In 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The glass structure was built to remain (like the Olympic Park at Stratford) as a resource for Londoners long beyond the duration of the exhibition itself, and after 1851 it was moved to South London, to a site at Sydenham. But the Crystal Palace was beset by misfortune; in 1861 it was badly damaged in a storm and in December 1866 part of it burned down in a massive fire.
During the fire in 1866 it seems that many visitors stopped to help those fighting the fire. One of these was the husband of Mary Chant and their lodger. On the afternoon of the 30 December 1866 they had visited the Palace as they were shareholders in the venture.
On hearing that a fire had broken out Mr Chant and their young friend handed their coats to Mary and rushed to assist. Mary was waiting when she heard a rumour some ‘wild animals had been let loose, and becoming much alarmed’ she turned to a ‘respectable-looking’ young man nearby, named Richard Rolls, who she assumed worked for the Palace company.
She asked him to show her to safety in the garden and he agreed. However, it soon became clear he was taking her downstairs, not to the garden at all.
Once they were underground he demanded she give him the coats and a gold watch (belonging to the lodger). When she refused he grabbed her by the throat and strangled her, seizing the items from her. She tried to scream for help but suspected that no one in that ‘dismal and lonely’ place would hear her. He must have thought much the same because now he tried to steal a chain she was wearing.
Realising her peril Mary turned and ran away from him. She found a policeman and reported the incident. From the description she gave Rolls was later arrested and the case came before the magistrate at Lambeth Police Court in early January 1867.
In his defence Rolls claimed he was not the man that had attacked Mrs Chant. Before his arrest he had changed out of the coat he was wearing and had donned a leather work apron. He still had a distinctive hat on however, and Mary was sure it was him.
The coats were found but the watch remained missing. With Rolls protesting his innocence the police asked for him to be remanded while they appealed for witnesses and looked for the watch. The justice remanded him ‘for a few days’.
Given the chaos of the fire and the difficulty of a clear identification I suspect Rolls might either have been innocent as charged or able to evade conviction on the basis of a lack of evidence. He doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey in any case in 1867. There were 8 other persons prosecuted that day for minor thefts or other incidents during the fire at the Crystal Palace, which is useful reminder that some people will always seek to profit from the opportunity presented by disasters.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, January 6, 1867]