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 father washes his hands of his troublesome daughter as she lets him down yet again


You might have noticed that we’ve been spending a lot of time in 1883 this week. 1883 corresponded exactly with our 2018 calendar so its been interesting to map a week’s progress through the police courts. Marylebone dealt with a central London area of mixed demography; there were wealthy areas south of Regent’s Park but also less well-heeled parts of the capital close in Lisson Grove.

We can see this by looking at Charles Booth’s poverty maps (1888-91) which reveal that while the south east of the parish was strongly marked in red and yellow (signifying wealth), the north west was blue and black. So, as with much of the metropolis we get a variety of people from all social classes coming into the summary court system.

Amelia Lucy Goodall was a juvenile thief. Aged just 16 she was charged with stealing a large array of items and money from her mistress in Paddington. Her employer was Miss Dewar of 16 Spring Street and she testified that Amelia had stolen the following:

‘a sealskin jacket, velvet jacket, silver watch, velvet muff, silk umbrella, silk shirt, £1 14s in money, breaking open a collecting box in aid of the Boys’ Cripples Home containing about £1 and stealing other things’.

It was quite a haul for the teenager and must have shocked the audience listening in the Marylebone Police Court (and those reading about the case in The Standard newspaper the next day).

Amelia had got the job on the strength of a recommendation made by her mother. She has started work at the beginning of January 1883 but ran away on the 8th. The things listed were discovered missing soon after she disappeared.

She must have fled to Southampton because Amelia was arrested and charged there with stealing a silver watch, perhaps by picking a pocket. The magistrates at Southampton sent her to Winchester Gaol for a fortnight and when she was released the police were waiting for her.

Detective-sergeant Crane had been investigating the theft at the Dewars and brought her back to face the music in London. Amelia tried to wriggle out the charge against her, blaming someone else and saying that anyway the charity box only contained  a few coppers, nothing like the pound that Mrs Dewar alleged.

Her parents were in court and all but washed their hands of their child. Mr Goodall said ‘he’d striven to bring up his large family in a respectable manner’,  but admitted that   Amelia had been a constant source of trouble and had been ‘in a Home’ from which she’d also stolen, pawning the goods to get money.

Mr Cooke reprimand the father for not informing Mrs Dewar of the extent of his daughter’s mischief in the past. He remanded Amelia in custody so that further enquiries could be made into her character and actions. The future, it has to be said, didn’t look that bright for the sixteen-year old.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 09, 1883]

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes


Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]

‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that boy!’


Our class of boys was told repeatedly at school about the dangers of throwing paper darts or flicking elastic bands at each other. ‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that , boy!’ thundered our Latin master. We ignored him of course, as most small boys do, and, to my knowledge, no one at Christ’s College Finchley did lose an eye to a small missile hurled in jest.

Sadly, but equally predictably, there were handful of pupils in our year who were always the butt of yokes and more serious bullying. Often this was because of the way they looked, some minor disability they had, or some other personal characteristic. Being overweight, wearing glasses, having red hair, very short (or very tall), less intellectually gifted, or indeed, cleverer, could single you out for abuse. Children and teenagers (and some teachers) can be cruel and some people must have had a horrible and traumatic time at our school.

None of this is new of course and despite the best efforts of several generations of school teachers it continues.

On  weekday in February 1870 a young woman was working at a stall in Crawford Street, Marylebone to earn a few pennies. We don’t know her age but it was probably early teens. We don;t know her name either but she had suffered an injury as a child and had loss an eye. The one eyed girl was most likely a source of conversation and ridicule amongst the children of the district, who would have seen her standing by her stall most days of the week.

One can only imagine what she had to put up with hearing the whispers of the adults and being pointed at by younger passers-by. The mixture of pity, ridicule, and fear that she engendered in others must have left her feeling isolated and victimised unless she had very strong support from her family and friends.

One young lad, Charles West aged 10, wasn’t content with staring or pointing. He owned a catapult and in early February 1870 thought it would be a good jape to see if he could knock out her remaining good eye.

Taking aim he released a stone which struck the girl plumb in the face, injuring her eye as he’d intended. She was rushed to get medical help and Charles ran away. Enquiries were made and the boy was eventually traced and locked up in prison while the girl’s injuries were assessed.

After five days in custody Charles was brought up before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police Court. The case was briefly confused by the appearance of a butler who produced another lad who said he’d committed the awful crime. The child was lying however, presumably encouraged by the butler to do so. Was the butler in the employ of Charles West’s family? That would suggest that Charles was no street urchin but the son of respectable parents.

Mr Mansfield reprimanded the butler, dismissed the other boy and turned to Charles. The girl was in recovery and, thankfully, no lasting damage had been done to her sight the doctor had assured him. Charles had spent the best part of a week locked up and the magistrate decided that was sufficient punishment.

Hopefully he was punished by his parents and his catapult taken away. If he did come from a middle class family of means one  also hopes that they made a generous donation to the girl with one eye and, more importantly, reminded their offspring of the need to be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 12, 1870]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future


Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

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

“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.


The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]

Two ‘inveterate readers of juvenile literature’ caught short at Lambeth


The Union Jack, juvenile reading matter from 1880

Thomas and Roger Casement were avid readers, or so their father believed. The pair of adolescents (Thomas was 13, his brother 11) were arrested in January 1876 in possession of three books they had allegedly stolen from a Lambeth bookshop. Mr William Polder, the shop owner, appeared in court at Southwark to press his prosecution against them while the boys’ father was there to defend his sons.

Polder said the lads came into his shop on York Road around lunchtime and asked to look at some of his 3d editions. Having perused these for a while they thanked him but said nothing interested them, and left. Soon afterwards however, Polder realised that three copies of more expensive texts (which he described as being ‘of greater value with showy covers’) were missing and he suspected the boys.

He soon caught up with them and, with the assistance of a police constable (PC 97L) they were arrested. The books were discovered and the constable asked them why they had taken them.

‘To make money of, as they had none’, the juvenile thieves reportedly replied.

Having ascertained that their father was a respectable man, a captain in the local militia no less,  a message was sent to fetch him. In court the officer spoke up for his offspring:

He ‘could not account for the lads taking the books unless it was to pay for the loan of them some other day. They were inveterate readers of juvenile literature, and were in the habit of borrowing books and paying for the loan of them’.

The justice, Mr Benson, pointed out that they had made no claim to borrowing anything, or offering to pay – this seemed like theft but the captain insisted it must have been a mistake. The magistrate gave him (if not the lads) the benefit of the doubt and released them into their father’s care on him agreeing to enter into a recognizance against their future good behaviour. If they stayed out of trouble all would be well, if they repeated the thefts then a reformatory possibly beckoned.

I imagine the journey home was an uncomfortable one for Thomas and Roger, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as the thrashing they were very likely to have received later.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, January 26, 1876]