‘Daring robbery’ on an American ship (and some causal racism in the London press).

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Thomas Connell was described in the Greenwich Police Court, as a seaman. He had been charged with stealing clothes and boots belonging to two sailors serving on an American merchant ship lying at dock in London.

Connell had been employed on the ship, the Chaos, but when it returned to London to offload its cargo of timber, he was laid off, ‘his services no longer being required’. He headed off into the notorious sailor’s quarter – the Ratcliffe Highway – to spend his pay and reacquaint himself with the delights of the land. However, it seems he also took advanatge of some of his fellows doing similarly to filch some of their possessions to add to his own.

Martin Hunshon had been out on the town and when he got back to his bunk on the Chaos he carefully stowed his ‘best’ clothes. When he woke in the morning however he found that his trunk had been forced open and some of his possessions were missing, including the clothes he had worn the night before and some money he had left in a waistcoat pocket.

He clearly had his suspicions about his shipmate because when he reported the theft to the local police he gave them Connell’s name. PC Bigover (163K) acted on this and visited him at his lodgings. Connell then reluctantly accompanied  the copper to a nearby pawnbroker where he was quickly identified as having pledged some of the items Hunshon was missing, for money. Back at the police station he was searched and found to have on him two portraits, one of which belonged to Hunshon.

We then have a bit of contemporary English racism as the court reporter described the appearance of the other man from the Chaos who claimed to have lost items, possibly stolen by Connell. Rather than analyze or represent it I’ll set it down exactly as it was written in 1858:

‘Maurice Mitchell, with face shining like a piece of polished ebony , dressed à la negligèe, with a splendid open worked shirt front, and carrying in his hand a dandy white hat, then stood at the entrance to the witness box.

Mr Secker [the magistrate] ‘Well, my man, and who are you?’

Mitchell (laughing) : ‘Me sar: oh I’m de ship’s cook, I am’.

Mr Secker: ‘Well stand forward, or you won’t see those beautiful red tops. I want you to examine those boots’.

Mitchell (laughing) :Oh, I see dem sar. I bought dem, sar, in a America. I know ’em. I wore dem on Sunday, and on Monday dey was gone. Oh yes sar, dem boots are mine.’

This then brought a response from Connell, who was Irish, as the continued use of colloquial language makes clear:

‘How sur, could I shtale the dock walls. I found the bundle outside the wall, and ye don’t think I’d let it lay there. I didn’t stale it but I pleaded guilty to the pawning’.

As was the correct procedure, the magistrate offered Connell the chance to take his trial in front of a jury rather than being dealt with. summarily, by himself. Connell  at first agreed but when he was told he was be remanded in custody he changed his mind.

‘I don’t want, sur, to lay by. So I’ll plade guilty. You can jist now settle it you plase, sur’

The magistrate looked at him and told him that the offence was serious, as he had not only stolen items but had broken open the chest to do so. He should, therefore, send it up for a trial but since he had pleaded guilty he was going to give him five months imprisonment at hard labour, a considerable sentence for a relatively petty crime.

The two victims were happy as they got back most of their property. ‘Blackey’ (the press referred to Mitchell) seized the handle of the bundle of goods, and declared: ‘Thar, we can go now’ and the pair quit the court, leaving their former shipmate to his fate.

[from The Morning Post, 3 June 1858]

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