The perils of being a ‘known thief’

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Steam boats at Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge

After 1869 there was a change to the law. This was one of the long term consequences of the moral panic surrounding ‘garrotting’ (a form of violent street robbery) that occurred in London in 1862. The Habitual Offenders Act (1869) saw the creation of a register of prisoners who had been convicted. This included taking details of their physical features and photographing them. In 1871 the act was modified so that it was now limited to all those sentenced to a month or more in prison. The registers are held by the National Archives at Kew and and will be a part of a new historical online database, the Digital Panopticon.

Before that the court had no official record of previous offenders although there were plenty of instances where a person’s criminal record dogged them through the justice system. From the 1750s the Bow Street police office, run by Sir John Fielding (the ‘blind beak’) had attempted to create its own database of London’s criminals. Their early efforts were destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and subsequent records were lost to history when the office moved to a new building in the late 1800s.

Many constables, watchmen, gaolers, and magistrates could however identify persons who had appeared on more than one occasion but this was limited by memory and geography. If, for example, a defendant was brought up before the magistrate at Bow Street and convicted and sentenced to, say, a month in the house of correction, on release he would ‘disappear’. If he was arrested and brought before the justice at Worship Street (in the East End) then he may have been unknown to them.

It was then, as it is now, the case that repeat or persistent offenders were likely to receive a stiffer sentence, or at least not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to conviction. So we can see the benefits to the authorities of a systematic system of identifying known criminals. By contrast we can also see why it was in the interests of thieves to try to pretend they were first offenders by denying previous convictions (that might be hard to prove) or by using alias, which many did.

The John Cox that appeared at the Mansion House Police Court in June 1866 was described in the papers as ‘a well known thief’. He was brought up on a charge of robbing a young lady named Elizabeth Gallagher, on Old Swan Pier as she waited for a steam boat by London Bridge.

He was seen ‘dipping’ her pocket by an officer named Henwick, who may have been City policeman or more likely someone working for the steam ship company. Henwick acted quickly and arrested Cox before he could make his escape, and told him there was no use him denying what he’d done.

In the Mansion House court Cox’s luck went from bad to worse as the gaoler of Coldbath Fields prison rose to give evidence. He told the presiding magistrate, Alderman Gabriel, that he knew the prisoner of old. Cox had served time in the prison for being a rogue and a vagabond and had also been sentenced to three years penal servitude at the Middlesex Sessions.

As a result, instead of dealing with him summarily by awarding a short prison sentence, the alderman fully committed Cox for trial. As he was a taken down Cox turned his anger on the gaoler, warning that he ‘would be “down on him” [at] the first opportunity’, and was led away muttering curses to the cells.

Cox was clearly guilty of the crime but the consequences of being identified as a repeat offender: as someone who had not learned his lesson previously, was severe. On 9 July 1866 he pleaded guilty to picking the pocket of Elizabeth Gallagher and was sent to prison for seven years.

Cox was listed at 23 years of age in 1866. In 1874 another man, also named John Cox (aged 35) was convicted at the Bailey of housebreaking. Listed as a previously convicted felon he was sent down for ten years. Was this the same John Cox? There is a slight difference in age (3-4 years) but it is not impossible. Cox would have been out of gaol by 1874 and would have found it very hard to gain legitimate paid employment. He may also have made acquaintances inside that would have helped him ‘progress’ from the smaller crime of picking pockets to the more serious one of breaking into someone’s home or business.

There is an alternative outcome however. In 1879 a John Cox was convicted with another man, William Price, of stealing 20 ‘dead soles’. The pair pleaded guilty and Cox was shown to have been convicted in 1870 and a further five charges were heard and proved against him. He was sentenced to 8 years.

I suspect one of these cases (but not both) was our man. From 1869 or 1871 onwards we could be clearer if we checked the Register created in the wake of the garrotting panic. That is an exercise for another day but is the sort of exercise the Digital Panopticon project was created to make possible, the tracing of criminal ‘careers’ and lives of those sentenced at London’s Central Criminal court.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 23, 1866]

Footnote: yesterday I received my copy of a new volume about the history of crime. A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (edited by Jo Turner, Paul taylor, Sharon Morley and Karen Corteen) is published by the Polity Press and is full of short articles about criminal justice history across the 18th and 19th centuries. It features a short entry by your truly (on the Whitechapel Murders of 1888) and is an excellent companion to my own text book covering the period from 1660-1914

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