The Police Courts of Victorian London were open to the public (as magistrates courts are today) but it is rare that we get any sense of what those attending thought of the decision-making they saw there. Occasionally the members of the press recorded laughter – often in response to ignorant or ‘stupid’ comments made by a defendant to in reaction to a regional accent, in a rather dismissive (one might say) metropolitan way.
Presumably the audience (if we may call them that) did voice opinions on those being heard and one those presenting evidence for or against them. The courts were full of humour but also misery and despair; so we can except our ancestors to have reacted in very human ways to the stories that unfolded before them.
In March 1877 a young woman – a servant girl – was brought before the magistrate at Hammersmith charged with theft. Elizabeth Houghton was accused of stealing from her master Charles Levy, a merchant living in Linden Gardens, Bayswater.
Elizabeth was accused of taking several items but her ‘crime’ had come to light when a laundress, to whom she had taken her clothes to wash, found an apron that appeared to have been cut out of a sheet belong to the Levy household.
Elizabeth, when questioned by Mrs Levy, denied the apron was hers and insisted that if it had got into her belongings it could only be because someone had put it with the intention of ‘getting her into trouble’.
A few days later (perhaps on account of the apron) Elizabeth left the Levy’s service, although it is not made clear whether she went voluntarily or was dismissed. It was not uncommon for servants to be ‘let go’ without references if they were discovered to be stealing; after all, it was much easier than taking them to court.
As Elizabeth prepared to leave however, Mrs Levy searched her employee’s possessions (without asking and without her being in attendance). This was a mistake on the part of the merchant’s wife, as we shall see.
In a small box belonging to Elizabeth were found ‘two black feathers, a fan holder and pieces of a sheet’. All of these, Mrs Levy said, belonged not to Elizabeth but to her. Mrs Levy was ‘examined at some length’ by the magistrate and she was adamant that she had purchased the feathers and the fan holder at a shop in Westbourne Grove.
It seemed clear then, that either Elizabeth had indeed pinched the items or someone, perhaps a fellow servant, was attempting to frame her for the thefts.
In court Elizabeth had a legal representative, Mr Claydon, who spoke up for her. He said that in defence, Elizabeth was ‘a very young girl, and up to this time had borne an irreproachable character’. He added that it would have been much better for everyone if Mrs Levy had either searched the girl’s effects in Elizabeth’s presence or, better still, had waited for the police to deal with the accusation.
He went on to state that Elizabeth claimed that the feathers were of ‘a common kind’, and her own property. As for the fan holder, it was a present from her sister and he produced Elizabeth’s mother who swore that was the truth. There was, he finished, no proof that the apron had not been added to the girl’s clothes by mistake or misdirection.
Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate, agreed. He had listened to Mrs Levy’s evidence but was clearly unimpressed. He said he thought it ‘would be useless to send the prisoner for trail, and discharged her’; Elizabeth was free to go.
At this the court broke into spontaneous applause.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 22, 1877]