‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]

An ingenious thief and the ‘bird lime trick’.

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Wapping in the 1890s, from Booth’s poverty map

Cash registers weren’t invented until the later 1870s, and that was in America. A busy pub like the Three Crowns in Upper Smithfield, Wapping didn’t have anything quite as fancy. But it did experience a creative attempt to take money from the ’till’ nevertheless.

Catherine Morgan ran the pub with her husband and at about 8 o’clock in the morning of the 10th May she was in parlour bar of the pub and noticed a young man come in. There was a glass partition between the parlour and main bar and she could clearly see the lad take out a long stick. He pushed the stick towards ‘the engine’, and inserted between its two handles.

Now I suspect someone out there knows what device the reporter is talking about here but it would seem to be some early version of a cash machine. This is made more plausible by what happened next.

As Catherine watched on in horror the young man withdrew the stick and she saw that there were two coins stick to it! Hurrying back through into the pub she grabbed him and shouted: ‘Give me that stick’. Just as quickly he broke off the end of the stick and wiped it on his trousers. Catherine unfolded his hand to discover two shillings hidden in his palm.

The police were called and Mrs Morgan held him captive until PC H31 could take him into custody. He appeared on more than one occasion at Thames Police Court before this appearance on the 20 May 1876. Now the court was told that this was not the first time the lad, by the name of Morris Cooney, had been seen practising his ‘trick’.

Earlier on the month he had almost been caught by the landlady of the Garrett Tavern in Leman Street, Whitechapel. He had come in and asked her for a light and a glass of porter. Once she had served him  she had gone out the back to the parlour to ‘see to the children’. Hearing ‘a jingle’ she came back to find him with his stick and a flash of silver. She challenged him but he gulped down his beer and ran out of the pub.

The stick had been daubed with bird lime, which made it sticky and ideal for Cooney’s purpose. Unfortunately for him his clever device was easily spotted by women as eagle eyed at Catherine Morgan. What was worse for Morris was that his appearance in court revealed a previous conviction for a felony so the magistrate was not inclined to deal with him summarily (which may have reduced his sentence). Instead he was committed for trial, at the Session or at Old Bailey, where he might face a long spell in prison.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 21, 1876]

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

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There was a market for pretty much anything stolen in the Victorian period. Today we are familiar with the character of ‘knock-off Nigel‘ who sells ‘dodgy’ DVDs and electrical equipment in the local pub, but the trade in stolen property is timeless. Victorian London had a well-established second hand clothes trade, and pawn shops allowed the honsest (and dishonest) to pledge items in return for cash. In recent years we have seen an increase in the mdoern version of pawnbrokers – stores like Cash Converters have appeared on many high streets.

While thieves stole almost anything they could in the 1800s some things were cleary worth more – or were more salebale – than others. Cash was easily used, and had to trace back to the owner; watches were valauble, but much more easily identified. Handkerchiefs were easy to pinch, but you had to steal a lot of them to make any real money; larger goods (burgled from homes) might make a much better return but the risks were greater.

Edward Phillips and Samuel Prior were opportunistic thieves. The two lads (aged about 17 or 18) were stopped late one evening in April 1877 by two detectives in the East End. When they were intercepted on York Street, Bethnal Green, Phillips was carrying a carpet bag. The policemen searched it and found a brass door plate and one from a window, which was  tarnished, as if it had been in a fire.

The door plate was engraved ‘Miller and Co. Wine Merchants’, and so certainly seemed not to belong to the teenagers. They were arrested and enquiries were made.

The door plate had been taken from the wine merchants’ premises in Welbeck Street, while the brass window surround (which had been broken into four pieces to fit in the bag) came from the Brown Bear public house in Worship Street, Finsbury.

When the lads were searched at the station officers found ‘a knife, a screw-driver, and a pocket-pistol’. The bag had also been stolen. The pair admitted their crimes rather than face potentially more serious punishment at the Old Bailey. Their were probably intending to trade in the metal for money but on this occasion they had been foiled; the Worship Street Police magistarte sent the to prison for six months, with hard labour.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 5, 1877]

 

Three lads in a boat, bound for Australia with ‘tea, cheese’ and a sense of adventure.

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Thomas Stead was only a young boy when he was brought to the Bow Street Police Court, the most senior of the summary courts of the capital. He was charged with stealing two bank cheques and a dagger.

Thomas was only 14 and had been arrested with two other lads in an open boat by officers from the Thames Police , who patrolled London’s arterial river. When they were seized they were found to be well equipped, with tea, cheese, candles, etc., and a pair of revolvers’. The boys’ stated plan was to row to Australia!

I’ve no idea why it was only Thomas that appeared at Bow Street, or what happened to the others, but perhaps he was the only one without a family to look after him.

The sitting magistrate was clearly somewhat impressed by the spirit and determination of this young thief, but at the same felt it necessary to try and cure him of his ‘stealing propensities’ (as he put it). He sent him to the reformatory at Feltham – a young offenders  institution that still exists (and I recall visiting when my father used to play football for the London Probation Service team).

The justice hoped, he said, that the 10 days he would have to spend in prison before Feltham (as was required with all reformatory sentences, quite against the wishes of Mary Carpenter who had champion this form of rehabilitation for youthful felons), and the spell in the Reformatory itself, would affect a change in the boy.

Then, ‘perhaps, if he still desired to be a sailor, he would be assisted in doing so, and would be able to go to Australia, not in an open boat, but in a legitimate, and in a much more safe way’.

He went on to tell Thomas that he:

 ‘was an intelligent lad, and if he only acted properly a bright future might be in store for him’. Australia was no longer the place where Britain disposed of its unwanted criminals and political prisoners, that had slowed in the 1850s and come to an end in 1868. Only ‘honest, industrious people were wanted’ there now he concluded.

I really wonder what happened to Thomas Stead. For all his faults he seems to me (as he did to the Bow Street magistrate) exactly the sort of youngster Victorian society celebrated. He was resourceful, brave and adventurous and had he been born into a wealthy family (instead of most likely being an orphan and condemned to living hand-by-mouth on the streets) he might be a name we all remember as well as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott or Rhodes.

The last convict ship, HMS Hougoumont (named for one of the key buildings that allied troops fought so hard to keep at the battle of Waterloo) sailed to Australia in 1867, with 281 passengers. It marked the end of a system of forced migration that had lasted nearly 80 years.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 25, 1885

It has been a year since I started writing this daily blog. It began as an exercise in forcing myself to undertake a piece of research writing on  daily basis to keep myself ‘fit’ (in a sense) admit the routines associated with being a senior lecturer in a busy teaching university. It has grown (largely thanks to all the people that bother to read it and tell me they enjoy or find it useful) into a body of research that I will now attempt to use to form part of a couple of larger written projects over the the next few years. So, thank you for the positive comments made via the site, twitter and Facebook, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the day-to-day stories from the police courts of London.

                                                                                                                           Drew 

 

Two street urchins try (and fail) to argue the toss with a magistrate

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Charles McCarthy and John Harrison were described by the Standard’s  court reporter as ‘urchins’. We should probably understand that to mean that, in the late 1870s, they were young members of the working class. Youngsters like these played on the streets and were often associated with the so-called ‘criminal class’ that exercised contemporary commentators like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood.

From the early 1800s discourse concerning youth crime focused on reform and the importance of education, good parenting, and work opportunities. It was argued that younger criminals needed to be separated from older ones, to avoid corruption. There was also a long standing concern about gambling, particularly by children and youth.

The ‘new police’ who patrolled London’s streets from 1829 were actively involved in the enforcement of laws that prohibited gambling, especially amongst the young. In April a police constable had arrested Charles and John for gambling in the streets, and so they were produced before the magistrate at Bow Street. However, they made a bold attempt to deny the charge, and in doing so reveal a little about the sort of passtimes that children got up to in the late 1800s.

They were accused of gambling on a Sunday (which made it worse, as they should have been in church) by an unnamed PC. They were ‘tossing for halfpence’ and this was, the paper’s correspondent reported, quite a common offence; there were ‘a dozen similar cases on a Monday’. What made this worthy of writing about was the bravado the boys displayed.

The eldest lad denied they were gambling, they were just ‘having a game [of] “back”‘. This involved tossing a halfpence coin up into the air and trying to catch it on the back of the hand. This is still a child’s game today, (although I suspect there is probably a mobile phone app for it now…).

The boy showed the magistrate (Mr Flowers) what he meant by taking out a coin and flipping it in court. ‘Why we only had a ha’penny betwixt us. That ain’t gambling’, said the youth.

The justice turned to the policeman and quipped:

‘I fear these boys have been reading the Act of Parliament for the purpose of evading its provisions’, drawing laughter from the courtroom.

Did they have more than penny on them, he asked? They did, said the constable, ‘There were a penny and a halfpenny lying on the ground close to them, your worship’, adding, ‘they are always at it’.

That was probably the most damning statement. Under the law the constable was probably  correct in arresting them but what happened next shows how’s unfair the Victorian justice system was to youngsters like these two. They were indulging in a pretty harmless game of chance, with little actual ‘gambling’ going on. Hearing the constable’s evidence Mr Flowers turned to the lads and said:

‘Ah that looks bad. You must pay a fine of 1s each, or be imprisoned one day’.

Just what good a day in prison would do for these two is questionable, nor do I imagine they could easily get hold of two shillings between them unless their parents were able to intervene. So probably these lads got a taste of Victorian ‘justice’ and came out a little less disposed to respect the law in the future.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, April 22, 1879]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

Dickens has a close encounter with the ‘swell-mob’

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Charles Dickens had some experience of the law. As a young freelance reporter he had covered the civil law court of Doctors’ Commons before working for a number of other papers in the 1830s. His familiarity with everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain is one of the strengths of his novels and his writings feature characters drawn from the world of crime, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Magwitch.

It would seem, however, that Dickens not only visited the courts of London (including, of course, the police courts) but the gaols and houses of corrections as well. In addition, as we shall see, on at least one occasion he was a witness himself in an attempted robbery that ended up in a summary hearing before a magistrate. In fact he was himself cheekily declared to a a member of the criminal underworld.

In 1849, when he was at the height of his fame and writing David Copperfield, Dickens was strolling along the Edgware Road with his friend Mark Lemon. Lemon was a celebrated actor who wrote hundreds of melodramas, was a joint founder of Punch magazine and so a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. A young man came close by them and Lemon felt a hand at his pocket. He swung up his cane and delivered a quick rap on the would-be thief’s knuckles who then swore at him and ran off.

The two friends set off in pursuit and were soon joined by a policeman in plain clothes. They caught up with the thief and he was arrested. There was some trouble on the way to the station as the youth hit out at his captors and tried to escape, but eventually he was taken back to the station and thence to court the next day.

Appearing in the Marylebone Police Court Dickens must have attracted a good crowd eager to hear the famous story teller describe his experiences, and they were not disappointed. The author explained how he and Lemon had chased after the man – now named as Cornelius Hearne (aged 19) –  and helped capture him.

We pursued him, and when he was taken he was most violent; he is a desperate fellow, and he kicked about in all directions. There was a mob of low fellows close by when he tried Mr. Lemon’s pocket, and we were determined he should not effect his escape, if we could prevent it‘.

PC 229D deposed that he had been on duty in plain-clothes (no reason is given but he might have been looking for known criminals whilst undercover). He confirmed the evidence of Dickens and Lemon and he described how Hearne tried to escape custody. The policeman told the justice, Mr Broughton, that the prisoner threatened him and kicked out at Lemon (who had hold of his arms as they marched him the police station).

While they walked Mark Lemon said the prisoner had spoken to him, asking him not to ‘say my hand was in your pocket’. The burden of proof for pickpocketing when nothing had actually been stolen – as Lemon admitted it hadn’t – fell on the intent. If the theatre man was adamant that he had felt Hearne’s hand inside his pocket, there could be no other explanation than that he intended to rob him.

Another policeman informed the magistrate that Hearne was well known to them and to the courts, having been convicted of several petty crimes like this in the past. Now the justice turned to the prisoner for his version of events. Hearne tried to bluff his way out, saying that he was innocent and that Dickens and Lemon had picked on him, called him names and struck out at him. That was why he had run away, he was no thief.

Now the exchange became more amusing for those watching in the courtroom (and for the readers of the newspapers). Charles Dickens declared that when he was at the police station he said he thought he recognised the prisoner, having seen him in the house of correction. This suggests that Dickens took his characterisation seriously and not only frequented courtrooms for literary reasons but also the prisons of the capital.

However, this seemed to be  lifeline for Cornelius Hearne. He looked from the dock to the bench and spoke to the magistrate:

Now your workshop, he must have been in “quod” there himself, or he couldn’t ‘ave seen me. I know these two gentlemen well; they’re no better than swell-mob men, and they get their living by selling stolen goods‘.

This provoked peals of laughter in the courtroom.

That one (pointing to Mr. Dickens) keeps “a fence”, and I recollect him at the prison, where he was put for six months, while I was there for only two‘.

Dickens and Lemon were described as being ‘highly amused’ by the suggestion but denied the accusations amidst all the laughter. Dickens said he had never traded in stolen goods and was not on speaking terms with that ‘highly respectable body – the swell-mob’. The swell-mob was a contemporary term for petty thieves and pickpockets who liked to dress fashionably and ape the manners of the middle classes, and were a popular vehicle for satirists and commentators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dicken’s characterisation of Toby Crackit draws heavily on popular portraits of the swell-mob.

Hearne was unlikely to have been able to read and while he may have heard of Oliver Twist he may not have recognised its author. Not surprisingly the magistrate was much more familiar with Charles Dickens and his friend Mark Lemon than the young man in the dock was. Mr Broughton told him that he had demonstrated ‘consulate impudence’ in trying to wriggle out of his crime by defaming the character of two gentlemen, and that if he had actually stolen anything then he would undoubtedly be facing a trial  at Old Bailey and could expect to be transported. However, since there was only an attempt to steal he would deal with him summarily.

Cornelius Hearne was sent to the house of correction for three months; ‘”Boz” and his friend then left the court’.

[from The Era, Sunday, March 25, 1849]