A confident thief says he’ll take his chances with a jury

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I enjoy the way in which the nineteenth century press occasionally rendered the testimony of witnesses at the Police Courts in the vernacular. It was probably done to amuse the usually middle-class readership, and is very far from being ‘pc’ but it does give us a sense of how people spoke.

In February 1839 Denis Burns was accused of stealing a coat and the following exchange with a witness took place at Mansion House Police Court in the City of London.

A groom at a livery stables close to St Mary’s Axe (now home to the Gherkin building) testified that he saw Burns open the door of a carriage and remove a coat from within.

Prisoner:’You saw me take the coat! Mind vot you say my good young man. Take time to consider and remember your precious soul’.

Witness: ‘You made no bones about it at all, but lugged it ou’ and throwed it over your arm, and away you toddled and me arter you’.

Prisoner: ‘Oh, dear me! Please you my Lord! the precious babe as never see’d the light till next year a’nt more innocent than myself, and he knows it b____y well.I’m a poor but honest man’.

The Lord Mayor (sounding rather tired of lame excuses from the dock) asked Burns how it had come by the coat, given that he admitted to having it in his possession.

Burns explained:

‘You see my Lord, as I was walking along. looking for a job, a man turns quick out of a yard, with this here coat over his arm. “I say, old fellow”, says he to me, “you look as if you was hard up; there’s a coat for you, for its no go;” and throws the coat bang at me’.

So, the Lord Mayor asked him, the man made a present of his coat because he didn’t need it any more? Yes, replied Burns, although he admitted he’d be wary of accepting such a gift in the future. The Lord Mayor told him he was going to ensure he had no more similar ‘presents’ in the future and committed him for trial for the theft.

Burns was defiant: ‘Then if ever there was an innocent man sent to Noogate for doing of nothing, I’m the poor unfortunate man’.

His defence was somewhat undermined not only by the groom that saw him filch the garment from the coach, but also by a policeman who appeared to say that he had admitted the theft when he was arrested. He told the court that Burns had said he took it only because he was desperate and ‘in distress’.

‘S’help me God’, Burns blurted out, ‘all I said was I was quite in distress, ’cause they said I’d do such a thing’ (this caused laughter in the courtroom).

To this the Lord Mayor replied:’Well, you must prevail upon a jury to believe you’. ‘Depend upon it, I will’ was Burns’ response.

There is no Denis (or Dennis) Burns in the Old Bailey Proceedings but perhaps it wasn’t written up and printed (not all trials were). If he was convicted he might have faced transportation; a few years earlier and he would have been on trial for his life.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 28, 1839]

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One thirsty fellow’s scheme for ‘raising the wind’.

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Vauxhall Bridge c.1829

James Edwards was a man with a tremendously large thirst but very small funds. In early 1854 he came up with a cunning plan to cash in on what may have been a fairly common practice. Unfortunately for him it backfired, and in late February he found himself in the dock of the Westminster Police Court.

One day a house in Besborough Gardens, Pimlico, was inundated with tradesmen delivering all sorts of goods and services. Between 15 and 18 different butchers, bakers, sweeps, french polishers and the like descended on the fashionable parade near Vauxhall Bridge. The staff and the unnamed gentleman that resided there were puzzled – no one had ordered anything.

One can imagine the chaotic scene with bewildered homeowner turning away frustrated and annoyed tradesmen – perhaps much like the exchanges between Charles Pooter and his butcher and the other tradesmen that called on him (and then fell over his badly positioned boot scraper).

The gentleman and his family at first assumed it must have been ‘a hoax got up by some mischievous person’ but eventually the trail was traced back to James Edwards.

Edwards had apparently gone around the various local tradesmen making spurious orders for unwanted items and services in the hope that he would received a tip. This came in the form of ‘a few halfpence or pints of beer’ and, with up to 18 orders he must have had plenty of money or alcohol to drink himself silly for the rest of the afternoon.

Whether it was good luck or inside knowledge is not made clear in the report, but the family’s cook, who normally placed most of the orders for the household, had recently left. This allowed such an unusual situation to occur. Edwards had, as the paper reported, discovered  a new ‘mode of raising the wind’ (or obtaining there necessary funds).

It was a nuisance if not a crime and in the absence of the cook’s testimony that she had not made the orders the magistrate was obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. He ordered him to enter into his own recognisances to behave himself for the next six months and warned the tradesmen to be on ‘their guard against tricks of this description’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 27, 1854]

Children are the victims as a mother who cannot cope lashes out

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At around 5 o’clock on 25 February 1866 PC John Watkins (303) was called to attend at a house in Prince’s Row Square, Soho. In the 1860s this was a rough area of the capital and violence was part and parcel of everyday life.

When the constable arrived at number 23 he found a crowd gathered in front of it, a clear sign that something was happening within; something the community disapproved of.

As Watkins climbed the stairs he could hear sounds of violence and hurried into the bedroom where he found Eileen O’Leary ‘cruelly beating her children’. She had hold of the eldest of her two girls, Julia (14), and was banging her head against the bedpost.

Eileen was quite drunk and was threatening her daughter with a knife, screaming ‘I’ll do for you. I’ll do for you!’ PC Watkins intervened and managed to drag the child away from her mother, but in the process large clumps of Julia’s hair was pulled out. As soon as one child was rescued however, Eileen turned her anger on the second, pushing her away. She then picked up a third child, only a baby, and threw it to the floor.

He arrested Eileen and took her before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court on the following day. There the court heard not only his evidence but also that of a neighbour and the eldest daughter, Julia.

Mr Pennington said it was him that had raised the alarm. He lived downstairs at number 23 (most houses in working-class districts such as this were multi-occupied ) and had run upstairs when he heard Julia’s cries of ‘murder’!’ He found mother and daughter locked in a violent scene of abuse, as the former held her child down on the floor and held a knife over her.

Pennington succeeded in separating them temporarily and went to get help. He told the magistrate that O’Leary was ‘in the habit of ill-using the children every day, and I am sure she will, if not prevented, destroy the girl Julia before long’.

Now it was Julia’s turn to give evidence and she appeared in court as a ‘meek-speaking girl’ who was evidently very afraid of her mother.  She confirmed the evidence of the policeman and Mr Pennington and added the information that her brother was also involved, on the side of his mother. He had apparently joined in with the beating she had received.

She added that ‘I am afraid to be at home as my mother threatens frequently that she will take my life. My father took out a summons against her but forgave her’. This echoes many of the incidents of domestic violence I have studied across both the 19th and 18th centuries where women brought their husbands to court only to forgive their behaviour and take them back.

The justice, Mr Knox, turned to Eileen and told that since she had been before the court before on several occasions for violent behaviour she was ‘not fit to be trusted at large’ and so committed her for trial. She was only only committed for the attack on Julia however, not for pushing her other child or for throwing her baby to the floor. Today I imagine this would be a case for social services. Quite where the husband was in all of this I have to wonder, and whether he would be able to cope with the care of four children, one a babe in arms, is equally open to question.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 26, 1866]

Plunder on the Thames or merely a perk of the job?

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In late February 1828 two young men were brought before the Lord Mayor  at Mansion House charged with ‘having taken some bushels of corn’ from a loaded cargo vessel they were working on.

The pair (who were not named in the newspaper report) were employed as lightermen on the Thames river  – ‘the people who have operated the boats on the Thames with a history going back hundreds of years’.

The prosecution was brought by a Mr Ashford, a corn factor  (a trader in corn) who had sent the bushels as samples to his customers. Presumably if the quality (and price) were acceptable they would then enter into contracts to take regular deliveries from him.

Ashford told the Lord Mayor that it was becoming ‘a general practice with lightermen to plunder corn vessels’ and that while he was loath to press ‘to have any punishment inflicted’ he wanted something done to stop it.

He probably recognised that he needed the lightermen on side as it was, to convey his samples and future deliveries along the crowded waterway of the capital. He may also have been acknowledging that for hundreds of years those working on the river (as lightermen, dockers and warehousemen) had a long standing belief that they had rights to a part of the cargos they conveyed, unloaded or secured.

The concept of customary rights or perquisites (‘perks) has been understood by social historians to form part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ of working men and women in the long eighteenth century and beyond. Carpenters working at the naval shipyards on the Thames took home offcuts of wood to build stairs in their homes, dock workers felt entitled to help themselves to plugs of tobacco or ‘sips’ of alcohol; while coal heavers swept up the dregs of coal from boats coming in from the North East and South Wales to use on their fires.

This alternative economy (which had its examples in almost all small industries and in agriculture) was increasingly suppressed as capitalism took hold in the 1700s and employers used the growing sheaf of property laws to prosecute for theft.

Perks still exist of course; who hasn’t taken home some office stationary for personal use, used the employer’s phone or surfed the internet on a work PC; or perhaps exploited staff discount for friends? We have a deep seated sense of entitlement to the benefits of working for this or that company, institution or individual and it is hard tom let go of (or police of course).

In the end the Lord Mayor decided not to proceed against the two lightermen, taking on board what the corn trader had requested. But he laid down a marker:

He said he was ‘perfectly aware of the practice, which, if not actual felony, came very near it; and, if after this warning, were not discontinued, he would, in any future case, recommend prosecution’.

He then sent the men away with a flea in their ears.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 25, 1828]

 

 

Two inept thieves fail to make off with a diva’s silverware

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In February 1894 Annie Walker observed a suspicious looking man that she had seen loitering around her mistress’ house several times in that week. The man was carrying a sack and seems to be ascending the steps up from the house in Clarence Terrace, Regents’ Park. When he reached the street he handed the sack over to another man who placed it in a nearby truck. The two men then set off together.

She followed them long enough to get a description and then called for the police.

Armed with her information the police soon caught up with the pair; one in a  pub in Sussex Mews, the other in Boston Place. The men were arrested and taken back to the police station. On the 23rd February they appeared at Marylebone Police Court charged with theft.

Frederick Noolan (37) and William Collins (33) were charged with stealing a silver-plated carriage harness from the London home of the celebrated opera singer, Lillian Nordica. The harness was new, and had been kept in a cellar at the front of the house (from where Noolan had been seen emerging by Mrs Nordica’s housekeeper, Walker).

Collins had grumbled about his arrest on the way to the station: ‘This is what you get by obliging a pal’, he said, claiming that a man had asked him to carry the sacks to Gower Street. Who was that man, he was asked; ‘Ah, I should like to know myself’ he replied.

The magistrate committed them both for trial.

Lillian (or Lillie) Nordica was a celebrity in late Victorian London. At the time of the theft she was in her native America, presumably performing the role of one Wagner’s heroines, such as Elsa, , Isolde, Kundry, or Venus. She had sung for the Tsar of Russia, performed at Crystal Palace and was famous throughout Italy and Western Europe. In the early 1900s she even became a model for Coca-Cola.

Lillie married three times; her first husband attempted to cross the Channel in a balloon and disappeared, some suggested suicide. She married again two years after this case, in 1896, but this ended in divorce. Her third husband didn’t last very long either, they married in 1907 but split just before she started a South Pacific tour in 1914 as the world teetered on the brink of war.

She sounds like a formidable woman, a true diva, and perhaps men just found that too much to handle. Lillie fell ill on her tour to Australia and she died (of pneumonia) in May 1914.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, February 24, 1894]

Casual violence: an everyday occupational hazard for London’s ‘unfortunates’

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In late February 1865 Elizabeth Smith and Emma Harrington were standing at the corner of Gardener’s Lane at one in the morning. Clearly the two women were prostitutes although they were later referred to in court as ‘unfortunates’. Smith was particularly ‘unfortunate’ that night because she was about to become the victim of a nasty attack by a soldier.

Corporal Cornelius Ford, of the 1st battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, approached the girls and demanded to know if Smith knew the address of a woman he was looking for. When Elizabeth replied that she couldn’t help him he flew into a rage.

He said ‘You lie you _____’ and struck her, knocking her to the floor. Then he drew his bayonet and stabbed her just above the eye, causing her to ‘become insensible’. This was according to the evidence given to the policeman that attended and arrested the corporal; the wounded woman was taken to hospital.

Police constable Aitchison (PC A1) had already encountered Ford and the two street girls, they had been arguing and he had told the soldier to be on his way quietly. He ran back to the scene when he had heard Emma shout ‘murder!’ – the standard alarm for any attack in Victorian London it seems.

He removed the bayonet from the soldier’s hand and returned it to the scabbard at his belt before calling a colleague to take the woman to hospital and conveying his charge to the police station.

At Bow Street Police Court Ford was charged with assault and denied drawing his weapon or attacking Smith. Instead he accused her of trying to steal his watch. He suggested she was the aggressor and that she had run into a nearby pub, grabbed a pint pot, and came out and tried to hit him with it. As she did so she fell and that was how she cut her head.

His sergeant appeared in court to back him up by giving him and excellent character reference. Sergeant Parsons added that corporals were entitled to carry their bayonets when off duty, something that the magistrate felt was a mistake. Mr Henry noted that this ‘was one of the dangers of letting men wear their bayonets’. There ‘is no doubt that he used’ it and because of that, he added, he had to ‘go before a jury’.

In 1888 another street walker, this time in Whitechapel, was stabbed multiple times by a person or persons unknown. She was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and at the time two off duty guardsmen were suspected. It is quite likely (but hard to prove) that Martha was an early victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

‘Jack’ wasn’t around in 1865 however, when this case was heard. Corporal Ford would have been sent to the Middlesex Sessions that year, for a jury to decide if he was guilty of the assault on Elizabeth. I doubt he would have been convicted; it is more likely the ‘respectable’ men of the jury would have sided with a servant of the Queen than with a common ‘unfortunate’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, February 23, 1861]

An ex-solider’s debt sheds light on my research query…

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The Shaftesbury Training Ship (or Industrial School)

I spent yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) pouring over one of few surviving registers we have for the London Police Courts. Most of what we can know about the ways these courts operate comes from the pages of the newspapers or the memoirs of a handful of Police magistrates or court visitors. The ledgers in the LMA are fairly dull and a  little confusing to the uninitiated.

One of the cases I noted at Thames was of a young lad of 12 named Bartholomew who was found wandering the streets unable to give a good account of himself. As a vagrant he was rounded up and taken before Mr Saunders. The record seems to say that the magistarte had sent him somewhere until he was 16 but I couldn’t work out where that ‘somewhere’ was from the almost illegible scrawl of the clerk.

However, by chance I solved the problem.

For today’s blog I chose the case of Thomas Seymour, an ex-soldier who drew a pension of 9d a day. Seymour lived with his wife and children at Flood Street, Chelsea but found himself in court at Westminster in February 1881 (the same year that Bartholomew was caught ‘wandering’).

Seymour was summoned to show why ‘he should not be committed to prison in default of paying the sum of £3 12s’ since when bailiffs had seized his goods and chattels they had failed to raise that amount.

The army pensioner owed such a large amount because in October 1879 (some 16 months earlier) he had been ordered to pay 2s 6d a week towards the upkeep of his son. The boy had been sent to an industrial school (so had presumably had his own run in with the law) and then to the ‘Shaftesbury Training Ship‘ until he turned 16.

The Shaftesbury housed around 350 ‘problem’ boys, often those that just would not go to school and preferred to play truant. Perhaps this was why Seymour’s son was sent there. This was also where young Bartholomew went I realised, the Thames’ magistrate’s answer to his wandering aimlessly no doubt.

Seymour complained that he had been out of work ‘for over 12 months’ and his army pension did not give him enough to live on. let alone pay for his estranged son.

Unfortunately for Seymour the evidence presented by the industrial schools officer, Jonathan Lawrence, proved damning. He told the court that Seymour had been:

‘more than once sent to gaol for wife beating, and was a drunken man. He had earned good wages in the employ of the London General Omnibus Company, but had been discharged 12 months ago for drunkenness. His eldest daughter was married, and helped the mother and a boy of 16 worked and brought home 10s. the only other child dependent being one 11 years old. Thus the home was comfortable and the only obstacle to its entire happiness was the presence of a lazy drunkard’.

Ouch.

The magistrate sent Seymour to Holloway Prison (then a mixed establishment) for a month.

I am however grateful to Mr Seymour for providing me with the answer to my tricky palaeographic conundrum.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 22, 1881]