‘Where are the police?’ is the cry as windows get smashed

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Middle Row, Holborn, in the nineteenth century

Henry Holesworth was strolling along High Holborn early on Friday evening, the 19th January 1855, when he noticed a cab driver seem to throw something. The driver was following another hansom along the road and pulled back his arm in what seemed, to Holesworth at least, a throwing action. Seconds later there was an almighty smash as one of the windows of Mr Watkins’ shop shattered.

Holesworth quickly told the shopkeeper what he’d seen and the pair of them set off in hot pursuit of the cabbie. Since the street was busy with other vehicles they soon caught up with him and gave him into the custody of a nearby policeman. On the following morning three men were in court, in front of the magistrate at Bow Street.

The defendant was James Boswell and he was charged with breaking a window valued at 10s but this was no ordinary act of vandalism or revenge. The Bow Street office heard from a number of people that morning, all tradesmen, who insisted that this was part of an orchestrated campaign against them.

The magistrate heard that representatives of the Plate Glass Protection Company ‘had constantly requested’ tradesmen in the area to unsure themselves against such damage. This was what we would term a protection racket then; intimidation by a local gang of felons who perhaps employed cab drivers to remind the shopkeepers of the perils of not parting with their insurance subscriptions.

Sadly however this was merely speculation; there was little or no proof of a conspiracy. Indeed there wasn’t even enough solid evidence to convict Boswell of breaking Mr Watkins’ window. Holesworth, a mechanic by trade, could only state that he saw the cab driver’s arm move as if he was throwing a stone. Crucially he did not see him throw anything and accepted his movement could have been caused by ‘a buffeting of the wind’.

As a result Boswell was discharged and walked free from Bow Street. However, the magistrate, Mr Henry, felt obliged to state (for the newspaper record at least) that he was aware that something was amiss and his statement carried a rebuke of the police.

‘It is a notorious fact’ he grumbled, ‘that nearly every night the tradespeople of Oxford Street have their plate-glass windows smashed, and the remark has been made as to what the police are about’.

The Metropolitan Police force was only 26 years old in 1855 and still establishing itself in mid Victorian society. It may have survived the early attempts to abandon Peel’s experiment with centrally organised policing, but – as this report shows – continued to face ongoing criticism of its efficiency.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 22, 1855]

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Pram (and class) wars in Regent’s Park

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A family nursemaid and her fellow servant were taking the children in their care to the park when they ran into an angry pedestrian. The case was trivial but reveals the deeply ingrained class distinctions of late Victorian London.

Evelyn Thatcher lived and worked for General Knox and his wife in Portman Square. The couple had two children, a boy of five and baby under 12 months old. On the 11 November 1891 Ms Thatcher and her assistant nurse, Annie Leadbitter, were on their way to Regent’s Park for the afternoon. The little boy was in his go-kart while Leadbitter pushed the infant along in a perambulator. Together, however, they occupied most of the pavement which as they made their way two abreast, with a yard between the children’s vehicles.

Meanwhile Captain Saunders, of 3 Upper Spring Street, (off nearby Baker Street), also enjoying the late autumn air. Looking up the captain suddenly saw the approaching women and their charges. He stopped in his tracks, ‘stamped his feet, raved, and flourished his umbrella’ before telling them to get out of his way as they were ‘obstructing the footway’.

Leadbitter (possibly ill-advisedly) was in no mood to be gracious enough to move aside. She said:’Good gracious man, are you mad […] what is the matter?’ before pointing down the street at a policeman and telling him to call him to arrest them if he really felt they were causing an instruction. After all there was clear yard of pavement between them he could easily pass through.

At this the captain started his ‘ravings’ again and Leadbitter decided to ignore him and set off again. This enraged Saunders who grabbed her by the shoulder, shook her and then proceeded to drag her along the street. The boy on his go-kart started to cry and the little baby looked terrified by his display.

The policeman soon arrived and while he agreed that the women should perhaps not have occupied all the pavement they had broken no laws. Nevertheless the captain seized hold of the nurse and shook his umbrella ‘violently’ at her and even in the face of the children. A nearby cabdriver saw the whole thing and when the captain was summoned before the magistrate at Marylebone, he testified in support of the servants against the military man.

Captain Saunders was seemingly apoplectic in his rage. The cabbie, Henry Canning, reportedly called him a ‘Zulu’ so fierce was he at having his daily perambulation  interrupted by a pair of lowly nursemaids and a boy in a go-kart.

Mr Newton (the magistrate) had heard quite enough of this nonsense and it was making a scene in his courtroom. Given that the public galleries often attracted the ‘meaner’ sort of Londoner we can imagine that they were enjoying the sport of watching a member of the ‘better’ class being bested on the street and in court by a pair of working-class women.

Captain Saunders vehemently denied assaulting Annie Leadbitter, the children, or indeed anyone else, ever. The nurses were in the wrong for blocking the pavement with the pram and cart. Mr Newton agreed with him on this at least but supported the view of the policeman at the time; it might be wrong but it was not against the law. Grabbing hold of the nurse and hauling her up the street was wrong however, and a crime. He fined him 2s 6d  – a trivial amount for what he described as a ‘trivial offence’.

With a snort that probably reflected his contempt for both the fine and the decision, the captain paid the money and left. Annie and Evelyn were also free to return to Portman Square with an amusing tale to relate over supper in the servants’ quarters later that day. Whether their employers were quite as pleased is another matter of course.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 01, 1892]

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

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On Saturday 7 October 1854 Henry Young, a currier from Westminster, hired a hansom cab to take him to a number of appointments across London. He was picked up in Victoria Street and finally set down at the Royal Military College in Chelsea.

The cab driver, John Blake, then asked him for 7s and 6d for the fare. Young now attempted to bargain with him, offering just 5s instead, which Blake refused. Either not wishing to pay more, or not having the money, the currier offered to leave the driver his name and address and made to walk away.

However, as he moved away from the Royal College Blake followed after him and started to attract a crowd around him. In the end there were upwards of 50 or 60 people harassing the currier, and presumably plenty of verbal abuse was directed at him. When Young hailed another cab Blake told the driver that he wouldn’t get paid, recounting what had heaped to him. Not surprisingly the cabbie refused to take the fare and poor Young was obliged to continue on foot.

When he reached the King’s Arms on Sloane Square the currier ducked inside, followed by the cabbie. Now Blake demanded his address, which Young wrote down on a  piece of paper for him, and then smacked him in the face with his fist and called him ‘an _______ thief’, who ‘wanted to cheat him’.

This was both a physical assault and a public insult and so Young was determined to prosecute his assailant. The case was brought beforeMr Arnold at Westminster Police Court. Despite there being some reasonable grounds for provocation (Young hadn’t paid the cabbie the full fare – or any fare it seems) the magistrate suspended his license for three months and sent him to prison for four weeks.

This is an example of the courts displaying a clear class bias; had Young not been a ‘respectable’ merchant with probably links to the City guilds I suspect he would have been prosecuted for not payment of his fare and Blake merely admonished for resorting to violence. As it was it the cabbie had overstepped the bounds of deference, and had assaulted one of his ‘betters’. We should remember that cab drivers then had a very poor reputation in certain quarters – especially amongst the magistracy and police who saw them as surly at best and disrespectful of ‘polite society’.

How things have changed…

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 12, 1854]

p.s The Kings Arms is no longer a pub but the building still exists next to Sloane Square tube station; I think it is a restaurant today.

‘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]

An angry husband waits up for a wife who comes home late, ‘exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

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Hackney in the 1840s

There were plenty of assault cases heard before the professional police magistrates of London in the nineteenth century and it was rare for any of them to be pushed on up through the justice system. Most ended in a reconciliation between the warring parties, with apologies made, or were punished with a fine. In some cases, for example if the defendant did not have the money for  fine or the assault was deemed serious enough (or it was against the police) prison was used as a deterrent for future violence.

Assaults were generally perpetrated by men. Men fought other men outside pubs, and drink was often the catalyst. Men hit their wives (drink and jealousy, frustration, or dissatisfaction being the underlying causes) and women sometimes hit back. Most of this violence (at least that which reached the summary courts) was committed by working class Londoners on other working-class Londoners; appearances by the ‘respectable’ or ‘well-to-do’ while not entirely absent, were rare.

This is one such rare case, both because its protagonists were members of the lower middle class and one at least was an elderly man, not often the subject of assault accusations or counter-claims.

Thomas Wicher was a  ‘respectable’ master builder who had taken rooms at an address in Dalston, Hackney, East London. However, he didn’t live there most of the week, leaving that space for his wife, and only ‘occasionally’ sleeping there . Richer was an elderly man – at least that is how he was described by the court reporter that wrote up his case – and perhaps his wife was much younger. We can’t know that from the newspaper report but we can perhaps infer it.

The builder clearly entertained some suspicions  about his wife’s conduct, in particular involving a former friend of his called George Minor. Minor was a linen draper, another member of the capital’s growing middle classes. The men had known each other for years, indeed they had lived together and been ‘intimate’ in the past. I take this to mean that they were (or had been) close ‘chums’ at one stage. This friendship was about to be sorely tested, however.

Thomas Wicher, having as I’ve said, either having been tipped off or otherwise suspecting all was not right in his relationship with his wife, headed for her lodgings in Shrubland Grove, Dalston. He got there at 10 o’clock at night and was concerned when his servant told him that his wife was not at home.

Thomas waited in the parlour for her return in a ‘state of considerable agitation and anxiety’ until about one in the morning when he heard a hansom cab pull up. The builder opened his front door and went outside. He could see his wife ‘reclining in the back’ of the cab and then saw George Minor alight from the vehicle. Minor was ‘evidently surprised’ to see Wicher but ‘recovered himself’, smiled and offered him his hand to shake.

The builder refused the hand of friendship and instead went straight up the cab to look at the state of his wife, who was clearly quite drunk. In fact Mrs Wicher presented a ‘dreadful spectacle’:

Her ‘bonnet was crushed and broken, her hair and dress [were] in a most disordered condition, one of her ear-rings gone, and herself exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

Wicher lifted his drunken wife from the cab and proceeded to carry her into their house, followed by Minor. The linen draper insisted on entering despite Wicher’s attempt to prevent him. The pair soon struggled and a fight broke out.

Minor alleged that his former friend now beat and hit him with great violence, striking his face and landing a blow on his chest which meant that he ‘spat blood for upwards of an hour afterwards’. Thomas Wicher was evidently in a jealous rage and had it not been for the intervention of a local policeman he may have caused more harm to the draper, and possibly his wife.

Fortunately he was arrested and presented at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch on the following day. There, Mr D’Eyncourt  pronounced his doubt that he could deal with such a serious assault summarily, and bailed Wicher to appear at the Sessions of the Peace. The terms of the bail were set at £100 for himself, and two sureties of £50 each. Normally one would approach close friends or business associates as sureties, we can probably be fairly confident that Wicher didn’t ask George Minor.

I haven’t got around to matching up the sessions of the peace records with the summary courts yet, but after September (on the release of the Digital Panopticon project) I am hopeful that these will become available digitally, making that task a lot easier.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 30, 1852]

‘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! 

A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

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When Julius Beale hailed  a cab at Regent’s Circus at 1 in the morning it is fair to say he was a little the worse for drink. As the cab headed off towards his home in Gower Street, Beale fell asleep and didn’t wake until he was dimply aware of being outside his front door. While his head was clouded by the alcohol he had consumed he felt sure he’d paid the driver and made it up the stairs to his front door. However, as the cab pulled off he was suddenly aware that his watch – an expensive gold time piece – was missing. Assuming he had left it in the cab or it had been lifted while he slept, he ran after the vehicle. Eventually a passing policeman helped him stop the driver. The cab was searched and his watch and chain was discovered under the seat.

The next morning Beale, the policeman and the cab driver were all in the Bow Street Police Court where a charge of theft was brought against the driver, John Leggatt.

Having heard Beale’s evidence Leggatt’s lawyer, Mr Abrams, cross-examined the prosecutor.  Crucially of course he had been inebriated and therefore his testimony was fairly suspect at best. Could he really recall exactly what had happened? Had he in fact even paid the fare for his journey? An alternative scenario was presented in which Beale was actually running away from the cab driver who was demanding his money.

The policeman confirmed Beale’s account of the events but this didn’t include any evidence that Leggatt had stolen the watch or that Beale had paid him for the ride. It merely confirmed that the ‘cabman was driving away at a trot, pursued [it seemed] by the prosecutor’.

As far as Mr Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, was concerned there was not enough evidence either to convict Leggatt in a summary court or send him for jury trial. He concluded that:

 ‘the circumstances of the case were very suspicious, but drunken men sometimes did very strange things, and it was quite possible that the prosecutor might have put the watch and chain under the seat himself. At all events no jury would convict the prisoner on the evidence of a drunken man’.

And so he discharged him.

At this Abram decided to push his (or rather his client’s) luck. He said he hoped that Beale would now settle his fare. Mr Henry strongly advised Beale not to however. The cabbie had been driving away at a trot and this seemed suspicious if he hadn’t been paid. He should have at least have taken the man’s address and best practice would have been to drive him directly to the ‘station-house, that the [police] inspector might settle any dispute’.

The magistrate invited Mr Abrams to apply for a summons if he wished to take it further but he declined, given what he had heard from the justice. His client however, was much less easily dissuaded and did apply for one. Mr Henry told him he ‘could have the summons if he liked but it would probably not succeed, as he (Mr Henry) had very little doubt he had been paid’. Reflecting on this Leggatt chose to cut his losses and not spend his money on a summons that was doomed to fail.

Was Leggatt a thief? Possibly, or perhaps he saw the dropped watch and thought he’d take advantage of the windfall. Was Beale a fare-dodger? Again, how can we know that? In all likelihood he did pay or the cab driver would have pursued him on the night. The moral is probably don’t get into a cab when you’re drunk.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 17, 1862]

Last night I went to a London Historians event at the Sir Christopher Hatton pub in Leather Lane where we were entertained by an excellent musician Henry Skewes (who set old ballads about convict transportation to music) and two fascinating talks on the history of crime. The first, by Dr Lucy Williams of Liverpool University, focused on the life of one woman convicted at the Old Bailey in 1876. Lucy, and the other speaker, Professor Tim Hitchcock of Sussex, are part of the Digital Panopticon project which is tracing the lives of those sentenced to exile in Australia after 1788.

Lucy uses the records of the courts, the census, and newspaper sources like these to track her ‘criminals’ through time and the findings of these long term project are already challenging what we understand about criminality and individual lives in the past. While I’m not part of the project my own work is already revealing how important it is to look outside the jury courts if we want to study criminality in the past. I started in the summary courts of the 18th century but have now moved on to this work on the 1800s, because here we seen a much better recording of crime and those involved in it. I will be presenting my academic version of this work in Liverpool, to the Digital Panopticon team, in September of this year.