An Incident in Greenwich

This piece appeared in The (London) Standard of April 12, 1871.[1]

GREENWICH.

Charges of Attempted Suicide.Thomas Casbon, a young man, describing himself as a nurseryman at Peterborough, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself into the River Thames opposite Greenwich Hospital.
From the evidence of Police-serjeant 16 R, it appeared that on Saturday afternoon, between four and five o’clock, he found the prisoner near the Ship Tavern, Greenwich, water running from the leggings of his trousers, he having just been rescued from the river by a waterman, after jumping into it at high water. The prisoner was stupefied and benumbed by cold, and was conveyed to the Greenwich Union, where he was stripped and rubbed with warm cloth, and had remained there until that morning, when he was taken into custody and charged. On recovering consciousness the prisoner said he had looked at the river before plunging in, thinking he could swim across it.
The Prisoner, who appeared in a very weak condition, said, in reply to the charge, that he had no intention whatever of taking his own life. He had come by an excursion train from Peterborough to visit the Crystal Palace on Good Friday, and had there lost a friend who was with him. Owing to broken rest in attending to business previously and excitement occasioned by taking too much drink, he supposed he must have awoke on Saturday morning, wherever he slept, and wandered to Greenwich, not knowing where he was or what he was doing.
Mr. Maude inquired of the prisoner whether he had on any previous occasion become so suddenly bereft of reason, and also whether he had sufficient means to get back to Peterborough.
The Prisoner replied that his mind had never before been so affected. He had not sufficient money to pay his fare to Peterborough, but he had property of value about him sufficient to obtain it, and he was most anxious to get home.
Mr. Maude said he would take the prisoner’s assurance that he had no intention to drown himself, and ordered his discharge, but he advised him in future to abstain from too much intoxicating liquor.

This story obviously describes a disturbing incident in the life of Thomas Casbon. Who was Thomas? The story describes him as a young man and a nurseryman from Peterborough. There were two men named Thomas Casbon who might have fit this description in 1871; one was born in 1840 and the other in 1854. Fortunately, additional records pertaining to this incident exist – the admission and discharge register from the Greenwich Union, where Thomas was taken after being pulled out of the Thames.[2], [3]

Detail from Greenwich Union admission & discharge register, April 1871. (Click on image to enlarge)

  These records tell the same story as the news article, in abbreviated format. We can see that he was admitted on Saturday, April 8th at 4:50 p.m. His age is recorded as 32. He was admitted from G[reenwich] parish. The order to admit him was given by someone named Master. The Cause of Admission is Attempt to Drown Supposed Insane. His religious persuasion is Church [of England]. The remarks state that he was Brought by Police 16R from Dr. Forsyth. The discharge record only tells us that he was discharged on Tuesday, April 11th, one day before the news article appeared.

From the given age of 32 we can tell that this was the Thomas Casbon born in 1840.[4] It’s one year off from the birth year in my records, but there is no one else who could match this description. Thomas was the third child and second son of Thomas Casbon (~1807–1863), and the third generation of gardeners/nurserymen who eventually settled in Peterborough.

Thomas was married to Emily Cantrill, of London, in 1865.[5] They had two children: Charles T, born in 1866, and Edith Emily, born in 1868.[6], [7] Emily filed for divorce. alleging cruelty, in 1868.[8] Thomas was ordered to pay alimony and the judge ordered that the case be tried before a jury. I don’t know if the trial ever took place of if the divorce was finalized, but it is clear that the marriage was over. In the 1871 census, Emily and the two children were living with her parents in London.[9] Could the “broken rest in attending to business,” referred to in the newspaper article, have had something to do with his divorce? Might his “excitement occasioned by taking too much drink” have been the aftermath of an unsuccessful encounter with his estranged wife and children? Obviously, this is speculation on my part, but I think it could explain the events that followed.

Going back to the article, there are interesting tidbits of information that would have been common knowledge to the readers of the newspaper, but might be unfamiliar to us today.

First, we see from the title and other content that Thomas was brought up on charges of attempted suicide. The fact is, suicide was considered a crime in England until 1961.[10] Those who attempted suicide could be prosecuted and imprisoned. Under old English laws, a suicide victim would be buried at a crossroads (not in a church yard), and their property declared forfeited to the crown.[11] However, prosecutions were rare, and juries frequently brought in a verdict of “temporary insanity” as a means of avoiding punishment.[12], [13] Rather than considering him insane, it appears that the judge took Thomas’ word that he had not intended to kill himself.

I thought it was interesting that the police sergeant was referred to by the number “16R.” It turns out that this was his collar number, with the “R” designating the Greenwich police division.[14], [15]

A number of places are mentioned in the article. These include the River Thames, the Greenwich Hospital, the Ship Tavern, and the Greenwich Union. I’ve marked some of these on an old map of London (you’ll need to click on it to see it clearly).[16]

Detail of Ordnance Survey Map Essex LXXIII; Thomas’s approximate path across the Thames and the location where he was found are marked on the far left; the Greenwich Union Workhouse is circled at the upper right; reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (https://maps.nls.uk/index.html) under Creative Commons license (Click on image to enlarge)

Since the story says Thomas threw “himself into the River Thames opposite Greenwich Hospital,” I’ve marked the north side of the Thames with a star, across from the “Royal Hospital,” shown on the map. The Thames must have been very cold in early April. The Ship Tavern, where the police sergeant found Thomas, is circled, just west of the hospital. The tavern was well known because it was the site of many “whitebait ministerial dinners” held at the end of Parliamentary sessions.[17]

The Greenwich Union, where Thomas was admitted for three days, was a large institution, supported by local taxes, to house the poor, infirm, and elderly.[18] This was located about 8/10ths of a mile east of the Ship Tavern. Thomas was probably admitted to the infirmary, which included wards for the insane.[19]

Thomas related that he had come to London to visit the Crystal Palace. This location would have been well-known to every Londoner. The Crystal Palace was originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.[20] The structure contained “the greatest area of glass ever seen in a building, and astonished visitors with its clear walls and ceilings that did not require interior lights.”[21] After the exhibition, the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham Hill in South London, where it became a major attraction, featuring fountains, exhibits, entertainment, an amusement park, and sporting events.[22] It was finally destroyed by fire in 1936.[23]

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, 1851, from Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London: Dickinson Brothers, 1852); online image, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/Dickinsonscompr1 : accessed 24 February 2018) (Click on image to enlarge)

Crystal Palace was located some five miles southwest of where Thomas was found in Greenwich. This makes me wonder how he got from there to the bank of the Thames opposite the Royal Hospital. It seems unlikely that he could have done this in his drunken state, so I suspect that the business he had attended to before he started drinking took place on the north side of the Thames.

What happened to Thomas after this incident? I’m afraid that is a mystery. It turns out that the 1871 newspaper article is the last mention of Thomas being alive that I have been able to locate. His name does not appear in Peterborough directories of 1876 or 1877. He is absent from the 1881 or later censuses (by coincidence, the 1871 census was taken just a few days before his trip to London). His death is not registered.

The only record I have been able to find is the National Calendar of Probates from 1900. This states that Thomas Casbon “of the Cathedral-precincts Peterborough nurseryman died in or since May 1887” (my emphasis), and names his son, Charles Wheeley Casbon, as administrator of the estate. His estate was valued at 67 pounds, 3 shillings – a paltry sum.[24] The fact that an exact date of death is not given and that Thomas’ estate was not probated until 13 years after the presumed year of his death is unusual, and leads me to believe that his whereabouts were known until May 1887; but then he either disappeared without a trace, or his body was not found until a later date. Interestingly, his wife, Emily, is listed as married in the 1881 census, and widowed in 1891.[25], [26]

Maybe one of his descendants, if there are any, knows the rest of the story. I would love to hear it!

[1] “Greenwich,” The (London) Standard, 12 April 1871, p. 7, col. 5; online image, The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000183/18710412/053/0007 : accessed 24 September 2016).
[2] “London, England, Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records, 1659-1930,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/60391/31537_214606-00154 : accessed 20 February 2018), images 155-6 of 388, Thomas Casbon, admitted 8 Apr 1871, Greenwich Union; citing Board of Guardians records held by the London Metropolitan Archives.
[3] “London, England, Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records, 1659-1930,” (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/60391/31537_214606-00157 : accessed 20 February 2018), image 158 of 388, Thomas Casbon, discharged 11 Apr 1871, Greenwich Union; citing London Metropolitan Archives.
[4] “England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2NS3-95C : accessed 5 August 2016), Thomas Casbon, 1st qtr, 1840, St Ives (Huntingdonshire), vol. 14/211, line 9; citing findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : 2012); citing General Register Office, Southport.
[5] “England and Wales Marriage Registration Index, 1837-2005,” database, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2D7G-RM1 : accessed 22 September 2016), Thomas Casbon, 2d qtr, 1865, Pancras, London. 1865, quarter 2, vol. 1B, p. 11; from “England & Wales Marriages, 1837-2005,” database, findmypast; citing General Register Office.
[6] “England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2X9G-QWX : accessed 24 February 2018), Charles W Casbon, 3d qtr, 1866, Peterborough, Northampton, vol. 3B/211, line 314; from “England & Wales Births, 1837-2006,” database, findmypast; citing General Register Office.
[7] “England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2XQ9-1PP : accessed 24 February 2018), Edith Emily Casbon, 2d qtr, 1868, Pancras, London, vol. 1B/168, line 327; from “England & Wales Births, 1837-2006,” database, findmypast; citing General Register Office.
[8] “England & Wales, Civil Divorce Records, 1858-1916,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/2465/40243_612057_1776-00000 : accessed 24 February 2018), wife’s petition, Emily Casbon, 1868; citing The National Archives, J77/84/787, Kew.
[9] “1871 Census of England, Wales & Scotland,” database with images, findmypast (http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=gbc%2f1871%2f0001569724 : accessed 31 March 2017), Emily Casbone (age 25) in household of Samuel W Cantrill, London, St. Pancras Crescent; citing [The National Archives], RG 10, piece 235, folio 15, p. 23.
[10] “Suicide Act 1961,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_Act_1961 : accessed 20 February 2018), rev. 11 Feb 18, 12:57.
[11] Ernest Hart, ed., “‘Unsound Mind’ Verdicts on Suicide,” British Medical Journal, 1892, Vol. 2, 22 Oct, pp. 909-10; online image, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=VIpMAQAAMAAJ : accessed 24 February 2018).
[12] Gerry Holt, “When suicide was illegal,” 3 Aug 2011, BBC News (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14374296 : accessed 21 February 2018).
[13] Hart, ed., “’Unsound Mind’ Verdicts on Suicide,” British Medical Journal,” 1892; Google Books.
[14] “London Police – Family History Inquiries,” History by the Yard (http://www.historybytheyard.co.uk/family_history.htm : accessed 20 February 2018).
[15] “History of the Metropolitan Police Service,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Metropolitan_Police_Service : accessed 20 February 2018), rev. 18 Feb 18, 17:47.
[16] Map, Essex LXXIII (Southampton: Ordnance Survey Office, 1870-82, six-inch to the mile; online image, National Library of Scotland (http://maps.nls.uk/view/102342032# : accessed 19 February 2018).
[17] “Ship Tavern, River Front, Greenwich, c. 1860,” Ideal Homes:a History of South-East London Suburbs (http://www.ideal-homes.org.uk/greenwich/assets/galleries/central-greenwich/ship-tavern-1860 : accessed 19 February 2018).
[18] “Workhouse,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workhouse : accessed 21 February 2018), rev. 21 Feb 18, 12:15.
[19] “Greenwich, Kent, London,” The Workhouse: The story of an institution (http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Greenwich : accessed 20 February 2018).
[20] “The Crystal Palace,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crystal_Palace#Relocation_and_redesign : accessed 20 February 2018), rev. 18 Feb 2018, 03:11.
[21] “The Crystal Palace,” Wikipedia.
[22] Gary Holland, “Crystal Palace: A History,” 24 Sep 14, BBC Home (http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2004/07/27/history_feature.shtml : accessed 21 February 2018).
[23] “The Crystal Palace,” Wikipedia.
[24] “England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966”, database with images, Ancestry Library Edition (accessed through participating libraries: accessed 27 September 2016), Casbon, Thomas, 1900, died in or since May 1887; citing Principal Probate Registry, London.
[25] “1881 Census of England, Wales & Scotland,” database with images, findmypast (http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=gbc%2f1881%2f0006540493 : accessed 31 March 2017), E Casbon in household of S W Cantrill, Middlesex, Hornsey, 17 Ravenstone Rd; citing [The National Archives], RG 11, piece 1374, folio 17, p. 28.
[26] “1891 Census of England Wales & Scotland,” database with images, findmypast (http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=gbc%2f1891%2f0008037559 : accessed 31 March 2017), Emily Casbon in household of Charles Casbon, Hornsey, Middlesex, 6 Alexandra Rd; citing [The National Archives], RG 12, piece 1059, folio 130, p. 51.

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