The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

green-street-bethnal-green-1851

There was a market for pretty much anything stolen in the Victorian period. Today we are familiar with the character of ‘knock-off Nigel‘ who sells ‘dodgy’ DVDs and electrical equipment in the local pub, but the trade in stolen property is timeless. Victorian London had a well-established second hand clothes trade, and pawn shops allowed the honsest (and dishonest) to pledge items in return for cash. In recent years we have seen an increase in the mdoern version of pawnbrokers – stores like Cash Converters have appeared on many high streets.

While thieves stole almost anything they could in the 1800s some things were cleary worth more – or were more salebale – than others. Cash was easily used, and had to trace back to the owner; watches were valauble, but much more easily identified. Handkerchiefs were easy to pinch, but you had to steal a lot of them to make any real money; larger goods (burgled from homes) might make a much better return but the risks were greater.

Edward Phillips and Samuel Prior were opportunistic thieves. The two lads (aged about 17 or 18) were stopped late one evening in April 1877 by two detectives in the East End. When they were intercepted on York Street, Bethnal Green, Phillips was carrying a carpet bag. The policemen searched it and found a brass door plate and one from a window, which was  tarnished, as if it had been in a fire.

The door plate was engraved ‘Miller and Co. Wine Merchants’, and so certainly seemed not to belong to the teenagers. They were arrested and enquiries were made.

The door plate had been taken from the wine merchants’ premises in Welbeck Street, while the brass window surround (which had been broken into four pieces to fit in the bag) came from the Brown Bear public house in Worship Street, Finsbury.

When the lads were searched at the station officers found ‘a knife, a screw-driver, and a pocket-pistol’. The bag had also been stolen. The pair admitted their crimes rather than face potentially more serious punishment at the Old Bailey. Their were probably intending to trade in the metal for money but on this occasion they had been foiled; the Worship Street Police magistarte sent the to prison for six months, with hard labour.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 5, 1877]

 

Exposed – a profitable trade in stolen dogs in Victorian London

 
Rat-baiting6

In June 2016 the BBC reported that the theft of pet dogs was on the rise. Figures showed that over 100 dogs were being stolen in England and Wales each month, an increase in the past two years of around 22%. The loss of a pet is distressing and the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that this is taken into account by the courts, presumably in sentencing. Like many things of course, there is nothing new in animals being pinched, nor in the close relationship between the British and our pets.

In April 1873 the editor of the Morning Post chose to feature two dog thefts as part of his paper’s coverage of the metropolitan police courts.

At Marlborough Street a young man named Walter Handley, who said he was  a poulterer, appeared in court accused of stealing a French poodle. The dog belonged to Captain Randolph Stewart, who had a fashionable address at 85 Eaton Place, Pimlico. The dog was a pedigree and valued at the princely sum of £50 (or over £2,000 today).

The captain told Mr Knight, the sitting magistrate, that the dog had gone missing on the 17 March. He had reported it stolen to the police at Vine Street but 10 days later it had come home on its own. Meanwhile Sir John Sebright, a broker in Bond Street was sold a dog at Leadenhall Market. The man selling it was identified as the prisoner, Handley, who had asked £20 for it. Sir John paid him just £10 and took the dog home with him, giving it into the care of his butler.

That was on the 21st March but in less than a week the animal had escaped and made it way back to its original owner. The captain then visited Sir John to explain that the dog was his and that it had returned home. The mystery of how Captain Stewart came to visit the man that had bought his dog is explained by the actions of the police.

Today it is very unlikely that the police will give over much if any time to investigating the theft of family pets unless it is connected to a more serious case of dog smuggling. In 1873 however a detective was assigned to look for the captain’s missing poodle. Did the fact that this was an expensive pedigree dog belonging to a bona fide ‘gentleman’ influence their actions? Or was it because the theft of digs was often connected to an illegal dog fighting and betting circle that involved more serious forms of criminality?

Detective-sergeant Butcher of C Division investigated the theft and presumably introduced Captain Stewart and Sir John. When the latter explained how he had come by the dog he accompanied him to Leadenhall Market and they found Walter Handley. Sir John told him he had sold him a stolen dog and asked him for his money back. Walter panicked and tried to run off, unsuccessfully.

In court he told Mr Knight that he had bought the dog himself from another man (who, of course, he could not identify). The poor animal had been shaved to make it harder to trace, and when Handley was searched at Vine Street the police had found a piece of liver on him. This was termed ‘pudding’ DS Butcher told the magistrate, and was commonly used to tempt dogs into the clutches of thieves. The detective added that Handley had been seen ‘in the company of dog-stealers, one of who had only just come out of prison after being their for 18 months’. Dogs were often stolen to be used in fights or for rat baiting, he said. This one was not destined for the pits however, its value was as a luxury pet.

Captain Stewart had been determined to prosecute he said, because several of his friends had lost animals to thieves in recent months, and he wanted to stop the trade in stolen dogs. So did the magistrate, he found Handley guilty and sent him to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Westminster Police Court another serial offender was produced, but he had a much better outcome than Walter Handley. Charles Burdett was well known to the police and the courts; the court reporter even described him as ‘an old dog stealer’.  Burdett, who was from Bethnal Green, was accused of stealing a ‘valuable Russian retriever dog’ from a gentleman in South Kensington.

A few days after the dog disappeared a note was delivered to the owner’s house at 7 Cromwell Road. The missive was opened by the butler on behalf of his employer, Mr Reiss, and he followed the instructions which were to pay £10 for the safe return of the animal. Accordingly the butler went to a pub in Bishopsgate Street, met with Burdett and handed over the money. Burnett vanished almost immediately while the dog just as miraculously appeared.

The police soon caught up with Burdett and he was, like Walter Handley, accused of theft. The court was told he had a string of convictions and had served time in prison. This time, however, the magistrate was uncomfortable with the procedure. He suggested that the previous convictions appeared to be suspect, and he could not proceed against Burdett under the charge that had been laid. He decided to convict him under the Police Act which allowed him to level a fine £20 or 3 months imprisonment. Burnett ‘heartedly thanked his worship’, paid his fine, and ‘left the dock smiling at his lucky escape and rubbing his hands’.

It would seem then, that dog stealing was just as prevalent in the 1800s as it is today and that it was a lucrative industry; so lucrative in fact that a criminal like Burdett could afford to pay the odd hefty fine.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 18, 1873]

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

fuller-street

The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured over time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas, who was described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man’.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place’.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set two work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on’.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

‘She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded’.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. He also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through  a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

Wentworth Street 1895 postcard

Middlesex Street (‘Petticoat Lane’) market c.1894

On most occasions London’s police  magistrates (men from a legal background with clear middle class roots) upheld the law the of the land without question. Men like Mr Lushington at Thames had little time for petty thieves, drunken brawlers, or wife beaters and dealt with then swiftly and dismissively. But now and then they displayed a level of good sense tinged with human kindness that reminds us that they were, as justices had been for hundreds of years, figures of authority whose overriding role was to maintain social cohesion in their communities, as far as that was possible.

Worship Street Police court (along with Thames) served the poor districts of the East End of London. Here were the overcrowded dwellings of tens of thousands of native and immigrant working-class Londoners, many living in what Charles Booth had identified as poverty. Here was the crime and degradation that Victorian ‘slummers’ went to gawp at on their visits to the area, here too were the dirty trades of slaughter men and tanners that had made their home in the east since medieval times. This was Whitechapel and Spitalfields and the killing grounds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who preyed on the ‘unfortunates’ who plied their desperate trade on its ill-lit streets.

It is easy to depict the East End as down trodden and degenerate – and that is almost always the picture that emerges from contemporary reporters and later historians – but while the poverty and overcrowding was very real, so was the famed East End spirit and toughness. Nor was the entire area poor and forgotten. Booth’s poverty maps reveal plenty of ‘red’ streets where ‘respectable’ traders and the middle classes lived and worked. The Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army were active and local priests like Canon Barnett worked amongst their ‘flocks’.

There was also a vibrant street culture, which centred around the markets in Wentworth Street and ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street), which catered for all the ethnicities and pockets in the East End.

Markets, however, were also a bone of contention because the traders who set up their stalls, and stood individually elsewhere, often competed for use of the streets with other road users. The job of the keeping the streets clear for traffic and so moving on these traders – London’s costermongers – fell to the parish officials and then to the police.

As Stephen Inwood has shown, from their earliest days the Metropolitan Police soon released that resources meant that they needed to pick their battles. While their middle-class leaders wished them to enforce the law, close down Sunday markets and move on barrows, the local populace resisted and so for the sake of good relations many a blind eye was turned.

In 1889 a representative of the local parish authority appeared at the Worship Street Police court to complain about a number of costermongers who he had summoned to court for obstructing the streets with their barrows and stalls. The cases were heard by Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate.

Mr Besley, on behalf of the parish, told the court that several traders were in the habit of placing their stalls on the streets of Bethnal Green ‘where  a sort of fair was held every Sunday morning’. The market set up early but was often still there long past 11 in the morning. This was an infringement of the by-laws but the police were doing little or nothing about it.

The traders complained that they had been earning their living in this way for years, some for 25 or even 40 years; it was a tradition and the local people approved of it. Mr Besley argued that many of the costers were not ‘local’ at all, but came from other parts of the capital to sell their wares.

Mr Williams said he had himself walked the streets and seen the market, and those at Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street, and saw no harm in it. While it might infringe the by-laws of the parish it was of use.

He was convinced ‘that the people of the neighbourhood found it a great boon to be able to buy food in the markets on Sundays. One heard a great deal about the “Sweating” life led by the East-End poor, and it was precisely those people who, kept at work till midnight perhaps, needed to get their food on a Sunday’.

He thought that the vestry were being rather hard on the traders and while he recognised that laws were laws a little discretion was in order for the people of the area. He declared that the ‘people of the East End had a harder time of it than any class in the Metropolis, and therefore required an exceptional kindness’.

Mr Besley went off frustrated, quite possibly muttering under his his breath.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 14, 1889]

An echo of Oliver Twist in Bethnal Green

oliver_twist_03

If you are familiar with the plot of Oliver Twist you will remember that young Oliver is bound as an apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker, by the magistrate (who takes pity on the boy and saves him from the clutches of the brutish chimneysweep, Mr Gamfield). Of course Oliver is far from safe at the Sowerberrys, because of the callous nature of the undertaker’s wife and the other apprentice, Noah Claypole. Eventually Oliver runs away and tramps to London.

Dickens published the first chapter of Oliver Twist in 1837 (the year Queen Victoria came to the throne) and – as a former court reporter himself – he drew upon his experiences and those of the people he observed in the courts, debtors prisons, and workhouses of early Victorian London.

At the every end of 1839 the sitting justice at Lambeth Street Police Court, Mr Hardwick, heard an application to apprentice a pauper boy (just like Oliver) to a silk weaver in Spitalfields. The application was made by the Beadle of St George’s in the East whose name was not Bumble, but Overton. He wanted the boy off the parish books (and therefore its costs) and apprenticed to a weaver so he could earn a useful trade.

However, the Beadle of Bethnal Green, a man named Christie, appeared in court to object to the application. He told Mr Hardwick that the local silk weavers (the descendants of the Huguenot refugees that had fled persecution in France after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked  the  Edict of Nantes) were in a parlous state. The weavers had prospered in the East End until their monopoly on trade began to unravel in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s many of them were facing desperate times.

Christie told the court that in the last few weeks the Bethnal Green Poor Law Guardians had been forced to offer relief to 200 families, ‘and of those upwards of 150 were silk weavers’.  The weavers simply could not afford to take on apprentices at this time as there was not enough work to support their families as they were, let alone to feed more hungry mouths. Even if a weaver worked 15 or 16 hours a day he was unable to earn more than 7 or 8 shillings a week (about £17 in today’s money).

The beadle confirmed that the Worship Street magistrates had stopped binding apprentices in the area because of the hardship. Mr Hardwick agreed to the objection and refused to bind the lad, sending him back to the workhouse. The poor law guardians would have to wait for an improvement in the local economy if they were going to get their ‘Olivers’ off the books.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 1, 1840]

A working-class method of saving one’s money from the clutches of the Poor Law Guardians

On this day in 1860 the newspapers reported the case of an elderly lady who went to ask the advice of the Lambeth Police magistrate, Mr. Elliot. Her behaviour puzzled the justice but reveals  an often hidden aspect of the Victorian Poor Law.

Mrs Till (who was probably widowed and alone) told Mr. Elliot that on 4th April she had pledged 8s with a pawnbroker for sixpence. The magistrate was baffled; why would she handover 8 shillings only to take 6 pennies in return?

Mrs Till explained:

‘The fact was, your Worship, that I was going into the workhouse, and knowing that the money would be taken from me I adopted that manner of securing it’.

In effect then, rather than pawning her money she had deposited it – much like we might do in a savings account, but one that could not be touched by the authorities and used to pay for her care.

The court usher backed up what the ‘aged’ woman was saying. He told the court that when paupers entered the workhouse they were stripped and their clothes washed. Any money found on them was ‘appropriated to their support’. The sixpence that Mrs Till had she could hide in her mouth so the inspectors didn’t find it.

This struck me as rather like the dilemma that the elderly and their families have today when they are in need of full-time care in a home or with social care visits. Someone who has the means the pay will be expected to do so; thus all their savings (that they may have earmarked for their children and grandchildren) is used up in supporting them and their care. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily wrong, but the person who makes provision for old age and its unforeseen eventualities can be seemingly treated ‘unfairly’ by comparison to those who don’t.

In this case Mrs Till had come out of the workhouse and was now having trouble getting her money back. She explained that the pawnbroker was denying her the money because she could not state exactly which coins constituted the eight shillings she had pledged.

Mr Dixon, the usher, thought he could resolve this. He was familiar with the pawnbroker who was a ‘respectable’ man and, with his Worship’s leave, he said he would speak to him and get the money back. Mr Elliot agreed.

Also on this day a Joseph Grout reappeared at Guildhall Police Court on a charge of burglary. A trimming-maker from Slater Street in Bethnal Green was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey, and bail was refused on the grounds that he had previous convictions for receiving stolen goods.

In the week that Peter Vaughan died I was reminded of his character Harry Grout (better known as ‘Grouty’) in Porridge.

grouty

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 10, 1864]