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

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

punch-vol2p47-1867_orig

‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]

An ingenious thief and the ‘bird lime trick’.

Wapping_1889

Wapping in the 1890s, from Booth’s poverty map

Cash registers weren’t invented until the later 1870s, and that was in America. A busy pub like the Three Crowns in Upper Smithfield, Wapping didn’t have anything quite as fancy. But it did experience a creative attempt to take money from the ’till’ nevertheless.

Catherine Morgan ran the pub with her husband and at about 8 o’clock in the morning of the 10th May she was in parlour bar of the pub and noticed a young man come in. There was a glass partition between the parlour and main bar and she could clearly see the lad take out a long stick. He pushed the stick towards ‘the engine’, and inserted between its two handles.

Now I suspect someone out there knows what device the reporter is talking about here but it would seem to be some early version of a cash machine. This is made more plausible by what happened next.

As Catherine watched on in horror the young man withdrew the stick and she saw that there were two coins stick to it! Hurrying back through into the pub she grabbed him and shouted: ‘Give me that stick’. Just as quickly he broke off the end of the stick and wiped it on his trousers. Catherine unfolded his hand to discover two shillings hidden in his palm.

The police were called and Mrs Morgan held him captive until PC H31 could take him into custody. He appeared on more than one occasion at Thames Police Court before this appearance on the 20 May 1876. Now the court was told that this was not the first time the lad, by the name of Morris Cooney, had been seen practising his ‘trick’.

Earlier on the month he had almost been caught by the landlady of the Garrett Tavern in Leman Street, Whitechapel. He had come in and asked her for a light and a glass of porter. Once she had served him  she had gone out the back to the parlour to ‘see to the children’. Hearing ‘a jingle’ she came back to find him with his stick and a flash of silver. She challenged him but he gulped down his beer and ran out of the pub.

The stick had been daubed with bird lime, which made it sticky and ideal for Cooney’s purpose. Unfortunately for him his clever device was easily spotted by women as eagle eyed at Catherine Morgan. What was worse for Morris was that his appearance in court revealed a previous conviction for a felony so the magistrate was not inclined to deal with him summarily (which may have reduced his sentence). Instead he was committed for trial, at the Session or at Old Bailey, where he might face a long spell in prison.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 21, 1876]

A young man gambling with his future ‘borrows’ some opera glasses

Opera

Samuel Palethorpe was perhaps a typical young man from a respectable, if not wealthy background; typical in that he had indulged his passions rather more than he might, and had gotten into trouble as a result. If he had come from working-class roots then his brush with the law in May 1870 might have had more severer long term consequences.

Samuel had fallen into financial difficulties, probably as a result of his addiction to gambling. As so many have done before and afterwards, he determined that the best way to get himself out of this financial pickle was to have one last throw of the dice, and play the horses again.

His problem was that he didn’t have the money to stake in the first place, and this is when he chose a course that would eventually end up with his appearance before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House, on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretences.

Palethorpe visited Mr How’s chemical apparatus shop in Foster Lane and purchased six pairs of opera glasses. He charged the items to his uncle’s account, having stated that he had been sent to collect them. This was a lie; his relative, Mr Samuel Peace Ward, had no knowledge of the transaction and when he found out (because the bill was delivered to him), he was furious.

In the meantime the young man had pawned the glasses and placed all the money (about £5-6) on the horses. He had hoped to redeem the pledges and restore the glasses as well as settling his debts and having some money left over to pay his passage to America, and a new life. Sadly for him, lady luck wasn’t smiling on his and the bets failed.

At this point it has to be said that he did the ‘decent thing’, and handed himself in at the Bow Lane Police Station, admitting his crime. He also forwarded five of the pawn tickets (the ‘duplicates’) to his uncle – one he had lost – who was able to redeem them and return them to Mr How.

Appearing in court Samuel was apologetic and his uncle was understanding. No one would benefit from a jury trial his lawyer told the magistrate, London’s Lord Mayor. Instead he hoped Samuel could be dealt with summarily.

His worship agreed and, after admonishing Palethorpe for effectively ‘throwing his money into the Thames, for backing the favourite horse means the same thing’, he fined him £2 2s and the costs of redeeming the items. Of course Samuel had no money so would go to prison for two months, a lesson for him perhaps. His uncle assured the court that once he came out he would be taken to the country, so ‘he might be removed from his evil associates’.

In other words, he would have a chance to start over – a chance not often extended to the offspring of London’s poorer classes. Let’s hope Samuel took it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 10, 1870]

The detective and the banker’s clerk

Bank clerks

London bank clerks dressed in the height of male fashion in the Victorian period

In the middle of a May night one of the housemaid’s at a hotel in Exeter was disturbed by sounds on the landing. Opening her door she was confronted by a man in ‘his nightshirt flourishing a pistol about, … in a state of great excitement’. She called her boss and the landlord escorted the guest back to his room, assuming he had ‘been partaking too freely of wine’.

The guest, who was a young man from London named Charles Pinkatone,  didn’t heed his host’s instructions to retire to his room for long however. Shortly afterwards the household was again in uproar and this time it was the landlord’s wife who discovered Pinkatone blundering about brandishing his gun, ‘capped and loaded’.

Nothing anyone could do would quieten him or persuade him to go back to bed so the police were called. This didn’t help and the young man ended up assaulting the copper and being arrested and remanded in custody at Exeter to face a local magistrate.

Police intelligence seems to have traveled more quickly in the 1860s than we might think, because one London detective was soon on the train for Exeter with a warrant for Pinkatone’s arrest.  Robert Packman had been investigating a forgery case and Pinkatone was a prime suspect. When he caught up with he young man in Devon and having confirmed his identity he charged him with forging and uttering two cheques; one for £100, the other for £200.

The two men returned to London and on the way Packman’s prisoner was talkative, and told his captor he intended to come clean and admit his guilt. When he had been handed over by the authorities in Exeter Pinkatone had £173 in gold, ‘8s in silver and copper, a gold watch and chain, and a portmanteau, containing apparel’.

Packman wanted to know what he had done with he rest of the £300 he had exchanged the forged cheques for. The fashionable dressed young man told him he had spent it: ‘He paid about £45 for his watch, chain and appendages; £1 for a pistol, which he bought a few days before he was locked up; £1 for a portmanteau [a suitcase]’. The rest of the money he had ‘lost’ (meaning, presumably, he had gambled them away at cards).

When the pair reached London Pinkatone was produced before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House and fully committed for trail. Representatives of Messr’s Martin & Co, bankers of Lombard Street attended. As did Pinkatone’s former employer, Mr Barfield (of Loughborough & Barfield), who told the magistrate that Pinkatone had been his clerk but that he had ‘absconded without giving any notice’. The two cheques were produced in court and Barfield confirmed that the forged signature and writing on them was Pinkatone’s but the cashiers at the bank where he cashed them were unable to positively identify who had presented them.

It is possible that this helped Charles in the long run. I can’t find a record of him appearing at the Old Bailey for this or any other offence in the late 1800s. Maybe he pleaded guilty and it wasn’t published in the Sessions Papers. Perhaps the banks let him go because they knew they could not prove his guilt but his reputation was such that he would not work in the area again. It is one of many cases which touched the newspapers but disappeared just as quickly, a mystery which must remain unsolved.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 08, 1862]

Update – thanks to a reader I can now say that Charles was not so lucky; he pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on 12 May 1862 and while the jury asked for leniency (on the account of this being his first offence) he was sent to prison for four years.

Pirates on the Thames? Intellectual property theft at the University Boat Race

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If you are a British reader then you are probably familiar with the annual University Boat Race, where teams from the county’s top two academic institutions (Cambridge and Oxford) compete over a course of 4.2 miles (6.8km) on the River Thames, starting at Putney and ending at Mortlake.

The race was first staged in 1829 and has been run annually since 1856 (the only breaks being for the two world wars). In that time there have been 82 wins for Cambridge (the light blues) and 80 for Oxford (the dark blues). In 1877 there was a dead heat, and on five occasions one of the boats sank.

The boat race has been part of the London sporting calendar from the early Victorian people and continues to draw large crowds to the river on race days. In fact, it became so enmeshed in London culture that it gave its title to a popular phrase in cockney rhyming slang (‘boat race’ = face).

In 1871 (when Cambridge won by a length) the contest also featured in the daily ‘doings’ of the Police Courts. Just over a week after the race Theresa Conroy was brought before the Mansion House Police court accused of selling ‘pirated photographs of the last Oxford crew’. Detective Sergeant Funnell of the Metropolitan Police accompanied the prisoner and Mr George Lewis prosecuted; Conroy was represented by a Mr Merriman.

The charge laid was that the defendant was involved (with her son) in selling pirated images of the Oxford crew that had been created by her husband, who was sending them to her from his workshop on Jersey in the Channel Islands.

The crime had come to light because the official photographer for the Oxford crew, Mr Henry William Taunt, was surprised that his sales – having started briskly – were now dwindling. He had already sold 500 copies (of six different prints) at 1s a go, in fact he’d sold 14 dozen on the first day of issue. Puzzled and suspicious he himself investigated what was going on and was soon able to purchase five copies of his own work for 5s. The copies were of one particular shot he’d taken (of F.E.H Payne, one of the crew without his hat on), and it appears that the Conroys had stolen, or otherwise managed to get hold of the negative.

When the police looked into the matter they searched Conroy’s home and found over 120 copies there along with copies of the Cambridge crew. Moreover, they found a letter from Mr Conroy to his wife asking if the official photos of the crew ‘were out yet’ and also telling her that in Jersey there were demands for other popular images, such as ‘the King of Prussia (presumably Wilhelm I ) on his knees’.

This was a small but profitable business and demonstrates the popularity of owning such mementos of major events and of popular or significant individuals. The Victorians popularised the photograph and this was also the era with saw the rise of the popular newspaper, including some with illustrations. So in many ways this was a very ‘modern’ form of crime and of course something that is still a problem today. Now it is pirated music and film rather than photos but the effect is the same, in that the creator is deprived of the fruits of his or her labour.

The  magistrate took a dim view of this species of theft or fraud (intellectual property theft as we would understand it). He told the court that Conroy had ‘knowingly and audaciously carried on a trade that had inflicted a serious injury upon other persons, and which was a species of robbery of the worst kind, men of skill and talent being thus deprived of what was due to them’.

In consequence he handed down a hefty financial penalty, which fell directly on Theresa but ultimately on the whole Conroy family. She was fined £5 (or two months imprisonment) for the first copy sold and a further £3 each (or 21 days) for the other copies. Given that Theresa and her son were selling these for 3d each this would have crippled them financially.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1871]

Today is also my brother Roland’s birthday, he was born 100 years after Theresa appeared in the Mansion House dock and, as someone trained in the law, I’m sure he would appreciate the need to protect the property rights of someone like Mr Taunt. Happy birthday Rol!

A most ungallant forger and the plundering of the ‘dark’ continent

Gold

Henry and Eliza Hendry appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court as a married couple. The pair were charged with ‘forging and uttering a transfer of shares’ in a South African gold mining company. While both seemed to have been involved, Henry hadn’t planned for both of them to benefit from the crime, as the court was soon to discover.

The prosecution was opened by Mr Abraham on behalf of the Luipaard’s Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company Limited . He alleged that while Hendry had been a clerk in the Consolidated Goldfields of South Africa he had stolen two certificates belonging to share holders. The documents represented 400 and 26 shares each, and so were of considerable value.

Mr Abraham went on to say that Hendry, ‘with the collusion of his wife’, had sold the shares certificates on the stock exchange, making the huge sum of £2,500 (£140,000 today).

Eliza was represented in court by her own lawyer, Mr Myers, and he told the Lord Mayor that his client was the very much the junior party in the crime. In the previous century the principle of coverture (femme couvert) may well have protected Mrs Hendry from prosecution as a wife acting with her husband was deemed to be following his lead, as any ‘good wife’ was expected to do. By 1900, however, I doubt that this rather surprising aspect of patriarchy would have worked for Eliza in front of a jury.

Fortunately for Eliza it never came to that. The Lord Mayor was told that once Henry Hendry had successfully sold the share certificates he left his wife and ran off with another woman. He had compounded his serious crime by acting like a pantomime villain. The City’s chief magistrate remanded him in custody but bailed his wife.

A case like this was probably complicated and evidence needed to be gathered. As a result it took several months for this to reach the Old Bailey. When it did there was no sign of Eliza, so she must have been released. As for Henry, the 30 year-old clerk pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey in May but judgement on him was respited. This probably means that there was some doubt over his conviction, possibly on some points of the law. Before 1907 (when the Court of Criminal Appeal was established) the Twelve Judges of England in the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, so they could lend their expert wisdom to the case.

Hendry disappears from the ‘bailey at this point so perhaps he too escaped the consequences of his grand scheme to defraud.

In March 1899  the area in which the Luipoards Vlei Estate was situated (the Witwatersrand) was firmly under British rule. This was to be (unsuccessfully) challenged in the coming year, as the second  South African (or Boer) war broke out in late 1899.  Britain’s imperial interest in Africa, in part driven by competition with other European powers (such as France and Germany) was underpinned by the desire to exploit the rich mineral wealth of the southern part of the continent. In trying to profit from the wider exploitation of Africa’s natural resources Henry Hendry was merely acting as he had seen many others do, and in the end, who can really condemn him for that?

As for leaving his wife however, now that really does mark him out to be a ‘bad lot’.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, March 28, 1899]

p.s The Luipoards Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company had been formed in London in 1888 and successfully traded until the mid-20th century. It extracted gold and then, after this dried up in the 1950s, it continued to mine uranium. It ceased to be a going concern in 1970.