Sometimes you get exactly what you pay for, a Bow Street justice explains.

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‘I left the room with silent dignity, but unfortunately I tripped over the carpet.’ (Mr Pooter in Diary of a Nobody, Grossmith and Grossmith, 1892)

Bow Street Police Court was the most senior summary court in the capital in the Victorian period. Its magistrates sat in judgement on tens of thousands of petty criminals and sent many of them on for trial at the Old Bailey. In the 20th century some of the most famous felons in our history appeared there, including Ronnie and Reggie Kray. The original bar (where prisoners stood to hear their fate) is now in the national justice museum at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, complete with cut-outs of some of those that stood there.

It is probably to assume that this case, from May 1900, was not one that troubled the sitting justice overmuch. It was hardly a crime at all, but serves to remind us that the London Police Courts were – as the parlour of the 18th century justices of the peace had been – a forum for the public to air their grievances, however small.

Mr Vaughan was in the chair at Bow Street when a ‘respectable-looking’ man applied to him for ‘some remedy’. The unnamed gentleman had bought a watch in the Strand and he was unhappy with it.

It had been advertised, he said, as ‘the cheapest watch in the world’, but it didn’t actually tell the time.

Mr Vaughan asked the man what he had paid for it. 4s and 9d came the reply.

‘Then  I should say it was “the cheapest watch in the world”‘, replied the the magistrate. ‘Does it go at all?”

‘It does go but it won’t mark the hours’, grumbled the applicant. He explained that he had taken it to a watchmaker who had examined it and told him that the ‘wheels [were] not cut to mark the hours’.

Mr Vaughan looked it over and expressed his opinion that it was amazing it went at all for that price. The case itself was probably worth the money and he advised him to take it back. No law had been broken, the man had just been something of a cheapskate and he was fairly fortunate his name was withheld from the reading public, or he might have become a ‘Pooterish’ laughing stock.

He left the court, apologising to the court for wasting its time….

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 22, 1890]

Two ungrateful sons take out their anger on their mother’s effects

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Mercer Street, Seven Dials c.1890

When Mrs Lang lost her husband she also lost the main breadwinner and the driving force for the family business. The Langs had run a coppersmith business in Mercer Street, close to  Covent Garden. Fortunately for Mrs Lang she had two grown up sons and they undertook to help out in the running of the workshop.

However, the brothers, William and George, were not keen to take on the business for ever and soon began to resent working for their mother. They hit on the idea to emigrate and decided to seek their fortunes in Australia. Australia, which had once been deemed only fit as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted criminals, was now flourishing. It had enjoyed its own gold rush and the transportation of felons had come to a halt in the 1860s. Now, in May 1890, it looked like an attractive destination for the Lang brothers, but they needed to the funds to get there and establish themselves.

They began by asking their mother for money, above and beyond what they earned from working in the shop. The requests soon turned to demands, and eventually to demands with menaces. So concerned was Mrs Lang that she told her solicitor who wrote to the men warning them to desist.

This did nothing to deter them however and after their mother rejected demand for a sum of £500 they threatened to ‘do for her’ and then went to her home and smashed it up. The damage they did was considerable. While the elderly lady sheltered in her bedroom the pair set to work on her effects. When she felt it was safe to emerge she found a trail of devastation:

All ‘her pictures and ornaments had been smashed, and were lying about in atoms. The damage would amount to quite £30’ [£1,800 today]. A week later William went further, assaulting his mother by striking her ‘several blows’.

After appearing in court at Marlborough Street William was formally committed for trial while George, although acquitted of causing the damage, was ordered to find sureties (to the tune of £50) to keep the peace towards his mother for six months.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 16, 1890]

The ‘stupid, obstinate, and unreasonable’ man on the Notting Hill omnibus.

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William Rogers was a gentleman who lived in Shepherd’s Bush in the London suburbs and as such, he was as far from being the usual sort of occupant of a police court dock as one could get. Yet in April 1899 he found himself before the magistrate at the West London Police court charged with fare dodging.

The General Omnibus Company had applied for (and obtained) a summons and in court were able to prove that Rogers had been traveling on a ‘bus from Notting Hill Gate to Uxbridge Road Station, and had paid the penny fare.

However, ‘because the omnibus stopped  a yard or so from the bridge that crosses the railway he refused to get out, and travelled on to Shepherd’s-bush’. At this point the conductor asked him to pay the balance of the fare owing, another penny, which he refused.

Mr Rogers cut a frustrated figure in court. He thought it ‘contemptible’ that the Company had brought the matter to court for such a trifling amount and said the vehicle had not ‘pulled up at the ordinary stooping point’. He had waited inside for the driver to move it to the station only for it to continue to Shepherd’s Bush. Since he had not had the opportunity to alight, he wasn’t prepared to pay the excess fare.

The GEO had employed a solicitor to contest the case, presumably on the grounds that establishing precedent was as important as recovering a penny fare. Their solicitor pointed out that ‘there was no obligation on the part of the Company to stop their omnibus at any particular place’. If Mr Rogers had made a request the driver would have complied with it, but he hadn’t.

Mr Lane, the sitting justice at West London agreed.

He told Rogers that there ‘was nothing in law or reason, saying that the Company need not do more than carry a passenger to the station. It did not matter a button where the omnibus was stopped. He ordered the Defendant to pay the penny fare, with two guineas costs, and described his conduct as stupid, obstinate, and unreasonable’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 26, 1899]

Cross-dressing in late Victorian London draws the wrong sort of attention in King’s Cross

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Where yesterday’s post (on a tragedy averted) reveals the human interest nature of the reporting of the Police Courts, today’s has much more to do with an editor’s decision to find something that amused his readership.

At half past three in the morning of the Tuesday 2 April 1895 PC Day (262E) heard shouts of ‘police!’ on the Euston Road and he hurried towards the entrance to the Great Northern Terminal at King’s Cross.

There he found what appeared to be a man and woman grappling together. As he tried to intervene he soon became aware that the ‘woman’ was no woman at all, but a man in female costume. Regardless of who had started the fight in the first place or indeed as to whether an assault had taken place, PC Day arrested the ‘woman’ and let the other assailant go.

When he had successfully removed him to the Police station Day discovered that his prisoner was indeed a man, a German by the name of Otto Schmitt. Still dressed as  woman he was presented to the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court on the next morning.

The newspaper reporter described the man in the dock in detail:

Schmitt wore a black skirt and bodice of the same colour, with velvet sleeves, black fur cape, and a small black bonnet and figured veil. His wig was of a rich golden colour, and hung in curls down his back. He carried in his hands a pair of dull red cotton gloves‘.

An interpreter was fetched to court and , through him, Schmitt explained that he was ‘character vocalist’ and had been employed by the Harmony Club in Fitzroy Square. According to one author the club was a well-known haunt of Germans in London in the 1890s and up to the outbreak of war in 1914.*

Schmitt said after he had left the club and was making his way home to an address in Pentonville the other man had attacked him. It is quite possible that he was mistaken for a street walker given the time of the night, for no ‘respectable’ woman would have been walking the streets at 3 in the morning alone.

The Clerkenwell magistrate decided to look into Schmitt’s claims that he has a valid reason for dressing up in women’s clothes, and remanded him in custody.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 03, 1895]

*  Panikos Panayi,  Enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War, (Bloomsbury, 1991),

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magistrate committed them both for trial.

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

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

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

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