A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

Cruelty to a performing monkey in Marylebone

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Italian organ grinders have figured before on this blog; there seems to have been  a fair few of them active in Victorian London and they nearly all seem to have used a monkey as part of their act. I suppose it helped to draw a crowd and buskers today often need a gimmick to help part passers-by from their cash.

Today we place considerable restrictions on the use of animals in theatres, circuses and on television and film but we frequently look back on the past as a time when people cared less about cruelty towards them than they do now. I’m not sure this really holds up to examination; after all the RSPCA was founded in 1824, long before the NSPCC ( 1884).

Police detective Cumner of D Division was walking around Portman Square in London’s fashionable West End, when he saw a man  knocking on the houses of the well-to-do. The man was ‘dragging a monkey along the street by means of a chain’. As he approached a house he tried to force the animal to camber up the railings, to perform one imagines. But according to the detective the poor beast ‘did its best to do as directed, but seemed unable to complete the task owing to its weak condition’.

The man then kicked the animal before a nearby police constable saw him and approached. At this the man seized his money, thrust it under his coat and walked away. The copper would have probably nicked him for begging or loitering with intent.

Detective Cumner decided to follow him however, to see what he did next.

He saw him stop in the next street and start to hit the animal ‘most cruelly’. At this Cumner intervened and when he got close he saw that the monkey was bleeding from its feet. The man, an Italian musician named Joseph Syra, was arrested and taken back to the police station.

The animal was then shown to a vet on Marylebone High Street. James Rowe examined the animal and discovered that it had suffered really badly under Syra’s ‘care’.

It ‘was dressed up as a soldier’ and strips of steel had been attached to its legs, to keep it upright. It was ‘very ill and emaciated’, and the metal splints had caused its hind legs and feet to bleed. The very act of standing in an unnatural position was, in the vet’s opinion, causing it great pain and injury.

When the case was outlined before Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone he fined Syra 25s with 10s 6d costs. warning him that if he couldn’t pay he would go to prison for 10 days.

This alarmed the detective: ‘But what shall I do with the monkey, your worship, if the man goes to prison?’

‘I really don’t know’, came the reply, ‘I suppose they would not receive it at the Green Yard?’

This provoked a weak laugh from the courtroom. The Green Yard was the City of London’s holding pen for stray cattle and sheep that had been found wandering before or after they were supposed to be sold at Smithfield Market. It was unlikely that an Italian musician’s pet would be welcome there.

Fortunately  the vet stepped in and offered to keep the monkey for the duration. He had, he said, a large cage which was ideal for the purpose. One wonders whether anyone thought to remove the poor monkey from Joseph Syra’s clutches but perhaps, in 1886, that was beyond the authority of the magistracy.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 19, 1886]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

When drunk and disorderly behaviour almost results in an attack on the police

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Yesterday a tragedy unfolded in central London. I am writing this in the evening of the 22 March 2017 as the news of what seems to have been a major terrorist incident is still unfolding. What I know now (at 8 o’clock) is that at least 5 people are dead, and many more are injured, some critically. I’m not going to comment on the attack and its consequences because I only know what I’ve heard on the BBC and Channel 4. But I feel much as I did after 7/7: outraged, saddened, disgusted, and determined that this sort of inhuman, indiscriminate, and cowardly attack should not, and will not, change the way myself and millions of other Londoners behave as we go about our daily lives. I am proud to live in a liberal democracy which supports free speech, free association and the rights of  everyone.

One of those that died today was a policeman, PC Keith Palmer and today’s blog is respectfully dedicated to his memory.

PC Palmer was unarmed and standing on duty at Carriage Gates, outside the Palace of Westminster. He was simply doing his job and in the process he was stabbed to death in front of his colleague. The fact that he was unarmed is significant because it demonstrates that in this country, from their inception in 1829, the Metropolitan Police do not routinely carry firearms. The British ‘bobby’ is armed with a truncheon (albeit a modern version), just as they have been for 188 years. Questions are bound to be asked this week about whether in future such officers should be equipped with lethal weapons; personally I hope they are not but I will understand why that question is posed.

In 1884 (in a period when a different terrorist threat plagued London – that of Irish nationalism) another policeman was attacked in the capital – this time not fatally, although it could have been worse.

PC Shananhan (36XR) was on his beat in Kilburn at about 20 to 10 in the evening when he heard a disturbance ahead. He came across a crowd of people outside a public house on Cambridge Street and tried to calm things down.

Several of the angry group of persons were complaining that they and been assaulted by a woman. The woman was identified as Mary Ann Howley, an ironer, was clearly drunk and very disorderly. PC Shananhan arrested her and then tried to convey back to the police station.

However, as he took her by the arm and started to walk her away a man rushed up to him to try and affect a rescue. He drew a knife and threatened the constable, but the alert policeman simply knocked the weapon out of the assailant’s hand with his truncheon.

Having secured both offenders PC Shanahan duly appeared with his captives at Marylebone Police court on the following morning. There the sitting justice was told that Howley had started the affray by knocking some coins out of the hand of another drinker , Mary Grace Nottle. She complained and Howley then spat out some unpleasant invective and a full-on ‘barney’ ensued. Probably at the this point the publican intervened and the whole dispute escalated on to the streets, drawing the attention of the police.

It was a common enough disturbance in Victorian London, what elevated it to being newsworthy was probably the use of a knife. Police magistrates were as seldom tolerant of attacks on the police as they were on ‘civilians’ (at least as long as a so-called ‘fair fight’ was the outcome); assault that involved weapons were quite another thing, and an attempt to stab a policeman doing his duty was anathema.

Mr de Rutzen sentenced Mary to 14 days in prison for her behaviour but committed her would be saviour to hard labour for two months.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 23, 1884]

‘When ladies go a thieving’: shoplifting in Westbourne Park

For a few years in the mid 1980s I lived in Westbourne Park and  I remember Whiteley’s department store on Queensway. The building was the second location for William Whiteley’s retail outlet and opened in 1907. But Whiteley’s  original shop opened its doors in 1863 on Westbourne Grove as the capital’s very first department store.

The store – which had a row of 17 shops – was described as “an immense symposium of the arts and industries of the nation and of the world” and was seriously damaged by fire in 1887.

The idea of department stores – catering for all sorts of consumer needs and desires – had been imported from the USA, but took off in London. The fashion for shopping had begun in the previous century as the growing middle-classes were keen to show off their new found wealth with luxury goods imported form all corners of the expanding British Empire; arguably this reached its zenith towards the end of the 19th century.

Whiteley’s had lots of customers then, but it also had those that either saw it as an opportunity for illegal appropriation or simply could not resist the temptations it presented. As well as ‘conspicuous consumption’ the growth of a retail trade brought with it an associated rise in shoplifting.

In the later 1800s the growing number of ‘respectable’ women being charged or accused of shoplifting led contemporaries to view this as a weakness particularly affecting women of a certain age and class. The term ‘kleptomania’ (an compulsion to steal, without the necessity to do so) fitted a Victorian view of women as the ‘weaker sex’, both physically and mentally.

Emily Beardon, a 46 year-old ‘well dressed’ lady was brought before the police magistrate at Marylebone Police Court on 10 March 1894 charged with theft from Whiteley’s. According to Mr Bushell (the assistant manager) Beardon was in the store between 12 and 1 on and was ‘behaving suspiciously’.

Staff watched her and she was seen to ‘adroitly put a box of [Camembert] cheese up the sleeve of the large cloak she was wearing’. She visited several other departments and made some small purchases before leaving. Bushell followed her and stopped her in the street, asking her to return to his office.

Although she tried to jettison the cheese she was later searched and several other unpaid for items were discovered. The police were called and although she tried to explain herself she was charged and taken to court. At Marylebone she was convicted of stealing ‘a box of Camembert cheese, a glass of potted meat, and a bottle of Bovril’ collectively valued at 4s. This was despite having a sovereign coin and several shilling in her purse.

No man appeared to say he was her husband and despite her well dressed appearance she may have been a ‘common thief’ not a ‘lady shoplifter’. She was fined £5 however, which if she was a menber of the middle classes she would have had no problem paying; the alternative was a month in gaol.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, March 10, 1894]

Two inept thieves fail to make off with a diva’s silverware

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In February 1894 Annie Walker observed a suspicious looking man that she had seen loitering around her mistress’ house several times in that week. The man was carrying a sack and seems to be ascending the steps up from the house in Clarence Terrace, Regents’ Park. When he reached the street he handed the sack over to another man who placed it in a nearby truck. The two men then set off together.

She followed them long enough to get a description and then called for the police.

Armed with her information the police soon caught up with the pair; one in a  pub in Sussex Mews, the other in Boston Place. The men were arrested and taken back to the police station. On the 23rd February they appeared at Marylebone Police Court charged with theft.

Frederick Noolan (37) and William Collins (33) were charged with stealing a silver-plated carriage harness from the London home of the celebrated opera singer, Lillian Nordica. The harness was new, and had been kept in a cellar at the front of the house (from where Noolan had been seen emerging by Mrs Nordica’s housekeeper, Walker).

Collins had grumbled about his arrest on the way to the station: ‘This is what you get by obliging a pal’, he said, claiming that a man had asked him to carry the sacks to Gower Street. Who was that man, he was asked; ‘Ah, I should like to know myself’ he replied.

The magistrate committed them both for trial.

Lillian (or Lillie) Nordica was a celebrity in late Victorian London. At the time of the theft she was in her native America, presumably performing the role of one Wagner’s heroines, such as Elsa, , Isolde, Kundry, or Venus. She had sung for the Tsar of Russia, performed at Crystal Palace and was famous throughout Italy and Western Europe. In the early 1900s she even became a model for Coca-Cola.

Lillie married three times; her first husband attempted to cross the Channel in a balloon and disappeared, some suggested suicide. She married again two years after this case, in 1896, but this ended in divorce. Her third husband didn’t last very long either, they married in 1907 but split just before she started a South Pacific tour in 1914 as the world teetered on the brink of war.

She sounds like a formidable woman, a true diva, and perhaps men just found that too much to handle. Lillie fell ill on her tour to Australia and she died (of pneumonia) in May 1914.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, February 24, 1894]

A Mancunian tea-leaf is nabbed by the volunteers

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A volunteer from the 29th Middlesex Rifles, c.1870

A just after six on a Saturday evening in early 1878 Mr Walters was watching the Volunteer Corps band parade in Camden Town. The Volunteer Corps (or Force) was formed in 1859 in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The war with Russia had drained the nation’s services and the Volunteers were created to plug a gap in the home defences. By 1862 the Volunteer Force had a collective strength of just over 162,000 men.

As Walters listened to the band he felt a tap on his shoulder. As he turned round to see who it was he felt a ‘tug at his [watch] chain’.  He reacted quickly but not quickly enough because his watch was missing, stolen by a young man in the crowd who was now making his escape.

Unfortunately for the thief one of the volunteers had also seen the ‘daring robbery’. He grabbed hold of the  man and between them Walters and the part-time soldier, John Sachesman, took him into custody.

The young man – Thomas Jones, a 23 year-old hawker from Manchester – handed over the watch but there was damage to the clasp and chain. He apologised and said he would pay for the damage. He also begged Walters not to take him to court: he said ‘he would allow the prosecutor to beat and kick him if he would not lock him up’.

The case came before the Marylebone Police Court where Jones pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing a silver watch valued at £6 6s. The magistrate, Mr Cooke, sent Jones to prison for six months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 19, 1878]