‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

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A career in crime looks inevitable for a young servant that could not resit temptation

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William Luker, The Mansion House Police Court, (c.1891)

Sometimes, in order to understand exactly what is going on in a historical courtroom (like the Mansion House Police Court in 1866) we need to have some clarity about which laws were in operation and being utilised. That isn’t always easy because laws were amended and new rules superseded them. It is also often the case with the history of crime that the practice of those applying the law (in this case the Police Court magistrates of London) preceded that of lawmakers rather than following it.

In September 1866 Mary Ann Goodchild, ‘a young girl’ of 18 and a domestic servant, was brought before the Lord Mayor and Alderman Abbis in the City of London to answer a charge of theft. Mary Ann was accused of stealing face sovereigns from her master, Noah Aaron.

This was a serious offence, one worthy of a criminal trial before a jury and the possibility (if convicted) of a long prison sentence. However, the defendant was young, female and, crucially, prepared to admit to her crime.

The court was told that Noah Aaron, a general dealer who worked out of a property named Roper’s Buildings, had placed 44 sovereigns in a drawer in his bedroom. Sometime later he counted them and found that the money was short by £5. His suspicions immediately fell on Mary Ann because only she and his wife had access to the room.

The servants were the business of Mrs Aaron so when her husband told her what had happened she confronted Mary Ann with it. Having tried and failed to deny the charge Mary Ann admitted it but pleaded with Mrs Aaron not to ‘do anything with her’. Whether she hoped that this would not lead to a court case or was simply desperate to keep her position is not made clear, but having confessed she clearly hoped for some leniency from her employers.

Mrs Aaron would give her no such assurance and so Mary Ann was forced to give more information about the missing money. She said she had given it to another woman, Alice Alexander, ‘who she said had out her up to it’. In court at Mansion House Alexander was produced but denied all knowledge of the crime (as well she might). Mary Ann was left high and dry.

Since she had confessed to the theft Mary Ann was able to opt to be dealt with summarily. Under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (1855) magistrates were able to deal with cases of theft up to the value of 5 shillings without sending it on to a jury so long as the accused consented. If the defendant pleaded guilty then the theft of goods over 5s came under the power of the magistracy. In 1879 the basic requirement was raided from 5s to £2 as the summary courts began the main tribunal for hearing nearly all small-scale property crime in the capital.

Mary Ann was dealt with under legislation that was initially intended to speed up the process of justice in London and to  keep the higher court clear of petty offenders. She was young and the summary jurisdiction acts were aimed at young offenders (albeit a little younger than she was).

The Lord Mayor sent Mary Ann to prison for four months, a fairly lenient sentence in the context of Victorian punishments but she was probably a first offender, again a factor that was at the heart of legislation that extended the summary jurisdiction of magistrates in the 1800s.

It hardly mattered to Mary Ann however. Having lost her job and without references, with her character therefore ruined and a criminal record added to her CV she was unlikely to find legitimate work in the future. When it launches later this week the Digital Panopticon project may allow us to find out whether Mary Ann managed to make it back to the straight and narrow or descended into a ‘career’ in criminality.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 11, 1865]

‘An extraordinary story’ of a missing boy in North London

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Mrs Ada Wigg was clearly at her wits end when she presented herself at the North London Police Court in early September 1898. She said she needed the magistrate’s helping in finding her missing son, Frank. The Wiggs lived in Shrubland Grove, Dalston and on Saturday 3 September she had despatched Frank (who was aged 11 and a half) to Sailsbury Square in the City on business.

The boy came home in a hansom cab paid for by a ‘gentleman’ he had met. This man had apparently bought the young boy dinner, given him a shilling and told him that if he came again he would  ‘keep him and make a gentleman of him’.

For a young lad from East London (even one from a family that sounds like they were doing ok) this might have sounded very tempting, to his mother it must have been horrifying. Ada told her son that he was forbidden from ever seeing the man again and hoped that was that. Unfortunately on Sunday Frank went off to church as usual at 10.30 in the morning, but hadn’t been seen since. Mrs Wigg went to the police and they followed up enquiries around the boy’s known haunts, even sending a telegraph to Lichfield where they had friends, but to no avail.

It is hard to look back in time with any degree of certainty but it looks from here as if young Frank was being groomed. Mr D’Eyncourt thought it an ‘extraordinary story’ and hoped that by reporting in the newspapers the boy might be noticed and found. His mother gave a description that was carefully recorded by the court reporter. Frank was:

‘Tall, fair and good looking, with blue eyes. He was wearing a light Harrow suit and patent shoes, and carried a silver lever watch and chain’.

Mrs Wigg had not seen the gentleman concerned but the boy had told he was aged ‘about 50, tall and grey’.

Two days later The Standard carried  brief follow up to the story. The reporter at North London said a telegram had been received at the court which read:

“Frank Gent Wigg found safe at Clapham. Grateful thanks to Magistrate, Police and Press”, Mrs A Wigg.

So the publicity worked on this occasion and whatever the mysterious gentleman had in store for Frank – even if it was simply a benign desire to give him a leg up in life – was averted.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 06, 1898; The Standard, Thursday, September 08, 1898]

A teenage apprentice laughs off his appearance in court

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In my PhD thesis (which I finished in 2005 which seems like a lifetime away!) I researched the summary courts of the City of London in the eighteenth century. One of the areas I looked at was apprenticeship because in the 1700s and 1800s magistrates were often called upon to adjudicate in disputes between masters and their young charges. In the City however, these cases usually came before the Chamberlain’s Court and here masters complained about the laziness or disobedience of apprentices, or were counter sued for poor or cruel treatment  or for not teaching their employees the secrets of their trade.

Having looked in some detail at the workings of the Chamberlain’s Court and the cases that came before it, this story, from Clerkenwell Police Court in 1860, seems quite familiar.

Edward Howard, a ‘respectably attired lad’ of about 16-18 years of age, appeared before Mr D’ Eyncourt on  charge brought by his master. Charles Thompson, a carpenter and joiner, told the magistrate that Edward had been absent from his work without his permission.

Apprentices were bound for 7 years (often from 14 to 21) and they worked for their keep and to learn the craft. In the 1700s they invariably lived with the family as part of the household, so would expect their food, clothes and bed to be supplied in return for their labour. After the Napoleonic Wars ended (with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo) there was a general decline in apprenticeships, especially live-in ones.

It would seem that Edward did live with the Thompsons, but perhaps the constraints of obeying the rules of the house and his master were especially difficult for this young man. This was not the first time he had been in trouble for leaving his work undone and staying away from home, and he had been in court on more than one occasion. The last time he was in front of a magistrate he was warned that a repeat offence would likely result in a spell of imprisonment at hard labour, but Edward seemed not to care.

The carpenter explained that Edward was ‘a very unruly lad’, and had done no work since the 9th July. This was a period of two weeks and Mr Thompson had had enough. The boy was, he said:

‘a very good workman when he pleased, but his general character was that of a dilatory idle lad’. He ‘was of an opinion that unless the prisoner was punished he would never do any good for himself’.

Mrs Thompson seems to have agreed, saying she could not speak up for him or ‘give him the best of characters’.

Faced with this attack on his character Edward responded, as many of the lads that came before the Chamberlain in the 1700s did, with a show of bravado. He told the magistrate ‘with the greatest levity’, that ‘it was all correct, but he did not like his business’.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to be imprisoned at hard labour in the house of correction for 14 days. He was, he explained, entitled to have him whipped as well but said on this occasion he hoped that a spell in the ‘house’ would be sufficient punishment to affect a change in his behaviour. He was warning him (again) that further sanctions – and physical ones at that – would follow if he didn’t start taking is apprenticeship seriously.

I’m not at all sure that Edward was listening because he was taken away still laughing out loud at his situation in an attempt (real or otherwise) to show that he cared little for anything the courts, or his master, might do to him.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 27, 1860]

A ‘child of the Jago’ in the Mansion House court

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The Old Nichol area as shown on Charles Booth’s poverty maps (1889) showing the density of poverty maked out in black and blue.

The Old Nichol had a fearsome reputation in late Victorian London. The collection of about 30 streets at the north end of Brick Lane was in the area now occupied by modern day Arnold Circus. In the late 1800s the Nichol was home to around 5-6,000 people and it was immortalised in fiction by Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896). It was a far cry from modern hipster Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.

In 1875 the Nichol was where Henry Stuck lived. Henry was nine and his parents occupied a room at 5 Old Nichol Street one of the most notorious streets in the Nichol slum. It seems that Henry played away from home, preferring to hang out with other boys in a property in Lower Thames Street, south of the Mansion House in the old City of London. He was also known to stay with known thieves in a lodging house in Shoreditch.

In fact reports said that a ‘gang of boys, 40 or 50 in number’ were ‘in the habit of frequenting a small coffee house’ in the street which they had dubbed ‘the House of Lords’. There they seem to have created their own private playground to ape the behaviour of their elders and (at least in the minds of the disapproving authorities) hatch plots to commit petty crime.

In July 1875 Henry was in court. He was brought before Alderman Phillips at the Mansion House Police Court charged with begging. As he stood in the dock a description of the boys’ haunt was delivered in court by Henry’s father:

‘Here they regaled themselves with halfpenny and penny worths of coffee’, he told the magistrate, ‘their language and behaviour being… of the most disorderly and disgraceful character when any of the parents visited the room in search of their children’.

When he wasn’t begging Henry went about the City selling fuses.

Why hadn’t the coffee house been closed down by the police the Alderman wanted to know? They had no power to do an inspector of police explained.

‘On one occasion when the boys were found tossing in the house, [in other words they were gambling, which was a summary offence] the police took out a summons, but it was dismissed’.

As far as Mr Stuck was concerned Henry was ‘a very bad boy’ who had been away for up to three weeks recently. His mother spoke up for him though, arguing that it was her husband’s poor treatment of the lad that had driven him out. She asked the magistrate to send Henry to a Reformatory school where he might learn skills and be away from bad influences. She added that her husband ‘would not work to support his children, and starvation only started the boy in the face at home’.

She had painted  a grim picture of life in the Nichol where poverty was endemic and many children lived hand-to-mouth on the streets. Morrison’s novel way well have served to exaggerate the reality of the ‘blackest streets’ of East London but the truth was bad enough.

A Reformatory was a popular choice for working-class parents who struggled to support let alone control their offspring. Many seem to have used the courts to try to get them off their hands. But magistrates were wise to this and often asked the family to make a financial contribution to the child’s upkeep, which may have deterred some from seeking this solution.

If this was Mr Stuck’s intention then he would have to wait to see if the Alderman would oblige him. The magistrate ordered the boy to be taken to the workhouse while the circumstances of the case were investigated. Mr and Mrs Stuck left the court without him, to pursue their domestic squabble in private. As for Henry, who was only nine, his future was far from certain but hardly appeared rosy.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 26, 1875]

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

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‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]

‘Worthless informers’ and grumpy cabbies

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When a local authority, like the Common Council of the City of London, passes a by-law or establishes a new regulation they are seldom met with much enthusiasm. All sorts of regulations govern our lives in all sorts of ways, and have done for centuries. We are told where and when we can and cannot park, and are fined if we are caught. Weights and measures are regulated to protect us from disreputable traders who would sell us less than the advertised amount of fruit or vegetables. In the past both of these regulations applied, along with hundreds of others.

Magistrates adjudicated on cases of adulterated milk or bread, on buildings with badly laid roofs, or fined those who did not have a license for their dog, or who had traded their horse cruelly. In the last decades of the 1800s parents who kept their children from school were also hit in the pocket or threatened with having their offspring taken away.

Regulation then is at the heart of local government and, while it is supposed to make our lives and relationship run more smoothly, it seems often to be an open sore of resentment.

So it is not surprising that the people that either enforce these local laws or bring prosecutions on behalf of the parish or local council are not popular figures. The modern traffic warden springs to mind, as does the Victorian beadle in Oliver Twist and the informing constable for the Reformation of Manners Movement in the 1780s.

While we might agree that regulation is necessary we don’t like it or the people that ‘dob’ us in when we infringe the law. Perhaps that why modern society has tried to replace human law enforces with robotic devices that can perform a similar task without fear or favour. The ANPR device and speed camera are the modern solution to universal enforcement.

In 1840 in the City of London cab drivers were regulated. This wasn’t anything new, they had been regulated for at least a century. Licensed cabbies were given a badge to show they had paid for the privilege of trading in the square mile. This badge took the form of a ‘metal ticket’ and it was supposed to be visible at all times.

A failure to display a badge could earn them a fine, but it seems that the person that prosecuted them for this neglect of the rules could also profit from that fine. This too was anything but new. In the 1700s it was common for those bringing criminals and others to court to be able to claims rewards for so doing.

In  May 1840 a man named Stowell appeared at the Guildhall Justice room (one of the city’s two Police Courts). Stowed was described as ‘the informer’ and he had brought prosecutions against a number of cab drivers for not obeying the letter of the law.

Edward Williams was charged with carrying two passengers in his cab without displaying his badge. Williams said he had left it at home and was prepared now to go and fetch it. He pleaded poverty and Stowell generously acceded to dropping the charge so long as his costs were covered, and 2s 6d were paid to his witness.

Stowell was probably well-known to the cabbies and so he used undercover agents, to do his dirty work.

William Cox, a 50 year-old cabbie was charged with not ‘wearing his metal ticket conspicuously’. On being challenged in Fleet Street by one of Stawell’s men Cox pulled it out of his waistcoat and showed him it.

Cox grumbled that ‘if upon the worthless oath of a common informer poor cabmen were to be fined for not wearing the badge conspicuously, they would be victimised; for what chance had they of bringing an indifferent person who might be passing to prove the contrary? Against such a charge, however false, a man might have no protection’.

The case against Cox was dismissed but the next defendant was not so fortunate.

Stowell’s witness claimed that when he asked James Cones to show him his badge he had unbuttoned his waistcoat and drawn it out. Cones argued that the ‘badge had accidentally bobbed inside his waistcoat, and would have bobbed out again presently’.

His excuse was not as persuasive as his fellow driver’s and was probably delivered  with deep sarcasm and  contempt for  Stowell’s chosen ‘profession’. Mr Alderman Johnson, the presiding magistrate, fined him 5s plus costs.

It is a while since I last got a parking ticket but I can’t say it did much other than cement a deep dislike for the person that stuck it on my windscreen. I doubt I am alone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 20, 1840]

Today’s case was reported exactly 177 years before my mother was born, so on this – her 77th birthday (although she certainly doesn’t look it) – I’d like to wish her a very happy birthday!