A practised thief accepts prison as ‘an occupational hazard’.

Any Gentleman Oblige A Lady Cassells Family Mag 1885

Public transport brought people of all stations of life together in the crowded Victorian metropolis. Contemporaries worried about the collapse of the natural barriers of class, particularly on the railways where women travelling alone were vulnerable to unwanted male attention. The London omnibus also provided the city’s thieves with plenty of opportunities to prey on the unsuspecting or careless commuter and practised pickpockets could hope to avoid detection most of the time.

Occasionally however they weren’t so lucky and risked an appearance before a Police Court magistrate, or worse – a sessions or Old Bailey jury – and the very real prospect of prison. I suspect many of them – like the fictional ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ of BBC’s Porridge – accepted this as ‘an occupational hazard’. If you chose to ‘pick a pocket or two’ then every now and then you would get caught.

This is what happened to one ‘respectably dressed’ woman named Jane Clark. Jane was riding on an omnibus in Oxford Street and keeping her wits about her for her next opportunity to ‘dip’. This arrived in the person of Mrs Amy Massy, a resident of Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia.

Mrs Massy was seated on the ‘bus and probably didn’t even notice the unremarkable woman sat beside her. Something moved her to become concerned however, and she reached into her pocket to ‘see if her purse was safe’. To her horror she discovered that the elastic band she used to keep it secure had been forced off and ‘two sovereigns had been taken from it’.

Amy called the conductor and accused her neighbour on the ‘bus of stealing them. She claimed she’d seen Jane’s hand ‘in her pocket’ but I doubt she did. If Jane Clark was a practised thief then it is highly unlikely anyone saw anything untoward. However, in order to secure a conviction it was imperative that someone witnessed the ‘private theft from the person’ that the law defined.

Jane denied the theft and no coins were found on her or, at first at least, on the omnibus. Later though a young lad named Henry Taylor found two sovereigns on the floor of the bus when it reached Islington. He handed them in and they were eventually traced back to Mrs Massy after a police investigation.

On the following day Jane Clark was set before the Police magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Tyrwhitt, where she was defended by Mr Lewis, a lawyer. Jane again denied the theft and Mr Lewis tried to suggest that Mrs Massy had dropped the coins when she took out her handkerchief to wipe her face. The magistrate said he was minded to send the case for a jury to decide; there was considerable doubt here as to whether Jane was guilty after all. But this wasn’t at all popular with the defendant.

It is quite likely that Jane Clark was a known offender and would be exposed as such at the Middlesex Sessions. If a jury convicted her she might face a lengthy spell inside and that was to be avoided at all costs. Mr Lewis pleaded with the justice to deal with the case summarily. Tyrwhitt was reluctant at first and even offered to bail Jane in the interim.

In the end Jane agreed to plead guilty (as was her right after 1855) and the magistrate sentenced her to two months in prison with hard labour, not ideal but not penal servitude with all that included. Jane would be back on the streets by the summer, and able to go back to ‘work’ on the thousands of tourists that rode the ‘buses of the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 23, 1865]


Dodgy coins and an echo of the Titheburn Street Outrage


Miss Philips was a barmaid working at Victoria Railway Station, in the London, Brighton and South Side refreshment bar. One of her customers had already raised her suspicions that day and when she handed over a florin that looked a little dodgy she called her manager’s attention to it.

Mr Sweeting looked ay the coin and compared it with a few others that the bar had taken that day. He was pretty sure they were counterfeit and moved quickly to have the elderly woman that had paid for her brandy with it arrested. Sweeting also noticed a man in the station who had been seen with the prisoners earlier making a hasty exit and sent the police after him as well.

The next day Laura Deane (an 80 year-old ‘disorderly woman’) and Thomas Shoster (a ‘well-dressed, middle-aged man’) were both brought before Mr Woolrych the sitting magistrate at Westminster. Shoster hailed from Liverpool and had been seen conversing with Deane at several points at Victoria. When he was searched at the police station a ‘shilling was found in an old glove’ along with several pieces of paper which had evidently been used to wrap coins in.

The suggestion was that Shoster was sending Deane out to ‘utter’ (to pass the counterfeit coin) and so change it for ‘good’ money. As for Laura Deane, she was found to have a string of pockets that she wore under her dress, seemingly to conceal coins on her person. But for the sharp eyes of the barmaid and her boss the criminal pair might have gotten away with more sharp practice that afternoon. Instead they were both remanded in custody so that the police had more time to investigate.

Interestingly Thomas Shoster gave his Liverpool address as Titheburn Street. Historians of crime will recognise this as the scene of Liverpool’s first recorded gang murder, in August 1874, just seven months before this news report in London. Richard Morgan was beaten to death by John McGrave and other members of the notorious ‘cornermen’ that infested the area.

The ‘Titheburn Street Outrage’ made national news and provoked much soul-searching about the state of Britain’s urban centres and the problem of gangs, something that has never really gone away. As for Deane and Shoster this may have been the end of their story. They leave no record in the Old Bailey or in the related records of the Digital Panopticon.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.


The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town


At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]

The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it


Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]

Middle-class tantrums on the tube, 1880s style


It was a Thursday afternoon in March 1888 and two men were trying to make their way through the gate at Portland Road underground railway station, having arrived on a train from the City. They didn’t know each other but their paths were about to become inextricably  linked and this eventually led both of them to an embarrassing appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court.

Portland Road (now Great Portland Street) opened on 10 January 1863 as a station on the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan (you can see it in the illustration above). By all accounts it was a busy station with throngs of people struggling to make their way to trains or to exit from the platforms.

Frederick Pitts was just one of these commuters; a ‘carver and gilder’ living in Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia and thus a member of London’s growing ‘respectable’ middle class. Pitts was close to home and probably keen to get back for a late lunch or some tea.

Reuben Holmes was also on the platform that day. A teacher who lived in Kensington Gardens Square, Holmes was a lot further from his place of residence so was perhaps on his way to a tutorial or another meeting. Both men were in a hurry and probably not in the best of tempers.

As Pitts reached the gates he was pushed from behind. Some level of pushing was inevitable but he felt he’d shoved in ‘an unnecessarily violent manner’ and he turned round to complain  about it. Holmes was behind him and so he deemed him to be the culprit. Mr Pitts asked him to desist. Holmes, however, denied pushing anyone and the pair carried on their journey to the exit.

When they got upstairs to the ticket hall an argument flared up between the two men. Holmes told Pitts that ‘he must be in a bad temper’ to accuse him (wrongly) of pushing him.

‘It’s a lie’ declared Frederick Pitts, ‘you certainly did push me’.

‘Do you mean to say I am liar’, retorted the teacher, clearly angry at being called out by the other man in public.

‘I said nothing of the sort’ replied Pitts, ‘but I say you did push me’.

At this repeated slur on his character Holmes lost his temper and thumped the gilder on the nose. Outraged, Pitts called for help and a policeman was summoned and both men marched off to the nearest police station.

Once there the situation was calmed down. Holmes apologised and offered to pay for any ‘expenses incurred’ by his victim. In court the next day he said he’d not been aware of pushing anybody and, by way of defence, complained that Pitt had ‘spoken to him in a very disagreeable manner’. The pushing was a result of the crowd behind him he added, there was no intent to target Mr Pitts at all.

Most of all he objected to being called a liar, and having that repeated ‘several times and in a most offensive manner’. This speaks to late Victorian middle class concerns about status and character and was more important here than any violence.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, did the equivalent of ‘knocking their heads together’. Both had behaved badly and let down their class by squabbling in public. Holmes should have apologised for inadvertently pushing Holmes and the latter should have accepted it. Pitts should not have called the other man a liar and Holmes should have kept his temper in check and not struck out. He hoped both would have learned a lesson from the encounter. He then dismissed them both so he could return his court to more serious business.

[from The Standard , Saturday, March 17, 1888]