In the 1890s, an eccentric but well-intentioned character of distinction named Danby Gifford cut a well-known figure on the streets of Liverpool. An incurable insomniac, Danby, or "Dashing Dan" as he was known, would leave the 380-roomed North Western Hotel on Lime Street each night, and patrol the midnight streets, armed with a silver gilt-handled malacca sword stick and .22-calibre two-shot Derringer, said to be the very same pistol that Wilkes shot Lincoln with, won from a riverboat gambler in the American South.
At midnight, on 16 August, 1894, a full moon hung over Lime Street. Dan Gifford passed the hotel receptionist - who was busy in conversation with a young female guest - and strolled out of the lobby and into the moonlit thoroughfare, in search of adventure. With his silk top hat, flowing satin-lined cape, and twirling swordstick, Gifford presented an impressive sight. His white, waxed moustache, turned up and twisted into finely tapered ends, and his silver bejewelled tie-pin, gave him the air of someone of importance; perhaps a retired brigadier or judge. Even at that late hour, Lime Street was still busy with scurrying hansom cabs and people coming from the train station. The Empire Theatre had long emptied and an actor was leaving by the stage door. Outside the Legs of Man, a lady of the night propositioned Mr Gifford, and he became incensed at the idea. Waving his swordstick aloft, Gifford's face turned purple.
'How dare you!' he growled, but the petite blonde streetwalker folded her arms defiantly and grinned mockingly right into his mad eyes.
'Alright grandpa, I never asked for your hand in marriage,' she said, then walked towards a staggering sailor on London Road.
'The wages of sin is death!' Gifford ranted at her, then crossed over to St George's Plateau, feeling highly offended. He wanted damsels in distress, not some brazen scarlet woman. He looked down on such specimens of kerbstone Liverpool.
Two young shabbily dressed men in flat caps suddenly emerged from behind the base of one of the four lion statues. One had a cosh. 'If you shout I'll break your skull old man,' said one of the delinquents, while the other took hold of Gifford's arm. The old man drew his sword from the stick in an instant and swung its blade at the cosh-wielding youth with such ferocity, sparks flew off its tip when it struck the statue's plinth. The youth holding Gifford's arm received a kick to his groin, but at the same moment, the other mugger struck the aged adventure seeker's forehead. 'Curse you, you blackguard!' Gifford, staggered in a daze, with his back to the huge silhouetted hulk of St George's Hall. At least he still had the sword, and he walked backwards up the stairs as the two thugs closed in. The blow to his head had affected his balance. He fumbled in his coat for the Derringer pistol, but couldn't find it. The two young ruffians rushed up the steps, and Gifford fell. He saw one of the criminals raise the cosh, ready to hit his head, but the assailant hesitated and turned.
The blonde streetwalker who had approached Gifford earlier was rushing up the steps. She screamed a string of profanities at the men, and one of them darted away. The remaining attacker was suddenly floored with an uppercut to his chin from the woman. The prostitute knelt besides Gifford, and, after telling him he shouldn't have been walking about so late, she produced a handkerchief and dabbed his grazed forehead. She then accompanied him back to the hotel before vanishing back into the night.
Dashing Dan's attitude towards the street women changed, and after making enquiries about the woman's identity, he learned that her name was Maggie May and that she lived in Mann Street. He visited the hovel where she existed, and found her with two ragged young children. Gifford gave her money and flowers for saving his life, and Maggie was tearfully thankful.
Dashing Dan of Lime Street was involved in many adventures in Victorian and Edwardian Liverpool, and I will relate some of the perils, romances and crusades of the silvery-haired top-hatted knight in the near future.
© Tom Slemen, from Strange Liverpool