‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town


At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]


Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.


In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox


The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met


Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]

A fraudster is exposed at a West London court as a possible copycat killer strikes in the East End


At 2.15 in the morning on 13 February 1891 the last of the Whitechapel murder victims was discovered, by a raw police constable on his first unsupervised beat patrol. PC Thompson of H Division heard retreating footsteps in front of him as Chamber Street curved away in the near distance and stumbled over the dying body of a woman whose throat had been slashed three times.

The woman was Frances Coles and experts continue to argue as to whether she was killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ or a copycat killer. In the wake of her murder one man, James Sadler, was arrested and questioned, but cleared of all involvement in her mystery. Coles’ is the last name in the police file at the National Archives, one of nine associated with the as yet unknown serial killer that terrorised East London between 1888-91.

Coles’ murder didn’t trouble the Police Courts on Valentine’s Day 1891, Sadler would appear but later in the week. Over at the quieter West London Police court business went ahead as normal. We should remember that most of the work that the Police Courts did was routine; they dealt with day-to-day petty crime: assaults, thefts, frauds, domestic violence, street disputes, trading violations, drunks and paupers. Murder was unusual, serial murder (outside of 1888) almost unheard of.

John Roberts, a jeweller who lived and worked on Westmorland Road, appeared to answer a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. The prosecutor was a coffee house keeper named John Sparks who explained that he’d answered an advertisement in the newspapers.

The advert offered an incentive for investing in a business via a loan. For anyone putting up £15 a ‘bonus of £7’ was offered and this was unwritten by a security of £160 in jewellery and watches. Thinking that he had nothing to lose Sparks wrote the address given in the advert in early September 1890 and arranged to meet with Roberts. Roberts came to his house and assured him that he had plenty of backers and had ‘a large contract for a city firm’. His business was growing, he employed seven men and he gave him ’19 [pawnbrokers’] duplicates relating to watches and jewellery’. Confident that the offer was genuine the coffee man handed over £18 and was given a promissory note for £25, to be cashed in 14 days later.

Six days later Roberts came to see Sparks requesting a further loan, this time of just £10. Again he offered a premium (£3 on this occasion) and handed him 21 duplicates as security. Sparks gave him the money but, not surprisingly (yo us at least) the jeweller was back again on the 16 September to borrow a further £2. All he got this time was an IOU.

Time passed and there was no sign of Roberts so Sparks, understandably anxious about his investment, went to the address he’d written to expecting to find a jeweller’s shop with Roberts in place but he was disappointed. Instead of a jeweller’s he found a tobacconist, and there was no sign of Roberts at all.

Eventually Roberts was traced and arrested and (five months after the affair began) he was presented at West London in front of Mr Curtis Bennett the sitting magistrate. Was this his first foray into money lending the justice asked? It was, Sparks replied, and ‘likely to be the last’ Mr Bennett quipped. The pawnbroker duplicates were produced and seemed to be genuine, but were all in different handwriting and signatures. Mr Bennet wanted this investigated and granted a remand so that Roberts could be held while further police investigations were made.

Sparks was out of pocket and, unless it could be proven that Roberts had scammed him and, more to the point, the value of the duplicates that covered the loan could be realised, he was at least £30 out of pocket. £30 in 1891 is about £1,800 in today’s money so a not inconsiderable sum to lose. Mr Bennett looked over to the coffee house keeper and advised that in future:

‘to place his money in the Post Office Savings Bank, and not try to make himself rich by lending money to sharks’.


[from The Standard, Saturday, February 14, 1891]

A feckless husband and father is brought to book


Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.

Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.

Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.

Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.

Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.

They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:

‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.

Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.

Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

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

‘I’m afraid that I will actually have to keep him’. A newly wed wife’s complaint at Westminster


1888 was an horrendous year for the people of London, especially the denizens of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. From August to November there had been at least six unsolved murders and the whole of that area of East London remained caught under the ‘spell of terror’ the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ had cast. The police patrols had been wound down and most of the world’s press had lost interest by the end of year but the district would forever be associated with the case.

The role of the press reporting of the metropolitan police courts was partly to inform, to warn and highlight, but also to entertain. On New Year’s eve 1888 (after such a dreadful five months) the first story readers were presented with fell firmly into the last category.

An unnamed married ‘middle-aged’ woman presented herself at Westminster Police Court and asked for Mr Partridge’s help in solving a domestic issues. She had wed an old soldier – an army pensioner infant – just before Christmas but was regretting her decision to do so. Just like so many of us at Christmas (judging by the crowds filling the exchange queues at the shops on the 26 December) she had got something she no longer wanted.

She asked the magistrate if he would help her get back the furniture she had brought into the marriage, having left her new husband a few days ago.

‘And you have only been married a fortnight?’ Mr Partridge asked her.

‘Yes. He has not turned out what I expected. I can’t do with him at all’, she replied (prompting peals of laughter in the courtroom).

‘But you have not given him much of a trial’, protested the magistrate.

‘It’s long enough. What he said on Boxing Day was quite sufficient. He’s getting on in years, and I’m afraid the end of it might be that I should actually have to keep him’.

She was happy for him to go ‘where he likes’ she just wanted her possessions back. Mr Partridge was in no mood to assist however, he told her go home and try and patch things up. ‘I don’t wish to’, she replied. Then she would have to go to the County Court he explained, he could not do anything for her.

As the disgruntled wife and a younger women (her daughter it transpired) withdrew and elderly man shuffled forward to present himself, wearing ‘a cast-off military overcast’. This was the woman’s husband and he too had come to ask for Mr Partridge’s help.

He was a widower with three three children and had married the lady in question, presumably hoping for some comfort and support in his final years. She had one daughter of her own and it seemed a reasonable match. It very quickly became clear however that it was a mistake.

The Boxing Day squabble arose, he explained, ‘over a spoon’.

‘One of my children asked for a spoon [a teaspoon to be precise] to eat his dinner, and my wife said to me: “Do you want one too?”.’ At this the public gallery collapsed into ‘loud laughter’.

The old soldier tried to carry on with his narrative.

“Father is not a child”, his son replied. ‘She took offence at that, and began to storm away at a fine rate, so that I said I should have to hit her. But I did not’.

This statement prompted the woman to walk back towards the dock and challenge her husband’s version of events.

‘He’s a wicked man, your worship, and don’t you believe him. The fact is, he said he would blind me; he called me a cow, and I am not used to it. I am not, indeed; and if I had not had my daughter with me I am sure I should have  had a pair of black eyes’.

The army pensioner carried on. He told Mr Partridge that his wife had left him on Boxing Day and he’d tried to persuade her to come home and try again, but she’d refused. He had pawned his medals to pay for the wedding ring and had ‘done his best for her’. If she wanted the furniture back then she was welcome to it; he ‘did not want any unpleasantness’. He just wanted a quite life and so must also have regretted marrying in haste. Mr Partridge again admonished them to reconcile their differences and leave his court in peace. There was nothing he could do for either of them.

It was a non-story in terms of the usual domestic abuse tales the papers reported. No one had been hurt or robbed, or even deeply traumatised. But it was an amusing cautionary tale for the reading public to consume over their toast and marmalade and a fairly mundane and gentle  one to finish a year that had been anything but.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 31, 1888]