A Royal Injustice?
Written by Jerry White
The year is 1840, the date 10 June, a warm and dry Wednesday evening, just the weather for a pleasant drive to take in the early summer air. So it seemed to the young Queen Victoria and her new husband, Prince Albert.
They had been married only four months to the day, but these evening drives had already become something of a habit for them. Londoners had begun to wait in anticipation for their open carriage to swing out of the gates of Buckingham Palace and turn left up Constitution Hill towards the parks. Not all in the crowds, though, were well-wishers. For that evening a young bartender lodging in West Street, Lambeth, had brought with him two loaded pistols to kill Victoria, her husband, or both. His name was Edward Oxford, and this was the first of numerous assassination attempts on the Queen during her long reign.
Oxford would be declared insane at his trial and was detained at first in Bethlem Hospital and then Broadmoor, was eventually declared sane and emigrated to Australia under the name of John Freeman.
All this is well known and the details are readily available in the blogosphere. But what isn't so well known, indeed remained unknown until recently pieced together, is another story of incarceration directly connected to that June evening in 1840.
Edward Oxford's first shot had been heard by many in the waiting crowd, and the would-be assassin was spotted by a young man and a boy jogging to keep pace with the royal carriage. Joshua Reeve Lowe sprinted across Constitution Hill and reached Oxford just as he fired the second pistol. Lowe and his schoolboy nephew were the first to lay hands on Oxford and seize his guns. Joshua Reeve Lowe would be the lead prosecution witness at Oxford's Bow Street arraignment and then at the Old Bailey trial. Lowe's name and occupation - he was a spectacle-maker and optician in Copthall Court, near the Bank of England - were front-page news on every breakfast table in the nation. Lowe's 'fifteen minutes of fame' would have life-changing consequences that proved a disaster for him.
Lowe's sudden celebrity, acknowledged by the highest in the land - his business was patronised briefly by Prince Albert and by the Queen Mother - led him to take a momentous decision. He would tear himself from his City roots - he was born and bred there - and set up business in the heart of the West End. He advertised his new venture at 34 St James's Street in the summer of 1841 as 'Joshua Reeve Lowe, Optician, by Special Appointment to HRH Prince Albert, and under the immediate patronage of the Queen Dowager and HRH the Duchess of Kent.' But the 'immediate patronage' proved worthless. The rich and noble customers he sought stayed away, his valuable stock remained unsold, his debts within weeks totalled nearly £4000 (some half a million at today's prices), and to salvage something from the wreck he moved his business to Hatfield Street, off the Waterloo Road. There he was arrested by a creditor who refused to wait any longer for his money, and on 13 December he was brought into custody in the Marshalsea Prison, off Borough High Street, Southwark. Unable to settle with his creditors he remained a prisoner until January 1843. He made clear to the Insolvent Debtors' Court that he felt sadly let down: 'He expected, he said, to be made a Court tradesman, as in the case of the person who saved the life of George the Third from the hand of an assassin; but his expectations were not realised.' In fact, the only help he had received was from Prince Albert, who bought a telescope from him for £70.
Joshua Reeve Lowe never recovered from the crash, or his imprisonment. He died at his home at 15 Broadway, Southwark, on 25 January 1848. The cause of death was given as 'Phthisis', probably chronic pulmonary tuberculosis; if so, it can't have been helped by so many months in Southwark's prisons. He was just 37.
Just a few years earlier he had been the hero of the hour, a celebrity who believed his actions - and the royal gratitude that would surely follow - would change his life forever. It did change, but not in the way he had hoped. Was he a victim of royal ingratitude? Or was he an innocent abroad whose expectations could never have been realised? Either way, Joshua Reeve Lowe's rise and fall can serve as a Victorian morality tale of London, 1840.
Jerry White is Professor of Modern London History at Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest book is Mansions of Misery. A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, published by Bodley Head in October 2016. He is a board member of LONDON 1840.
The Marshalsea Prison as shown on Horwood's map of 1813. On Christmas Eve 1811 the old prison, which had served for nigh on 500 years, was closed. The inmates where escorted the 130 yards south along Borough High Street to this, their new gaol, which served for just over 30 years, closing on 9 November 1842.
The last vestiges of the Marshalsea - the southern perimeter wall of the prison yard