ODDITORIUM VICTORIUM: #1. HENRY BLAMING
The prisoner said ‘Yes; he came in here and laughed at me and aggravated me, and I shot at him. He ran out the door, and I fired again...I wish it had killed him, and he’d have been done for’.
Robert James Matthews, reported speech at trial; Reynold’s Newspaper, Feb 5th 1888
A taste of the Wild West in the East End
AT 8PM ON JANUARY 31ST 1888, 22-year old Henry Blaming walked into the Two Brewers public house, on the corner of Buxton Street and Brick Lane, in Whitechapel. A little over fifteen minutes later, Blaming would leave the pub with two bullets in his body. One was lodged in his groin, having entered in his lower abdomen; the other was in his left buttock.
Blaming had himself walked free from court the day before, cleared of indecently assaulting - ‘unlawfully and carnally knowing’ in the legal parlance of the day – a fourteen year old girl named Eliza Matthews. To modern readers, the crime – even the allegation of it– seems rightly shocking, but in the interests of historical context it is important to remember that the age of consent had only been raised from 13 three years earlier, in 1885, thanks in large part to the campaigning of journalist W. T. Stead. In the course of his campaign Stead himself had been imprisoned for ‘buying’ a 13 year old girl, also called Eliza – Eliza Armstrong; her mother had allegedly sold her for the sum of £5. If Eliza Armstrong’s parents seem to have had little concern for her welfare, the same could not be said of Eliza Matthews’ father - Robert James Matthews, Blaming’s former colleague, and manager of the Two Brewers.
The revolver was a revolution in firearms development; it was also very much a Victorian weapon - American Samuel Colt, schooled in Britain, patented the ‘Paterson pistol’, in 1836, and Sherlock Holmes’ ever present companion and biographer Dr. Watson rarely left 221b Baker Street on a case without his Army issue revolver – even if he never actually discharged it. It was also the weapon with which a man called Robert Matthews chose to arm himself prior to Blaming’s visit to the ‘Two Brewers’. It is not a weapon readily identified with the Victorian East End, however, and one major reason for that is, at the risk of reducing history to a pub-quiz category, because of ‘what happened next’.
What did happen next in 1888 is now well known, of course, although Blaming and Matthews could have had no inkling of it that night. For the winter which was nearing its end that night would soon give way to the ‘autumn of terror’, the notorious months when ‘Jack the Ripper’ stalked the streets of the East End – and ‘Jack’ did not go in for Matthews’ take on Wild West vengeance, or for fancy American weaponry. Jack ‘s territory was the darkened street, not the busy pub, and his weapon was the sharpened knife– so notoriously so that over 120 years later that remains the enduring image of violence in Victorian London.
Even the details of that January night now appear like echoes into the near-future – the policeman who arrested Matthews was one Walter Dew, who would find himself involved– to varying degrees, according to the source – in the hunt for the ‘Whitechapel Murderer’; the Two Brewers would also, a little over six months later, be the venue in which Martha Tabram and Mary Ann Connolly (better known as ‘Pearly Poll’) would meet two guardsmen, on the eve before one of the soldiers may have been responsible for Tabram’s violent death – a crime others credit to an embryonic ‘Ripper’.
23 years later revolvers would make history in the East End – fired by the police in the denouement of the ‘Battle of Sidney Street’. But for now, let us get back to the largely forgotten life of Henry Blaming...
|Criminal Register entry for Henry Blaming; click to view in Flickr.|
At Matthews’ trial, opinion was divided as to whether Blaming had deliberately goaded him on entering the pub. It is certainly hard to excuse his decision to enter the Two Brewers, knowing surely that Matthews would be there. Blaming would claim not to understand why he did so, ‘I don't know why...there was no reason’.
At the conclusion, Mathews was found guilty of unlawful wounding, but not guilty of attempted murder – after being given an ‘excellent character’ - and was sentenced to six weeks hard labour. The bullet in Blaming’s groin was expected to remain there for the rest of his life.
1841 to 1881, Cripplegate to Bishopsgate
BLAMING WAS THE GRANDSON OF IRISH IMMIGRANTS – the proper spelling of the family name seems to be ‘Blaning’, and that spelling shall be used from now on (it may well originate from ‘Blanning’, a place name supposedly referring to an old Oxfordshire village).
In 1841, 45-year-old James Vigo was living with his wife, 40-year-old Mary, in Cripplegate, north London, just outside the medieval city walls, much more substantial parts of which were still visible then than now, prior to Second World War bombing raids. Also destroyed all-but completely was Cripplegate itself, although the historic church of St Giles, Cripplegate survived (barely). Today the church, rebuilt to its sixteenth-century design, is beautiful, but somewhat dwarfed by the gigantic Barbican complex, built upon the decimated Cripplegate area during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
James and Mary had both been born in Ireland – Mary apparently in Kerry, James (in 1851) gives the place name ‘Rosanay’, which cannot be reliably identified with any known place. Also living with them were their three children – 14-year-old Maria Ann (Annie) Vigo, nine-year-old Bridget Vigo and 11-month old John Vigo, all of whom had been born in London. James was the only member of the family listed with an occupation (commonly for the time), and was stated to be a ‘Porter’, most likely at one of the nearby markets clustered around the City. No record can be found for James and Mary’s marriage, which presumably therefore was conducted in Ireland.
|Cripplegate, 1875; click to view in Flickr.|
Ten years later, the family had split – James, Mary, John and ‘Elizabeth’ (with an estimated birth year of 1834, this is presumably an alternative name for Bridget) had moved to the East End, ‘lodging’ with a family of Jews, the Gouesteins, in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. The house, in which the Gouesteins also lived, featured ten different families or single persons, living at a room apiece.
Maria Anne, now listed as Annie, was living in Somers Town, close to Kings Cross, only a little further north than where she had lived with her parents in Cripplegate. Only a year previously, however, she had evidently been living further afield – in the second quarter (April to June) of 1850, in Lambeth, south London, Maria Ann Vigo (erroneously entered as ‘Vizo’) had married Thomas Blaning, a ‘music smith’, born in St Luke (Hoxton) in 1830. Thomas was the son of a James Blaning, who may have been born in Bristol, either in 1797 or 1788, or alternatively may be related to the James Blaning who died in 1800, in Clerkenwell.
Although it is just possible that a pregnancy, perhaps culminating in a premature birth, had followed close on the heels of marriage, it is more likely that Maria Anne was already pregnant at the time of the wedding– as also living with the couple at the time of the census (taken on March 31st, 1851) was their daughter, Mary Blaning, listed as being three-months-old (therefore born around December of 1850, or nine months after the earliest potential date for her parents’ marriage, and only seven months after the latest possibility). Unlike Annie’s parents, the young Blaning family were responsible for their own home.
If the snapshot offered by the 1851 census suggested that the Blanings were on their way to a somewhat comfortable life, however, then such impressions were to prove false. In 1854, Thomas Blaning (listed as ‘Blaining’) died, at the age of 24, in the Westminster Hospital, in Somers Town. In the next year, James Vigo also died, his death listed in the third quarter of 1855, in Whitechapel. By the 1861 census, therefore, we once again have only one household to concern ourselves with – situated in St George in the East, south of Whitechapel, at number 9, Berner Street.
In this census we find Annie Blaning listed as the head of the household; her mother and fellow widow, Mary Vigo is also living with Annie and her now three children – Annie jr. (born 1851, presumably she shared her mother’s double name of Mary Ann, and is one and the same as the infant seen in the 1851 census), Agnes (born 1853) and Alice Ellen (born 1855). Although there may initially appear to be some date confusion here, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Alice Ellen may have actually been a year or so older than reported, and therefore there is no problem with her being Thomas Blaning’s daughter, born shortly before his death. Census ages are notoriously vague and, particularly with regard to children, at the mercy of both the parents’ memories and the whims of the particular enumerator. Annie was now the ‘breadwinner’ of the family, and is listed as being a bath attendant – perhaps in the nearby Castle Alley wash-houses, outside which Alice McKenzie (along with Tabram, another putative ‘Ripper’ victim) would be murdered a little under forty years later.
By 1871 the family, minus Mary Vigo, had moved to number 54 Britannia Street, Hoxton – Annie was now a ‘Vellum Maker’ (a process involved in the manufacture of paper), and was living with Annie (Mary Ann), Agnes, Alice Ellen and the subject of our tale, Henry Blaning.
This is where we run into a problem. Clearly, no amount of mathematical adjustment of the kind which we employed with Alice Ellen will allow us to claim that Henry (Henry Binge Blaning, to give him his full name) - or, for that matter, his twin sister Louisa (featuring the same unusual middle name, this time spelt ‘Blinge’) - born in the third quarter of 1865 to be the children of Thomas Blaning, who had died fully eleven years earlier. It would appear, however, that is just what his mother did. At this point in time, it is impossible to identify Henry and Louisa’s father, but it is tempting (perhaps, too tempting) to see some foreshadowing of the problems Henry would experience in his later life in this mysterious and somewhat inauspicious start. Louisa died in the fourth quarter of 1865, having lived for between one and five months.
Mary Vigo, Henry’s grandmother, was by this time living apart from her daughter’s family, at number 5, Creechurch Lane, City of London. In total, there were eight separate families living at number 8, of whom two also sub-let to lodgers, presumably staying in the same room. 76-year-old Mary Vigo was one such individual, lodging with a 26-year-old chimney sweep, James Gardner, his wife and their two-year-old son. Other houses along Creechurch Lane also feature large numbers of inhabitants; we know from an Old Bailey trial of 1820 that number 7 was in use as a lodging house at that point – it is possible that we are looking at a number of houses gradually bought up by a single owner and operated as a something of a ‘super’ lodging house (some such arrangements were capable of sleeping over 200 people). Although all members of the Gardner family are listed as being born in London, it is just possible that there may be some distant family link, perhaps stretching back to Ireland.
On 18th September, 1871 Mary Ann Blaning married Henry Finch, a carman, at St. Barnabas Church, Finsbury. Annie was listed as a ‘minor’; presumably her birth date of 1851 (making her 20) as given on the 1861 census was two or three years in error. Henry Finch was the son of William Finch, a dock labourer born in Hertfordshire, and earlier in the year had been living nearby to the Blaning family, in James Street, Hoxton.
In another wedding, on September 14th, 1878, Alice Ellen Blaining wed 45-year old Henry Muller in St Andrew, Holborn (Alice Ellen was aged 22). Muller was a contractor, the son of Jacob Muller, and prior to the marriage the couple had been living together at 84 Grays Inn Road, Holborn. Their daughter (Henry’s niece) Agnes Muller was born in 1880, also in Holborn.
Three years later, in 1881, we see Annie Blaning, listed as a housekeeper, Agnes Blaning – who had inherited her mother’s trade of ‘Vellum Sewer’ – 15-year-old Henry and the young Agnes Muller living together at 38 Bishopsgate Street. The location, in 1881, of Agnes’ parents is unclear. Number 38 would have been located amongst what is currently the construction site for the Pinnacle Tower, soon to be the tallest building in the City of London, close to the junction with Gracechurch Street. Henry was listed with a rather exciting sounding occupation of ‘messenger – submarine telegraph’, the primitive ancestor of a telephone operator.
1901 and Beyond
IN 1891, three years after Henry’s ordeal in the Two Brewers, he is listed as living in a busy household at number 19, First Avenue, East Ham – barely a few streets away, as it happens, from the East London Cemetery where Frances Coles, the final victim in the ‘Whitechapel Murder’ file would be buried in that same year, the fourth name from that grim litany to be laid to rest there, following Elizabeth Stride, Alice McKenzie and the so-called ‘Pinchin Street Torso’. Head of the household was Henry George, a Clerk, born in 1843 in St. Pancras, along with his wife, Agnes George (nee Blaning). Also living with the couple, along with their three children – Dick ( born 1882), Joe(born 1886), and Phillip (born 1889) – were two ‘visitors’, in actuality Agnes’ mother, Annie Blaning, and her brother Henry. Completing the household - and suggesting that Agnes, at least, had ‘fallen on her feet’, marrying into relative comfort – was a 14-year-old domestic servant named Mary Collins.
|Bishopsgate, City of London; click to view in Flickr|
The same prosperity could not , sadly, be claimed for her youngest sibling, and only brother. By the time of the 1901 census, taken on 5th April, Henry Blaning -described as a potman/ barman, although it is not clear whether he had worked since so spectacularly upsetting his former employer - was an inmate of the City of London Union Workhouse, located in Homerton, north-east London, in a building which, further into the twentieth century, would be reinvented as Homerton Hospital and would be the birth place for actor Ray Winstone and T-Rex front-man Marc Bolan.
Just over a year later, in the fourth quarter of 1902, Henry Blaning died, in Poplar, aged just 37 and presumably with a lead souvenir from his quarrel in a Spitalfields pub 14 years earlier still lodged somewhere between his stomach and his groin. His death went unreported, just one of thousands in London’s impoverished areas to die on public charity during the Victorian and Edwardian age (the latter of which he had lived to see, by just over eighteen months). We have no way of knowing which members of his family attended his funeral, or whether any other friends or acquaintances felt compelled to attend. Until admission to the workhouse, so far as we can tell, he never lived apart from his mother; by contrast, the identity of his father remains a mystery, perhaps – just perhaps – as much so to us as it was to the man himself.
Of course, details such as those I have been able to uncover can never tell the full story about a person, or offer more than hints to the details of their life beyond a chronological and geographical skeleton. In all likelihood, Henry Blaning’s life was by turns just as unique and just as banal as most of ours, and, of course, were it not for that one fateful evening in January of 1888, then 99.99% of us would have no inkling that he had ever existed. Were it not for what happened next then even that detail would almost certainly have passed from a few days newspapers into the forgotten pages of history. Who was Henry Blaning? We do not know; I don’t know. However, if I have done my job properly then we should now have some idea. He was not a lucky man, it would appear, but similarly it is fair to say that on at least one occasion his own hotheadedness made a sizeable contribution to his bad fortune. He may, it has to be faced, have been a paedophile; he may, on the other hand, have been completely innocent – which, we should also remember, was the conclusion of his 1888 Old Bailey trial. As many a ‘Ripper’ author has found out to their cost, it is inadvisable to speculate on such things at so great a distance.
But surely, whoever he truly was, 109 years is long enough to have passed to be able to forgive most things, and say:
Rest In Peace
Henry Binge Blaning
1865 – 1902
Loose Ends: Whatever happened to...
Mary Vigo, Henry’s grandmother, is difficult to locate after 1871; she may be the ‘Mary Ann Vick’ who died in Chelsea, in the fourth quarter of 1872, but it is at present impossible to say.
Maria Ann Vigo, Henry’s mother, survived her son by eight years. She died, at the age of 83, between October and December of 1910, in Bethnal Green.
Bridget Elizabeth Vigo, Henry’s aunt, married George Platt, a labourer, on 7th August 1853, in St. Mary, Islington. According to the certificate, both had been living together at number 3, Morgan’s Yard prior to the marriage – I have been unable to locate such a location , although the search is ongoing. By 1891, the couple were living at 120 Bishopsgate Street, not far from Bridget’s sister, Maria Ann, and the marriage had produced one surviving child, Alica Platt (born 1872). George Platt was the son of Richard Platt, a cooper (typically a maker of barrels), and may be the George Platt, son of Richard, baptised on 14th September, 1828 in Bermondsey, although on latter census returns he gives his place of birth as ‘London City’.
Alica, in turn, may be the ‘Alice’ Platt who married Frederick Alley on New Year’s Day, 1893, in the neighbouring parish of St Botolph, and who by 1901 was living in West Ham, Essex with Frederick (surname written as Abley) and a six-year-old daughter, Alice E (perhaps standing for Elizabeth, named after her grandmother?). If this is correct then Alice Alley/Abley (potentially Henry’s first cousin) supposedly died, aged 75, in Hackney in 1947. After 1891, her parents seem to disappear from the records, although Bridget Elizabeth may be the Elizabeth Platt who died in Hackney in 1928, in which case she made it to the ripe old age of 96.
John Vigo, Henry’s uncle, is very difficult to locate post-1851. He may be the John S. Vagg whose death is registered in the first quarter of 1854 in St George in the East (remember that this is where the remaining members of his family are found in 1861), but it is an extremely long shot.
Mary Ann Blaning, Henry’s eldest sister, and her husband, Henry Finch, were living together, still in Hoxton, at number 9 William Street, in 1881, lodging with John Childs, a ‘Commercial Clerk’ and his sister, Elizabeth, a housekeeper; by 1891 Mary Ann and Henry had moved to Farringdon, just outside the City walls, in their own house, at this point Mary Ann was working as a ‘Clerk’. By 1901 they were back in north-east London, living at number 18 Falmouth Road, Stoke Newington –the couple remained childless, although the household also features a lodger, a 23-year-old Cambridge-born ‘Warehouseman’ named William Haryell. Mary Ann Finch probably died in the second quarter of 1905, at the age of approximately 51. Henry Finch is at this moment impossible to locate post-1901.
Agnes George, another of Henry’s sisters, died in the second quarter of 1901, in Bethnal Green. Her husband, Henry George, is almost impossible to isolate in the records without her , a situation not helped by his extremely common name – and the same is unfortunately true for Dick, Joe and Phillip George, Henry’s nephews; although Dick may be the Richard George found lodging in Limehouse in 1901.
Alice Ellen Blaning, Henry’s closest sibling to survive infancy, was living in White Lion Street, Spitalfields, in 1901, along with her son, Thomas I. Muller (born 1883) in a tenement run by the philanthropic (and strict) Peabody Trust. Alice was working as an ‘account book sewer’. Her husband, Henry Muller, Henry’s brother-in-law, had died in the fourth quarter of 1888 in Whitechapel. By 1901 - living in Wandsworth, south London –Alice was working as a missionary preacher, and as well as Thomas (aged 18 and working as a clerk),the household also features Agnes Muller, Henry’s niece, now a 21-year-old photograph mounter, and a 27-year-old Danish lodger, Christina Schmidt. Interestingly, Schmidt is listed as a district nurse, the same occupation as one of Alice’s neighbours from ten years earlier; perhaps she had stayed in touch with her former acquaintances and a few years later was in a position to offer a struggling colleague a place to stay. She may well be the Alice Miller whose death is registered in the second quarter of 1906, in Shoreditch. Agnes Muller died near Blackpool, Lancashire, in 1953, aged 73.
Robert James Matthews, and his daughter, Eliza Matthews, have proved very difficult to trace, although we do have the detail given by Blaning that ‘he (Matthews) had two sons and a daughter’. The closest match I can cautiously present is a Robert Henry Matthews, born in Clerkenwell either in 1838 or 1839 (and thus aged 49 or 50 in 1888) and who married Charlotte Blomely in the City of London in 1866. The couple actually had three sons and two daughters, the youngest of which had been born prior to marriage in 1864, but by 1891 (and so, perhaps, also by 1888) only two sons and a daughter were still at home – Henry, James (perhaps given one of his father’s middle names?) and Elizabeth Matthews, born 1873. In 1895, aged 22, this Elizabeth Matthews married William Clover, a bricklayers labourer born in Islington in 1875; in 1901 the couple were living with William’s widowed mother and two children, Charlotte (born 1896) and William (born 1898). Her father, Robert Henry Matthews, died in the second quarter of 1891 – four years too early to witness the marriage of his daughter whose honour, if I have the right man, he had so dramatically defended only three years previously.