A cheeky bit of fraud from a former police clerk goes unpunished

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Henry Thomas Spooner joined the Metropolitan Police in August 1874. He was assigned to V Division  but resigned from the force just two years later. In October 1876 he was prosecuted at Bow Street Police Court for stealing a form from Scotland Yard. So what caused Spooner’s fall from grace?

Spooner was employed as a ‘clerk under witness’ in V Division but ‘owing to indifferent conduct’ he was demoted back to constable. On 28 August he resigned, presumably because he resented the return to beat duty and perhaps a drop in salary.

When Spooner left the police he was given a certificate that confirmed his 16 months of employment but ‘was spinet as to his character’. In other words he had a minimal reference; the sort that simply said that he had worked for the police and nothing more. Any potential employer could have read between the lines and formed a negative opinion of the former police clerk.

As a result Spooner decided that he needed something more than this and according to the police’s prosecution counsel at Bow Street, Mr Poland, he returned to Scotland Yard to steal a blank reference form from the Commissioners of Police. He then filled this in and forged the signature of a senior officer before sending it to the Newcastle Police in his attempt to find employment with them.

Unfortunately for Spooner the Newcastle ‘authorities prudently communicated with the London police, when of course it was discovered that the certificate was a forgery’. PC Samuel Gibbs arrested Spooner and charged him with the theft. At Bow Street Police Court he was committed to trial.

This seemed like a fairly obvious case of fraud and all the evidence seemed to point to the dishonesty of the former policeman. After all the police had the certificate (on which the Commissioner’s signature was clearly forged), they knew Spooner had left under  cloud (and his conduct not been considered ‘first class’ as the certificate suggested). Yet when the case came before a jury at Old Bailey Spooner received a ‘good character’ and he was acquitted. Whether the Newcastle force then employed him is (to me at least) still a mystery.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 16, 1876]

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Ice cream, pears and a tram ride: stealing from the church ears five lads a trip to a Reformatory

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Highgate United Reformed Church

In early October 1873 five young lads appeared before Colonel Jeakes,  the magistrate at Highgate Police Court in North London, accused of stealing from the church. Specifically the five were charged with stealing the contents of missionary boxes (collecting boxes we’d call them today) from the Congregational Chapel on Southgrove, Highgate*.

Benjamin Woodward had discovered the loss about a week before the case came to court. He found that 12 missionary boxes had been been taken from a drawer in the school room of the chapel. The bottom of the drawer had been cut out in order to remove the boxes, so this suggested that the thieves knew exactly where to look. It took the police  a little time to track down the culprits but after one of the ‘gang’ turned informer the five were eventually dragged into custody.

William Alcock told the magistrate that he had been out with Frederick Taylor (13) on the previous Sunday and saw him take some money out ‘of a heap of dirt on Holloway-hill’. When he asked him where it had come from and who had hid it, Taylor told him it ‘was his week’s wages’.

A little further on down the hill Taylor unearthed some more and when pressed by Alcock admitted he’d got it from the Congregational Church. Later that day Alcock and Taylor were joined by John White and Alfred (both 13 and described as labourers), an errand boy of 10 named Herbert Warr, and Herbert Tuck who was just 9 years old. The little group of lads took their ill-gotten gains and hopped on a tram towards Moorgate Street. When they got into town they blew some of the money on ice cream and pears.

The police, in the person of Henry Webb (a detective with Y Division) investigated the case and apprehended the lads, with Alcock’s help. In court the youngest boy (Tuck) confessed to having entered the chapel via a window while the others stood watch outside. They had made the thefts over two nights it seems, their fear at being caught being overcome by the thrill of doing something illegal and the delight of finding such a bounty of ‘treasure’. Mr Woodward told the court that each boxes has contained upwards of £5 so in total the lads might have got away with nearly £60.

All five lads were remanded in custody so that places could be found for them in Reformatory schools, their criminal escapades (as adolescents at least) were at an end.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 09, 1873]

*now the Highgate United Reformed Church

‘A monstrous thing’ is avoided in Bethnal Green

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The most common charges heard at the London police courts were those of being drunk and disorderly or drunk and incapable. In fact, whilst being drunk was not in itself an offence, once another misdemeanour was added (assault, using obscene language, refusing to quite licensed premises, etc.) you were likely to whisked off to the police station and produced in court in the morning.

Because such charges were so common and generally not very newsworthy, the press rarely reported them. Much better, they presumably believed, to offer their readers a staple fare of wife beaters, fraudsters, juvenile thieves, and robbers than a depressing catalogue of London’s inebriates. Just occasionally however, a case was reported because it had something out of the ordinary, as this one does.

Thomas Phillips (50) from Clarkson Street, Bethnal Green, and Robert Cable (64) from Millwall, were charged before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable in the public thoroughfare’. Both men were described as ‘master greengrocers’ and they had clearly been out drinking at the end of the working week. They had been arrested by PC Kitchener (630K) as he made his beat along Green Street in Bethnal Green.

He had found them in a cart at about 10 o’clock at night. Phillips was sitting (or rather sat slumped) in the driver’s seat holding the reins but ‘quite unable to take care of the horse’, according to PC Kitchener. Cable was asleep (or passed out from drink) and face down in the back of the cart.

In court the constable and his sergeant (Johnson KR) fully proved the charge to the satisfaction of the magistrate, Mr Hannay,  who imposed a fine of 10s on Phillips.  Neither men had denied the charge anyway but Hannay was unsure whether the law applied to Cable. After all what had he done wrong? He was merely drunk in someone else’s cart, he wasn’t causing a nuisance or attempting to drive the vehicle.

He declared that:

‘It would be a monstrous thing if a gentleman going home in his carriage from a dinner was to be taken out and charged because he had drunk too much wine’.

So applying the law and common sense he discharged Cable without penalty than the night in the cells he had already ‘enjoyed’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

A Waterman’s narrow escape from death

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The Silvertown India-rubber works and the the nearby WT Henley Telegraph cable Works, in North Woolwich in the second half of the nineteenth century

At half past 11 on Thursday, 19 September 1872 Thomas James was approached by two men as he stood by his boat at by the river near Woolwich (on the Surrey side of the river Thames). They told James, who was a waterman, that they had missed the last ferry over to North Woolwich and asked him if he would carry them over in his craft. James agreed, saying it would cost them 6d each.

The pair conferred for a few minutes and James was sure he heard one say to the other:

‘Promise him the shilling, and when we get to the middle of the river we will throw him overboard, and sell his boat tomorrow morning’.

The waterman thought it must have been a joke and the three set off. However, when they reached the middle of the Thames the pair seized him and manhandled the startled waterman overboard and into the river. Despite him being a strong swimmer he was almost drowned, encumbered as he was by a heavy coat and a large bag he was carrying.

He later told the Woolwich Police court magistrate that it was only the thought of his wife and children that made ‘him desperate’ and allowed him to recover ‘his presence of mind’ and make it to the shore. As soon as he was able he reported the theft of his boat and the attempt on his life and requested a summons to bring the men to court to answer  for it. Presumably he had some sort of description and had been told they lived at Silvertown (in West Ham), because the astounded magistrate granted his request.

One of the men was subsequently named as Thomas Pryce, a mechanic at Henley’s Telegraph Factory at North Woolwich. The case was called at Woolwich but neither Pryce nor his accuser appeared to hear it. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that ‘matter had been compromised by the defendant paying the  complainant a sum of money in compensation’.

This form of settlement was not uncommon in nineteenth century London (and indeed earlier in history). For all his presumed anger at being nearly drowned in the Thames, James wanted a form of justice that benefited him. Since he seems to have been able to identify Pryce it made sense (to him) to track him down and extract a pecuniary advantage from the whole situation. As for Pryce, having been caught he must have realised that a charge of theft with violence would lead to penal servitude for several years and the loss of his job at the telegraph factory. Settling their difference, as Londoners often did, made much more sense for both parties.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 21, 1872; The Pall Mall Gazette , Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

A glimpse into history: an Irishwoman’s flight from the siege of Paris in 1870

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Parisian women queue for food during the Prussian siege of Paris, 1870

Sometimes the cases that are reported in the London Police Courts reveal glimpses of the wider history that was taking place both in Britain and around the world.

In July 1870 Napoleon III, emperor of the French, declared war on the kingdom of Prussia. Napoleon’s decision to take on his powerful European neighbour was prompted by his failing popularity at home and the (inaccurate as it turned out) advice of his generals. The Prussians (under Bismarck) saw the war as an opportunity to push forward the cause of German unification and, ultimately, begin to shape the continent in their favour.

The war went badly for the French from the start and ended in ignominious defeat at Sedan at the end of August, just over a month after it started. Napoleon was deposed and national government was declared which continued to resist the Prussian forces. This led to the siege of Paris which lasted until it too surrendered on 28 January 1871. In the aftermath of the war Prussia annexed Alsace-Lorraine and left  festering sore that when combined with mutual distrust and competing imperial ambitions, contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Within all national and international conflicts of course there are personal stories and individual tragedies. An unnamed Irish woman (a ‘native of Cork’) appeared at the Marylebone Police Court in mid September 1870 having fled Paris and the advancing Prussian forces. Her husband was a French national she explained to Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate, and had been forced to remain in Paris to man the defences.

She described the situation in the French capital:

‘bills were posted up on the walls stating that those that did not wish to expose themselves to the siege must leave. My husband is a tradesman, and he was bound to go to the fortifications. I had no means of subsistence, and I had to leave and go to my mother at Cork’.

Sieges were hard on all the occupation of a city and the Paris siege was notable for the hardships the French suffered. There were later reports of people starving and eating cats and dogs and even the animals in the Paris zoo. Ultimately the siege led to further revolution and civil war, so it is no surprise that those that could opted to flee and become refugees.

The woman had traveled to London with her five children but had run out of money and was now desperate. That she turned to the Police Courts is indicative of the public’s use of the the London magistracy as centres of advice and aid in a crisis. Sadly for her, there was little Mr Mansfield could, or was inclined, to do for her.

She told him she was staying at a house at 57 Praed Street and had applied to the French authorities for help on several occasions. They had simply directed her from one ‘society’ to another; in all probability with the country at war and Paris under desire there was little they could do to help the Irish wife of one of their citizens. But the lady believed that there was more to it than this; she felt they didn’t want to help her because she was Irish and ‘they say they have so many of their own country-people to see to’.

Since Ireland was still part of the British Empire she therefore sought support from the British state. Mr Mansfield replied that the best he could do, since several charities had not helped her, was send her to the relieving officer at Paddington. In other words she could enter the workhouse. That was clearly not something she, as a ‘respectable’ tradesman’s wife, wanted to do. Mr Mansfield said he would send her instead to see Archbishop Manning’s chaplain, to see what he might do for her.

Archbishop Manning had a good reputation in Victorian London. As the senior Catholic cardinal in England and Archbishop of Westminster he had considerable influence. In 1889 he intervened and helped broker a settlement to the Great Dock Strike and so hopefully he (if his chaplain was prepared to get him involved) he may well have helped a fellow Catholic find the means to return home to Ireland and thence perhaps to France once the situation had claimed down. Presuming, of course, that the lady’s husband survived both the siege and then the Commune and its overthrow in May 1871.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 17, 1870]

The flower pot man’s cunning plan backfires

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Victorian housekeeper c.1890

Emma Dunlop was employed as a housekeeper at 60 Cleveland Square in Paddington when she noticed a man descend the steps from the street and started inspecting the row of flower pots outside her windows. Opening the door Emma demanded to know what he wanted.

The man told her he ‘wished to see Mrs Davies’. There being no ‘Mrs Davies’ at that address he left. Emma, curious as to what he was up to, came out and poked around the flowerpots herself. She soon saw that one of the pots had been disturbed and digging below the surface she found some coins buried there.

In total there were 24s (around £50 today) and not surprisingly a few minutes later the man was back to retrieve it. However in the meantime Emma had removed the cash and so he was forced to knock at the door and ask her if she had found anything. Emma told him she had and he demanded she hand it over or he would call a policeman.

Fortunately a policeman was passing by at just that moment so Emma called him down and the three went into the kitchen. This is where it all started to go wrong for the man as PC Double (322X) suspected foul play. He arrested the man on suspicion of stealing the money and hiding it so it could not be discovered on him and made some local enquiries. He soon found out that the cook at number 55 Cleveland Square had reported that   24s and 6d were missing from the pantry.

The man was named as James Burton (aged 31 and a painter from Lisson Grove) and when the case was taken to the Marylebone Police Court the magistrate was told that Burton had been working in the kitchen that day. Burton was remanded in custody so the police could pursue their enquiries, his ‘cunning’ attempt to hide the proceeds of his theft and then bully Ms Dunlop into handing it over backfired. He doesn’t make it into the Old Bailey records so I suspect he eventually elected to be dealt with summarily and ended up with a short prison sentence, But maybe the police decided there was insufficient evidence to prove he had taken the money and he got away with it. As is often the case, it is unlikely we will ever know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 14, 1879]

‘It is a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’.

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In September 1878 the police around Chelsea mounted a special exercise to clamp down on a perennial problem. Large groups of men and boys frequently gathered along Pavilion Road to play at cards in the streets. In doing they were causing such an obstruction as to block the road completely for other users.

On the 11th September the police swooped. They picked up five men who were presented the very next day at Westminster Police Court and charged with betting and causing an obstruction. John Gardiner (32) and Hermann Murray (42) were each fined £4 with the option to go to prison for a month if they were unable to pay.

There was a little more detail given about the arrests of John Jones, John Morley and James Magstow (though not their ages). The arresting police officers were detective sergeants Buxton and Bibby from B Division.  Jones was playing a game of cards with others and Morley was shouting the odds.

He called out ‘5 to 2 on the field’ to the onlooking crowd which prompted Magstow to step forward and make a bet. This was a serious game with high stakes and the detectives reported that upwards of 200 men were watching the game unfold. When they were sure they had evidence of betting activity (with Magstow’s bet presumably) they made the arrest, seizing the three men.

One imagine most of the rest of the crowd scarpered as quick as they could before the uniforms could move in and make further arrests. When searched ‘the usual cards and books were found on them’, and on Jones ‘a large sum of money’.

Inspector White explained that the nuisance was ‘intolerable’ and the magistrate (Mr Bridge) was satisfied that a charge of illegal betting had been proven against the men. Jones was the ringleader and Morley was his ‘clerk’. In some respects Magstow was also a victim (unless he was  dummy planted by Jones and Morley to temp others to stake their own bets).

Mr Bridge told the court that it ‘was a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’, but was clear that this sort of behaviour needed to be dealt with firmly. He deemed Jones to be a rogue and a vagabond and initially sent him away for a month at hard labour. He fined Morley £4 and Magstow £2 (warning them that if they could not pay they too would go to gaol).

Then, for reasons that are not made clear he changed his mind and reduced Jones’ sentence to a £5. Perhaps he thought a pecuniary punishment more appropriate. The prisoner was apparently ‘highly delighted at the alteration of his sentence’ and left court  poorer but still a free man.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 12, 1878]