The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]

Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent

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Detective Burgess and detective-sergeant Chide were looking for an infant when they called at a house in Olney Street, Walworth, south London. They had presumably received a tip-off that child was there or that someone in the house knew of its whereabouts. The person they questioned was Mary Boyle, a 30 year-old ‘ironer’ who was known by several other aliases (including Green, Kemp and Campbell).

They arrested Mary and took her back to the station to question her. There she was placed in an identity parade with other women and picked out by the mother of the missing baby, Mrs Mabel Reed. Boyle was then told she would be formally charged with stealing a six week-old male child and £3 in cash ‘by means of a trick’.

Mary vehemently denied the charge. She insisted instead that it had been given to her to adopt. Then where was it, the inspector asked her. ‘I will not tell you if you keep me here for 25 years’, she replied, adding ‘why do you call this stealing?’

The case came up before the Lambeth police magistrate in early May 1893. The police were still looking for the baby and Mary Boyle was still refusing to tell them where it was or admit she had taken it.

Inspector Harvey stated that: ‘You told this lady [Mrs Reed] that you had been confined with a dead baby seven weeks ago, and that you were the wife of a tea merchant at Eastbourne, and that you wanted the child to adopt, so your friends would think it was your own’.  Mary responded by saying that the child was well cared cared by a family in Leicester.

The child remained missing however, al the police had managed to find were its clothes, and a search was ongoing which would now presumably switch to Leicester. One can only imagine the emotional state of the mother. The police asked for, and were granted, a remand so that they could continue their investigation. The magistrate informed Mary that she ‘stood in a very serious position’.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury reported the case on the 13 May, using almost exactly the same text as The Standard, but adding the detail that the police that called on Mary had no warrant, and that initially she had refused to go with them, and that the family the baby was placed in at Leicester was that of a church minister.

The story has a happy ending I am glad to say. The child was found, not in Leicester but in a ditch in ‘a lonely lane’ near Gravesend in Kent. It was taken to the nearby workhouse at Hastings and, because of the widespread press reporting of a missing child, the police were informed. Mabel Reed then traveled to Hastings to identify her son, who was, according to the papers, ‘none the worse for his exposure’.

Having reunited mother and baby the investigation now turned back to Mary Boyle and her initial crime. A few days later the press reported that this was not Mary’s first office; in fact she had already served a prison sentence for abducting children in the past.

On the 21 May, with story making national news, readers were told that Mary had again appeared before at Lambeth Police Court. Mr Sims  led the prosecution on behalf of he Treasury and he stated that he found show that Boyle could be tied to ‘three cases in which the prisoner had obtained children’. He explained how Mrs Reed, now described as a ‘governess’,  had answered the following advertisement placed by  Boyle:

‘We should dearly love to adopt your little darling entirely as our own, and have it registered in our own name, it would have the most loving care, a good Christian home, and every care and attention’.

Mabel Reed met with Mary Boyle and the latter told her that her husband was a wealthy tea merchant and that they would give the child a good life and name it Arthur after her own father. She was desperate it seemed, having (as was stated earlier) lost her own child just seven weeks earlier.

Reed was convinced and so must have had her own problems in keeping her baby (no husband is mentioned so perhaps she was a widow and the child illegitimate?) and accompanied Mary to London Bridge station. There Mary asked her for £3 to buy clothes for the child, which she gave her. She didn’t seem to wonder at why a wealthy merchant’s wife would need to ask her for money for baby clothes for a child she was giving up, however…

The story captured the imagination of the reading public and lots of letters were sent to the press regarding ‘lost’ or ‘adopted’ babies and children. Lloyd’s Weekly then ran a column on the ‘business’ of adoption and baby-stealing, mentioning that several infants had been found ‘in out-of-the-way places near Maidstone’ (which is also in Kent).

Along with the letters received by the press were several at the Olney Street house and other addresses known to have been occupied by Boyle. These apparently came from other distressed mothers (or would-be adoptive mothers) who were using their offspring. One said:

‘How many more times am I to write to you to know what has become of my little Harry?’

Mary’s landlady was also reported to have aired her suspicions about her tenant. When Mary had retried home after a few days without her own child she had enquired what had happened to it. Mary told her that she didn’t want her husband to know about it, ‘so I have put it away where it will be looked after’. The pair had then had a conversation concerning the discovery of a baby’s dead body in the Grand Surrey Canal, which Mary thought was awful, saying ‘if I did such a thing I should never be able to rest for  a minute’.  She also reported that Boyle had hung religious tracts up on her walls, ‘one of which she committed to memory every day’.

The article concluded by saying that Mary was currently in Holloway Prison under  examination by the chief medical officer there, Dr Gilbert.  The police were still investigating and the notion that Mary Boyle was not in full command of her mind was clearly an avenue they were considering.

Mary was brought up at Lambeth again on 23 May; the same story was repeated (so anyone as yet unfamiliar with he case could catch up), and she was again remanded. On this occasion two other young women gave evidence very similar to Mabel Reed’s. One was a servant and said she had met Mary Boyle at Waterloo station and had named over £2 for clothes for her child that was being giving up for adoption. In this case Mary had suggested her husband was a minister in the Band of Hope, a Temperance organisation that worked with young children. The other was told Mary was the wife of a deacon. It was also feared that in these cases the children were dead, and as she left the dock at Lambeth Mary was hissed by the watching gallery.

Victorian Britain had already witnessed several ‘baby farming’ scandals, this case (dubbed the ‘traffic in babies’) seemed poised to shock the public just as deeply.

At the end of the month the press reported that another child had been found alive, in the infirmary at Greenwich. Mary again appeared in court and was one again remanded for further inquiry. It was also reported that Mary Boyle told the police that the two children belong to Ms Kent and Miss White, (the servants that came to lambeth to give obedience on the 23 May), were indeed dead. When she appeared again in early June Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that the court was so crowded with women and children it resembled a nursery. Mary was still being held at Holloway and the case continued.

By July several women had testified to having been ‘conned’ in to giving up their babies by Mary Boyle. As the case against her was focused on the discovery of the child at Gravesend she was eventually tried at the Maidstone Assizes on 14 July 1893. She was convicted of ‘obtaining a number of children by fraud, and afterwards abandoning them’. The judge sent her to prison for 14 years.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 09, 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 14, 1893; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 21, 1893; Daily News, Wednesday, May 24, 1893; Daily News, Saturday, July 15, 1893; Issue 14754. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.]

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From glad rags and riches to a prison cell: one Victorian lady’s fall from grace

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Rose Cleveland had once been a lady of substance but by May 1873 she had fallen very far indeed. She still retained some of her old contacts and acquaintances, and was managing to keep up the appearance of a ‘person of quality’, but the facade was dropping away.

On 1 May that year she had called on an old friend of hers in Pimlico. When she knocked at the door of Mrs Elizabeth Palmer Parker at Forwood House, Winchester Street she was met by Mrs Parker’s sister, Phoebe. Miss Phoebe Taylor was unmarried and served her sibling as housekeeper. She admitted Rose and showed her into the back dining room.

Mrs Parker vaguely recalled her visitor and was reminded that she had once had some suspicions of her when the pair had dined, four years ago. On that occasion Rose had invited her to dine at the Grosvenor Hotel but attempted to walk off with her guest’s sealskin coat and watch. In consequence, on this occasion Elizabeth asked her sister to stay and keep an eye on their visitor.

However, despite some care being taken to watch Ms Cleveland she managed to purloin two brushes from a ‘valuable set’ in the room. They were missed soon after Rose took her leave of the ladies and a servant was despatched to catch up with her and bring them back. The police were involved and the next day Rose found herself in the Westminster Police Court facing a charge of theft.

Here her life and for fall from grace was broadcast for all to hear and the papers to record. She gave her names as Rose Cleveland, but the court added her other known names (her aliases) as ‘Lady Clinton’ and ‘Lady Grey’. Detective Squire White (a B Division detective) testified that she was well known to him and his colleagues.

‘At one time she owned horses and carriages’, he told the magistrate, ‘but had gradually been reduced in circumstances, and had lately been in the habit of visiting persons’ [like Mrs Parker], and ‘laying her hands on whatever she could carry off’.

The final humiliation was that she ‘had married her former coachman, and he had done nothing for a living for some time’.

Rose admitted her crime and asked to be judged summarily rather than go before a jury. The magistrate agreed to her request and sent her to prison at hard labour for two months. Yesterday’s story was that of an elderly woman who tried to kill herself to escape poverty and an abusive husband. Today’s reminds us that desperation came in many forms in the 1800s, and could affect those were supposedly protected by their wealth or the social status provided by birth or marriage.

In the end Rose had neither.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 02, 1873]

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off

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Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]

The solicitor’s clerk and Commissioner Ye’s fur coat

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Ye Mingchen (1807-1859), governor of Canton (now Guangdong), China

Frederick Fisher might be forgiven for thinking that while he had committed a crime, his grudging admission should have won him some leniency at the very least. Fisher was a clerk in a firm of London solicitors. One the firm’s clients was a Lieutenant Tracey who had seen service in the second Opium War (1856-60). Tracey had been present at the Battle of Canton in which a small face of around 6,000 British troops had overcome and captured a city of over 1 million Chinese.

During the battle the lieutenant had been instrumental in the capture of Commissioner Ye Mingchen (also rendered as Yeh Ming-ch’en) who had famously resisted British influence in the region. One of the items Tracey had taken in spoils was a fur coat belonging to the Chinese viceroy. In April 1859 he had left this at the London solicitors where Frederick Fisher worked.

This must have been a temptation for the young clerk. On small wages and with what was probably a rather dull job he saw the exotic coat made from the fur of hundreds of grey squirrels and decorated with gold buttons, and took it. Fisher pawned the item with a broker in Pentonville and pocketed the money and the ticket (or ‘duplicate’).

The coat was soon missed and the solicitor (a Mr Preston) in whose private office it had been deposited must have flown into a rage or panic. This was an expensive and irreplaceable item and he looked for the culprit. Preston’s suspicions fell on Frederick and he interrogated him. Under pressure the young man buckled and when his boss offered him a way out, by saying that if the coat was returned all would be well, he caved in and admitted his crime.

Imagine his horror then when, having accompanied a detective and Mr Preston to the pawnbrokers and retrieved the missing fur coat, he was arrested. When he was taken before Alderman Phillips  at the Guildhall Police Court and accused of theft, he demanded to know  the lieutenant had sanctioned the prosecution given that the coat was now back in his possession.

The magistrate told him it ‘was immaterial, as the charge was of stealing a coat out of the possession of Mr Preston [my italics], who was responsible to Lieutenant Tracey for it’.

Having admitted his guilt there was nothing Fisher could do but ask for his case to be dealt with summarily, therefore hopefully sparing himself a more lengthy prison sentence. Alderman Phillips remanded him to await his decision on the following Saturday. Sadly we have no idea happened to him because the papers had moved on by then, and poor Frederick Fisher’s fate remains a mystery.

As for Ye Mingchen (who was condemned in the English Parliament as an ‘inhuman monster’ by Lord Palmerston), he was taken as a prisoner of war to Calcutta in British India, where he died of disease a year later; a victim (like many) of British Imperialism. He is remembered as Chinese patriot who stood up to the West and there is a state of him  in Guangzhou.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 23, 1859]

A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

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In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]