An English Valjean in Lambeth Palace

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Charles Jeram was a night watchman, working for the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. In the early hours of March 6, 1866 he was on duty and heard a noise of a door shutting upstairs. This must have seemed unusual to him because he quickly made his way up to the drawing room (which must have been on the ground floor – meaning Pearson was ‘below stairs’) where he found an intruder.

The man, Charles Pearson, was holding a carpet bag in one hand and a ‘small cloak in the other’. When challenged Pearson said nothing and the security guard asked him to come with him (which he did without a struggle). The police were called and the supposed burglar was taken into custody.

After he had handed over his captive Jeram checked the drawing room and found that  ‘a great many articles [had] been removed from their proper places’. Pearson had presumably been working out what he wanted to steal before wrapping items in his cloak or placing them in the bag he carried.

His route into the house was also clear: a ‘pane of glass had been removed from [a] window’ enabling anyone outside to lift the catch and achieve entry. Jeram had checked this window on his rounds at 2 so Pearson must have broken in.

Pearson continued his silence in Lambeth Police Court so he was remanded in custody for the time being.

I was interested by the fact that Charles Pearson was described in court as ‘shabby genteel’, an epithet applied by one of the witnesses who might have seen ‘Jack the Ripper’ 22 years later. Mrs Long saw Annie Chapman talking to a man she said looked ‘happy genteel’ in Hanbury Street not long before Chapman’s body was discovered. Of course I’m not suggesting that Pearson was ‘Jack’ but the phrase is interesting. ‘Shabby genteel’ suggests someone down on their luck but trying to keep up appearances,  as Thackeray’s George Brandon does in A Shabby Genteel Story (1857).

It also made me think of Les Miserables (1862) and the way that Jean Valjean repays his saviour, Digne’s bishop, by taking his candlesticks. M. Myriel lets him keep them, a gesture that he hopes will set the convict on a more righteous path in the future.

There is no recorded trial of a Charles Pearson for burglary at the Old Bailey in 1866 so perhaps the archbishop followed the example of his fictious French counterpart and took pity on his uninvited guest.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 6, 1866]

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