“What! Eighteen Stone! Oh, you’ll do; – here’s your Ticket-of-leave!” (Punch, 13 December, 1862)
Michael Welch – who also went under the name of John Hunt – had already had several brushes with the law. He had served time in Portsmouth Prison and had previously been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Fortunately for Welch his sentence had come at a time when Britain was bringing the process of transporting felons to Australia to an end.
Transportation to New South Wales had been resisted (by the inhabitants) from the 1830s and in 1840 it ceased (although between 1788 and then some 150,000 Britons had been sent there). Convicts continued to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) until 1853 and to Western Australia from 1850 onwards (albeit in small numbers), but the reality was that after 60 or so years of dumping her unwanted criminals and some political prisoners in the new colony Great Britain was forced to look at alternative ways to deal with crime.
The answer was imprisonment at home, in the hulks (which also served as embarkation off points for transportees) and in the national prisons (such as Pentonville or Portland) where convicts could be set to building sea defences or other public works, or ‘broken’ on the treadwheel and crank.
Adopting a system pioneered with transported convicts in Australia those sentenced to long spells in prison could earn a ticket-of-leave (effectively parole) whereby they might be released early so long as they behaved themselves thereafter. Welch was one such ‘ticket-of’leave’ man.
Unfortunately for Welch he was unable to stay out of trouble.
In October 1854 he was spotted on Fleet Street attempting to pick the pockets of passers-by. Inspector Daniel May of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective force was mingling with the crowds on Fleet Street at around half past seven in the evening when he saw Welch.
‘I watched him for about half an hour’, he told the magistrate at Guildhall; ‘at length I saw him put his hand through a hole in his coat where his pocket should be, and take a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket’.
He informed the victim of what had happened and soon afterwards seized Welch and took him into custody.
When he was searched he had no less than 14 other silk hankies. The magistrate was amazed:
‘I suppose they are the product of a whole day’s work, are they not? he asked the detective.
‘Oh no sir’ the policeman replied, ‘I believe it was only two hours’ work’.
‘He must be a very clever fellow to get so many handkerchiefs in two hours’, said the Alderman. ‘He is one of the most expert pickpockets in London’ confirmed Inspector May.
Now the magistrate turned his attention to the accused and, having established his history of imprisonment and recent release, upbraided him for his lack of gratitude to the criminal justice system.
‘Did they give you a ticket-of-leave to rob people of their handkerchiefs?’ he asked the man in the dock. ‘No sir’.
Welch was remanded in custody so that the owner of the handkerchief could appear to prosecute him.
Postscript: On 23 October 1854 a John Hunt was sentenced to four years penal servitude at Old Bailey for stealing a handkerchief valued at 2s belonging to a George Pullen. Hunt had ‘before been convicted’ and pleaded guilty. There are no details (because of the guilty plea) but I suspect it is the same man.
Four years for the theft of a handkerchief worth about £2 in today’s money.
[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, October 11, 1854]