Burglary tops the bill in the early records of the London Police Courts

The newspapers did report the comings and goings at the Police Court almost from their inception in 1792 but the early reports are fewer, less detailed, and harder to find with a simple keyword search. Gradually the papers seem to have settled on a heading of ‘police intelligence’ by the later 1820s but before that its use is somewhat sporadic.

The press also appear to have been working out exactly what to record (the London Police Courts heard hundreds of cases each week between them, so the reporters couldn’t include everything). By mid century this had settled into a pattern where the usual types of hearing (assault and petty theft, fraud and embezzlement, drunkenness and disorderly behavior) were augmented by ‘human interest’ stories (pleas for protection, abject poverty, attempted suicides), or the humorous, funny, or just plain bizarre.

On 11 January 1817 the Morning Post (which was, by the early 1800s, a ‘conservative’ daily which had started life in 1772) published a short summary of ‘police intelligence’ which included the following cases:

At Hatton Garden William Grant was brought up accused of burgling the home of Joseph Fisher, a tobacconist. Fisher prosecuted the thief himself and alleged that he, and other not yet in custody, had stolen ‘upwards of £100 in bank notes and cash’ from his ‘counting-house’. The justice remanded Grant for further examination.

John Davies was charged at Queen’s Square Police court with robbing the premises of Robert Smith who ran the Nag’s Head public house in Knightsbridge (which is still trading 200 years later ). The accused supposedly stole a ‘looking glass’ (a mirror) and was committed for trial. Neither Davies nor Grant are recorded as having trials at the Old Bailey so the prosecutions may have collapsed or perhaps they were acquitted and the cases not written up for the Proceedings.

Mary Johnston was not as lucky as these two however. She also appeared at Queen’s Square on a charge of burglary. She had entered the property of a blind woman named Eliza Bond, at 10 at night. This was quite unusual; female thieves rarely committed burglary, preferring to act with others as conspirators or to steal from homes or shops during the day, when they might pass as servants on errands.

Mary was tried at the Old Bailey on the 15 January and convicted by the jury. She was sentenced to death but recommended to mercy. She was 25 years old and pleaded ‘distress’. I can’t find Mary amongst those convicts transported to Australia in 1817 and she certainly wasn’t executed either so she, like so many ‘ordinary’ working-class people, disappears from the public record after her brief appearances in 1817.

Over at Bow Street one man (William Brennau) was committed for trial for stealing lead from the roof of a house belong to a law stationer in Chancery Lane (but this led to no trial at Old Bailey).

Finally, William Crowder was set before the magistrate accused of conspiring with others to burgle a warehouse in Bucklesbury (in the City of London). Crowder was clearly a man of means and the magistrate must have believed his claims of innocence because despite the man having only recently returned from a trip to France, he set him at liberty on his solicitor promising to appear for him if charges were presented at a later date.

Given that only one of these London hearings resulted in a trial at the Old Bailey it helps demonstrate that previous (and future) studies of crime and punishment which rely overmuch on the records of the Central Criminal Court should be treated with some caution at least. Much more ‘crime’ came before the summary courts in London and elsewhere (as I argue in my first book).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 11, 1817]

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