A daring jewel thief on Houndsditch


An old clothes shop in the Jewish community of Houndsditch 

In 1883 Mr Samuel Morris Samuels ran a jewellers shop at 157 Houndsditch in the City of London. The street was to become infamous in the early twentieth century when a gang of politically-motivated robbers raided a similar establishment at number 119 killing three City policeman in the ensuing attempt to arrest them. The criminals escaped and were later surrounded the following January leading to what has become known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

Samuel Morris Samuels was a member of East London’s large jewish community in the late 1800s. The great synagogue was close by, at Bevis Marks, and thousands of his co-religionists lived in the crowded houses of nearby Spitalfields. The 1800s saw waves of Jewish immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement but Samuels family had probably been in England for decades, if not centuries.

He knew a man called George Wyatt quite well. Wyatt, who dressed well and so was fairly comfortably off, worked for the Electric Light Company as an engine fitter. Im190102Cass-Edi1883 was the year that the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company was founded in London and Sunderland but Wyatt may have worked for a lesser known firm. Edison bulbs (like the one in this advertisement from 1901) have become fashionable again today – they must have seemed like ‘magic’ for our Victorian ancestors.

Wyatt was a regular customer at Samuels’ shop and so the jeweller didn’t pay that much attention to him when he came in at about one o’clock on Sunday 14 January 1883 and asked to look at some watch movements. He bought one for 2s and left. While he was browsing however, the jeweller was busy with another customer who he was ‘showing a parcel of jewellery and other things’. He soon realised after the engineer had left that he was missing a number of things from his counter. Locking up, he chased after Wyatt, caught him and took him back to the shop and called for the police.

At 1.30 PC Foc (55 City) arrived and Mr Samuels handed him a number of things that Wyatt had admitted having in his possession. It was quite a haul:

‘Six gold weddings rings,  which had been stolen from a  tray of eight, a silver watch, and two sets of watch movements’ were surrendered.

When he got him back to the police station PC Fox searched him and found another four watch movements, all later identified as belonging to the Houndsditch jeweller. But this was not the extent of Wyatt’s light-fingered activity.

When detective Robert Leeman searched Wyatt’s rooms he found: ‘a large quantity of miscellaneous property, consisting of gold and silver watches, watch cases, watch movements, and earrings’.

Not surprisingly this haul landed Wyatt in court before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court. There he was asked to explain himself. He provoked considerable laughter in court when he admitted taking the goods but stated that the prosecutor had ‘sold him £90 of worthless goods, and he was only serving him as he had been served’. The magistrate remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

This week I am going to attempt an experiment in my methodology. I have selected the year 1883 because its calendar corresponds with our own and so I should be able to track a week’s reportage of the Police Courts just as a contemporary reader would have done. So let’s see if Mr Wyatt turns up again as he is not in the Old Bailey that month.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 28, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk


‘Half a loaf better than none’: a little local difficulty at Thames


Jewish immigrants on Petticoat lane, by George Eastman House

The newspaper reports of the late Victorian police courts offer us a window into a past society. They throw up all sorts of things that can seem strange, or familiar to the modern reader. London is revealed as a busy and bustling city with all sorts of opportunities for conflict between its denizens. We get an idea of how people lived, where they worked, and how they moved around. We can also see that the capital was, as it is today, one of the world’s most multicultural and vibrant cities.

The East End of London had a large and well established Jewish community. Many of London’s Jews were fairly recent arrivals; coming over during the late 1870s and 1880s to escape persecution in eastern central Europe. Jews living in the Russian Pale (modern day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and some parts of Latvia and Russia) were oppressed by laws which prescribed where they could live, how and when they could work, and that forced them to serve in the armies of Tsarist Russia.

Life was extremely hard in the Pale of Settlement and communities were subject to periodic violent outbreaks of anti-semitic pogroms. Not surprisingly tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and travel across Europe in a search for a better and safer life. Many settled in London, particularly around Whitechapel where they established a community, while others tried to find the money to pay their passage to the ‘golden medina’, the United States of America.

London was no paradise however. Prejudice here was rife and periodic instances of anti-semitism continued to plague the Jewish community. But it was not as lethal as the oppression they had suffered in the Russian Empire, nor was the poverty as grinding. Hard work and persistence meant that the Ashkenazi people of the East End set down strong routes in the capital of Empire and gradually moved out of the East to the North and West of London as their prosperity grew.

In 1897 we get a glimpse of this community and, at the same time, a contemporary English view of them and their traditions. I wouldn’t say the report is racist or ‘anti-alien’ (to use a late Victorian expression) but it does perhaps reflect a contemporary curiosity about the ‘other’ in society.

In January 1897 Joseph Moseley, a Jewish sponge maker, appeared at Thames Police Court to prosecute a summons against Evelina Cohen. The pair had met in January 1896 a year earlier and after a brief courtship Joseph had proposed marriage. He gave Evelina a valuable  diamond engagement  ring and another ‘buckle’ ring as a symbol of their friendship. They agreed to marry in March of that year.

However, something must have gone wrong or Evelina changed her mind because instead of marrying the sponge maker, she married someone else in March 1896 leaving poor Joseph high and dry, and missing two rings. This was why he took her to court.

Mr Dickenson presided at Thames in early 1897 and he was less than pleased that this case had come before him. It did no credit to either of them, he said, to be dragging each other through the courts in this way. He understood that it was the ‘custom among most people, especially ladies, to return rings when an engagement was broken off’.

‘It would be a graceful act on the part of the young lady’ he said, ‘to say “Take back the ring thou gavest,” and give the complainant [Joseph] the diamond hoop, keeping the buckle ring as a trophy of her conquest’.

Moseley was represented by a lawyer, Mr Deakin, who explained that the matter had now been settled. The magistrate was pleased to hear it: ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’ he added referring to the return of one of the rings. Deakin wasn’t convinced that the sponge maker had recovered much from the encounter. ”In this case’, he grumbled, ‘it is only a fifth of a loaf’. After all he had hoped to marry and benefit from Evelina’s dowry, which was reported to be £500 plus a property.

The whole report smacks then of a business deal reneged upon rather than a man jilted ‘at the altar’. The fact that this had to go to law would seem to reflect contemporary negative views of the Jewish community as being built around trade and money, with this being seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Joseph had missed out of a ‘good deal’  and was now trying to get his investment back and I suspect many middle-class English readers reading this had some of their prejudices affirmed by the whole episode.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 16, 1897]

Casual violence in Whitechapel as a char is ‘brutally’ kicked on the ground


When Isaac Sinclair appeared at Worship Street police court on 12 January 1854 it was his second time in a fortnight. He had been remanded the week before, by Mr D’Eyncourt, for an assault on a local char woman who was too poorly to appear to testify against him.

Char women collected dirty laundry to wash for others and were at the bottom of the domestic service ladder in the nineteenth century. The women in question, Hannah Dighton, was evidently very poor and lived in Flower and Dean Street in one of the roughest parts of the capital. In fact later in the century Flower and Dean Street would become synonymous with the Whitechapel murders of 1888, with several of the victims lodging in houses along the street and those nearby (like Wentworth Street or Thrawl Street).

The assault that brought Sinclair (described as ‘a mulatto’ – or more properly, mixed race – and a ‘strolling player’) before first Mr D’Eyncourt and then Mr Hammill, was caused by an altercation between the himself and Hannah. He had accused the char woman of stealing a shirt she had taken to wash for him. He said she had pawned it but this was hotly denied.

Sinclair then ‘struck her a blow on the mouth with his fist’, and when she ran out of the house to find a policeman he chased after her and knocked her to the street. Not content he continued to kick at her while she was prone and caused her to become lame in one leg. Her eye was cut and she bled so much she was taken to the London Hospital and held there for several days before she was released.

When he was asked to speak for himself Sinclair alleged that the woman had struck first, hitting him with a pot. It was a plausible story; women did tended to use weapons close at hand and a chamber pot or a cooking pot (the report is not specific) would fit the bill. But Hannah denied instigating the violence and she was able to produce a another female lodger to corroborate her evidence.

Mr Hammill also heard from PC Michael Duffey (85A) who testified to helping Hannah and to her injuries. The assault had clearly taken place and regardless of its cause or the exact circumstances Sinclair was in the wrong. There must have been a spate of such attacks in recent weeks or days because the newspaper reporter entitled his article ‘More assaults upon females’. papers tended to return to themes that interested, alarmed or informed their readership and violence to women was  a standard one.

Having been detained in custody for over a week Sinclair might have hoped for leniency. He was unlucky however, Mr Hammill made a point of stressing his ‘brutality’ and imposed a sentence of six months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 13, 1854]

Boxing twins at Westminster are thwarted by a new act to prevent cruelty to children


When I think of boxing twins I always think of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the East End’s premier gangsters of the twentieth century. There was something about being twins and taking on all-comers in the post war clubs and fairgrounds that helped immortalise the pair. Their mother was not at all happy when they chose to fight each other though, but most of the rest of the audience were; seeing brothers, twins even, attempt to knock the living daylights out of each other was a proper spectacle.

Maybe this lay at the heart of William Gamgee’s desire to see his boys fight on stage at the the London Aquarium.  He’d brought them special costumes and gloves and they had already started to learn the skills they needed to become boxers.

There was a problem however, the boys were only 8 or 9 years old and so Gammage had to apply for a licence from a magistrate if he wanted them to appear on stage at the Aquarium. To this end he’d approached Mr Partridge at Westminster Police Court and applied for a license under the Better Protection of Children Act (1889) also better known as the Children’s Charter. The act had only just become law and reflected a growing feeling that children needed protection from adults. The NSPCC had adopted its name in that year, having previously been founded as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1883. This organisation (inspired by an American equivalent) soon formed branches in London (founded by Lord Shaftesbury) and elsewhere. In 1895 it was granted a Royal charter.

The magistrate was amused by the application and perhaps it reminded him of a childhood desire to box at school. He quizzed the father, a hairdresser, and then called the boys to the stand. The father was asked what whether he was to receive any reward from the twins appearance on stage. No, he said, all they would get was a pair of gold medals if they won.

What about the gloves they were using? Gammage handed them over and the magistrate amused the watching court by making a fist with them as if he wanted to put them on. He agreed they seemed fit for purpose but were unlikely to hurt the children. Mr Gammage also produced a certificate from the boys’ schoolmaster to say they were good attendees at school and making progress with their lessons.

Gammage said they only fought for three rounds and he decided when they should stop. A police inspector said he’d witnessed the boys fighting and said it wasn’t ‘vicious’ and he didn’t believe anyone was getting hurt.

When the twins were questioned they said they enjoyed boxing very much. They didn’t get hurt and their father was always with them.

‘Would you rather be hairdressers, like your father, when you grow up, or fighters?’ he asked them.

‘Fighters’ was their emphatic reply, drawing laughter from the public gallery.

So now it came down to the magistrate’s opinion and his interpretation of the law. Dr Pearce, A Division’s police surgeon said he’d examined the boys and could see no ill-effects so far. A little exercise was fine he added, but ‘if it were continued night after night at their present age, he thought it would be injurious’.

That was enough for Mr Partridge. Whilst I suspect he secretly enjoyed seeing the two young pugilists in his court and fancied their sparring was perfectly safe and probably a ‘good thing’, his position as an interpreter of new laws made him err on the side of caution. He told the disappointed hairdresser and his sons that he would not be issuing a license to let them box anytime soon. They’d have to wait until they were a little bit older.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

A ‘have a go hero’ is fined for his trouble


It took quite a long time for Arthur Joyce to be brought before the magistrate at Woolwich Police Court. On the night of the 25 July the confectioner, who had a business at Shooter’s Hill in south-east London, was in bed when he heard a scream of ‘murder’ outside his window. When these were followed by several more he leapt out of bed, pulled on some clothes, grabbed his revolver and headed out into the street.

He soon saw a man ‘savagely beating a woman’ and shouted to him to stop. When the man turned his anger on Joyce the tradesman fired his pistol five times in the air to, as he later explained, ‘to attract the attention of the police’.

Immediately after the incident Joyce was brought before the nearest police court but any charges against him (for firing a gun) were dismissed by the magistrate. Presumably on that occasion his worship felt this vigilante act, while not exactly legal, was appropriate and in pursuit of a higher goal.

However, Joyce had no license for his revolver and this was an offence which came under the jurisdiction of the Inland Revenue in 1888. As a result a summons was issued for the confectioner to appear again and on 29 September 1888 he was up before Mr Fenwick at Woolwich.

The prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of the Inland Revenue in the person of a Mr Power who called Joyce’s neighbour, Frederick Hoare, to testify. He had seen Joyce running excitedly up the street, blood coming from a wound he had received from the wife beater. In defence Joyce’s lawyer told the court that his client was a ‘respectable tradesman’ and ‘could not be expected to take out a license for a revolver which was intended solely for protection in his own house’.

Mr Power was sympathetic to the confectioner’s situation but pressed his case; there had been a number of similar incidents he said, and several complaints, so he must insist on a fine. I rather suspect that while the magistrate agreed to the legal truth of the matter he also felt that Joyce had acted with honourable intent. He fined him 1s with 2s costs, possibly the minimum he could so that ‘justice’ could be done without unduly penalising the actions of a ‘have a go hero’.

We should remember that this was London in 1888 in the midst of ‘autumn of terror’ when the Whitechapel murderer killed at least five women in the streets of East London. One of the debated ‘facts’ of the ‘Ripper’ case is that no one seems to have heard anything as the killer struck and it has been said that cries of ‘murder!’ were so common that nobody would have reacted anyway. Well, perhaps Arthur Joyce, had he lived in Whitechapel, might have bothered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 01, 1888]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s


Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

Police ‘errors’ or corrupt practice? The fine blue line in the East End


When a relatively straightforward and seemingly uninteresting assault case involving two working-class females makes the news you can be sure something extra is afoot. In September 1881 in East London this was exactly what was happening.

Charlotte Frost and another woman, named simply as Seihler (and so most probably from the immigrant Jewish population) had a fight and ended up at Worship Street Police court. Mrs Seihler was accused of assaulting the other woman but when it came up in court the defendant protested.

She told the magistrate (Mr Bushby) that when she had first been taken to the police station she stated, in her defence, that she was merely reacting to having been first attacked by Frost. However, in court this had not been represented this way by the arresting police officer, PC Saw (232K). Mr Bushby asked PC Saw if the woman had made a statement to this effect and the policeman said she had not, contradicting Mrs Seihler’s statement.

Since there was a conflict of evidence the magistrate sent for the station inspector, Hudson, who had taken down the charge against the woman. He supported the defendant’s evidence by confirming that yes, Mrs Seihler had accused Frost of assaulting her, not the other way around.

Mr Bushby was clearly perturbed by this and effectively accused the policeman of perverting the course of justice. ‘There was no doubt’ he said, ‘that the Constable had committed perjury, and his conduct should be reported’. After all, this was serious as it could make all the difference ‘between her [Mrs Seihler] going to prison and being discharged’.

The magistrate then discharged the prisoner but dictated a statement to the clear which was intended to be passed on for the attention of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. This read:

‘The constable swore falsely, after the Prisoner declared at the station that she was struck first, that she did not say so. This most dangerous kind of perjury has occurred here three or four times lately’.

Was it a mistake (as Inspector Hudson presented it – adding that PC Saw was new to the force) or an example of anti-semitism, favouritism, or another form of corruption? We can hardly say from this distance but in close knit communities where distrust of the police was commonplace this hardly helped to foster good relations.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 20, 1881]