Two thieves ‘going snowing’ are caught by the peeled eyes of a child detective.

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I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.

One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.

Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.

Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.

However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.

Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a  distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.

Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]

The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.

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Boxing twins at Westminster are thwarted by a new act to prevent cruelty to children

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When I think of boxing twins I always think of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the East End’s premier gangsters of the twentieth century. There was something about being twins and taking on all-comers in the post war clubs and fairgrounds that helped immortalise the pair. Their mother was not at all happy when they chose to fight each other though, but most of the rest of the audience were; seeing brothers, twins even, attempt to knock the living daylights out of each other was a proper spectacle.

Maybe this lay at the heart of William Gamgee’s desire to see his boys fight on stage at the the London Aquarium.  He’d brought them special costumes and gloves and they had already started to learn the skills they needed to become boxers.

There was a problem however, the boys were only 8 or 9 years old and so Gammage had to apply for a licence from a magistrate if he wanted them to appear on stage at the Aquarium. To this end he’d approached Mr Partridge at Westminster Police Court and applied for a license under the Better Protection of Children Act (1889) also better known as the Children’s Charter. The act had only just become law and reflected a growing feeling that children needed protection from adults. The NSPCC had adopted its name in that year, having previously been founded as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1883. This organisation (inspired by an American equivalent) soon formed branches in London (founded by Lord Shaftesbury) and elsewhere. In 1895 it was granted a Royal charter.

The magistrate was amused by the application and perhaps it reminded him of a childhood desire to box at school. He quizzed the father, a hairdresser, and then called the boys to the stand. The father was asked what whether he was to receive any reward from the twins appearance on stage. No, he said, all they would get was a pair of gold medals if they won.

What about the gloves they were using? Gammage handed them over and the magistrate amused the watching court by making a fist with them as if he wanted to put them on. He agreed they seemed fit for purpose but were unlikely to hurt the children. Mr Gammage also produced a certificate from the boys’ schoolmaster to say they were good attendees at school and making progress with their lessons.

Gammage said they only fought for three rounds and he decided when they should stop. A police inspector said he’d witnessed the boys fighting and said it wasn’t ‘vicious’ and he didn’t believe anyone was getting hurt.

When the twins were questioned they said they enjoyed boxing very much. They didn’t get hurt and their father was always with them.

‘Would you rather be hairdressers, like your father, when you grow up, or fighters?’ he asked them.

‘Fighters’ was their emphatic reply, drawing laughter from the public gallery.

So now it came down to the magistrate’s opinion and his interpretation of the law. Dr Pearce, A Division’s police surgeon said he’d examined the boys and could see no ill-effects so far. A little exercise was fine he added, but ‘if it were continued night after night at their present age, he thought it would be injurious’.

That was enough for Mr Partridge. Whilst I suspect he secretly enjoyed seeing the two young pugilists in his court and fancied their sparring was perfectly safe and probably a ‘good thing’, his position as an interpreter of new laws made him err on the side of caution. He told the disappointed hairdresser and his sons that he would not be issuing a license to let them box anytime soon. They’d have to wait until they were a little bit older.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

A footman’s pledge lands him in court

Saturday Night Pawnbrokers

In a society where large numbers of Londoners lived quite close to the what became termed the ‘poverty line’* in the early twentieth century, people had to find a variety of strategies to survive. Obtaining credit if you were not already wealthy (or at least comfortable) was all but impossible. So, just as today’s society is blighted by ‘pay-day’ loan sharks that charge crippling amounts of interests on small amounts of borrowing to those who have no real capital to offset loans against, Victorian Britain had the pawnbroker.

You could take items of value to the pawnbroker to be exchanged for cash. In all probability you wouldn’t get the true value of your possessions or even close to it but, as the saying goes, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ (Proverbs, 615.6). He would give you a ticket for your item and the cash. Hopefully you would then get enough money in the following week or so to be able to return to the ‘broker and redeem your coat, or hat or jewellery (or whatever it was you had ‘pledged’).

If you failed to redeem your possessions in the time allowed then the pawnbroker was allowed to sell it in his shop for whatever he could get. Today we see shops such as Cash-converters who operate in a quite similar way, providing a place for people to sell things they no longer want or buy cheap household goods that others have exchanged for much needed cash. This trade in second-hand (or ‘pre-owned’/’pre-loved’) goods has existed for centuries of course, its just that today we have taken it to a new level with car-boot sales, cash-converters and online auction sites like Ebay.

Pawnbrokers had earned a poor reputation in the late eighteenth century for stimulating a trade in stolen goods. When someone presented them with a item of clothing, some jewellery, or a watch, asking for a relatively small sum of money in exchange, many must have put aside any qualms they had and issued the ticket.

However, not all of them did and, as the courts tightened their grip on petty crime in the 1800s pawnbrokers increasingly came under scrutiny. The pawnbrokers was one of the first places the police would visit to enquire after stolen goods in the Victorian age and the ‘broker who had unwittingly (or wittingly) placed pilfered goods on his shelves would lose them or worse, risk prosecution himself. It therefore behoved the ‘respectable’ pawnbroker to ask a few questions before he accepted a pledge.

Henry Ayling was a footman working in the service of a fine London household run by Lady Stracey in Belgrave Square. Like most servants Ayling would have been paid monthly or annually (and not paid that much anyway) and so ready cash was at a  premium. Lady Stracey had hired a bicycle for her son but allowed Henry to use it when her son was at the family seat in the countryside. The footman must have found it useful in running errands across the capital and on his days off.

In November 1888 however, as he began to run out funds he seems to have decided that he could find another use for it besides hurtling round the streets of London. He deposited the bike with a pawnbroker in exchange for the princely sum of £2. He had apparently hoped to redeem the machine when he was paid. However, Lady Stracey had in the meantime decided her son no longer required the bicycle, so asked Ayling to return it to the hire firm in Maidenhead. Ayling promised to do so but it soon became clear that he hadn’t. When it was found that he’d pawned it the footman was arrested and charged with stealing it.

The case came before the police court magistrate at Westminster where Ayling explained what had happened. Fortunately  for him (and perhaps on Lady Stracey’s recommendation) Mr Partridge (the magistrate) opted to use his summary powers to deal with him. He applied the law, using the offence of ‘unlawful pawning’ (35 & 36 Vict. c.93. s.38) as set out in Oke’s Magisterial to fine the footman £3. This included the pledge of £2 to get the item back, so in effect he was being penalised to the sum of £1 for the offence. He was warned that if he failed to pay he’d go to prison for a month at hard labour.

Whether Lady Stracey penalised him further by dismissing him is not stated in the newspaper report but I rather suspect it is quite likely. Ayling was the loser here but so was the pawnbroker; the bike was worth £14 and he had only offered £2 for it. Had the footman defaulted he stood to make up to £12 profit on the deal, or around £750 today (about the cost of a modern high-end bicycle).

[from The Morning Post,  Monday, November 26, 1888]

One of there first investigators to use the poverty line ( which ‘denotes the minimum standard of necessities for life (fuel, lighting, rent etc) plus a calorific intake’) was Seebohm Rowntreee (1871-1954). His examination of poverty in York (published in 1900) was, (along with Charles Booth’s mapping of poverty in late 1880s London), a seminal study underpinning future social policy in the UK. 

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

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

A furious ostler takes his rage out on the horses

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On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was  much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.

The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.

The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.

Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.

Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.

However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.

‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.

However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]

A tale of two drunks at Westminster

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The London Police Court magistracy spent most of their time disciplining those brought in as drunk and disorderly by the officers of the Metropolitan police. Most were admonished and fined a small sum, but repeat offenders or those that resisted arrest, and used bad language or violence, were fined more heavily or sent to prison.

The press rarely bothered to report these sort of cases because they were hardly newsworthy but occasionally, perhaps to remind their readership of the dangers of alcohol or because a particular case merited it, they included it. In October 1877 two cases from Westminster Police Court were set out side by side and reflect the ‘usual suspects’ when it came to D&D charges.

Martin Sharp, a ‘carpet planner’ from Chelsea, had just left a club in Radnor Street off the King’s Road with some companions. They had made a bit of noise and this had alerted the attention of the local beat constable, PC Walter Cousins (243B). The policeman politely asked the men to go home quietly and, ‘to give them the opportunity to of doing so, walked on’.

However, while the others dispersed as requested Sharp leaned against a doorway and showed no sign of budging. PC Cousins insisted he leave but was ignored. Then, according to the constable’s report, Sharp ran at him full tilt and grabbed him by his whiskers. The attack was so violent that the carpet man managed to pull clumps of the policeman’s facial hair out; traces of this were later found in his pockets.

With difficulty Sharp was taken to the nearest police station and charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting the officer. In court he denied being drunk and said that he had merely been sheltering in the portico from the rain when PC Cousins had ‘manhandled him very roughly’. Naturally, he added, he had resisted.

Since he could produce no witnesses to support his version of events Mr D’Eyncourt chose to take the constable’s word and fined Sharp 20s or ten days imprisonment. Placing his hat on his head Sharp paid his fine and left court.

According to the headline of the press report Sharp had had a ‘lucky escape’ but Eliza Smith was not so fortunate. She was brought in by another policeman, Isaac Sculpher (260B) who accused her of being drunk and violent. Eliza was well-known to the police and courts as a disorderly prostitute.

In this instance Eliza had apparently been quarrelling with two other street walkers and again, like Sharp and his mates, this had brought them to the attention of the police. When PC Sculpher attempted to ‘remove her’ Eliza resisted arrest and spat in his face. She was described in court as ‘the most violent and foul-mouthed prostitute in the neighbourhood of Knightsbridge’  and Sculpher had to enlist the help of three other officers to drag her to the police station.

In the course of this the policeman alleged that his prisoner had ‘hit him in the hand’ and had injured him. In court Eliza vehemently denied this saying that the reason that the man’s hand was marked was because he had struck her in the mouth, ‘loosening her teeth’. Once again the magistrate opted to believe the policeman not the drunk and sent her down for six weeks. Eliza left the court ‘uttering the most horrible threats and blasphemy to the magistrate, and was with difficulty conveyed to the cells’.

I wonder if her anger was justified on this occasion? It does seem a little odd that the only injury that PC Sculpher sustained was to his hand; that’s a odd place to hit someone. In fact in both cases while the police were evidently ‘doing their duty’ in attempting to clear the streets of late night revellers and unwanted prostitutes, they were both a little heavy handed in the process.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 20, 1877]

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

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On Saturday 7 October 1854 Henry Young, a currier from Westminster, hired a hansom cab to take him to a number of appointments across London. He was picked up in Victoria Street and finally set down at the Royal Military College in Chelsea.

The cab driver, John Blake, then asked him for 7s and 6d for the fare. Young now attempted to bargain with him, offering just 5s instead, which Blake refused. Either not wishing to pay more, or not having the money, the currier offered to leave the driver his name and address and made to walk away.

However, as he moved away from the Royal College Blake followed after him and started to attract a crowd around him. In the end there were upwards of 50 or 60 people harassing the currier, and presumably plenty of verbal abuse was directed at him. When Young hailed another cab Blake told the driver that he wouldn’t get paid, recounting what had heaped to him. Not surprisingly the cabbie refused to take the fare and poor Young was obliged to continue on foot.

When he reached the King’s Arms on Sloane Square the currier ducked inside, followed by the cabbie. Now Blake demanded his address, which Young wrote down on a  piece of paper for him, and then smacked him in the face with his fist and called him ‘an _______ thief’, who ‘wanted to cheat him’.

This was both a physical assault and a public insult and so Young was determined to prosecute his assailant. The case was brought beforeMr Arnold at Westminster Police Court. Despite there being some reasonable grounds for provocation (Young hadn’t paid the cabbie the full fare – or any fare it seems) the magistrate suspended his license for three months and sent him to prison for four weeks.

This is an example of the courts displaying a clear class bias; had Young not been a ‘respectable’ merchant with probably links to the City guilds I suspect he would have been prosecuted for not payment of his fare and Blake merely admonished for resorting to violence. As it was it the cabbie had overstepped the bounds of deference, and had assaulted one of his ‘betters’. We should remember that cab drivers then had a very poor reputation in certain quarters – especially amongst the magistracy and police who saw them as surly at best and disrespectful of ‘polite society’.

How things have changed…

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 12, 1854]

p.s The Kings Arms is no longer a pub but the building still exists next to Sloane Square tube station; I think it is a restaurant today.