A very different sort of entertainment in Covent Garden

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Covent Garden in 1864

If you are familiar with the modern Covent Garden then I expect you are fairly used to the sorts of entertainment on offer there. Much to the amusement of two of my nieces I became part of a circus act last year when I was plucked from the crowd to help support a knife juggler. I have seen her since but have never made the mistake of watching her act from the front row again!

Along with jugglers, busking musicians and magic acts there are always a ‘gallery’ of human statues (invariably including at least one Yoda) vying for our attention and any loose change. Quite possibly there are others mingling with the crowds with much less honest desires on our pennies, and Covent Garden has long associations with petty criminality as this blog has noted before.

I’m not sure when the ‘modern’ phenomenon of human statues first emerged but I don’t believe they existed in the Victorian age. Covent Garden was a much less wealthy area in those days when the poverty of Seven Dials and the district’s reputation for vice were much more widely known and discussed than its attractiveness as popular tourist destination. It had ceased to be a ‘market’ in 1974 when the old flower market moved, and fell into disuse thereafter before being rescued later in the twentieth century. What we see now is far removed (except for the buildings) from how it would have looked to our Victorian ancestors.

One building that still remains today is St Paul’s church, which provides a haven of peace in this busy London space. In 1859 the land outside the church was owned by the duke of Bedford and he had granted use of it to the church and its vicar to preach sermons to the public. Thus, on Saturday afternoon, the 9th July 1859, the Rev. Hutton was preaching to an assembled crowd close to the market.

Nearby another preacher was attempting to make his voice heard but he was having some problems with the local police. PC Vernor (of F Division) interrupted the man, later named as Dr William Evans, to ask him to stop. When Evans asked him why he was allowing the Rev. Hutton to continue but interfering with his own lecture. PC Vernor simply explained that the reverend had permission to do so, while he did not.

Dr Evans ‘did not seem to understand the distinction’ and carried on regardless. The policeman, ‘in order to put a stop to the disorder’  arrested him and took him back to the station house where he was later bailed by two of his friends.

Appearing in front of Mr Henry, the sitting justice at Bow Street, Evans eschewed a defence of his actions in favour of an opportunity to carry on his lecture to a captive audience.  He drew out a pamphlet entitled ‘A prophetic declaration by W. Evans‘ which he preceded to read aloud.

While he claimed to have ‘a mission’, his delivery was ‘so rambling and unintelligible that it afforded no cause’ as to what that ‘mission’ was, reported the Chronicle‘s hack.

‘It commenced by comparing the Emperor of the French [presumably Napoleon III] to our Saviour, and the prisoner himself to several historical characters, and contained a denunciation against England and the English; first because he (Dr. Evans) had been imprisoned; and secondly, because the people, while they would not listen to his counsel, “wise counsels, the counsels of God”, yet were ready to “receive bastard prophets and false Christs.”

England, he declared, had but a short time for repentance, and even America should not escape the “general judgements”.

It was quite a speech but the magistrate was not at all impressed. He reminded the doctor that they were there to consider his breach of the law and asked him to cut short his ‘ramblings’. Dr Evans simply declared he had as much right as the Rev. Hutton to preach in public but added that his own suffering under the law were comparable to the sufferings of Christ himself.

Mr Henry begged to differ and bound him over to keep the peace and refrain from speaking in Covent Garden again. In future, if he wished to avoid arrest that is, the good doctor would have to rely on passers-by buying and reading his religious tracts whilst remaining as silent as one of the ‘Yodas’ that infest the Piazza today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, July 12, 1859]

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Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

‘Daring robbery’ on an American ship (and some causal racism in the London press).

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Thomas Connell was described in the Greenwich Police Court, as a seaman. He had been charged with stealing clothes and boots belonging to two sailors serving on an American merchant ship lying at dock in London.

Connell had been employed on the ship, the Chaos, but when it returned to London to offload its cargo of timber, he was laid off, ‘his services no longer being required’. He headed off into the notorious sailor’s quarter – the Ratcliffe Highway – to spend his pay and reacquaint himself with the delights of the land. However, it seems he also took advanatge of some of his fellows doing similarly to filch some of their possessions to add to his own.

Martin Hunshon had been out on the town and when he got back to his bunk on the Chaos he carefully stowed his ‘best’ clothes. When he woke in the morning however he found that his trunk had been forced open and some of his possessions were missing, including the clothes he had worn the night before and some money he had left in a waistcoat pocket.

He clearly had his suspicions about his shipmate because when he reported the theft to the local police he gave them Connell’s name. PC Bigover (163K) acted on this and visited him at his lodgings. Connell then reluctantly accompanied  the copper to a nearby pawnbroker where he was quickly identified as having pledged some of the items Hunshon was missing, for money. Back at the police station he was searched and found to have on him two portraits, one of which belonged to Hunshon.

We then have a bit of contemporary English racism as the court reporter described the appearance of the other man from the Chaos who claimed to have lost items, possibly stolen by Connell. Rather than analyze or represent it I’ll set it down exactly as it was written in 1858:

‘Maurice Mitchell, with face shining like a piece of polished ebony , dressed à la negligèe, with a splendid open worked shirt front, and carrying in his hand a dandy white hat, then stood at the entrance to the witness box.

Mr Secker [the magistrate] ‘Well, my man, and who are you?’

Mitchell (laughing) : ‘Me sar: oh I’m de ship’s cook, I am’.

Mr Secker: ‘Well stand forward, or you won’t see those beautiful red tops. I want you to examine those boots’.

Mitchell (laughing) :Oh, I see dem sar. I bought dem, sar, in a America. I know ’em. I wore dem on Sunday, and on Monday dey was gone. Oh yes sar, dem boots are mine.’

This then brought a response from Connell, who was Irish, as the continued use of colloquial language makes clear:

‘How sur, could I shtale the dock walls. I found the bundle outside the wall, and ye don’t think I’d let it lay there. I didn’t stale it but I pleaded guilty to the pawning’.

As was the correct procedure, the magistrate offered Connell the chance to take his trial in front of a jury rather than being dealt with. summarily, by himself. Connell  at first agreed but when he was told he was be remanded in custody he changed his mind.

‘I don’t want, sur, to lay by. So I’ll plade guilty. You can jist now settle it you plase, sur’

The magistrate looked at him and told him that the offence was serious, as he had not only stolen items but had broken open the chest to do so. He should, therefore, send it up for a trial but since he had pleaded guilty he was going to give him five months imprisonment at hard labour, a considerable sentence for a relatively petty crime.

The two victims were happy as they got back most of their property. ‘Blackey’ (the press referred to Mitchell) seized the handle of the bundle of goods, and declared: ‘Thar, we can go now’ and the pair quit the court, leaving their former shipmate to his fate.

[from The Morning Post, 3 June 1858]

An ingenious thief and the ‘bird lime trick’.

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Wapping in the 1890s, from Booth’s poverty map

Cash registers weren’t invented until the later 1870s, and that was in America. A busy pub like the Three Crowns in Upper Smithfield, Wapping didn’t have anything quite as fancy. But it did experience a creative attempt to take money from the ’till’ nevertheless.

Catherine Morgan ran the pub with her husband and at about 8 o’clock in the morning of the 10th May she was in parlour bar of the pub and noticed a young man come in. There was a glass partition between the parlour and main bar and she could clearly see the lad take out a long stick. He pushed the stick towards ‘the engine’, and inserted between its two handles.

Now I suspect someone out there knows what device the reporter is talking about here but it would seem to be some early version of a cash machine. This is made more plausible by what happened next.

As Catherine watched on in horror the young man withdrew the stick and she saw that there were two coins stick to it! Hurrying back through into the pub she grabbed him and shouted: ‘Give me that stick’. Just as quickly he broke off the end of the stick and wiped it on his trousers. Catherine unfolded his hand to discover two shillings hidden in his palm.

The police were called and Mrs Morgan held him captive until PC H31 could take him into custody. He appeared on more than one occasion at Thames Police Court before this appearance on the 20 May 1876. Now the court was told that this was not the first time the lad, by the name of Morris Cooney, had been seen practising his ‘trick’.

Earlier on the month he had almost been caught by the landlady of the Garrett Tavern in Leman Street, Whitechapel. He had come in and asked her for a light and a glass of porter. Once she had served him  she had gone out the back to the parlour to ‘see to the children’. Hearing ‘a jingle’ she came back to find him with his stick and a flash of silver. She challenged him but he gulped down his beer and ran out of the pub.

The stick had been daubed with bird lime, which made it sticky and ideal for Cooney’s purpose. Unfortunately for him his clever device was easily spotted by women as eagle eyed at Catherine Morgan. What was worse for Morris was that his appearance in court revealed a previous conviction for a felony so the magistrate was not inclined to deal with him summarily (which may have reduced his sentence). Instead he was committed for trial, at the Session or at Old Bailey, where he might face a long spell in prison.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 21, 1876]

A young man gambling with his future ‘borrows’ some opera glasses

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Samuel Palethorpe was perhaps a typical young man from a respectable, if not wealthy background; typical in that he had indulged his passions rather more than he might, and had gotten into trouble as a result. If he had come from working-class roots then his brush with the law in May 1870 might have had more severer long term consequences.

Samuel had fallen into financial difficulties, probably as a result of his addiction to gambling. As so many have done before and afterwards, he determined that the best way to get himself out of this financial pickle was to have one last throw of the dice, and play the horses again.

His problem was that he didn’t have the money to stake in the first place, and this is when he chose a course that would eventually end up with his appearance before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House, on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretences.

Palethorpe visited Mr How’s chemical apparatus shop in Foster Lane and purchased six pairs of opera glasses. He charged the items to his uncle’s account, having stated that he had been sent to collect them. This was a lie; his relative, Mr Samuel Peace Ward, had no knowledge of the transaction and when he found out (because the bill was delivered to him), he was furious.

In the meantime the young man had pawned the glasses and placed all the money (about £5-6) on the horses. He had hoped to redeem the pledges and restore the glasses as well as settling his debts and having some money left over to pay his passage to America, and a new life. Sadly for him, lady luck wasn’t smiling on his and the bets failed.

At this point it has to be said that he did the ‘decent thing’, and handed himself in at the Bow Lane Police Station, admitting his crime. He also forwarded five of the pawn tickets (the ‘duplicates’) to his uncle – one he had lost – who was able to redeem them and return them to Mr How.

Appearing in court Samuel was apologetic and his uncle was understanding. No one would benefit from a jury trial his lawyer told the magistrate, London’s Lord Mayor. Instead he hoped Samuel could be dealt with summarily.

His worship agreed and, after admonishing Palethorpe for effectively ‘throwing his money into the Thames, for backing the favourite horse means the same thing’, he fined him £2 2s and the costs of redeeming the items. Of course Samuel had no money so would go to prison for two months, a lesson for him perhaps. His uncle assured the court that once he came out he would be taken to the country, so ‘he might be removed from his evil associates’.

In other words, he would have a chance to start over – a chance not often extended to the offspring of London’s poorer classes. Let’s hope Samuel took it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 10, 1870]

An American Private I at Bow Street, on the trail of silk smugglers

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In the mid 1870s America was still recovering from the horrors of its civil war. Its president was the victorious Union general, Ulyssess S. Grant, serving his second term after an election which the Democrats did not field their own candidate. It was less than century, of course, from the War of Independence but America now enjoyed fairly good relations with its former colonial master, Great Britain. The two countries even had an extradition agreement after 1870, which allowed the USA to request the return of suspected offenders against US law so long as it could provide prima facie evidence of the person’s alleged guilt.

Which is why, in April 1875, the Bow Street Police Court was visited by a celebrated New York private detective, James Mooney, who was on the trail of a gang involved in smuggling contraband goods through US customs.

In 1872 Mooney and sheriff John Boland had set up a detective agency at 176 Broadway, New York, with the specific purpose of investigating business fraud. In 1874 they were hired by some prominent NYC merchants to look into falling silk prices that they suspected were being caused by an influx of cheap, untaxed materials on the US market.* Over the next few years they chased down smuggling operations all over the US, Canada, Europe and Britain.

In April 1875 Mooney appeared at Bow Street with a request to extradite Charles Lewis Lawrence. The case had  been delayed several times while evidence was being prepared but when it finally came before Sir Thomas Henry the charge laid was that Lawrence had used forged bonds to ‘pass goods through the customs at much lower duty than ought to have been imposed’.

In practice what thus meant was that Lawrence had set up a dummy company, Blanding & Co., and created fake labels for boxes of silk. The silk was labelled as cotton which drew a much lower duty ($18,000 lower in fact) than silk. One or two boxes containing cotton were then sent through customs for examination and the rest were waived through, allowing the American marked to be swamped with cheap silk. The whole operation anted to a fraud valued at ‘upwards of half a million dollars’.

Mooney, an Irishman who, like so many had emigrated to New York as a young man in search of a new life, was able to bring a number of witnesses to court to support his application. Frederick Brooks,  a US customs clerk, confirmed that there was no such firm as Blandings and a London-based handwriting expert, Mr Netherclift, testified that the forged bonds were indeed written by Lawerence.

The private detective explained that he had tracked 10 cases of ‘so-called cotton’ that had arrived in New York on the Pomerania merchant vessel. A customs officer named Des Anges had assigned just one of them for inspection. This one contained cotton, the others silk. Mooney found the crates in a  warehouse and seized them, arresting Des Anges in the process.

Lawrence had been caught on a ship leaving Dublin bound for London from America and the detective sergeant, Edward Shore, that took him into custody found a damning piece of evidence on his person. This was a note from Des Anges which read:

‘All is up. I am followed, and you are followed. Export all you can, and leave me to save myself’.

None of the evidence presented in court was challenged by Lawrence’s lawyer, Mr Lewis, but when the prosecution had finished its presentation he rose and addressed the magistrate. He explained that while he had not chosen to cross-examine the witnesses this was not because his client accepted the ‘facts’, merely that ‘the question of guilty or not guilty was not to be decided by this court’. All that the Bow Street court had to decide was whether he should be extradited.

Sir Thomas was satisfied that a prima facie [lit. “on the face of it”] case had been established; there was sufficient cause to send Lawrence for trial so he granted the extradition request. However, he added that in accordance with British law the American would be committed to a house of detention for 14 days. Lawrence ‘asked to be sent back at once’ (presumably not keen on experiencing any more British hospitality) but the magistrate refused.

Mooney & Boland were one of several US detective agencies, the most famous of which of course was Alan Pinkerton’s which still exists (if in a  slightly different capacity). James Mooney died in March 1892 at the age of 44. He moved his NYC office to Chicago where he was involved in a number of very successful investigations of business related fraud. The firm continued to operate well into the next century from its Chicago offices.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 16, 1875]

*Andrew Wender Cohen, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century, (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

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Yesterday myself and a colleague from the University of Northampton visited the London Academy school in Edgware to talk to their Sixth form students about Chartism (a topic they are study for A level history). We found them to be a very engaged and articulate group of young people, who had some firm opinions about the world they live in.

The Charter  was supported by several petitions to parliament and its signatories demanded 6 things from the government of the day:

  • a vote for all men (over 21)
  • the secret ballot 
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

All but one of these are now things we pretty much take for granted but in the 1830s they were deemed quite revolutionary.

The Chartists knew the value of good media and had to put up with some very biased reporting which portrayed them as alternatively dangerous and violent, or inept and disorganised. The Chartist Land Scheme was ridiculed and those responsible  for the Newport Rising in November 1839 harshly punished.

On 2 February 1839 James Thompson began publication of a short-lived 4 page newspaper that reported the Chartist movement from a positive perspective. Unlike some more famous organs of Chartism The Chartist was cheap (at 2 and half pence), so arguably it had the potential to be more accessible to working people.

It seems to have existed briefly though (it died out in July of 1839, at the end of the Chartist Convention), and it seems Thompson  was very concerned at the actions of so-called ‘physical force’ Chartists that dominated the news agenda after riots in Birmingham following the general strike of that year (the so-called ‘sacred month’).

In February 1839 The Chartist reported the goings on at the London Police Courts just like every other paper did. At Mansion House a ‘dejected man’ named Thomas Lee was presented to the magistrate by the police as a returned convict.

Lee had been picked up by a City of London copper (PC 133) when he found him ‘loitering around the neighbourhood of Watling-street’. The Lord Mayor criticised the policeman; telling him he had ‘exceeded his duty’ by arresting a man for doing nothing.

The officer’s sergeant now interjected to say that he had instructed his man to detain Lee because he had seen him going into shop and suspected he was a thief. At the station the man had told the sergeant that he was a ‘returned convict’ and had only recently arrived back in England from Australia.

‘Is that true, prisoner?’ asked the Lord Mayor.

‘Yes, my lord, it is’.

‘How did you get back?’ asked the justice.

Lee replied that he had worked his passage on a ship.

Now the clerk asked him how long ago he had been sentenced. It was eight years previously Lee explained. Did he have a discharge order? No, he didn’t.

The Lord Mayor was clearly perturbed by this. If he had no papers how was he to know that he hadn’t escaped from his sentence of transporttaion (rare as it was to escape from Australia, unlike the Americas in the previous century)?

Lee said nothing.

The sergeant informed the court that Lee had originally been convicted in Cornwall and  added that the prisoner had admitted that he was so destitute if was quite likely to commit a crime that would have seen him transported again anyway.

The magistrate ordered a message to be sent to Cornwall to check the validity of the man’s story and sent him to Newgate gaol in the meantime. Did Lee have to make the long journey back to Oz? I’m afraid I will have to leave that to someone else. If he had he may well have met with some of the ringleaders at Newport. Following their trial at the Shire Hall in Monmouth John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced  to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for them this was commuted to transportation for life.

We asked the pupils at the London Academy for their six points and among their responses were the abolition of university fees, better opportunities for graduate employment and the lowering of the voting age to 17. All of these are sensible ‘demands’ (as were the Chartists’) and demonstrate that 17 year-olds can identify with politics outside of party and we should probably trust them with the franchise in the way that working men demanded to be trusted in the 1830s and 40s.

[from The Chartist, Saturday, February 2, 1839]