‘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]

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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.

 

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

Student prank that takes the biscuit…

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A big fire was always likely to bring people onto the streets in Victorian London. In August 1888 a fire at the docks would have been the news item in the papers the next day had not the mutilated body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls been found in Bucks Row, Whitechapel in the early hours.

Fires were dangerous, and appalling but they were also exciting, especially for London’s youth.

As PC Robert Beavis (283 M division, Metropolitan Police) was watching the fire service tackle a blaze at the Peak Frean’s biscuit factory on Mill Street, south of the river, he claimed he saw three youths ‘larking and pushing one another about’.

As he moved towards them one of them knocked another’s hat  off (a fairly common prank for London youth). As PC Beavis was closest the lad whose hat had been tipped off span round and confronted him. This was a young man named M’Cullock Torrens,  who accused the policeman of knocking his hat off. Beavis denied do anything of the kind and turned away. Presumably angered by this, Torrens then punched the policeman twice in the chest and ran off.

All three men attempted to escape, climbing into a hansom cab before PC Beavis managed to alert the driver to stop. He took his prisoners back to the station and the next day brought Torrens to the Southwark Police Court to be charged with assault.

Several other policeman were on duty that night and corroborated Beavis’ version of events in court. Torrens, who was clearly of ‘respectable’ stock and who was described in court as a ‘student’ living off Eccelston Square, near Victoria, told Mr Partridge (the magistrate) that he had taken a cab with two friends to witness the fire.

They had left the West End and stopped for a few drinks (but were sober, if excited). At the fire he had met up with the police and ‘treated’ the to a few drinks in a nearby pub. He insisted that it was the policeman that had knocked his hat off and when he asked him why the officer had walked off, ignoring him. When he put it back on the copper tipped it off again, so yes, he had hit him, ‘but not very hard’.

One of Torrens’ companions, Charles J Ware confirmed his friend’s account and said he did not consider that Torrens’ actions amounted to an assault. The magistrate disagreed, further more he chose to blame the young men for tempting police constables ‘from their duties and into public-houses at that hour in the morning’, rather than criticise the police for drinking on duty.

He added that ‘no doubt they got to larking, and someone knocked the prisoner’s hat off, but he had no right to assault the constable. An example must be made in such a case, consequently he fined him £10, or two months’ hard labour’. Torrens paid up and left the court with his mates.

The police magistrate was protecting the authority of the police in this case; he could have chosen to side with the young ‘gentlemen’ but that would very publicly have undermined PC Beavis and the collective voice of his colleagues. Torrens could easily afford £10 and was able to leave the court will little damage to his reparation – in fact, in the eyes of his peer group he may well have emerged as something of a ‘hero’.

[from the Morning Post, April 24, 1873]

P.S Peak, Frean & Company Ltd (known later as Peak Freans) were founded in 1857 in Bermondsey, London. According to reports the fire of 23 April 1873 was so spectacular it drew huge crowds, including the Prince of Wales. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with Huntley & Palmers and created the less interestingly named, Amalgamated Biscuit Manufacturers Limited. Several other buyouts over the next few decades mean that now both famous brands are under the umbrella of United Biscuits.

Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

In February 1880 the death of John Locke, the sitting Liberal MP for Southwark seat brought about a by-election. In due course 15,312 eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot and the seat was won by the Conservative candidate,  Edward (later Sir Edward) Clarke. Clarke is most famous for being the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde in his unsuccessful prosecution of the Marquis of Queensbury for libel (which ultimately ended with Wilde being tried and then imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Elections can be rowdy affairs even today and in the past (especially in the 18th century) they were raucous, sometimes fairly corrupt and drink tended to play a significant role. It seems the by-election in Southwark led to at least two Police Court appearances that month.

The first was a bricklayer named Frederick Evans, who ‘borrowed’ a Hanson cab when he was drunk. Evans admitted to having ‘got too much drink’ at the election (which caused much laughter in Wandsworth Police Court. He noticed that William Cheeney (a cab driver) was slumped in a chair in the Ballot room the worse for alcohol, and presumably thought he wouldn’t mind if he borrowed his vehicle.

Cheeney did mind. He appeared in court to give evidence that he wasn’t drunk at all and had only stopped off in the Ballot room to collect his fees for the night (presumably he had been ferrying voters of the receiving officers).

Mr Paget, the magistrate, wasn’t convinced by his story and while he fined Evans for being drunk in charge of a vehicle (so drunk in fact, that he fell off the cab!), he refused the cabbie’s request for expenses and told him to expect a summons from the police for ‘leaving his cab unattended’.

The second case was heard at Southwark and again involved drunkenness.

Ellen Harley (a 49-year old ‘stalwart Irishwoman’), was charged with being drunk and disorderly at the by-election, and ‘causing a mob to assemble’. PC Anker (305 M) was on duty outside a polling station in Fair Street, Horselydown, and witnessed Harley ‘on several occasions’ whipping up the voting public.

She marched up and down shouting ‘Home rule and Irish independence’ (a hot topic in the late 19th century) and the policeman asked her to go away and stop causing an obstruction and a nuisance. At six o’clock she was back and clearly quite inebriated and had gathered a ‘mob’ around her. PC Anker felt ‘obliged to take her into custody’.

In court she apologised and said she had been plied with drink by ‘some of her countrymen; and had got ‘rather excited’. The justice asked if she was known to the court or the gaoler. Fortunately it was found that she wasn’t; this was her first time in court. She was fined 10s or 7 days in prison.

Having stood for my local council at the last general election in 2015 I can attest that the process is a lot more sober these days but the campaigns can be quite lively for all that. Of course poor Ellen couldn’t vote. Although about 2.5 million more Britons had been enfranchised by the Parliamentary Reform Act (1867) this didn’t include women, she would have to wait to 1918 , if she lived that long (she would have been 87 so I doubt it).

p.s The loss of Southwark was temporary. in the 1880 general election (where Disraeli’s Conservatives were trounced by Gladstone, the Liberals regained the seat under Arthur Cohen MP)

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1880]