A captain deploys desperate measures to keep the cheesemongers from his door.

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On the morning of Thursday 29 November 1877 the Wandsworth Police Court was full of shopkeepers and traders keen to witness the outcome of a case brought by one of their number, a cheesemonger on the High Street. Henry Lickfield had brought a charge of assault against one of his customers while another businessman, Mr Barrantz (another cheese monger) charged the same individual with fraud.

The defendant was Captain Edward Miller who lived at Spencer Road in Putney. The court heard that Captain Miller had ordered a leg of pork and 3lbs of sausages to be delivered to his residence. The goods were duly supplied but when the bill wasn’t paid Lickfield called on the captain in person to demand his money.

However when he knocked on the door no one answered. He tried again and this time a servant answered but refused to open the door. Finally he tried shouting through the letter box. As he attempted to get the attention of the household a lighted firebrand was thrust through the letter box towards him, striking him in the face!

Captain Miller was represented in court by a lawyer who offered a different version of events. He suggested that when Mr Lickfield’s assistant had called earlier he had been told that Mrs Miller would settle the bill on the following day and he had gone away. He denied any violence towards the cheese monger and said that he had no need to come in person, and that he should have waited for the money to be paid as promised.

The household was ‘alarmed’ by the repeated knocking on the door and no tradesman had the ‘right to recover their debts by a system of tyranny’, he insisted. Mrs Miller was ill and ‘the prisoner did nothing but protect himself’.

The magistrate, Mr Bridge, accepted the charge of assault and bailed the captain to appear at the next sessions of the peace.

The case then turned on the next accusation, of fraud. It was claimed by Mr Barrantz, that the Millers had ordered ‘one of the best hares to be sent to his house, to be paid for on delivery’. Again the goods were supplied but not paid for. Clearly Mr Barranz had done business with the Millers before and said he would not have sent the hares if there hadn’t been a promise to be paid on receipt.  He therefore charged Captain Miller with a fraudulent intent. Mr Bridge didn’t see it that way however. This was simply an unpaid bill not a deliberate attempt to defraud and he dismissed the charge.

Nevertheless I suspect the mere appearance of the captain in court was enough to ruin his reputation in his local community. The court was packed with local businessmen, all come to see ‘justice’ for a fellow tradesman. They would surely be reluctant to offer credit to the Millers in future and given the associations with credit and reputation this was social suicide for the captain and his wife. Unless they settled their bills quickly, or moved away they could hardly hope to hold their heads up in the streets around Wandsworth in future. As for the assault charge, while it was likely to end in a financial settlement (some compensation to Mr Lickfield) it was another example of the desperation of the family and further evidence to anyway dealing with them that they were best avoided.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, November 30, 1877]

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A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

An absent minded book thief at Euston

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Emma Hawkins clearly loved books. In fact she sometimes became so caught up in the reading of books that she quite forgot where she was, or even that the books might not belong to her.

The housewife from Rickmansworth was visiting London one afternoon in November 1886 and, whilst waiting for her return train was browsing the second-hand section at W.H.Smith’s bookstall at Euston Station. Seeing something she liked she took it over to the counter and paid a shilling for it.

Having acquired a cheap novel for the journey home she set off to catch the 4.45 which was making ready to depart. She stepped up onto the train and was about to settle down in her seat when a man approached her.

Edward Mallett was the chief clerk at W. H. Smith’s and he had been watching Emma whilst she browsed the book stall. He had seen her select a number of titles, picking them up and placing them back again, before she took one and put it in her bag. He felt sure he’s seen her steal and so had followed her to her train.

Mallett demanded that she open her bag and let him the contents. Inside were three books, the one she’d paid for and two others that she hadn’t. He’d only seen her pinch one but all three were his stock.

She pleaded with him not to take it further, offering to pay ‘double the amount’ for the books. He declined and handed her over to a policeman and she was brought before the Police magistrate at Marylebone to answer for the theft.

Detective-sergeant Hunt, who was employed by the London and North-Western Railway, told Mr De Rutzen that she had admitted the theft when arrested. He told the court that she had:

‘a box and a bag with her, in which [the] Witness found eight books, some of them from two libraries in London. There were also some new silk handkerchiefs and a long list of articles’.

So had Emma been on a shopping or  stealing spree in the capital? Her husband insisted it was not the latter. His wife, he explained, was easily distracted and ‘he was sure absentmindedness would explain her conduct’.

‘She had taken a book from a shop, and was about to go away with it without having paid for it’, he said, ‘so engrossed was she in the contents of the volume, and he had to remind her that she had not paid for it’.

It was a fairly weak defence and Mr De Rutzen was not inclined to accept it at face value. However, nor did he wish to remand an otherwise respectable woman in prison. If she and her husband could provide two sureties to the value of £20 then he was prepared to bail her to appear at a later date once further evidence had been collected.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 18, 1886]

A young man is ‘saved’ by a clever use of the legal system

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A curious case today, where the intention of the prosecutor may well have been something quite different than it at first appeared.

The defendant was a woman named Mary Ann Downes and she had been brought to the Marlborough Street Police Court on a charge of assault. Two gentlemen had first presented themselves before Mr Dyer the sitting justice, to request a warrant. One of the men explained that his brother:

‘a young man of rather weak intellect, had got connected with the woman, and had left his friends, who were persons of station and property, to live with this woman, who so completely got him under control that she will take care that he will have no intercourse with his relatives’.

I’m sure it was not the first or the last time that a young man friends and family had taken exception to his choice of partner, but he was over age (22) and quite able, one would think, to decide things for himself. Unless that is, the term ‘weak intellect’ suggested that he was more seriously mentally ill or particularly stupid.

Either way the two men were determined to separate their friend and brother from the woman and turned up at his house at 8 Bidborough Street in a post chaise with the intention of taking him away to the country. Mary Ann was having none of it however.She remonstrated with them and would not let them in; when they pressed their case she hit them.

Perhaps this was their intention all along because now they had a case for accusing her of assault and Mr Dyer issued the warrant.  A hackney carriage was despatched – this time with an officer of the court (Mr Carter) on board – to execute the warrant and bring Mary Ann in.

Sometime later it returned with the accused woman and a very disheveled officer. Carter  was ‘in a violent perspiration, and the woman’s dress and appearance indicated that a severe struggle between them had occurred’. This had been no easy arrest.

Carter, on oath, told the court that Mary Ann had resisted arrest and had put up such a struggle that he was forced to call a policeman to help him. Mr Dyer turned to the woman and demand to know why she had assaulted the officer.

‘I did not know what he came for’ she replied.

‘I exhibited the warrant’ grumbled the officer, clearly still suffering from the encounter with this formidable woman.

‘You did not’, she retorted, ‘you pulled and dragged me about very much, and would not let me lock up my drawers or my drawing room’. She then added: ‘the warrant was for the purpose of getting me out of the way, so they might take away my husband, Mr Downes, who is not capable of taking care of himself or his property’.

Mary Ann was described as ‘bony and thin’ and an ‘altogether vulgar character’. Her age was put at 35 so she was much older than her ‘husband’ (if they were indeed married). The magistrate bailed her for the assault but noted that the two men who had requested the warrant had not returned to prosecute. In all likelihood Mary Ann was correct in her accusation that the warrant was a ruse; regardless of whether she had hit or assaulted anyone the two gentlemen had used the summary court system to extricate a young man from a domestic situation   that they clearly believed was detrimental to his health, wealth and social position.

One can only imagine the fury that Mary Ann Downes might unleash if she ever got to see him or the two men ever again.

[from The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, Sunday, September 2, 1838]

A heckler gets ejected from the Old Vic

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The Coburg Theatre c.1820 (renamed  the Victoria after 1832)

In modern times actors have had to deal with noises and interruptions from their audience, some accidental (like the SatNav that started giving directions during a performance I saw in Kilburn), others more deliberate (such as the heckling that provoked Lawrence Fox to react with a  string of expletives). It would seem that heckling in the theatre is nothing new however, as this case from 1847 shows.

In August Robert Dixon appeared in the dock at the Southwark Police Court charged with  ‘making a disturbance in the Victoria Theatre’ and assaulting the constable  on duty. The magistrate heard that during the evening performance ‘a noise was heard from the gallery, which rendered it impossible for the audience to hear what was going forward’.

Murray, the constable, (whether an official Metropolitan police constable or the name given to what we might term ushers is not clear) made his may up in the direction of the disturbance and found Dixon who was:

‘standing up on one of the benches hissing the performance, and doing everything in his power to excite a disturbance , and to prevent the play from going on’.

The constable told him to be quite several times but he was ignored. Eventually he moved in to try and remove him from the auditorium. Dixon wasn’t happy about being ejected and resisted; in fact he resisted so much that it constituted an assault and he was arrested.

In court Robert Dixon was asked to explain himself. He told the justice that he was perfectly justified in expressing his displeasure at the performance he had paid to see. He felt it entirely improper that ‘the constable had dragged him out’.

Constable Murray added that this sort of disturbance was quite common in the theatre. There were ‘a number of young fellows like the defendant [who] were in the habit of frequenting the gallery, and out of mere wantonness interrupting the performance’.

The magistrate agreed that it was outrageous behaviour and had to be ‘repressed’ as he put it. He decided to send Dixon for a jury trial at the next sessions and asked him to find bail. If he was unable to do so he would have to go to gaol in the meantime. This didn’t go down well with the young man. He complained that he had already been ‘locked up since ten o’clock the night before, and he thought that was punishment enough for hissing an actor’.

The magistrate ignored his plea and Dixon’s father came forward to post bail for his son. I imagine the outcome would have been that Dixon would have had to promise to keep the peace, and possibly avoid the theatre for a period of time; entering into a personal recognisance (or one supplied by his family) to enforce it.

The Victoria Theatre (called the Coburg until it was acquired by Egerton in 1832) was on the New Cut and we know it as the ‘Old Vic’. According to an advert in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper the entertainment that Dixon was objecting to might have been part of variety show that included the Tremont American Serenaders (who sang ‘Ethiopian melodies’) , a magician named King, and a demonstration of a chromatrope. It would only have cost him 3d (75p) to sit in the gallery.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 11, 1847; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, August 8, 1847]

Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]

Montagu Williams and the case of the stolen fur cloaks – not one of his greatest triumphs

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Montagu Williams, by ‘Spy’, Vanity Fair, (1879)

At the beginning of August 1876 Harriet Sutcliffe stood in the dock at Marylebone Police Court accused of stealing four expensive fur trimmed velvet cloaks. Harriet was a 52 year-old ‘wardrobe dealer’ and the cloaks she was supposed to have pinched belonged to Messers. Marshall & Snelgrove, silk mercers on Oxford Street.

The charge was a serious one and the complainants had deep pockets. To prosecute the theft they had hired Montagu Williams, a prominent barrister in his day. Williams would later (in 1886) become a Police Magistrate himself before taking silk two years afterwards. He died after a period of illness in 1892 but has left us his reminiscences in two volumes, one of which (Leaves of a Life, 1890) I picked up in a bookshop in Hay of Wye at the weekend.

In late 1876  Williams was hired to defend a nobleman, Count Henry de Tourville, who was accused of murdering his wife in Austria a year earlier. According to Williams’ story* the charge was that De Tourville had killed his wife Madeline ‘by pushing her over a precipice in the Stelvio Pass of the Austrian Tyrol’. The motive was deemed to be financial as the pair had only recently married and the former Mrs Miller owned a ‘considerable fortune’ estimated by Williams at over £65,000 (or around £3,000,000 today – worth killing for perhaps).

The tale reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery but Williams doesn’t seem to have been able to affect matters. The count was presented at Bow Street before the magistrate Mr Vaughan who (having listened to a great deal of evidence that demonstrated that he certainly had a case to answer) committed him for trial. The count was extradited to Austria, tried and duly convicted of murder.

He was also accused of poisoning his first wife (with powdered glass in her coffee, something alluded to in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 masterpiece Decline and Fall), attempting to burn down his own house with his only child in it, and, finally, with shooting his mother-in-law.  De Tourville was sentenced to death but reprieved on condition he spend the rest of his days ‘working as a slave in the [Austrian] salt mines’.

Given that Williams had such tales as this to regale his audience with it is hardly surprising he overlooked the case of a fifty-something second-hand clothes merchant accused of stealing items from a  major high street store.

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There were three lawyers in the Marylebone court that day, Williams (who had been instructed by Messrs. Humphreys and Morgan), Mr Beesley, who appeared for the defence, and Mr Grain who represented the interests of a mantle manufacturer named James Cruse. Cruse was the man who had made the cloaks (mantles) and so Grain was probably there to provide evidence on behalf of his client as to the value of the items.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, listened to the case presented by Williams and the defence offered by Beesley that the items had been legally acquired and that there was little chance that a jury would convict her of theft on what he had heard. The magistrate decided to send the case to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) but allowed bail for Mrs Sutcliffe which he set at £300 (plus two sureties of £150 each). Montage Williams advised the magistrate that a warrant had been issued to find the defendant’s husband who seems to have had something to do with the supposed theft; so far however, he was lying low.

I rather suspect the evidence was as weak as Mr Beesley adjudged it to be because despite a series of separate searches I can’t find the case in the Old Bailey. Maybe that is why Montagu Williams chose not to immortalise it in print.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1876]

*Montagu Williams, Leaves of a Life, (1890, 1899 edition) pp.208-212