‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark

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We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

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The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

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It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence

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In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]

An embarrassed client is one ‘unfortunate’s “get out gaol free” card

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In 18657 Henry Mayhew wrote that that there were 8,600 prostitutes in London who were ‘known to the police’ (others suggested that in total there were 10 times this number of ‘unfortunates’). Mathew believed the higher figure was no exaggeration and declared that there were 8,000 or more amongst the ‘circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent’s Street’.  One of these it seems, shared a surname with me.

Mary Gray was described as ‘a shabbily attired unfortunate’ when she appeared before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court. Mary was accused of robbing Henry Videon, a licensed victualler whose address was given as 51 Dean Street, Soho.

Mr Videon did not appear to press the charge against Mary Gray so this was brought instead by the policeman that arrested her. PC Kingston (184C) told the magistrate that he had resounded to cries of help in the street and found Mary and Videon ‘grappling on the ground’. He seized the woman and when the man had got to his feet he charged her with stealing a valuable breast pin, worth £10.

Mary denied it but before she could palm it to a nearby woman, PC Kingston grabbed her hand and found it concealed there. Mary now changed her story and said that she’d not stolen it, she was simply holding it because the man had refused to pay her the £2 he owed her for sex. Mary described how she had met Videon on the Haymarket at half past one in the morning and had taken him to a brothel, the York Hotel. They’d not stayed there very long but walked on down Regent Street where she demanded payment.

The story was now taken up by the policemen who repeated what the victualler had told him. According to him, when Videon had refused to pay her she ‘knocked his hat off’ and stole his pin. Mary said she only took the pin ‘for a lark’ but it didn’t look good for her.

However, in order to press the case Videon needed to be there. Prosecutors frequently failed to turn up to court. For some, the mere fact that they had caused someone to be locked up for a few days was satisfaction enough. In Videon’s case his absence from court that day can probably be explained by embarrassment.

Mr Knox agreed to remand Mary in custody for a week more to see if her victim appeared. She had a poor reputation as a local prostitute and had been on prison for drunk and disorderly behaviour before so he had no qualms about imprisoning her again. But the theft was serious and he could hardly commit her for trial without hearing from the man she was supposed to have robbed.

Knox had his doubts Videon would show up however.

His conduct, ‘in going to the Haymarket, then going to a house with the prisoner, and afterwards walking with her, [was] not very creditable to him’.

He’d probably been drunk or tipsy that night, had picked her up and now regretted the whole sordid affair. Unfortunately for him he had failed to keep his name out of the papers and may well have had some awkward questions to answer later that week. As for Mary well she would have to endure a week more in prison but then would be free to continue her existence as one of the better class of sex workers in the capital, operating as she did in London’s wealthy West End.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 20, 1865]

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her.’

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Today living with someone you are not married to is almost as normal as being wed. There is no stigma attached to unmarried cohabitation and similarly little, if any, to having children outside of wedlock. This state of affairs (sometimes bemoaned by traditionalists) is often compared unfavourably to past societies, where marriage is presumed to have been universally accepted as the only way for couples to show commitment to each other.

Yet even a casual study of Victorian society reveals that amongst the working classes (by far the largest social group) the bonds of marriage were much more fluid. Men and women cohabited without being married, and had children, and no one (of their class at least) seemed to bat an eyelid about it. Perhaps we are not as ‘modern’ as we think we are.

Marriage can be expensive and divorce, in the 1800s, for most men and and women, was pretty much impossible. So I suspect many came together as lovers and stayed together as partnership being married in all but name.

Edward Chatfield and Elizabeth Wardle were an example of this type of ‘common law’ marriage. They had lived together at their home in Kent Street in the Borough, south London, for some time but their relationship was far from rosy.

Edward allegedly forced Elizabeth to prostitute herself when they had no money and beat her when she came home without any money. Their quarrels finally made it to the inside of the Southwark Police Court and the pages of the newspapers when, in 1863, Elizabeth took her ‘husband’ to law for an assault upon her.

She told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that Chatfield had come home late and had attacked her. As she stood in court everyone could see the results of the assault:- she had ‘a cut on her under lip, and several marks on the arms’. Her man had beaten her and knocked her to the floor. He started kicking her and if a policeman hadn’t heard her cries and come to her rescue she feared for her life.

It was not the first time the couple had come before the magistrates. Three months earlier the very same justice had sent him down for two months for beating Elizabeth. He’d only been out for six weeks and he’d done it again.

No lesson learned there then.

Edward objected and offered this defence:

‘It is false’, he declared. ‘I should not have touched you this time, had you come home properly. Your worship, she did not come home till six this morning, and then she was half drunk and would keep the door open’.

When Elizabeth refused to shut the door and keep quiet he had pushed her out of the bed. This was the point at which Elizabeth accused her partner of pimping her out as a prostitute, something Chatfield vehemently denied. ‘Now, that’s a lie’ he said, ‘you know I go out a thieving to support you’. This admission caused a sensation in the courtroom provably at the self-declaration of offending and the very public disintegration of their relationship.

Mr Coombe was told that Elizabeth’s body was ‘covered in cuts and bruises’ and he sent Edward to prison for six months this time, at hard labour. The prisoner’s reaction was contemptuous, both of the court and his common law wife.

‘When I come out I’ll have fifteen years for her, as I want to get out of this ________ country’.

He may have been hoping to be transported to Australia but I doubt he got his wish. The numbers of convicts deported had slowed from the 1850s and the last ship sailed from England in 1867. Still possible but I can’t see him in the records of those sent so I suspect he minded his behaviour. Mr Coombe added a codicil to his six months, a requirement that he found bail against his good behaviour towards Elizabeth for a further six months on release.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 15, 1863]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

The old sea dog and the dancing girl

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In the 1860s The Era was a newspaper that served the entertainment industry. It carried stories about the theatre but also covered the rest of the news, including the ‘doings’ of the Police Courts. The principal popular entertainment of the day was the music hall which offered a variety of comics, singers, dancers, jugglers and novelty acts to a mixed audience who could eat and drink while they enjoyed the show. Some music halls had reputations as being more ‘respectable’ than others, and a handful of the roughers ones were little more than fronts for prostitution.

In January 1866 The Era reported that a sea captain in the merchant navy had appeared at Marylebone Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. The unnamed captain explained that he had a season ticket for ‘one of the principal’ West End music halls and had been sitting in the stalls when he was very taken by one of the dancing girls.

According to him she caught his eye and the attraction was ‘mutual’. After the show the couple left together and now he would not allow her to return to work. When he next turned up at the theatre the manager asked him to allow his employer to come back to dance but the captain refused.

The manager then approached the band leader and threatened to discharge him unless he took out legal action to get the girl back. This presumably means that the dancers were employed by the band and not directly by the theatre. The captain said they could do what they liked but the ‘danseuse’ would not be returning.

At this the manager lost his temper and ordered the seaman to leave his premises. He summoned his son and together they roughly and forcibly removed the captain from the theatre and turfed him out on the street. Unhappy about this, the naval man had presented himself before the magistrate the next morning.

Complaining that he spent £150 ‘in the place, and ought not to be subjected to such treatment’, he wondered what his legal position was. The magistrate was curt; he was surprised that such a man would air his business in public and more especially that he would admit to having taken a dancing girl home with him. In the popular opinion many of these women were hardly different to street prostitutes and indeed, in some of the rougher establishments, they performed a dual role.

The magistrate wasn’t going to help this old sea dog, if he wanted legal redress he told him to apply to a solicitor. No one seems to have asked the dancer what she wanted to do, not least whether she was happy to give up the boards. After all it is worth noting that the sailor said the attraction was mutual; he took ‘a fancy’ to her, and ‘she to him’. It speaks volumes about the agency of young working class women in the Victorian entertainment industry that nobody thought to ask her opinion.

[from The Era , Sunday, January 7, 1866]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk