‘Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, How he got it, from what source?’ A policeman in the dock at Thames

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If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper city time, ask a policeman,
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.

This well-known music hall ditty (which I’ve mentioned before) reflects a contemporary working-class distrust of the police by suggesting that they weren’t always as honest as they should have been.

When William Harris, a Ratcliff wine cooper, and his wife got home from a night out they found the door of their house open and a policeman guarding it. It was half-past midnight and the couple must have been both surprised and concerned.

The officer quickly moved to reassure them. He told them he’d found it ajar and had investigated. There may have been a burglary but he wasn’t sure, no one was on the premises, but they had better check if anything was missing.

Mr Harris rushed upstairs and looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. It didn’t seem as if it had but then he realised his pocket watch and chain was missing from the dressing table. He went down to report it the loss to the constable.

Earlier that evening PC Patrick Barry (382K) and PC John Prestage (also K Division), were patrolling on Broad Street in Ratcliffe when the latter called Barry’s attention to a door that seemed open. PC Prestage told his colleague to wait outside while he investigated. He went upstairs but reported that no one was in the the house. He then sent Barry off to  to report a suspected robbery, telling him he would stand guard in the meantime.

Barry soon returned with sergeant Richard Plumsett, who had been checking the patrols of his constables as was normal practice. Sergeants would set constables off on their beats and time them to ensure they were  in the right place at the right time. He came over the the house in Broad Street and spoke to both officers. This was about 11.45 at night.

Just after 12.30 Sergeant Plumsett was back and now he found Barry, Prestage and Mr Harris embroiled in an argument. Harris was complaining about the loss of his watch but wasn’t keen on going along to the police station to officially report it. PC Prestage told his superior that:

‘Mr Harris does not seem satisfied about losing his watch: I don’t know whether he wants to blame the police for it’.

The sergeant then noticed that Prestage was drunk, or at least under the influence of alcohol. He immediately instructed the pair of them to return to the station with him.

Back at the King David Lane police station the situation developed. Mr Harris arrived later on and accused the policeman of robbing him. With a drunken officer and an unhappy local resident the desk sergeant, Robert Smith, told Prestage that he’d better turn out his pockets to satisfy the cooper’s suspicions.

‘Have you got a watch?’ Sergeant Smith asked.

‘Yes, I am in the habit of carrying two watches’, replied PC Prestage, and unbuttoned his great coat to reveal a watch on a chain around his neck.

‘Where is the other watch?’ the sergeant continued, and it was handed over.

When Mr Harris was shown the watch he immediately identified at the one he had lost from his dressing table. The police had no choice and the next morning PC Prestage found himself in the dock at Thames Police Court in front of the imposing figure of Mr Lushington.

The magistrate asked him to explain himself but all he could say was that he was ‘under the influence of liquor and was not aware he had taken the watch’. This was too serious for Mr Lushington to deal with there and then so he remanded him for a week with a view to committing him for trial at the Middlesex Sessions.

On 17 December 1877 John Prestage (described as a baker, not a policeman) was tried and convicted of theft at Middlesex Sessions and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He was 20 years old and pleaded guilty. He was sent, as so many of those sentenced were, to Cold Bath Fields prison. I’m curious to know why he wasn’t described as a policeman when the newspaper report is very clear that he was.  The Daily Gazette (a Middlesbrough paper) reported the case at Middlesex as that of a ‘Dishonest Policeman’ so there seems to be no doubt as to his occupation.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 03, 1877]

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A mugging outside Swan & Edgar’s reveals the reality of everyday crime in London

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Some of the cases that come before the nineteenth-century magistracy are useful in revealing how criminals operated.

The most common type of offending throughout the 1800s was theft. This usually meant relatively petty, non-violent thefts such as shoplifting, picking pockets and embezzlement. The archetypal serious property crime of the 1800s was burglary and the papers devoted considerable space to the problem. However while ‘classic’ robbery (the sort we associate with highwayman) was largely confined to the previous century, it still happened in the Victorian period.

This example, from Marlborough Street in 1889, looks very much like a mugging to modern eyes, but then that is what robbery was.

It was a Sunday morning and a barrister-at-law named Moyses was passing by the windows of Swan & Edgars, the department store, at Piccadilly Circus when a man approached him. The man appeared to want to speak to him as he placed one of his hands to the side of his face and leaned in.

‘Then in a second or two he was knocked violently against one of the pilasters, and felt a hand in his pocket and something snap’.

The man, whose name was John Harrington, had struck him, pushed him against the building and then had stolen his watch from inside his  coat. AS several passers-by raised the alarm the thief attempted to make his getaway. Unfortunately for Harrington the crowd pressed in too quickly and he was surrounded; within moments a police constable arrived and the would-be thief was captured.

However, when Harrington was searched at the police station Mr Moyses’ gold watch was nowhere to be found. In court the justice was told that a second man had been involve din the attack. According to Henry Hart, a singer, as Harrington had assaulted the barrister another man had come up and ‘the prisoner passed something to him’. This must have ben the watch. So while the crowd concentrated on the attack on Mr Moyses, the other member of the ‘gang’ escaped.

This will be familiar to anyone who is aware of how pickpockets and thieves operate in modern London, indeed probably at Piccadilly Circus. If you are unlucky enough to be mugged or (more gently) ‘pickpocketed’, the initial thief will palm your phone or wallet to a confederate who will walk or run off sharply. They will then pass the stolen goods to someone else, or drop them in a ‘safe’ spot to be collected later, by another member of the gang.

All of this made (and makes) it extremely hard to get a conviction. For anything to stick in court there needed to be proof that a crime had occurred and that the accused could be associated directly with it.

In this case the witness, Hart, was potentially crucial. He said that he had seen the assault on Mr Moyses, and watched the prisoner Harrington try to escape from the ring of people that surrounded him. As Harrington had attempted to ‘dive’ between the legs of the gathered crowd the ‘vocalist’ had followed, grabbing onto the tails of his coat and holding him long enough for the police to effect an arrest.

The policeman had searched the immediate area for the missing watch, using his lamp, but nothing was found. At first he thought Mr Moyses was drunk because he was so dizzy from the attack. As a precaution he took both assailant and victim back to the police station in Vine Street where it became clear that the law man was simply suffering from the ‘violence of the attack’ made on him. In court Mr Moyses denied being drunk and said he was merely ‘dazed’ by what had happened.

In the end there wasn’t really sufficient evidence for a charge of theft however. There was no gold watch, no accomplice, and it was far from clear that Harrington had done much more than shove the barrister against the Swan & Edgar building. As a result all parties were dismissed and Mr Moyses would have had to accept that he needed to be a little more aware of where he was and what he was doing in future, and keep strangers at a distance.

As for Harrington, well so long as he kept out of Marlborough Street Police Court for the foreseeable future he was probably safe. If he appeared there again however, he was likely to face the full force of the legal system – especially if he found that the barrister prosecuting him was his previous victim!

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 12, 1889]

Officer down!: the Perils of Police work in Victorian London

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Today, in a slight break from the usual format of these posts, I want to write about two incidents that didn’t appear in reports of the workings of the London Police Courts, but are closely related to them. This is because they involve officers of the Metropolitan Police, the body of men that brought the majority of defendants before the capital’s magistrates.

Police work was (and is) dangerous. The police have to place themselves in positions of risk when they are pursuing criminals (who might be armed and desperate) or protecting the public. In my lifetime and think of several three high profile events in which officers lost their lives. In 1984 PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London, while only last year PC Keith Palmer was killed outside the Palace of Westminster in a terrorist attack. In September 2012 Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes were murdered by Dale Cregan when they answered a routine call to investigate a suspected crime.

Police work then, can be perilous and, for all the criticism the police receive, it is worth remembering this. It is also worth noting that it was ever thus; from the very earliest days of the Met the men (and in those days of course it was only men) who joined up were exposed to everyday dangers. In 1830, in the first full year of the ‘New Police’, PC Joseph Grantham was beaten to death when he tried to break up a drunken brawl in Somers Town. The public ambivalence towards Peel’s new force was reflected in the coroner’s verdict which suggested PC Grantham had ‘over exerted himself in discharging his duty’ and his death was recorded as ‘justifiable homicide’.

In November 1882 The Illustrated Police News (not an ‘official’ police paper but one that traded in ‘crime news’) reported the death of one officer (by drowning) and the shooting of another. The reports were carried alongside all those that recorded the ‘daily doings’ of the Police Courts.

PC Fitnum (240R) of Kent police was at Foots Cray in Sidcup. It was thought that as his night patrol took him across the River Cray by means of a narrow plank bridge he had slipped and fallen in. The river had been swollen by heavy rains and it is quite likely that he was unable to swim. He was found by his son about half an hour after he left the station to commence his beat. The 43 year-old, with 17 years service, left a wife and seven children.

In the same week at Hampstead PC Charles Ellingham (221S) was perambulating his beat around the home of Mr Reginald Prance of Frognal, ‘a man well known in City circles’ the paper noted. Hearing a noise behind some bushes he walked over to investigate.

All of a sudden a man rose up from behind them, ‘pointed a revolver at the constable’s head, and fired at him, saying “Take that! This isn’t the first time you have disturbed to-night”.’

The bullet passed through PC Ellingham’s helmet but, fortunately,  missed his head. With ‘great courage’ the copper rushed his man but was unable to stop him getting another shot off. This one took PC Ellingham in the thigh, passing through his ‘great coat, tunic, trousers and drawers’ before ‘lodging in the flesh’. As the constable fell his assailant made his getaway, clambering over a wall into the Redington Road.

Amazingly, the policeman recovered himself and set off in pursuit, chasing the supposed burglar across the nearby fields. He nearly caught up with the ‘cowardly ruffian’ but despite the constable ‘springing his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles)  the would-be assassin got away.

Ellingham returned to Mr Prance’s home and made his enquiries. He could see no evidence that the man had attempted a break in and the footman confirmed that he had heard the shots fired. The following description of the attacker was circulated:

‘Age twenty-six; height, 5 ft. 8 in.; fair, light, moustache; dress, long dark overcoat; light trousers, black felt hat’. The paper also reported that: ‘Great activity prevailed among the police the whole of Sunday in endeavouring to apprehend the man’, but so far no one had been found responsible for the attempt on the constable’s life.

PC Ellingham was a young officer, just 21 years of age, a ‘smart looking young fellow’ and unmarried. He was receiving the very best in medical care the reporter assured his readership and CID were actively investigating the event.

Both incidents reflect the risks of police work in the late 1800s and to that we could add numerous accounts of drunken assaults on officers as they patrolled the capital’s streets. Historians of crime have argued over the extent to which animosity towards the police was confined to ‘professional’ criminals and the so-called ‘criminal class’ and most would accept that at least in the first 50 years of professional policing the public’s attitude towards the police was at best ambiguous. The press were apt to highlight police incompetence and corruption whenever they could, but, as these reports show, they were also quick to praise brave officers and remind the public of their sacrifice when it was made.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, November 4, 1882]

Two ‘professional’ thieves are nabbed on the Kingsland Road

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Although the metropolitan Police Courts mostly dealt with petty crime and disorderly behaviour this was also the place where a lot of more serious crime first came before the criminal justice system. Magistrates acted as a filter to the justice system, holding pre-trial hearings and determining whether there was a case for sending defendants for trial before a jury.

Early one morning on 8 October 1870 Inspector George Silverton (of N Division, Metropolitan Police) was out on patrol with two of his officers in the Kingsland Road, Dalston. They may well have been acting on information because they were after two well-known thieves, George Wool and John Thompson.

At about 5am Silverton spotted the two men and attempted to follow them. He lost them close to a stable yard attached to a pub, the De Beauvoir Arms*. The inspector now decided that the suspected thieves could only be in one of a handful of buildings nearby so he had his men surround them and waited.

Soon enough they saw a door in one of the properties, a shop belonging to Simon Drickkes, open slightly before it shut again immediately. Silverton alerted his men and when the door opened again they rushed it, gaining access and overpowering the occupants.

Inside they found Wool and Thompson with several sacks of goods they had stolen and were preparing to carry away.  The men were arrested and taken back to Kingsland Road Police Station. In the morning they were taken before the magistrate at Clerkenwell. There they were charged with ‘burglariously breaking and entering’ Mr Drickkes property and attempting to take away the following haul:

‘eight timepieces, two watches, three meerschaum pipes, 700 cigars, twelve meerschaum cigar-holders, and a quantity of other valuable property’.

Inspector Silverton also explained that the police had found a skeleton key in the building that had fitted the shop’s lock, suggesting that the burglars had carefully planned their operation.  The two accused men declined to comment, preferring to reserve their defence for a judge and jury at the Middlesex Sessions.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 22, 1870]

*a pub with that name still exists on Southgate Road, only a short walk from where Inspector Silverton says he lost sight of the pair.

An attack in Berner Street in 1888, but not the one you’ve all heard about

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On Saturday 29 September 1888 a man appeared at Thames Police Court on a charge of attempted murder. It wasn’t William Seaman’s first appearance, he had previously been remanded in custody because his victim was too weak to attend court.

Seaman was a builder who gave his address as 11 Princess Street, St George-In-theEast. He was accused of attacking Thomas Simpkin, a chemist, by  ‘striking him on the head with a hammer’. In court Inspector Thresher of H Division, Metropolitan Police informed the magistrate that the chemist was still unable to come to court and requested a further period of remand. The justice agreed to the request and the builder was taken back to police custody.

On the following Tuesday the case resumed, as Simpkin had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He explained that at about 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday 8 September (some three weeks earlier) the builder had entered his shop and asked to buy some zinc ointment and then some alum powder. Then suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, Seaman leaned across the shop counter and struck the chemist violently with a hammer.

A warehouseman,  Henry John Smith (who lived at 6 Chamber Street) said he was across the road from the chemist’s shop at the time and heard a scream. The chemist’s daughter then came running out into the street shouting:

‘They are murdering my father!’

When Smith ran over and entered the shop he found Seaman covered in blood with one hand around Simpkin’s throat, while he punched him in the chest. The man was clearly drunk he said, and extremely violent. Despite this he managed (with the help of another passer-by, Charles McCarthy) to get him off the chemist and hold him until a police constable (PC 85H) arrived.

Dr Francis Allen (1 Dock Street) told the court that the injuries were serious and consistent with being caused by a hammer. He added that at one point the chemist’s life had been in danger.

The dispute seems to have been over the price of alum powder, or presumably the amount you got for  penny (as that is what Seaman asked for). It was a pretty poor excuse for such a brutal onslaught but Seaman was drunk and perhaps agitated by something else that night. As we will see, however, Seaman was a violent man and perhaps had some underlying psychological condition.

The justice, Mr Saunders, committed him for jury trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1888 and Seaman was duly convicted and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. The long sentence was probably because he had previously been convicted before at the Bailey, something he admitted in court. Seaman was 38 at the time but the experience of imprisonment didn’t have the deterrent effect society might have hoped for. In 1896 he was back at the Central Criminal Court, and this time he had taken his violence a step further.

On Good Friday (April 3, 1896) he broke into the home of John Goodman Levy, in Turner Street (Whitechapel) presumably with the intention of burgling it. In the early hours of Saturday morning the dead body of Mr Levy was found with his throat cut. When the police arrived they soon discovered that the burglar was still on the premises and a chase began. Eventually Seaman fell through a ceiling, was badly injured and apprehended. The police reportedly found the following on his person:

‘a lady’s gold watch, a gold diamond and turquoise pin, a watch-chain, a gilt half-crown brooch, a pair of gilt threepenny piece earrings, another imitation gold ring set with rubies and pearls, two cigars, a plated caddy spoon, a wedding ring, a single-stone diamond ring, a piece of wash-leather thereon, 10s. 6d. in silver and a penny, the works of a watch, an old purse, a pocket knife, an old comb, and a brass stud ‘.

Quite a haul.

This time penal servitude wasn’t an option and William Seaman was sentenced to death.  Before the judge passed sentenced however, Seaman was asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

[He] stated that he had nothing to say about the case, but that he desired to complain about a statement in a newspaper to the effect that he had previously been charged with an attempt to murder, and assault and theft, and that that statement was false.

William Seaman was hanged at Newgate prison on the 9 June 1896, he was 48.

There is a footnote to this story. The chemist’s shop was at 82 Berner Street, off the Commercial Road, Whitechapel. That little detail may seem insignificant for the case but for the fact that on the 30 September 1888 (the day I took this story from the newspapers)  another violent act took place in Berner Street. Between houses at 42 and 44 Berner Street (now renamed Henriques Street) was what was ‘colloquially known as Dutfield’s  Yard’* and home to the International Working Man’s Educational Club.

At just after 1 am Louis Diemshitz (club steward and ‘jewellery hawker’) turn this horse and cart into the yard when the animal shied at something lying beyond the gates. When Diemshitz investigated he found the body of a woman. She had been attacked and her throat had been cut.

Her name was Elizabeth Stride (or ‘Long Liz”) and she was to be the first of two women murdered that night by a killer whose identify remains a mystery. He will forever be known to history however, as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday, October 3, 1888]

*Neil R.A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, (Amberley, Stroud, 2016), p.158

Mr Tyrwhitt sends a message

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I am coming to recognise the names of several of the men that served as Police Court magistrates in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some, like Mr Lushington at Thames seemed to have little time for wife beaters or drunks, while others reveal a tender side to their nature when presented with cases of genuine need and despair.

Magistrates had considerable discretion in determining what to do with those brought before them; a ‘rule book’ existed (they might use Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, or Oke’s Magisterial) but within the penalties available for a variety of offences there was considerable room for manoeuvre. Indeed while the prosecutor had the ultimate choice of bringing a case in the first place, the magistrate chose then whether to dismiss a charge, convict summarily, or send the prisoner up to a jury court (where they might expect a much more serious form of punishment).

Over at Marlborough Street, one of the busier police courts in London, Mr Tyrwhitt presided in the late 1860s. In late September 1867 two cases were reported at his court which suggest that he had a low tolerance level for nuisance and repeat offenders.

First up was Alice Smith, a ‘young woman’ who refused to give her address in court. I doubt this endeared her to the justice who may well have assumed she had something to hide or was a ‘down and out’. Alice had been caught picking flowers from a bed near the Serpentine in Hyde Park. PC William Cowell had seen the woman take the flowers but as soon as she saw him she hurriedly dropped them. Alice pleaded with the constable not to take her in and charge her, ‘offering to give him whatever he liked to let her go’.

She was probably intending to sell them for the few pennies she might get. It was a petty offence, hardly a serious crime but the magistrate was in an unforgiving mood. He told Alice that she was:

‘one of those mischievous persons that must be restrained. The business of that court was much increased by people that did mischief in the park’.

He fined her 5s or four days imprisonment and let it be known that in future he would hand down a fine of 40s (a significant amount in 1867) to anyone caught ‘plucking flowers’ belonging to the Board of Works.

Having dealt with such a serious theft of the capital’s flora Tyrwhitt was presented with three juvenile felons. George Vial (17), Frederick Williams (15) and James Brougham (14) had been seen loitering around Piccadilly by a plain clothes detective. Phillip Shrives, of C Division Metropolitan Police, said he had been watching the lads follow railway vans (‘evidently for the purpose of robbing them’) and arrested them.

With no other evidence presented against them another justice might have warned them or considered sending them to a reformatory school, but not Mr Tyrwhitt; he sent them all to prison for three months at hard labour.

And so, in this way, were ‘criminal careers’ created.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1867]

p.s I would add that despite what must come across as a rather liberal attitude towards these nineteenth-century offenders I do think we should recognise that for many of those caught up in the justice system, terrible as it could be in the 1800s, a considerable proportion of them had committed an offence that had left behind a victim or victims. On Sunday (yesterday that is) my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home was broken into in the early hours while they were away at a family gathering in Manchester.

The thieves broke in through the back patio doors, made a considerable mess as they ransacked all the upstairs room, and stole a small amount of personal and irreplaceable jewellery. The burglary meant I spent half the day waiting for the police and the glass replacement man but it was of course much worse for my in-laws who returned home to find their home violated. Historians of crime need to start to recognise the very real effect of crime on those that were victim to it; as one fellow historian of crime noted to me today:

‘There’s temptation to treat it as colourful history from below with juicy sources and too little recognition that many criminals hurt the poor and vulnerable. Time for the Victim Turn?’

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.