Dickens has a close encounter with the ‘swell-mob’

Dickens

Charles Dickens had some experience of the law. As a young freelance reporter he had covered the civil law court of Doctors’ Commons before working for a number of other papers in the 1830s. His familiarity with everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain is one of the strengths of his novels and his writings feature characters drawn from the world of crime, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Magwitch.

It would seem, however, that Dickens not only visited the courts of London (including, of course, the police courts) but the gaols and houses of corrections as well. In addition, as we shall see, on at least one occasion he was a witness himself in an attempted robbery that ended up in a summary hearing before a magistrate. In fact he was himself cheekily declared to a a member of the criminal underworld.

In 1849, when he was at the height of his fame and writing David Copperfield, Dickens was strolling along the Edgware Road with his friend Mark Lemon. Lemon was a celebrated actor who wrote hundreds of melodramas, was a joint founder of Punch magazine and so a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. A young man came close by them and Lemon felt a hand at his pocket. He swung up his cane and delivered a quick rap on the would-be thief’s knuckles who then swore at him and ran off.

The two friends set off in pursuit and were soon joined by a policeman in plain clothes. They caught up with the thief and he was arrested. There was some trouble on the way to the station as the youth hit out at his captors and tried to escape, but eventually he was taken back to the station and thence to court the next day.

Appearing in the Marylebone Police Court Dickens must have attracted a good crowd eager to hear the famous story teller describe his experiences, and they were not disappointed. The author explained how he and Lemon had chased after the man – now named as Cornelius Hearne (aged 19) –  and helped capture him.

We pursued him, and when he was taken he was most violent; he is a desperate fellow, and he kicked about in all directions. There was a mob of low fellows close by when he tried Mr. Lemon’s pocket, and we were determined he should not effect his escape, if we could prevent it‘.

PC 229D deposed that he had been on duty in plain-clothes (no reason is given but he might have been looking for known criminals whilst undercover). He confirmed the evidence of Dickens and Lemon and he described how Hearne tried to escape custody. The policeman told the justice, Mr Broughton, that the prisoner threatened him and kicked out at Lemon (who had hold of his arms as they marched him the police station).

While they walked Mark Lemon said the prisoner had spoken to him, asking him not to ‘say my hand was in your pocket’. The burden of proof for pickpocketing when nothing had actually been stolen – as Lemon admitted it hadn’t – fell on the intent. If the theatre man was adamant that he had felt Hearne’s hand inside his pocket, there could be no other explanation than that he intended to rob him.

Another policeman informed the magistrate that Hearne was well known to them and to the courts, having been convicted of several petty crimes like this in the past. Now the justice turned to the prisoner for his version of events. Hearne tried to bluff his way out, saying that he was innocent and that Dickens and Lemon had picked on him, called him names and struck out at him. That was why he had run away, he was no thief.

Now the exchange became more amusing for those watching in the courtroom (and for the readers of the newspapers). Charles Dickens declared that when he was at the police station he said he thought he recognised the prisoner, having seen him in the house of correction. This suggests that Dickens took his characterisation seriously and not only frequented courtrooms for literary reasons but also the prisons of the capital.

However, this seemed to be  lifeline for Cornelius Hearne. He looked from the dock to the bench and spoke to the magistrate:

Now your workshop, he must have been in “quod” there himself, or he couldn’t ‘ave seen me. I know these two gentlemen well; they’re no better than swell-mob men, and they get their living by selling stolen goods‘.

This provoked peals of laughter in the courtroom.

That one (pointing to Mr. Dickens) keeps “a fence”, and I recollect him at the prison, where he was put for six months, while I was there for only two‘.

Dickens and Lemon were described as being ‘highly amused’ by the suggestion but denied the accusations amidst all the laughter. Dickens said he had never traded in stolen goods and was not on speaking terms with that ‘highly respectable body – the swell-mob’. The swell-mob was a contemporary term for petty thieves and pickpockets who liked to dress fashionably and ape the manners of the middle classes, and were a popular vehicle for satirists and commentators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dicken’s characterisation of Toby Crackit draws heavily on popular portraits of the swell-mob.

Hearne was unlikely to have been able to read and while he may have heard of Oliver Twist he may not have recognised its author. Not surprisingly the magistrate was much more familiar with Charles Dickens and his friend Mark Lemon than the young man in the dock was. Mr Broughton told him that he had demonstrated ‘consulate impudence’ in trying to wriggle out of his crime by defaming the character of two gentlemen, and that if he had actually stolen anything then he would undoubtedly be facing a trial  at Old Bailey and could expect to be transported. However, since there was only an attempt to steal he would deal with him summarily.

Cornelius Hearne was sent to the house of correction for three months; ‘”Boz” and his friend then left the court’.

[from The Era, Sunday, March 25, 1849]

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