A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

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