‘It is a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’.

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In September 1878 the police around Chelsea mounted a special exercise to clamp down on a perennial problem. Large groups of men and boys frequently gathered along Pavilion Road to play at cards in the streets. In doing they were causing such an obstruction as to block the road completely for other users.

On the 11th September the police swooped. They picked up five men who were presented the very next day at Westminster Police Court and charged with betting and causing an obstruction. John Gardiner (32) and Hermann Murray (42) were each fined £4 with the option to go to prison for a month if they were unable to pay.

There was a little more detail given about the arrests of John Jones, John Morley and James Magstow (though not their ages). The arresting police officers were detective sergeants Buxton and Bibby from B Division.  Jones was playing a game of cards with others and Morley was shouting the odds.

He called out ‘5 to 2 on the field’ to the onlooking crowd which prompted Magstow to step forward and make a bet. This was a serious game with high stakes and the detectives reported that upwards of 200 men were watching the game unfold. When they were sure they had evidence of betting activity (with Magstow’s bet presumably) they made the arrest, seizing the three men.

One imagine most of the rest of the crowd scarpered as quick as they could before the uniforms could move in and make further arrests. When searched ‘the usual cards and books were found on them’, and on Jones ‘a large sum of money’.

Inspector White explained that the nuisance was ‘intolerable’ and the magistrate (Mr Bridge) was satisfied that a charge of illegal betting had been proven against the men. Jones was the ringleader and Morley was his ‘clerk’. In some respects Magstow was also a victim (unless he was  dummy planted by Jones and Morley to temp others to stake their own bets).

Mr Bridge told the court that it ‘was a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’, but was clear that this sort of behaviour needed to be dealt with firmly. He deemed Jones to be a rogue and a vagabond and initially sent him away for a month at hard labour. He fined Morley £4 and Magstow £2 (warning them that if they could not pay they too would go to gaol).

Then, for reasons that are not made clear he changed his mind and reduced Jones’ sentence to a £5. Perhaps he thought a pecuniary punishment more appropriate. The prisoner was apparently ‘highly delighted at the alteration of his sentence’ and left court  poorer but still a free man.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 12, 1878]

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Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]

A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

A dishonest butcher is hooked

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Thomas Dubbin had enjoyed a steady job as a butcher’s foreman working for a respectable business on The Strand. But his relationship with his employer, Mr Grant, had soured and, after a decade of employment, Grant suspected him of dishonesty.

Nowadays firms (especially retail companies) try to solve these issues in house. Investigations into pilfering or fraud usually start with disciplinary hearings and only involve the police if it is serious, or the accused employee does not confess quickly to their offending. It seems here though that Mr Grant immediately took his concerns to police and consulted two detectives, DS Partridge and DS Drew.

Mr Grant then had a visit from one of the lads he employed , whose name was Marshall. Marshall told him that the foreman had approached him and ‘incited him to steal some kidneys and take them to a neighbouring  shoemaker’s’.

This gave the butcher the hook he required to explose his dishonest employee.

Young Marshall acted as he had been told and took the offal to the shoemaker’s premises. Meanwhile the police kept Dubbin under observation to see what he did. Sure enough he went straight to the shoemaker’s workshop where he collected the kidneys. The police were waiting for him and he was arrested.

The magistrate was disgusted with his behaviour; partly because of the dishonesty in robbing a master he had served for 10 years, and for inciting a much younger member of staff to steal on his behalf. Thomas Dubbin was sent to prison for 3 months at hard labour and lost his steady employment too.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1883]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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In the light of this weekend’s terrorist attack in London I was reminded of a graphic I saw recently detailing the state of terror in Britain in the 50 odd years I’ve been alive. This graph is for Europe not simply the UK but it quite clearly shows that we have been through worse times than this in terms of numbers of people killed and wounded. I am not in the business of belittling the current state of emergency, I live in London and have friends all over the country. We need to vigilant and we need to carry on and show solidarity and strength; this sort of extremist terrorism is a real threat to our lives and our beliefs.

However, its not new, even if it comes in a new form.

In the 1970s and 80s terrorism at home came from Ireland in the guise of nationalists. Abroad it was middle-eastern or closely related to organised political crime. But even seventies terrorism wasn’t a new phenomena; we had terrorism in the 1800s as well.

In Europe political extremists (to use a modern term) committed terrorist ‘outrages’ with alarming regularity. They planted bombs, through bombs, and stated assassination attempts. In 1881 three bombers attempted the life of Tsar Alexander II. The first failed (Alexander was protected by his bullet-proof carriage), the second succeeded, and so the third assassin didn’t need to use his improvised suitcase bomb.

The killing didn’t achieve anything useful, it merely brought about a crackdown on extremists and put back the cause of political reform in Russia many years.

From the 1860s onwards Irish nationalists engaged in what was termed the ‘dynamite war’ with the  British State. In 1867 bombers attempted to blow a hole in Clerkenwell prison to allow their fellow nationalists to escape. Twelve people were killed and many more injured. In the end one man was convicted and held accountable, even though he may have been a fall guy for the Victorian state. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged publicly in England as a result of the bombing.

In the wake of the bombing at Clerkenwell Karl Marx recognised that the Irish national cause was not helped by blowing up innocent civilians in London. In fact he suggested that he actually helped the government. His 1867 comment is eerily prescient in 2017:

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government”. Karl Marx (1867)

In the 1880s the war led to several terrorist attacks in the capital, none of which were very successful or had the effect of Clerkenwell. At the end of May 1884 the  Pall Mall Gazette reported a number of related incidents in London under the headline, ‘Dynamite outrages in London’.

Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, was attacked. A bomb was left in a toilet block behind the Rising Sun pub, and when it went off it knocked out all the lights in the pub and the nearby police lodgings. Several people were hurt, mostly by flying glass and other debris, no one seems to have been killed. The target was said to be the Detective Division HQ nearby or (and this is more likely) that of the Special Irish Branch.

Almost instantaneously another explosion rocked Pall Mall. A bomb went off outside the Junior Carlton Club, in St James’ Square, a smart gentleman’s club which was a favourite of London’s elite. Nearby however, were the offices of the Intelligence Department of the War Office who may have bene the real quarry of the bombers. Again, there was lots of broken glass and superficial damage but few casualties.

A second bomb, in St James Square seems to have had similarly limited effects. Several people were treated for cuts but no one died.

The paper also reported that a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square had been foiled:

‘While all this excitement was going on , some boys, passing close to Nelson’s Column, noticed a carpet bag reclining against the base of the pedestal.’ The bag was seized by a vigilant policeman (who I believe thought the boys were trying to pinch it). He saw one of the boys aim a kick at the bag and probably thought they were about to run off with it. When the bag was examined it was found to contain ‘seventeen and a half cakes of what is believed to be dynamite, and a double fuse’. The boys had a lucky escape.

Earlier that year there had been similar attacks at Victoria  Station and other London termini, on the London Underground and later, in 1885 at the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. In 1884 a gang of Irish republicans blew themselves up on London Bridge, but not deliberately, they were trying to set a fuse which detonated accidentally. They were intent on sending Westminster a message and an attack on the iconic heart of the capital (note, Tower Bridge was not yet completed), would have made that message very clear: we are here and we can get to you.

Ultimately Irish Republican (or ‘Fenian’) terrorism was not successful in the 1880s or the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement which ended the decades (if not centuries) of war between nationalists and the British State was the result of negotiation by diplomacy, not a forced surrender of the British state. Indeed there was recognition that the Republican movement was not going to force the British to agree to ‘freedom’ through the armalite  or the bomb, and that’s why they agreed to talks.

I doubt we can hope that the current crop of terrorists will come to the same conclusion anytime soon but we can at least demonstrate to them that we won’t be cowed, or beaten, or surrender to their vicious brand of hate. In the meantime they will keep trying to terrify us and we will keep carrying on with our lives, knowing this is the best way to show them that they can’t win.

Meanwhile, in 1885, some of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London over the previous year were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. James Gilbert (alias Cunningham) and Harry Burton were convicted after a long trial, of treason, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. For those of you with a fascination for the Jack the Ripper case you will be interested to know that detective inspector Frederick Abberline (along with two others) was mentioned by the judge for his efforts in bringing the case to court.*

If you want to read more about Fenian ‘outrages’ in 1880s’ London then a section of my 2010 book London Shadows: the dark side of the Victorian City, deals with it in more depth.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 31, 1884]

*MR. JUSTICE HAWKINS  called attention to a presentment by the Grand Jury, expressing their strong approval of the conduct of the Police in this case, and particularly mentioning Inspectors Abberline, Jarvis, and Hagan, and desire that the attention of the proper authorities should be called to the same.

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]