The return of Harry Harcourt – an imposter or a genuine man in need?

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In the boiler room of a Victorian steam ship

On Wednesday I featured the story of Henry Harcourt who had claimed he was deaf and dumb and presented himself at the Lambeth workhouse casual ward seeking shelter. There he suddenly blurted out that he could in fact speak (and hear) but had closed off the world while serving as a stoker on a voyage to and from Australia. To the surprise of everyone in the Lambeth Police court he also claimed to be a relation the sitting Home Secretary, Sir Vernon Harcourt.

Henry was remanded in custody so that enquiries could be made into his history to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. Two days later the papers reported that he was back up before Mr Chance at Lambeth for the latest developments to be revealed.

Police constable 110L took the stand to tell Mr Chance that he’d discovered that Harcourt had been a barman then, working with his aunt, and she didn’t remember him having any difficulties speaking or hearing then. That was in 1877 he confirmed, just six years earlier.

The magistrate now turned to Harcourt in the dock to ask him to explain his situation.

‘Do you seriously say now that you have pretended to be deaf and dumb for 14 years?

‘Yes, to all but my immediate friends’, replied the former stoker/barman.

So how did he manage on board the ship, Mr Chance wanted to know.

‘I only spoke to those attending the fires. The persons on board thought I was deaf and dumb’.

‘I am very sorry for what I have done’ Harcourt added.

The court heard that he had written down requests for food on pieces of paper so as to maintain his ruse with his fellow shipmates but could offer no real explanation for why he acted this way. Mr Chance was clearly dissatisfied with his answer and equally determined to get to the bottom of it. Was there anyone who could shed any light on the case, he asked?

The police constable that had investigated Harcourt’s background said the aunt was loathe to come forward to testify and added that she was a woman of independent means. There was a declaration from Harcourt that he was entitled to some family money from a will but nothing was at all clear. Mr Chance said he needed to hear directly from Harcourt’s aunt and remanded him in custody once more.

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing’, the magistrate concluded, ‘and I cannot help thinking there is something more than has already come to light’.

Whether there was, and whether it was reported, you will have to wait to find out later this week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 01, 1883]

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A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

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Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]

No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster

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In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

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

‘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

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

Recently acquired wealth attracts the wrong sort of customers to a Bermondsey pub

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Bermondsey in a contemporary map (Map of London, by W=Edward Weller, 1868)

This blog has discussed the Australian gold rush in previous post (see One drink led to another… for an example) and despite the distance it seems many people were prepared to make the long journey in the hope of seeking a fortune in mineral wealth. Frederick Palmer was one such man and in September 1856 he was recently returned from ‘the gold diggings’ to his pub in Bermondsey, south London.

Palmer’s wealth was in the form of a £102 exchequer bill and a £20 bank of England note. This was a considerable  amount of money, – £140 in 1852 is equivalent to about £8,000 today. On the 3rd September Mrs Palmer ran the establishment, the Bricklayers Arms at number 11 Webb Street* while her husband was out an about on other business.

At around 1 or 1.30 that day two men entered the pub and drew Mrs Palmer’s attention. Both were well-dressed and to her eyes had the look of members of the ‘swell-mob’, a contemporary descriptor for ‘professional’ criminals that liked to flaunt their relative wealth through a conscious display of fashion.

Having drunk some ale one of the pair approached the landlady and asked if they might use the private ‘club room’ upstairs to ‘contract some business’. Before she let them upstairs Mrs Palmer made sure she had secured the valuable paper money her husband had left in her care inside a locked drawer in the bedroom. She also locked the bedroom door just in case.

Having taken the two men more beer upstairs Mrs Palmer’s brother (a Mr Willis) was surprised to see the pair return to the saloon and quickly leave the premises within fifteen minutes. Suspecting foul play he immediately told his sister to run and check that all was as it should be upstairs. It wasn’t and she was soon back downstairs declaring that the bedroom door had been forced and all her drawers turned out – not surprisingly the cheque and £20 note were missing. Good news travels fast and I wonder if the Palmers’ sudden acquisition of wealth had attracted some unwelcome local attention.

Willis rushed off in pursuit of the men and soon overpowered one of them, William Granger, in Bermondsey Street. The other man escaped but the police were looking for him. Appearing in Southwark Police Court three weeks later they had still not managed to catch the other suspect, nor had the police succeeded in finding the missing money. However, PC 155M told the presiding justice (Mr Coombe) that if Granger were to be again remanded if was confident that their enquiries would eventually bear fruit. He added that Granger was ‘well known as connected to with a gang of the swell mob who had recently plundered taverns and public houses all over the kingdom’. Presented with this ‘evidence’ Mr Coombe was quite happy to grant the request for a remand.

Whether the money or the other man was found is not clear. Granger was remanded until the following Tuesday (23 September) when three cases were reported (a ‘smoke nuisance’, a case of juvenile theft, and the robbery of ‘an old countryman’) but there was no mention of Granger. As with so many of the people mentioned in the police court reports William Granger disappears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 18, 1856]

*on the corner with Tower Bridge Road – the pub is no longer there.

‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]