in turns to edit Bell’s Life in London, and their interest in the ring was perfectly genuine. Accordingly they filled the pages of Fistiana with such curious items as “A Defence of British Boxing” and “A Brief History of Pugilism”, as well as with exhaustive lists of significant fights, and notes on training methods and practices. At times the prose reached almost poetic heights, and never more so than in praise of the personal qualities required in the pugilist, where it is stated that
the innate and constitutional courage of man is manifold; it is bold and noble like that of the lion; free, generous, sparing the weak, aiding of others, like that of the dog; it is often untameable, nay, ferocious, like that of the tiger; it is calculating and astute, like that of the fox; it is spirited and fiery, like that of the horse; it is the greatest boon all-bounteous Nature, she who is all-powerful to create and give, can give.
Could the Slogger have been Joe Ward, the Greenwich Champion, who once put on the mufflers to spar with Alec Reid, the celebrated coach, one Monday night in 1841 at the William the Fourth in Trafalgar Road in Greenwich? And was it Joe Ward or another of the many pugilistic Wards who took on Kendall in 1846? We are told that they travelled by steamer down river to Lower Hope, the hallowed ground seven miles below Gravesend where once Charles Freeman, the American Giant, had fought and defeated William Perry, the Tipton Slasher. And there, in torrential rain, they put their fists up. But whereas the Giant and the Slasher had battered one another for a total of one hundred and eight rounds over two encounters, Ward and Kendall traded blows for a mere fifty-four. After an hour and forty minutes the Greenwich man clinched victory. He had a ten pound advantage over his Deptford opponent, and the fight was remarkable more as a test of strength than as a display of fine technique and graceful footwork. The newspapers commented, somewhat wryly, that the punishment on both sides had been severe.
PULLING HIS WEIGHT
But to return to Walk On Jenkins. The story, as told by Bennett, is that he once stumbled upon a street brawl. The brawlers, though, were not the boys he famously drove from the pavements. No, they were the adult variety, and one of them, as it happened, was Slogger Ward. Naturally a scrap of this sort was unlikely to be reported in the press, let alone achieve permanence in the pages of Fistiana. But Bennett recalled the essential details, namely that the unfortunate constable came away with two black eyes, and with his tall leather hat jammed down over his face by some mighty force applied from above.
As news of the constable’s humiliation spread through the streets and the lanes of Greenwich, the neighbourhood children had a field day. According to our chronicler
there was rejoicing round the walls of the ancient Park and the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter that day.
But Bennett was honest enough to recognise that Walk On Jenkins and the children of Greenwich were all practising their own form of cruelty. And although he did not go quite as far as saying that he and they were as bad as one another, he had more than a dash of sympathy for the constable. After all, inside that blue uniform, and beneath that sadly crumpled hat, there was a man who, like all men, had his weak spots. For he could not wear his uniform all day and all night, and when he had finished his week’s round of official duties he was at home with his wife and child, doing the family washing. He had been spotted in his yard, hanging “things” out to dry, and one may well imagine what his juvenile detractors made of that.
And then, as Bennett himself pointed out, these domestic activities told their own rather sad story. A Victorian household in which a working husband undertook the weekly washing was in all likelihood a poor household. Walk On Jenkins was obviously not richly rewarded for keeping the peace in the western purlieus of Greenwich. And it may have been the case that he was helping a wife who was unable to cope, possibly as a result of ill health.
A FINAL WORD
Whatever the reason, Bennett thought that these “spells at the washtub” were very much to the constable’s credit. And London Overlooked? Well, because we cannot resist a bit of word play, we would say that Walk On Jenkins was as capable of pulling his weight at home as he was of throwing it around on the streets.
© london-overlooked 2021
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