Spotlight On … Anti-garrotte collars.

Spotlight On … Anti-garrotte collars.

Written by Victoria Green.

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Even before the days of the infamous Jack the Ripper in the late 19th Century, Victorian London was all too familiar with violent crime. A deep mistrust of law enforcement by the poorer sections of society meant that many crimes went unrecorded, so true crime figures are likely to be far higher than records suggest. Victorian London could certainly be a tough place to live, with the fear of ruffians lurking on every corner, or of criminals hiding in the shadows.

It was in this environment of fear and sensationalism that the garrotting panics of the mid 1800s were born. For those who don’t watch as many crime dramas as me, garrotting is form of strangulation where an arm, or length of wire/cord is used to compress the windpipe. All very gruesome, and a quick trick picked up by criminals to temporarily incapacitate their victims as they made off with their victim’s valuables. Garrotters were viewed as ‘the work shy savage with a propensity for gratuitous violence’, a ‘dangerous figurehead of the ‘criminal classes’.’ (Turner, J. et al. 2017. A Companion to the History of Crime and Justice, 95).

The trend of garrotting hit the streets at a time when crime was on the decline, following the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. It took everybody by surprise, garnering an overenthusiastic media response which, in turn, cultivated widespread panic.

A heavy-handed response to one particular incident exacerbated public fears. In 1862, MP Hugh Pilkington left the House of Commons, and was walking home along Pall Mall when he was strangled and robbed of his watch. The subsequent fear-mongering in the media prompted the Security from Violence Act of 1863, which ensured that criminals convicted of violent theft could be punished with up to fifty lashes and a hefty prison sentence.

In reality, garrotting probably wasn’t as big a problem as the newspapers made out, but the people of London still believed that there was a criminal around every corner waiting to strangle them. This led to a number of quirky devices being invented to deter potential garrotters. These were as unusual as cravats with razor blades sewn into the hem (to cut criminals, cords or both), and the 1858 Henry Ball belt-pistols designed to be worn to the back, discharging into a criminal’s crotch. Perhaps the most familiar, everyday anti-garrotting measures were leather collars ‘warranted to withstand the grip of the most muscular ruffian’ (Punch, September 27th, 1856). Some collars were thick and cumbersome, covered in spikes, and were much satirised in the Punch, which published spoof adverts of anti-garrotting methods.

Patent Anti-Garotte Collar (Punch, 27 September, 1856)

Aside from becoming somewhat of a social trend, anti-garrotting collars became standard issue in the Metropolitan Police and were worn by the first policemen or ‘Peelers’ (named after the founder of the Met, Sir Robert Peel). Peelers would wear a 4” leather stock inside their high collar to protect them from the threat of strangulation. This regulation stock size was reduced to 2” in 1859. Compared to the collars purchased and worn by the public, these stocks were plain and utilitarian.

The National Leather Collection has five examples of Victorian anti-garrotting collars used by the police. They are made of dark brown leather, close with a buckle to the rear, and feature an additional gullet protector. One collar is stamped with a maker’s mark; WD Bryan Brothers & Co. 9 Dacre Street, Westminster, 1874.

The garrotting panics did not last long, and were quietened in 1863 by the Security from Violence Act. The legislation and preventative collars ensured that gentlemen could ‘walk the streets of London in perfect safety at all hours of the day or night’. (Punch, 8th April, 1865) Though it wasn’t long before another moral panic swept Whitechapel with the rise of Jack the Ripper, but that is a story for another time.

These Victorian anti-garrotting collars are just some examples of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.