A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

Daring burglars nabbed by a DC near the Duke of Wellington’s London home.

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Piccadilly, near Green Park, in 1897

In the early hours of the morning of the 27 April 1889 Detective constable William Wyers (294 C) had stationed himself in a secluded spot at the corner of Piccadilly and St George’s Place; from here he could watch Piccadilly and the homes of the wealthy that lived there.

In the Victorian period the crime that most exercised the queen’s subjects, after murder of course, was burglary. The papers were filled with reports of burgled premises and with advertisements for preventing intruders from entering your home. This was also the period that saw the birth of home contents insurance as homeowners sought to protect themselves from the supposed legions of ‘Bill Sikes’ and his ilk.

As DC Wyers watched he saw three men approaching a house at number 146 Piccadilly, adjacent in fact to where the Ritz Hotel is today.* He saw one of the men enter the gates of 146 and climb the steps to the front door. The man tried the door and seemed to fiddle with (perhaps to see it was unlocked). Finding it secure he retreated, climbed over the railings and lit a match, and waited a moment or two. From a distance Wyers couldn’t be completely sure what he was up to.

The ‘burglar’ then went back to the other men and slowly, and in single file, they each approached the property. The man (who was later established to be Arthur Thiviot, a stoker living on the Charing Cross Road) went back over the railings followed by one of his mates (William Booty, a porter ‘of no fixed abode’). While they did this the last man (John Pegg, a Soho printer) stayed back to keep watch.

None of them had noticed the detective constable however. DC Wyers took advantage of a passing hansom cab and jumped on to the back spring, hitching a ride towards them. He alighted opposite Apsley House, the London home of the Duke of Wellington. This now placed him behind the men and he crept on all fours to avoid being seen by the lookout Pegg.

Unfortunately for Wyers he wasn’t as careful as he might have been. Pegg saw him and whistled to alert the others. They ran for it, rushing across Piccadilly and into Hamilton Place, with the policeman in hot pursuit. Wyers caught Thiviot and Booty and cornered them in a doorway. Pegg was known to the police so the DC called him by name and ‘ordered him to stop’, which he did.

He asked Thiviot what he was up and what he had in his pockets. The alleged burglar told him he had nothing on him, and if he was a suspect then the copper better take him back to the station. Wyers thrust his hand into Thiviot’s pocket and produced  dark lantern, a common tool of the burglar.

‘Halloa, what are you doing with this?’ asked Wyers.

‘Oh, its all right Mr Wyers’, replied the stoker, demonstrating that the detective was also well known to the criminal fraternity, ‘I have just left my club. The stairs are very dark where I live , and I brought this lantern to show a light up there’.

It was a fairly pathetic excuse given the circumstances, but I suppose he had to offer something.

Myers grabbed Thiviot and told the others to follow him to the station, warning them that he knew where they lived should they chose to abscond. Thiviot also urged them not to abandon him. As soon as they met with two beat ‘bobbies’ on Piccadilly however, Wyers handed them over and all three were accompanied to the police station.

There all three were searched; Booty and Pegg were clean but Thiviot was found to have ‘a lock picker, a knife and a pair of scissors’ on him. DC Wyers then returned to 146 Piccadilly with Inspector Barrie and they discovered more evidence: a jemmy and marks on the door that suggested Thiviot had tried to force it earlier. They moved on to search Thiviot’s lodgings in Charing Cross Road where they also found a set of keys, ‘and a surgical lance’ (why this was mentioned is unclear, except perhaps to show that he must have stolen it at some point,  why would he have it otherwise?)

In court on the following Monday the Marlborough Street Police magistrate the three were remanded on a  charge of loitering with intent to burgle the home of Mrs Rose Joyce, 146 Piccadilly, London.

The three men went on trial at the Old Bailey in May 1889, but not for the attempted burglary in Piccadilly. Instead they were tried for burgling a warehouse in Charing Cross and the items found on Thiviot (the lantern for example) and the jemmy or chisel found at the scene of the attempted crime in Piccadilly, proved vital in convicting him. All three were found guilty and then admitted a string of previous convictions.

As a result Cheviot was sentenced to penal servitude for six years, the other two for five. The court also aware William Wyers the sum of £2 ‘for the ability he displayed in watching and apprehending the prisoners on another charge, which was not proceeded with’, this being the attempted burglary of Mrs Joyce’s home.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 29, 1889]

*The famous London landmark was not there in 1889 however, as it did not open until 1906.

Another avoidable shooting in Hackney

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Frederick James was an anxious man. He kept a loaded revolver under his pillow in his Cumberland Street address, where he worked as a machine sewer in the shoe trade. There had been several burglaries in recent weeks and Fred, who didn’t trust the banks, kept just under £300 in his room and had the gun as his protection against robbery. But he was also a considerate man; his sister, Annie, lived at the property and she cleaned and cooked for him. He always took the pistol out from under his pillow in the morning and laid it close by him at his desk, so as not to alarm her when she turned the bed down.  Sadly, as we know from bitter experience of hundreds of modern tragedies, owning a gun often means that someone gets hurt or worse, especially when pride and machismo are involved.

James employed two other men – William Tripp and Thomas Hannibal – and took in work from larger operatives. On the 1 April 1872 a man named Charles Starkie turned up at 103 Cumberland Street, (off Great Cambridge Street, Hackney)  as he had done several times before, with a  pair of boots that required repair. As it was 5.15 the men were having their tea and so Starkie chose to wait.

There was clearly some underlying tension between the younger man (Starkie was about 28) and Frederick James (who was 39). The pair quarrelled and a lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. Starkie (according to Annie, Tripp and Hannibal) called the other man a ‘bloody thief’, a ‘bloody rogue, and a bloody shit, and a bloody swine’ (although the word ‘bloody’ was rendered in the Old Bailey Proceedings as ‘b_____’, so as not to give offence to the readers).

It isn’t clear exactly what happened after that but Starkie appears to have been taunting the cobbler, and threatening to take business away from him to give to someone else. It sounds like these were empty threats as James’ team enjoyed the confidence of their suppliers, but Frederick was still angered by the abuse he received.

A scuffle was heard upstairs and it may be that while James tried to walk away from the argument Starkie chose to continue it. Three shots were heard and when Annie and the others went to see what they were about, they found Starkie dead or dying.

When the police arrived – in the person of PC Edward Dunt (152H) – Fred admitted shooting the man but not intentionally. He had fired twice into the wall, which suggests he was either frustrated or wanted to send a strong warning. Starkie, as those in the house later  testified, poured scorn on James, saying he was just firing blanks.

Whether he was or not the third shot hit Starkie, entering his head via the jaw, fracturing his skull and ‘smashing’ his spinal cord. He probably died instantly and was dead before Dr Wallace reached the scene.

PC Dunt told Fred he must come with him to the station. James then asked to be allowed to change his shirt and promised to come quietly. He seemed to be very sorry for what had occurred and this was continued when he appeared some days later in the Worship Street Police Court. The charge was ‘wilful murder’ but there was clearly some doubt surrounding it. At Worship Street, on what was his second appearance his solicitor asked for  further remand so that James would not go before the next sitting of the Old Bailey. The higher court was busy, Mr Straight (the defence solicitor) told Mr Hannay (the magistrate) and it would not be fair to ‘hurry his defence on’ in such circumstances.

Hannah agreed and remanded him for a week, presumably meaning that he missed the sessions. The court reporter described James as looking ‘pale, and as if suffering much from the charge hanging over him’.

As well he might. If he were to be convicted of murder then he was quite likely to hang.

When it came to it however, the Old Bailey jury were lenient. There decided that there was ample evidence of provocation and insufficient evidence of intent. They found him ‘not guilty’ of murder but guilty of the second count of manslaughter. Frederick James escaped the noose and went to prison for 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 10, 1872]

An English Valjean in Lambeth Palace

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Charles Jeram was a night watchman, working for the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. In the early hours of March 6, 1866 he was on duty and heard a noise of a door shutting upstairs. This must have seemed unusual to him because he quickly made his way up to the drawing room (which must have been on the ground floor – meaning Pearson was ‘below stairs’) where he found an intruder.

The man, Charles Pearson, was holding a carpet bag in one hand and a ‘small cloak in the other’. When challenged Pearson said nothing and the security guard asked him to come with him (which he did without a struggle). The police were called and the supposed burglar was taken into custody.

After he had handed over his captive Jeram checked the drawing room and found that  ‘a great many articles [had] been removed from their proper places’. Pearson had presumably been working out what he wanted to steal before wrapping items in his cloak or placing them in the bag he carried.

His route into the house was also clear: a ‘pane of glass had been removed from [a] window’ enabling anyone outside to lift the catch and achieve entry. Jeram had checked this window on his rounds at 2 so Pearson must have broken in.

Pearson continued his silence in Lambeth Police Court so he was remanded in custody for the time being.

I was interested by the fact that Charles Pearson was described in court as ‘shabby genteel’, an epithet applied by one of the witnesses who might have seen ‘Jack the Ripper’ 22 years later. Mrs Long saw Annie Chapman talking to a man she said looked ‘happy genteel’ in Hanbury Street not long before Chapman’s body was discovered. Of course I’m not suggesting that Pearson was ‘Jack’ but the phrase is interesting. ‘Shabby genteel’ suggests someone down on their luck but trying to keep up appearances,  as Thackeray’s George Brandon does in A Shabby Genteel Story (1857).

It also made me think of Les Miserables (1862) and the way that Jean Valjean repays his saviour, Digne’s bishop, by taking his candlesticks. M. Myriel lets him keep them, a gesture that he hopes will set the convict on a more righteous path in the future.

There is no recorded trial of a Charles Pearson for burglary at the Old Bailey in 1866 so perhaps the archbishop followed the example of his fictious French counterpart and took pity on his uninvited guest.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 6, 1866]

A smash and grab raid on the Commercial Road

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The Commercial Road, Whitechapel c.1880s

As Charles Wakeman sat in the back room of his jewellers shop at 479 Commercial Road he was probably doing his paperwork or enjoying a late supper. Whatever he was doing it was soon to be rudely interrupted.

At a quarter past nine his assistant rushed in and told him they had been robbed. Wakeman ran through into the shop and saw that his front window had been smashed in. Outside a crowd was gathering – to see what all the fuss was about and, perhaps, to see if any ‘windfalls’ might drop nearby.

Wakeman quickly noted that along with the jewellery that was lying in the street a tray of rings was missing altogether. He picked up two gold bangles and was then approached by a young man. This lad, whose name was Ernest Marks, told the relieved jeweller that he had heard the smash of the window and spotted the thief running away.

Marks, who had been standing on the corner of Jamaica Street,  had sprinted after him and caught him in Bermuda Street. He recovered the tray of ’32 ladies gem rings’ (valued at £129 9s, or over £7,000 pounds in today’s money) and handed the thief over to a nearby policeman.

The suspected jewel thief (William Halbart) who was thought to be in partnership with another man, not yet in custody, was charged at Thames Police Court. The magistrate, Mr Lushington, fully committed him for trial.

Halbart’s case came up very quickly at the Old Bailey; he was tried and convicted of burglary on the 3 March. Despite his protestation that he had only  been a curious onlooker and had picked up some of the jewellery but not stolen it, adding: ‘I am perfectly innocent. I am the victim. I have never been locked up in my life’.

He was sent to prison for a year.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 2, 1890]

Burglary tops the bill in the early records of the London Police Courts

The newspapers did report the comings and goings at the Police Court almost from their inception in 1792 but the early reports are fewer, less detailed, and harder to find with a simple keyword search. Gradually the papers seem to have settled on a heading of ‘police intelligence’ by the later 1820s but before that its use is somewhat sporadic.

The press also appear to have been working out exactly what to record (the London Police Courts heard hundreds of cases each week between them, so the reporters couldn’t include everything). By mid century this had settled into a pattern where the usual types of hearing (assault and petty theft, fraud and embezzlement, drunkenness and disorderly behavior) were augmented by ‘human interest’ stories (pleas for protection, abject poverty, attempted suicides), or the humorous, funny, or just plain bizarre.

On 11 January 1817 the Morning Post (which was, by the early 1800s, a ‘conservative’ daily which had started life in 1772) published a short summary of ‘police intelligence’ which included the following cases:

At Hatton Garden William Grant was brought up accused of burgling the home of Joseph Fisher, a tobacconist. Fisher prosecuted the thief himself and alleged that he, and other not yet in custody, had stolen ‘upwards of £100 in bank notes and cash’ from his ‘counting-house’. The justice remanded Grant for further examination.

John Davies was charged at Queen’s Square Police court with robbing the premises of Robert Smith who ran the Nag’s Head public house in Knightsbridge (which is still trading 200 years later ). The accused supposedly stole a ‘looking glass’ (a mirror) and was committed for trial. Neither Davies nor Grant are recorded as having trials at the Old Bailey so the prosecutions may have collapsed or perhaps they were acquitted and the cases not written up for the Proceedings.

Mary Johnston was not as lucky as these two however. She also appeared at Queen’s Square on a charge of burglary. She had entered the property of a blind woman named Eliza Bond, at 10 at night. This was quite unusual; female thieves rarely committed burglary, preferring to act with others as conspirators or to steal from homes or shops during the day, when they might pass as servants on errands.

Mary was tried at the Old Bailey on the 15 January and convicted by the jury. She was sentenced to death but recommended to mercy. She was 25 years old and pleaded ‘distress’. I can’t find Mary amongst those convicts transported to Australia in 1817 and she certainly wasn’t executed either so she, like so many ‘ordinary’ working-class people, disappears from the public record after her brief appearances in 1817.

Over at Bow Street one man (William Brennau) was committed for trial for stealing lead from the roof of a house belong to a law stationer in Chancery Lane (but this led to no trial at Old Bailey).

Finally, William Crowder was set before the magistrate accused of conspiring with others to burgle a warehouse in Bucklesbury (in the City of London). Crowder was clearly a man of means and the magistrate must have believed his claims of innocence because despite the man having only recently returned from a trip to France, he set him at liberty on his solicitor promising to appear for him if charges were presented at a later date.

Given that only one of these London hearings resulted in a trial at the Old Bailey it helps demonstrate that previous (and future) studies of crime and punishment which rely overmuch on the records of the Central Criminal Court should be treated with some caution at least. Much more ‘crime’ came before the summary courts in London and elsewhere (as I argue in my first book).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 11, 1817]

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.

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