Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia


This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]


Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.


In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

A ‘not so old’ septuagenarian defends his property


Charles Wehrfritz was on his way back home from the pub after enjoying his ‘supper beer’ following a day’s work when he ran into his son and daughter in law. The pair lodged with him at his house at 109 New North Road,  Islington. Wehrfritz was an German immigrant who spoke passable English. He was also 73 years old, but ‘still vigorous’.

As he neared his home he saw two men trying to get in. He assumed they were after his other lodgers upstairs, so indicated they should go up and see if anyone was at home. Moments later the men came down and said no one was in, so he showed them to the door and let them out.

Charles was sitting down to take his supper when he heard a noise in the passage way. When his cry of ‘who’s there?’ went unanswered he opened his door and found the two men back in his house.

‘What do you want here?’ he demanded, and ‘how did you get back in?

‘We want your money, old man’, said the younger of the two men.

At this Charles lunged toward and tried to stab the robber with the knife he’d been using to eat his supper. He connected with the man’s chest but to no avail, the knife was totally blunt and didn’t penetrate the thief’s jacket. Instead Charles now suffered a fearsome attack, being thrown backwards by the man and hit on the head by the other one.

He was knocked senseless for a moment to two and came to in time to see the men ‘splitting open a door’ to gain entry. Now the younger man picked up a door mat and tried to stop the German’s mouth with it to prevent him raising the alarm. In the struggle that followed Charles was once again hit on the head, this time with something heavy, made of metal he thought.

He fell in and out of consciousness before he was finally able to cry ‘murder!’ and see the men run out of the property as fast as they could. The police were called and later picked up the men and took them to Clerkenwell police station. Having been patched up at hospital (his life being feared for) Charles was later able to identify the two robbers in a parade at the station.

William Smith (24 and a box maker), and Arthur Leslie (a 22 year-old clerk from Pentonville) denied all the charges against them when they were set in the dock at Worship Street Police Court a few days later. Nothing was missing from the house as Charles had effectively scared them off. His brave display could have ended his life the court was told, he had been lucky. Charles’ main objection however, was that he had been called old; at 73 he didn’t think he was ‘that old’. This must have amused the watching audience and the paper’s readers.

Detective inspector Morgan of G Division said Smith was well known at the station as a ‘suspicious person’ and they had bene watching him for some time. He was also on the radar of N Division, as Inspector Smith testified in court. The magistrate granted a request from the police to remand the men for further enquiries and they were taken away.

On the 23 February the robbers were back in court and fully committed for trial. Smith turned out to be the brother of one of Wehrfritz’s lodgers. At the County of London Sessions held at Clerkenwell on 7 March 1899, Smith and Leslie were convicted of breaking and entering the property and of ‘severely wounding’ Mr Wehrfritz. Leslie got 21 months in prison, Smith 18, and their victim was described as ‘making a plucky stand against his assailants’. I hope he pinned the cutting to his wall to remind him that he wasn’t ‘so old’ after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 20, 1899; Daily News , Wednesday, March 8, 1899]

‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark


We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

‘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


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]

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


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


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]