A cheeky bit of fraud from a former police clerk goes unpunished

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Henry Thomas Spooner joined the Metropolitan Police in August 1874. He was assigned to V Division  but resigned from the force just two years later. In October 1876 he was prosecuted at Bow Street Police Court for stealing a form from Scotland Yard. So what caused Spooner’s fall from grace?

Spooner was employed as a ‘clerk under witness’ in V Division but ‘owing to indifferent conduct’ he was demoted back to constable. On 28 August he resigned, presumably because he resented the return to beat duty and perhaps a drop in salary.

When Spooner left the police he was given a certificate that confirmed his 16 months of employment but ‘was spinet as to his character’. In other words he had a minimal reference; the sort that simply said that he had worked for the police and nothing more. Any potential employer could have read between the lines and formed a negative opinion of the former police clerk.

As a result Spooner decided that he needed something more than this and according to the police’s prosecution counsel at Bow Street, Mr Poland, he returned to Scotland Yard to steal a blank reference form from the Commissioners of Police. He then filled this in and forged the signature of a senior officer before sending it to the Newcastle Police in his attempt to find employment with them.

Unfortunately for Spooner the Newcastle ‘authorities prudently communicated with the London police, when of course it was discovered that the certificate was a forgery’. PC Samuel Gibbs arrested Spooner and charged him with the theft. At Bow Street Police Court he was committed to trial.

This seemed like a fairly obvious case of fraud and all the evidence seemed to point to the dishonesty of the former policeman. After all the police had the certificate (on which the Commissioner’s signature was clearly forged), they knew Spooner had left under  cloud (and his conduct not been considered ‘first class’ as the certificate suggested). Yet when the case came before a jury at Old Bailey Spooner received a ‘good character’ and he was acquitted. Whether the Newcastle force then employed him is (to me at least) still a mystery.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 16, 1876]

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A clerk with an ‘(un)natural fondness for children’ is sent down at Bow Street

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Understandably in today’s society we are very concerned about child abuse, especially sexual abuse. Aside from the terrorist the chief bogeyman in modern times is the paedophile; the man in the ‘dirty mac’, hanging around children’s play areas and tempting children with offers of sweets. Today the reality is that much of this activity begins online and considerable official (and unofficial) effort is being made to thwart the activities of child abusers who use the so-called ‘dark web’ to create internet communities with the aim of sexually exploiting children.

As with most crime we would be mistaken in thinking that this was a peculiarly ‘modern’ phenomenon. Whilst changes and developments in technology might have enabled abusers to find new ways to access children and share their experiences, the urge to commit such offences has a very long history. Today, a man like Matthew Simpkin, who was charged at Bow Street in 1852 for sexually assaulting a child, would be placed on the sexual offenders register and be offered some support in overcoming or coping with his ‘condition’. In 1852, as we shall see, society may have been just as disgusted by his actions, but there was little in place to prevent him offending again.

Simpkin was described in courts as a 35 year-old clerk to an attorney. He was a member of the middle classes, respectable and was – according to his uncle who appeared to vouch for him – a God fearing man.

A passerby had witnessed Simpkin approach a young girl in the public square near the fountains, and he reported the clerk to a nearby constable. He testified that ‘after taking liberties with her’, he saw Simpkin take ‘her to a stall and treated her to some milk and sweet-meats’. The policeman and the other witness followed the man and the girl into the park where they saw him repeat ‘the same disgraceful conduct’.

Note we are told what this ‘conduct’ was; the nineteenth-century press did not describe sexual assaults of any nature in detail for fear of offending their readers. In a way this is somehow worse because we are left to imagine what the poor girl was subjected to.

Finally the girl got away and ran home, at which point the policeman moved in and arrested Simpkin. Why didn’t he intervene earlier?

At Bow Street the little girl was named as Caroline Herbert, aged nine. Today of course she would not be named. She was also described as the prosecutrix which also suggests she had to describe what happened to her in open court, another ordeal that children today are not be exposed to.

In his defence Simpkin said he was fond of children and merely playing with her. He had sent for his friends to provide him with a good character. He was not, he insisted, the sort of man that did that sort of thing. His uncle spoke in his support as we’ve heard and suggested that ‘the conduct of the accused had been misinterpreted, though not wilfully, by the constable and witness’.

Mr Jardine, the  Bow Street magistrate, was unconvinced by Simpkin’s defence and that of his uncle. He declared that ‘sins like this were always committed in private, and only discovered by accident’. However, he was also of the opinion that ‘mischief sometimes resulted from sending these cases to be re-investigated at the sessions’ so he was going to deal with it himself.

What did he mean? I wonder if he believed that Simpkin might escape punishment if he stood before a jury of his peers? Perhaps they might believe his claim that he was only ‘playing’ with Caroline because he was ‘naturally fond of children’. It is impossible to know what Mr Jardine thought but we can be sure of what he did. Simpkin was fined £5  but he didn’t have the funds (and neither, presumably, did his uncle). As a result he went to prison for a month.

This seems a light punishment to me and perhaps reflects a reality that sexual exploitation of children in the 1800s was not a big concern for society. That changed a little in 1885 after the Pall Mall Gazette ran its Maiden Tribute report into the scandal of child prostitution. This led to a change in the law and the raising of the age of consent. It did very little else to protect children from predatory paedophiles though.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 29, 1852]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

Charles Dickens is charged at Bow Street (for spreading a disease!)

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Charles Dickens, perhaps unusually for a novelist, was extremely popular in his own time with his stories being devoured  in serial form by tens of thousands of readers and his live performances drawing many others to the the theatre. His fame and admiration may well have led those who shared his surname to name their offspring after the great novelist. This would appear to be the background behind a rather unusual appearance at Bow Street Police court in September 1893 and perhaps explain why the editor of The Standard chose it as one of the few summary court cases he published that day.

Charles A. Dickens was a clerk working for a large firm based in Gloucester. On the 19 August 1893 Dickens had arrived in London with two of his sons, and they checked in to the West Central Temperance Hotel in Southampton Row.  As a 1927 guide tells us: ‘Temperance Hotels (especially in Bloomsbury), in which alcoholic liquors are not consumed, often afford comfortable quarters at very reasonable rates’, so perhaps this why Dickens (a clerk minding his pennies) selected it as a sensible place to stay.

On Sunday and Monday one of the children (also named Charles) was ill. On Tuesday he said he felt a little better but Mr Dickens was still concerned enough to call for a doctor. Having examined the boy the doctor (named Steggall) informed the clerk that his son was suffering from scarletina, the medical term for scarlet fever. As a highly infectious and potentially fatal illness Dickens should have isolated his son from others and informed the authorities; however he did neither of these things which is why he ended up facing a court case.

The magistrate at Bow Street (Mr Lushington – who had been promoted from the less the prestigious court at Thames) heard from Dickens’ lawyer (as the clerk himself did not  appear to testify in person) who spoke in defence of a charge brought by Mr H. C. Jones of the St. Giles Board of Works.

Mr Jones alleged that Dickens had breached the terms of the Public Health London Act (1891) by  exposing the sufferer of a contagious disease to others. The Dickens family had left the hotel without informing the proprietor of the boy’s illness. Mr Jones said that had the doctor not taken it upon himself to tell the hotel the room might have been let to other guests. As it was, once Dr Steggall had let them know of Charles’ condition,  the room was fumigated in accordance with the terms of the act.

Nevertheless, he said, the boy had still mingled with other guests in the ‘public coffee room’. Moreover they had then traveled back ‘on a public carriage and then a train to  Gloucester. How many people might have been infected was impossible to say’. Once back in Gloucester it appeared that Dickens had not even informed the medical authorities there, something Jones had checked with Dr Lovett at the Gloucester Sanitary commission.

Dr Francis Bond, from the Gloucester medical board, thought it serious enough to appear at Bow Street to back up Mr Jones’ case and help bring this to the attention of the press (and public). He explained that there was a ‘popular delusion’ that scarlet fever was only infectious in its later stages when in fact, he continued’, it was infectious from the beginning. As a result young Charles should have been isolated immediately and the relevant medical authorities informed.

In his defence Dickens’ lawyer argued that his client was unaware that scarletina was in fact scarlet fever and confirmed that the clerk wasn’t aware that the disease was contagious until ‘the peeling stage’. Thus he had ‘adopted the natural course of taking the child home to be nursed’. He hadn’t even been aware of the 1891 legislation (which is perhaps hardly surprising given that it was new and only applied to the capital).

However, ignorance is no defence in law and while Lushington was prepared to accept that it was a mistake and not a deliberate attempt to evade his responsibilities, he still fined the clerk two guineas with a  further five guineas costs. If Mr Dickens was unable to pay he added, he would go to prison for a month. Hopefully the clerk was able to produce the fines which were not insignificant. As for the author whose name both the clerk and his son shared, he knew all about the dangers of scarletina. His son (also Charles) contracted the illness in Paris in 1847. Scarlet fever was a dangerous disease, particularly for the children of the poor in Victorian England, and wasn’t really eradicated until the discovery of penicillin in the 20th century. That said, in recent years, it seems to have made a comeback.

The case here then reveals not only the celebrity of Charles Dickens (and his wide influence) but also the use of the papers as a way to inform the wider public of the law and the consequences of breaking it. This story served to remind readers (many of whom were working class) that the magistracy had the power to intervene in private lives, and that all citizens had responsibilities, not only for the health of their own family members but a also had duty of care to others. These then were not simply ‘criminal’ courts, they had a much wider purview.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 16, 1893]

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

The Hungerford Market boys provide early trouble for the Peelers

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I’ve mentioned the unpopularity of the New Police on more than one occasion in this blog and it was certainly a truth that not everyone welcomed Peel’s innovation. It took several years for the ‘Peelers’ to become grudgingly accepted on the capital’s streets and even by the end of the 1800s not everyone welcomed them. In the early days of the professionals there were accusations of corruption and collusion with local criminals and prostitutes, and of heavy handedness and a lack of discipline.

This case demonstrates some of that early tension and is a useful reminder that many policemen were vulnerable to attack from those that resented their presence in their communities. In this example it was a ‘gang of fellows in Hungerford market‘ that were determined to show their contempt for the ‘boys in blue’ at every opportunity, and had organised themselves to deal with any legal consequences that might arise.

PC Richard Wallington (19 F Division) was proceeding along his beat along Villiers Street between 11 and 12 at night on Wednesday 11 August 1830 (less than a year after the first of the Peelers had taken to the streets) when he saw a group of men harassing a private watchman.

He heard ‘high words’ as the watchman tried to get them to go home quietly. One of the men, a ‘sturdy looking fellow’ named Thomas Moody, said they would not quit because they were looking for someone. In fact they were looking for a policeman that he claimed ‘they had paid £8 for’.

This sounds like a bribe and presumably they expected something for it. However, it seems as if whatever they expected the copper to do (or to not do perhaps) had not been forthcoming and now they were after revenge. Moody declared that if they found him they meant to ‘rip [his] b_____ guts out’.

At this PC Wallington turned away, sensibly enough perhaps as he was outnumbered. Unfortunately for him the men had seen him and followed him into the Strand. Mood confronted the PC and threatened to ‘rip his guts out’. Wallington  told him to be quiet and go home. Instead of following that advice however the man attacked him, kicking and thumping him before the policeman was able to call for assistance. As Inspector Wovenden and some other officers arrived the pack of men scattered but Moody was overpowered and taken back to the station house.

In the morning he was produced before the magistrate at Bow Street and the case of assault against him outlined to Sir Richard Birnie. Inspector Wovenden testified that Moody had also insulted and threatened him and declared that he didn’t fear the consequences. Moody insisted that his gang had clubbed together to create a subscription fund out of which any fines incurred for assaulting policemen would be settled.

It is an interesting concept and shows how the so-called ‘criminal classes’ of nineteenth century London might have found a strategy to deal with this new threat to their operations. Many of the street crimes that the New Police dealt with were punished by fines: drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, gambling, refusing to quit licensed premises, obstruction – all carried a fine of between 1s and 10s. Even assault routinely incurred just a fine.

However, a failure to be able to pay any fine would land you in the house of correction for anything up to a month so swift payment was necessary. Later in the century, if the records of the Thames Police Court for the 1880s are reliable, it would seem that magistrates were choosing to punish serious assault (i.e that meted out to the police or to women) with prison, regardless of any ability to pay a fine.

In August 1830 though Sir Richard was content to test the theory of whether the Hungerford Market gang would make good on their boast to pay the fines incurred by anyone that took out a policeman. He handed down a hefty fine, £5 (or £250 today) which Moody could not find quickly. In consequence as he was in default he was taken away to serve two months in prison. It didn’t answer the wider question of who the gang had ‘bought’ but at least it sent a message that Peel’s New Police could not be interfered with with impunity.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 13, 1830]

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

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The 8th August 1888 has considerable significance for anyone familiar with the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of that year. Although the brutal killing of a woman in George Yard, near Whitechapel High Street did not make the headlines that the later murders that summer did, for many it represents the beginning of the series.

The victim, Martha Tabram, was poor and probably survived partly by prostituting herself in the back alleyways of the East End. She had supposedly been out early on the night she died with a woman named Pearly Poll although the real truth will probably never be known. Martha was stabbed 39 times, most of the wounds being made with what was described as a ‘pen knife’, the one killing blow (to her heart or sternum) was probably made with a large weapon such as a bayonet or a dagger.

Martha’s dead body was found by John Reeves on his way to work at 4.45 on the morning of the 7 August. Death was calculated to have occurred at around 2.30-2.45 in the morning. Despite an initial belief that an off duty soldier was the killer (provoking a number of inconclusive and frankly farcical identity parades) no one was identified as the murderer.

Meanwhile the everyday business of the Police Courts continued with less dramatic (but still interesting) cases coming before the magistracy. On 8 August 1888 The Standard reported an interesting case involving violence, not towards a human but towards a cat. James Moor Bowman was summoned to Bow Street Police Court (the senior magistrates court in the capital) to face a charge of cruelty. Bowman, a pub landlord,  was accused alongside his barman Richard Ellis, with setting fire to his cat.

The prosecution witnesses (‘a workman named Boothy and his wife’) claimed that they saw Bowman pour methylated spirits over the animal’s head and then ignited it. The poor creature jumped up and over Mrs Boothy’s head and ran out of the pub (The Sovereign in St Martin’s Lane).

When Mr and Mrs Boothy ‘remonstrated with the Defendants on their cruelty’ they were kicked out of the pub. The landlord even called a policeman (PC 279C) to have them taken away for causing a disturbance.

Bowman and Ellis claimed the Boothys were drunk and the policeman confirmed that they were ‘lively; in fact they were semi-intoxicated’. Bowman produced an uninjured  cat as proof the witnesses had been making it up all along. Mr Boothy declared that it was not the same cat that he had seen burned by the publican.

Bowman added that he could produce several witnesses who would testify that he wasn’t in the bar at the time the incident was supposed to have occurred. The magistrate wondered why he hadn’t brought them along immediately, to save time. Bowman told him that it was a ‘trumped up charge’ brought by two drinkers who were upset about being asked to leave when they were the worse for alcohol (as barmen were supposed to do). It was ridiculous to think that he or his barman would have set light to an animal in the middle of a busy public house.

Sir James Ingham, the Bow Street magistrate on duty agreed the whole thing was very ‘circumstantial’ but he’d like to see it disproved before he made his judgement. He adjourned the case for a week so that Bowman could produce the witnesses he promised who would show the Boothys to be liars.

To this day no one has been conclusively proved to have been the Whitechapel murderer but the ‘hunt’ goes on. This blog concentrates on the Police Courts of London across the whole of the Victorian period but when the date falls on our near to those when the ‘Ripper’ struck I shall try and find a case for that day.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 08, 1888]