‘Worthless informers’ and grumpy cabbies

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When a local authority, like the Common Council of the City of London, passes a by-law or establishes a new regulation they are seldom met with much enthusiasm. All sorts of regulations govern our lives in all sorts of ways, and have done for centuries. We are told where and when we can and cannot park, and are fined if we are caught. Weights and measures are regulated to protect us from disreputable traders who would sell us less than the advertised amount of fruit or vegetables. In the past both of these regulations applied, along with hundreds of others.

Magistrates adjudicated on cases of adulterated milk or bread, on buildings with badly laid roofs, or fined those who did not have a license for their dog, or who had traded their horse cruelly. In the last decades of the 1800s parents who kept their children from school were also hit in the pocket or threatened with having their offspring taken away.

Regulation then is at the heart of local government and, while it is supposed to make our lives and relationship run more smoothly, it seems often to be an open sore of resentment.

So it is not surprising that the people that either enforce these local laws or bring prosecutions on behalf of the parish or local council are not popular figures. The modern traffic warden springs to mind, as does the Victorian beadle in Oliver Twist and the informing constable for the Reformation of Manners Movement in the 1780s.

While we might agree that regulation is necessary we don’t like it or the people that ‘dob’ us in when we infringe the law. Perhaps that why modern society has tried to replace human law enforces with robotic devices that can perform a similar task without fear or favour. The ANPR device and speed camera are the modern solution to universal enforcement.

In 1840 in the City of London cab drivers were regulated. This wasn’t anything new, they had been regulated for at least a century. Licensed cabbies were given a badge to show they had paid for the privilege of trading in the square mile. This badge took the form of a ‘metal ticket’ and it was supposed to be visible at all times.

A failure to display a badge could earn them a fine, but it seems that the person that prosecuted them for this neglect of the rules could also profit from that fine. This too was anything but new. In the 1700s it was common for those bringing criminals and others to court to be able to claims rewards for so doing.

In  May 1840 a man named Stowell appeared at the Guildhall Justice room (one of the city’s two Police Courts). Stowed was described as ‘the informer’ and he had brought prosecutions against a number of cab drivers for not obeying the letter of the law.

Edward Williams was charged with carrying two passengers in his cab without displaying his badge. Williams said he had left it at home and was prepared now to go and fetch it. He pleaded poverty and Stowell generously acceded to dropping the charge so long as his costs were covered, and 2s 6d were paid to his witness.

Stowell was probably well-known to the cabbies and so he used undercover agents, to do his dirty work.

William Cox, a 50 year-old cabbie was charged with not ‘wearing his metal ticket conspicuously’. On being challenged in Fleet Street by one of Stawell’s men Cox pulled it out of his waistcoat and showed him it.

Cox grumbled that ‘if upon the worthless oath of a common informer poor cabmen were to be fined for not wearing the badge conspicuously, they would be victimised; for what chance had they of bringing an indifferent person who might be passing to prove the contrary? Against such a charge, however false, a man might have no protection’.

The case against Cox was dismissed but the next defendant was not so fortunate.

Stowell’s witness claimed that when he asked James Cones to show him his badge he had unbuttoned his waistcoat and drawn it out. Cones argued that the ‘badge had accidentally bobbed inside his waistcoat, and would have bobbed out again presently’.

His excuse was not as persuasive as his fellow driver’s and was probably delivered  with deep sarcasm and  contempt for  Stowell’s chosen ‘profession’. Mr Alderman Johnson, the presiding magistrate, fined him 5s plus costs.

It is a while since I last got a parking ticket but I can’t say it did much other than cement a deep dislike for the person that stuck it on my windscreen. I doubt I am alone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 20, 1840]

Today’s case was reported exactly 177 years before my mother was born, so on this – her 77th birthday (although she certainly doesn’t look it) – I’d like to wish her a very happy birthday! 

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

A deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public

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Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842

Police corruption in the 1840s: H Division in the dock at Lambeth

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In late April 1842 four police constables appeared at Lambeth Police Court as defendants charged with pilfering from the London Docks. John Broughton, Robert Bird, Joseph Linscott and Thomas Trotman stood accused of stealing brandy and wine whilst they were supposed to have been on duty. The four men were represented by a solicitor, a Mr Pelham and the case was heard before Mr Henry, the Lambeth magistrate.

The case was brought by William Pierse, Police Superintendent at H Division (later to be the home of the BBC’s Ripper Street) , and he stated that he received information that the men had been taking home ‘quantities of wine and brandy’ when they had finished their shifts at the docks. Acting on this tip off he visited the home of Broughton (199 H) at 12 William Street, St George-in-the-East.

Pierse challenged the policeman with the information he had and Broughton denied all knowledge. The superintendent asked if he had any objections to a search of his property and Broughton said he neither had any objection nor any alcohol in the house. However, as soon as the senior officer began to open some of his cupboards  PC Broughton quickly produced  a bottle of brandy, claiming it was a gift from a ship’s mate aboard The Ocean.

If this was meant to stop there search then it failed and the brandy was quickly joined by ‘a champagne bottle and two smaller bottles, and a small earthenware bottle of brandy’. He tried to pass these off as presents, before he was cautioned and confessed to having taken them from the docks.

Pelham cross examined the superintendent but didn’t challenge his evidence, merely extracting a statement that up until then Broughton had held a good character in the force, and had served at the docks for the last 12 months. Superintendent Pierse then offered very similar evidence against each of the other officers in the dock.

So, we now had a policeman who, by his own confession, was guilty (at best) of a breach of trust and, at worst, of outright theft. The question now came of proving that he (and the other officers) had deliberately stolen it from the dockyards.

The court called in a Mr Clements who worked for the Dock Company as a ‘confidential constable’. This suggests that he was private security hired to protect the company’s stock. Clements said he was quite happy to let the police investigation take it course but he offered his own thoughts on the thefts.

According to him no brandy or champagne or other wine was left lying around the dock area but there were substantial stocks in the warehouses. So in his view the police must have carried away the alcohol ‘in small quantities’; and this, he added, ‘they had an opportunity of doing, as they always wore their great coats when leaving the dock, and they were never searched’.

Pilfering from the docks was widespread in the 1800s (as it had been in the 1700s, and would be till the docks finally closed in the late 20th century) but it was much easier if you were unlikely to be searched.

Mr Pelham now made a plea for his clients.

‘He expressed a hope that, as they all had wives and families who were solely dependent on them for support, and as their conduct in the present instance would lead to their dismissal from the force, he [i.e. Mr Henry, the justice] would merely fine them’.

That would indeed have been a good result for the men, and much better than ordinary thieves might have expected from the court. In the opinion of Mr Henry this was a very serious crime but he was mindful of the reality that proving that the brandy and wine found at the men’s homes was that taken from the docks would be difficult, if not impossible. For that reason alone, he said, he would not send them before an Old Bailey jury.

He was left with the only option available to send a message that this sort of behaviour was entirely unacceptable. He sent each of them to the house of correction for two months. One can imagine that for four young coppers, that was unlikely to be a pleasant experience. On top of that, they were unemployed and unlikely to find trusted work for some time, if at all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 27, 1842]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]

Beware Greek numismatists that show an interest in your collection

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On Thursday 5 April 1849 a young Greek (or possibly Austrian) man appeared at the Bow Street Police court charged with theft. It wasn’t his first appearance and it was not to be his last. It was part of series of pre-trial hearings that demonstrate the work that the Police magistrates did in shaping cases before they came before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey. Eventually, in May of the same year the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of transportation.

So what exactly was he accused of doing?

At the end of March Timonion Ulasto (variously written as Vlasto) was placed in the dock at Bow Street charged with stealing ‘a number of valuable coins from the British Museum’. One of the museum’s assistants, a Mr C Newton, told the magistrate that Ulasto had been introduced to him by ‘a personal friend’ and so he came with good credentials.

Ulasto professed to have a serious interest in the coins collection, especially Roman coins. He was also an acquaintance of General Charles James Fox, a notable collector. Fox’s name gained him almost unlimited access to the museum’s collection and he busied himself examining nearly everything they had.

On Saturday 24 March some members of staff began to have their suspicions about the coin enthusiast and started to watch him a little more closely. On the Monday these fears were realised. Whilst searching the room a catalogue ticket was found on the floor; this referred to a ‘certain coin of great value’ which was soon discovered to be missing.

The museum was reluctant to directly accuse Ulasto of theft since he had arrived with such good ‘introductions’, but as several more items disappeared over the next few days they decided to act. Mr Newton went to the police, who then applied to the magistracy for a search warrant, which was duly granted. Ulasto was reluctant to allow the search but when his premises were turned over coins to the value of £3,000 (about £175,000 in today’s money) were discovered in a drawer. Some of the items were identified (by catalogue tickets Ulasto had taken away) as belonging to the museum but others probably came from private collectors, General Fox among them.

Bail was refused (understandably) and Ulasto was remanded in custody, having declined to have an interpreter translate for him; it was common (particularly at Marylebone and the courts in the East End) for interpreters to appear to help defendants or prosecutors that had a poor or no command of English but the coin enthusiast was a well educated man who required no such assistance.

A few days  later he was back up before the Bow Street magistrate, this time he was represented by a lawyer, as were the museum. General Fox was also represented in court so his interests could be looked out for.

The theft had shaken the authorities at the museum who had convened an extraordinary meetings of the directors, at which no less a figure than Sir Robert Peel (the former Prime Minister and, of course, the founder of the metropolitan Police) had attended. They set up an investigation in to what had happened and to discover exactly how many, and what value of coins, had been stolen.

The court was crowded – Bow Street was always the most popular court as it was the most senior, but this was an exciting and intriguing ‘crime news’ story. General Fox was there, as was the principal librarian of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, Lord Enniskillen.

Also in court that day was detective Inspector Charles Field, the inspiration behind Dickens’ character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Three years after the Ulasto case Charles Dickens wrote of his experience of joining Field on duty and watching him work.  The inspector had executed the warrant to search Ulasto’s rooms and he was also investigating a series of other coin robberies in which the Greek featured as the most likely suspect. He asked for a further remand while he continued his inquiries.

Ulasto’s counsel requested that his client either be tried or released on bail but Mr Jardine, the magistrate, refused. He told the lawyer that the case was too serious to risk allowing ball and Timonion was again returned to prison.

He was again brought before the justice on the 10 April and again Field requested (and was granted) a further remand. On the 17 April he was up again; the newspapers gave a brief summary of what had occurred previously (although one imagines their readers were following the story fairly closely) and now the value of the items missing had risked to nearer £4,000.

The museum was able to provide evidence (from ‘sulphur casts’ made of the items it held) that the coins found at Ulasto’s lodgings were indeed their property. It was agreed that he should be further remanded until May.

Now the prosecution switched to General Fox who brought a separate charge for the theft of his property. No less than 71 coins produced in the court were from the general’s collection he said, and had been taken some time after he had first met Ulasto back in January at Fox’s London home at 35 Hill Street,  Mayfair. The magistrate bound General Fox over to prosecute and the supposed coin thief was returned to his cell.

And that, it would appear, was that for the Police Courts. It is likely that Ulasto came up once more , to be formally committed for trial, but the papers don’t seem to have reported it. His case was heard, as we know, on May 7 1849 and he chose to plead guilty (to the theft of over £6,000 worth of coins – a huge amount, probably close to £350,000 at modern prices). If he was hoping for a reduced punishment then he may have been disappointed; the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for 7 years.

If Ulasto (first described as a citizen of Vienna) was Greek (as he was thereafter referred to) then I enjoy the irony in his desire to steal Greek and Roman antiquities from the British Museum. After all, the museum ‘owns’ a tremendous amount of other people’s property plundered by British adventurers and empire builders over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a native of Athens wished to repatriate some of his cultural heritage can we really condemn him?

[from Daily News, Saturday, March 31, 1849 The Morning Post, Friday, April 06, 1849]

Dickens has a close encounter with the ‘swell-mob’

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Charles Dickens had some experience of the law. As a young freelance reporter he had covered the civil law court of Doctors’ Commons before working for a number of other papers in the 1830s. His familiarity with everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain is one of the strengths of his novels and his writings feature characters drawn from the world of crime, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Magwitch.

It would seem, however, that Dickens not only visited the courts of London (including, of course, the police courts) but the gaols and houses of corrections as well. In addition, as we shall see, on at least one occasion he was a witness himself in an attempted robbery that ended up in a summary hearing before a magistrate. In fact he was himself cheekily declared to a a member of the criminal underworld.

In 1849, when he was at the height of his fame and writing David Copperfield, Dickens was strolling along the Edgware Road with his friend Mark Lemon. Lemon was a celebrated actor who wrote hundreds of melodramas, was a joint founder of Punch magazine and so a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. A young man came close by them and Lemon felt a hand at his pocket. He swung up his cane and delivered a quick rap on the would-be thief’s knuckles who then swore at him and ran off.

The two friends set off in pursuit and were soon joined by a policeman in plain clothes. They caught up with the thief and he was arrested. There was some trouble on the way to the station as the youth hit out at his captors and tried to escape, but eventually he was taken back to the station and thence to court the next day.

Appearing in the Marylebone Police Court Dickens must have attracted a good crowd eager to hear the famous story teller describe his experiences, and they were not disappointed. The author explained how he and Lemon had chased after the man – now named as Cornelius Hearne (aged 19) –  and helped capture him.

We pursued him, and when he was taken he was most violent; he is a desperate fellow, and he kicked about in all directions. There was a mob of low fellows close by when he tried Mr. Lemon’s pocket, and we were determined he should not effect his escape, if we could prevent it‘.

PC 229D deposed that he had been on duty in plain-clothes (no reason is given but he might have been looking for known criminals whilst undercover). He confirmed the evidence of Dickens and Lemon and he described how Hearne tried to escape custody. The policeman told the justice, Mr Broughton, that the prisoner threatened him and kicked out at Lemon (who had hold of his arms as they marched him the police station).

While they walked Mark Lemon said the prisoner had spoken to him, asking him not to ‘say my hand was in your pocket’. The burden of proof for pickpocketing when nothing had actually been stolen – as Lemon admitted it hadn’t – fell on the intent. If the theatre man was adamant that he had felt Hearne’s hand inside his pocket, there could be no other explanation than that he intended to rob him.

Another policeman informed the magistrate that Hearne was well known to them and to the courts, having been convicted of several petty crimes like this in the past. Now the justice turned to the prisoner for his version of events. Hearne tried to bluff his way out, saying that he was innocent and that Dickens and Lemon had picked on him, called him names and struck out at him. That was why he had run away, he was no thief.

Now the exchange became more amusing for those watching in the courtroom (and for the readers of the newspapers). Charles Dickens declared that when he was at the police station he said he thought he recognised the prisoner, having seen him in the house of correction. This suggests that Dickens took his characterisation seriously and not only frequented courtrooms for literary reasons but also the prisons of the capital.

However, this seemed to be  lifeline for Cornelius Hearne. He looked from the dock to the bench and spoke to the magistrate:

Now your workshop, he must have been in “quod” there himself, or he couldn’t ‘ave seen me. I know these two gentlemen well; they’re no better than swell-mob men, and they get their living by selling stolen goods‘.

This provoked peals of laughter in the courtroom.

That one (pointing to Mr. Dickens) keeps “a fence”, and I recollect him at the prison, where he was put for six months, while I was there for only two‘.

Dickens and Lemon were described as being ‘highly amused’ by the suggestion but denied the accusations amidst all the laughter. Dickens said he had never traded in stolen goods and was not on speaking terms with that ‘highly respectable body – the swell-mob’. The swell-mob was a contemporary term for petty thieves and pickpockets who liked to dress fashionably and ape the manners of the middle classes, and were a popular vehicle for satirists and commentators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dicken’s characterisation of Toby Crackit draws heavily on popular portraits of the swell-mob.

Hearne was unlikely to have been able to read and while he may have heard of Oliver Twist he may not have recognised its author. Not surprisingly the magistrate was much more familiar with Charles Dickens and his friend Mark Lemon than the young man in the dock was. Mr Broughton told him that he had demonstrated ‘consulate impudence’ in trying to wriggle out of his crime by defaming the character of two gentlemen, and that if he had actually stolen anything then he would undoubtedly be facing a trial  at Old Bailey and could expect to be transported. However, since there was only an attempt to steal he would deal with him summarily.

Cornelius Hearne was sent to the house of correction for three months; ‘”Boz” and his friend then left the court’.

[from The Era, Sunday, March 25, 1849]