A Morning at the Dublin Police Courts, 1871

A 19th century photograph of the exterior of the New Police Courts, as published in Michael O’Connell’s ‘Shadows: An Album of the Irish People 1841-1914,” via Archive.org

The new Dublin Police Courts behind the Four Courts opened for business in October 1868.  A report in the Freeman’s Journal of 28 August 1868 stated that they had been erected by Mr Michael Meade, from designs furnished by the Board of Works, and had cost the sum of £20,000.   Three years later, the Freeman attended at the Police Courts again, this time to report on the business which took place there.  This is what it found.  

From the Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 23 September 1871:

“The Police Offices of large cities must be classed amongst the great dissecting rooms of life, where human infirmity, vice and misery are stripped of all their disguises, and where crime and the follies and excesses which lead to it are frequently and painfully demonstrated… The Police Courts of Dublin constitute a great centre where the vice and crime of the city and suburbs are represented by those who have grown old in iniquity, by those who have long pursued the ways of evil, and by those who have only commenced a career sure to end in misery and ruin.  For the purpose of ascertaining whether there was any improvement in the general character of the offenders brought up before the magistrates on what are called ‘morning charges’… I determined on paying a morning visit to the new Police Offices at the rere of the Four Courts…

I selected Monday morning for my visit, as I was aware that by doing so I would have the advantage of seeing the police machinery brought to bear on all the offenders taken into custody from three o’clock on the previous Saturday.  I went early and arrived before the business commenced.  The Northern Divisional Court is divided from the Southern by a large hall, which is entered by a door or gateway leading from a kind of courtyard, overlooked by old houses in Greek-street, which appear as if they were slowly coming down, overcome with age and infirmity… The male and female cells are constructed beneath each of the courts, and also waiting rooms, where, I was informed, the untried prisoners remain until brought before the magistrates.  These waiting rooms are sad and dreary looking places, dimly lit by windows opening on the back-yard, and are entered by cage iron gates, which give them an appearance more like dens for a zoological collection than what I was in the habit of regarding as waiting rooms.

I am much too early, and I amuse myself by inspecting the immediate surroundings of the police-courts, which I find have been built to suit the convenience of some of their more constant customers.  Pill-lane, Bull-lane, Greek-street, Fisher’s-lane Mary’s-lane, Church-street and Bow-street are all within a few minutes’ walk of them.  Greek-street and Bull-lane are in their immediate vicinity.  These, as the two great head-quarters of crime in the city, furnish strong contingents daily to the police courts, and from thence to Grangegorman and Richmond. 

Half-drunken women begin to collect in groups to await the arrival of their friends from the station house.  None of these women appear to have slept on the previous night.  Some are dressed in filthy finery and others in dirty rags.  Their voices are masculine, and their language is more remarkable for vehemence than propriety.  Sunk to the lowest depths of degradation, these women, debased as they are, show signs of affection for four young children by whom they are accompanied. I asked a policeman long in the force who the young women were who were accompanied by children.  He told me that they were poor servants who had married soldiers, and who, when their husbands left with their regiments, went on the streets, and eventually settled down in one of the dens of which Bull-lane is made up.

Heavy, muscular, drowsy-looking men now issued out of the lane and out of the low public houses which abounded in the neighbourhood.  Nearly all these men were dressed in greasy baragon clothes, some had black eyes and bruised faces, and there was not one of them that did not bear the marks of violence, inflicted in battles recent or remote.  I asked who these worthies were and learned that they were the professional ‘bullies’ who lived on plunder when out of jail, and whose headquarters when released from durance was Bull-lane, or other localities of the same character.

I sauntered back to the courtyard, adjoining the police office, where I found that a number of characters had arrived during my absence.  They principally consisted of persons who had been released on bail, and who now came to answer the charges brought against them.  In this department I recognised the young shopman, looking very seedy and anxious, though dressed with great effort at effect.  He had been doing ‘the wild young fellah’ in town… I also see the respectable tradesman, who sick and sorry, comes to answer for being drunk.  He was arrested on Saturday evening and was not released till late on the previous night, after having spent the entire of Sunday cooped up in a cell in a station house with outcasts and thieves.  I ask myself will this cure him, or will his case and that of hundreds like him ever teach tradesmen the mischief of holding their committee meetings in public houses?

Who are the distinguished persons who have just arrived and who were fond of saying ‘awful’? I find that they are in custody, charged with ‘wringing knockers’, bell pulls and for breaking the public lamps.  They were allowed to come in cabs in company with two policemen.  They try to pass off the entire matter as a ‘lark’ and attempt to look jolly after the most pathetic fashion.  They are soon to be seen in deep consultation with anxious-looking relatives who have come to see them, and subsequently with an eminent lawyer, who I never before heard of as being in a police case.  The matter is serious, as the case is going before a magistrate who lays it down as a rule that ‘there is not one law for the rich and another for the poor,’ and who in all probability will not give the young gentlemen the option of paying finds.  This and more the eminent lawyer tells his young clients, who get into a fearful state of mind as they stand in a corner of that now crowded yard in charge of the two policemen, whose pockets are weighed down to bursting with the prizes which their captives had broken off numerous hall-doors.

Amongst the motley groups in the yard are to be recognised two servant men in sables and white chokers.  They had been ‘pulled’ when returning from a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’s’ party.  They had been very noisy and offensive to the police.  They are now quite polite and demure, speak piano, and strive to look as humble as their masters.  Still, they feel they are in low company, and for more reasons than one are anxious to be waiting somewhere else.

The yard gates are now closed, and the friends of the captives, on their way from the stationhouses, crowd in the streetway.  Amongst them I saw the poor heart-broken wife and mother, the genuine representatives of sorrow and misfortune.  In rags and hunger, they await the arrival of the vans, which are now coming in, the gates are opened, and the crowd forced back.  One black hearse-like lumbering machine is closely followed by another, and both are soon relieved of their loads of human crime, vice and misery.  All are quickly bundled down the stairs, where men, women and children are thrust into the waiting-rooms which I have above described.  Soon the prisoners who had to walk from the stations join those who came by the vans, and what a sight do these two waiting rooms present! 

In the chaotic gatherings are to be seen the vulgar, coarse looking women who strut and drive through the streets in all the varied hues and shapes of flaunting infamy.  Now all their silk, satins, ribbons, lace and finery, are in a sorry state, torn and soiled, and bearing the results of tumblings in the mud, or of encounters of a pugilistic character.  Bonnets of the most expensive description twisted into the most eccentric and laughable shapes, and bundles of torn clothes, broken crinolines, etc. kept with jealous care to serve as evidence for a defence.  How fearfully represented, I remarked, are those extravagantly dressed women, who were still under the influence of the terrible poison which they had imbibed fully thirty hours before.  All classes of unfortunate women, from the poor creature of recent fall-down to the veteran street pest, were there.  Amongst the female prisoners were many whose ruin is to be entirely attributed to beer houses, which within a very short period have inflicted irreparable wrong on the poor and on the community at large.

Amongst the clamourous crowd of men and women in one of the waiting rooms I observed a very demure and elegantly dressed person; she tried to avoid observation, and I asked the jailer who she was?  He told me that she was a notorious shoplifter, most fruitful in disguises, and a wonderful proficient in her art.  She had been in jail several times, and she was now afraid of a conviction, as it would, in all probability, lead to her being sent to penal servitude.  She requested to be permitted to have an interview with the roving attorney who takes up a defence of the most hopeless of cases, for and on the slightest consideration.  He is fond of the professional black clothes, or rather clothes which were at one time of that colour, and which, like himself, have become polished by friction with the world.  He generally taxes his costs in a public house in the neighbourhood and is not a strict teetotaller.  This little man is one of many practitioners who give advice to their clients outside the courts, as they do not care to address the magistrates in any case, on account of not feeling themselves justified in paying for their certificates when they had no money.

There were men in that waiting room whom I myself had known in times gone by, when friends and fortune appeared to be all in their favour.  Some of them I had seen go down day after day, others I had lost sight of till I now saw them once more – but how changed! Here was the once fast ‘man upon town,’ fond of being thought very wild, a great card at taverns, and much given to wagers and declamation at spirit counters – the man of fashion on a hundred a year, who aped all the vices of his betters – this prematurely old man, who madly squandered his means on prudent sots, from whom he now begs an occasional shilling, or askes for his dinner on the sly in a place where he once was the most favoured guest – the once respectable professional man, envied by his contemporaries, is here.  He was cursed with a fine voice, and he sang himself into low life, and chronic drunkenness.  His poor wife is in rags, standing in the yard waiting to know how much he will be fined, that she may go pawn or borrow the wherewithal to procure his release.

In these waiting rooms there is one who even the rough jailer has the greatest compassion for.  He was a young and gentlemanly looking man who occupied a high place of trust, and up to a short week before was honoured and sought after.  He was a man of high accomplishments, mixed in elegant society, and lived beyond his means.  To sustain the false position which he assumed he had to tax all his resources; and at length, yielding to temptation, he robbed his employers.  He who had love, honour and troops of friends a few days ago is now thankful for the kindness of the jailer who is responsible for his safe keeping.  So much for fast living and style!

Having seen so much of the inner life of the police cells, I proceeded to the courts where the magistrates were sitting.  The raised seats facing the bench were principally occupied by men and women who had been recently discharged from prison, and who were now present to procure bail or fines for their friends in captivity, and to get the earliest possible information of the several terms of imprisonment inflicted on their associates in crime.   Juvenile offenders are here who could be saved, but the magistrate who presides, and who looks like a German poet, is very impulsive, and though I believe a very upright and good-natured man, believes strongly in vindictive punishments, and poo-poohs reformation.  The wretched gathering of prisoners, numbering in all some hundreds, are quickly disposed of.  Some are sent to jail for different periods; women, too, are remanded.  The drunkards are fined in small sums, or if a first offence, are sometimes let off with a ‘caution’.  The shoplifter is sent for trial, as is also the poor young man whose case I referred to as exciting so much commiseration.  Now and then the mechanical random is interrupted by a wild remonstrance or piercing shriek, but in a few hours, all is over, and I take my leave after having spent my Monday morning in our Police Courts.”

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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