A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street


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 ‘trumpery’ case of dogs and a broken umbrella


Most of those occupying the dock at the London Police courts were, broadly defined, members of the city’s working classes. When persons of a ‘higher station’ did appear it was usually (but not always) as complainants or witnesses (sometimes to the defendants’ character). However, in May 1869 two gentlemen were involved in an action against each other.

Mr Ripley, of Jermyn Street, charged Sir Frederick Johnson with ‘unlawfully allowing a ferocious dog to go at large unmuzzled’. It was a specific offence and the sitting justice, Mr Tyrwhitt, had to decide on the balance of the evidence presented whether their was case to answer.

Ripley presented his own side of things in court while Sir Frederick was represented by his counsel, Mr Edward Lewis. Mr Ripely told the court that he was walking his dog in Piccadilly when an unaccompanied dog attacked his own animal ‘in a violent manner’. The attack was unprovoked and he was obliged to beat the other dog off with the only thing he had to hand, which was his umbrella. In the process the ‘brolly was damaged.

He walked on and asked if anyone owned the stray animal, no one did but one person informed him that the dog belonged to Sir Frederick Johnson, who lived at Arlington Street. a smart address just off Piccadilly. Ripley called at the Sir Frederick’s home but was not received. Frustrated he returned hime and , like all good Englishmen, penned an angry letter of complaint.

He soon received a reply, which said that Sir Frederick was sorry that Ripley’s dog had ‘been maltreated by his dog, who, being a very quiet animal, must have been first attacked, and therefore…had got what it deserved’.

This presumably infuriated Ripley further who wrote an immediate response, telling the knight that while his dog ‘was not wanting in pluck, it had never attacked another dog except in self-defence’.

The affair was embarrassing to both parties and showed the ‘better sort’ in a bad light. Mr Lewis said his client was disappointed that Ripley had not accepted his apology but had preceded to law by way of a summons. It was unnecessary and unproven on the evidence presented. He brought several witnesses who testified that Sir Frederick’s dog was not ‘ferocious’ and not uncontrolled. The dog itself was exhibited and seems, to the court reporter at least, to be ‘a good-tempered and docile animal’.

The magistrate was equally cross that this trivial affair had reached his courtroom. He concluded that it was ‘too much to say that because Sir F. Johnson’s dog came into collision with another dog, that it was a ferocious dog within the meaning of the act’. The case was ‘a trumpery one’ he finished, Sir Frederick had apologised and that was all a gentleman could be expected to do. The ‘dog had received a good character’ and so he dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 12, 1869]

A deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public


Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off


Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]

A magistrate’s decision is applauded in court


The Police Courts of Victorian London were open to the public (as magistrates courts are today) but it is rare that we get any sense of what those attending thought of the decision-making they saw there. Occasionally the members of the press recorded laughter – often in response to ignorant or ‘stupid’ comments made by a defendant to in reaction to a regional accent, in a rather dismissive (one might say) metropolitan way.

Presumably the audience (if we may call them that) did voice opinions on those being heard and one those presenting evidence for or against them. The courts were full of humour but also misery and despair; so we can except our ancestors to have reacted in very human ways to the stories that unfolded before them.

In March 1877 a young woman – a servant girl – was brought before the magistrate at Hammersmith charged with theft. Elizabeth Houghton was accused of stealing from her master Charles Levy, a merchant living in Linden Gardens, Bayswater.

Elizabeth was accused of taking several items but her ‘crime’ had come to light when a laundress, to whom she had taken her clothes to wash, found an apron that appeared to have been cut out of a sheet belong to the Levy household.

Elizabeth, when questioned by Mrs Levy, denied the apron was hers and insisted that if it had got into her belongings it could only be because someone had put it with the intention of ‘getting her into trouble’.

A few days later (perhaps on account of the apron) Elizabeth left the Levy’s service, although it is not made clear whether she went voluntarily or was dismissed. It was not uncommon for servants to be ‘let go’ without references if they were discovered to be stealing; after all, it was much easier than taking them to court.

As Elizabeth prepared to leave however, Mrs Levy searched her employee’s possessions (without asking and without her being in attendance). This was a mistake on the part of the merchant’s wife, as we shall see.

In a small box belonging to Elizabeth  were found ‘two black feathers, a fan holder and pieces of a sheet’. All of these, Mrs Levy said, belonged not to Elizabeth but to her. Mrs Levy was ‘examined at some length’ by the magistrate and she was adamant that she had purchased the feathers and the fan holder at a  shop in Westbourne Grove.

It seemed clear then, that either Elizabeth had indeed pinched the items or someone, perhaps a fellow servant, was attempting to frame her for the thefts.

In court Elizabeth had a legal representative, Mr Claydon, who spoke up for her. He said that in defence, Elizabeth was ‘a very young girl, and up to this time had borne an irreproachable character’. He added that it would have been much better for everyone if Mrs Levy had either searched the girl’s effects in Elizabeth’s presence or, better still, had waited for the police to deal with the accusation.

He went on to state that Elizabeth claimed that the feathers were of ‘a common kind’, and her own property. As for the fan holder, it was a present from her sister and he produced Elizabeth’s mother who swore that was the truth. There was, he finished, no proof that the apron had not been added to the girl’s clothes by mistake or misdirection.

Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate, agreed. He had listened to Mrs Levy’s evidence but was clearly unimpressed. He said he thought it ‘would be useless to send the prisoner for trail, and discharged her’; Elizabeth was free to go.

At this the court broke into spontaneous applause.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 22, 1877]

The perils of marrying in haste


Mr. and Mrs Chabot had not long been married when they appeared at the Lambeth Police Court in December 1847. The appearance was a memorable one, although perhaps less so for the couple concerned.

Young Mr. Chabot seems to have been a delicate fellow. He had for some time been imprisoned in Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital for the insane) placed there by his relatives and ‘friends’ suffering from a ‘mental affliction’.

He was released, fully cured, declaring his desire to take a wife. His parents advised him to place his property in a trust fund: for the joint benefit of himself and his wife, and well as for the interest of their children, if they had any’. This may simply have been sound advice but I suspect it had a lot to do with his parents’ misgivings about his mental state.

He quickly found and married a respectable woman named Georgina. It was from here, however, that the problems started.

Georgina Chabot was later described by the court reporter, in full Dickensian style, as ‘a dumpy little woman, whose face was so bedaubed with paint [make up] as to make her quite conspicuous’. On honeymoon the couple rowed constantly, with the husband coming off ‘second best’.

The ‘disagreements’ reached such a serious state that Chabot thought it necessary to come to court to seek protection from his wife’s violence. This was probably more common than historians have so far discovered. Domestic abuse (usually carried out by men) was widespread in the Victorian period but few men would admit to being beaten by their spouses; in a patriarchal society to confess to be unable to control one’s wife would be acutely embarrassing.

On the 6 December, just two months after the fateful marriage, Mr. Chabot returned home from collecting rents and sent the money upstairs to his wife.

Georgian was unhappy with the amount he had brought home and even unhappier that she seemed to have spent an unnecessarily long time at one female tenant’s home.

In a jealous rage she ‘jumped out of bed, rushed down like a fury, and made a vicious attack on her lord and master. She flung a cup and saucer and a flat iron at his head, and after using the poker, managed to cut his head open with the bellows’.

In court at Lambeth the young man was cross-examined by his wife’s legal representative but held to his story. Georgina’s sister said he had started it by punching his wife and denied she had used excessive force. The magistrate must have taken one look at the man and then at Georgina and decided that it was fairly unlikely that the frail youth could have hit anyone.

He fined Georgian £3 (or 20 days imprisonment) and demanded she post 2 months’ bail against her future behaviour or he would remand her. The money was paid and the couple discharged; we can only wonder at their later ‘pillow talk’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1847]

The ‘touting nuisance’ in late Victorian Dalston

Anyone who sits in casualty waiting to be seen or flicks the channels on daytime television will have come across the adverts for ‘compensation lawyers’. In the US they are sometimes described as ‘ambulance chasers’ and here characterized by their promise of ‘no win, no fee’. They seem a very modern phenomenon, the by-product of an age where no one seems to take responsibility for their own actions and where every ‘accident’ appears to be an opportunity for financial gain.

A close friend of mine recently went to court to challenge the claim of a person who said that he had caused her severe whip lash when their cars had collided. She was motivated by the hope of a fat compensation payout by his insurance company. The company were skeptical and fought the action; she lost and no win no fee ended costing her quite a considerable sum in courts costs. So, be warned, it’s not as straightforward as one might think.

Nor is it a new thing. In the 1700s courts complained about the actions of ‘trading justices’, magistrates who employed men to stand outside their offices and tout for business on the London streets. They looked for those that had been assaulted, or robbed, or who had some other need to go to law, for whom their masters could act and charge a fee. The activity of the ‘trading justices’ led to the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792 which created the Police Offices of the Metropolis which are the subject of this blog.

But while the new offices might have done much to make the law more accessible to many and to have cleaned up some of the venal practices of the worst offenders it did not get rid of the problem altogether. As the legal profession established itself in the late 1700s and throughout the nineteenth century competition for clients remained key.

In 1888 (the year of the Whitechapel murders) one solicitor complained to the sitting magistrate at Dalston police court that ‘the practice of “touting”…was still being largely carried on’. He told Mr Bros that each day a young man was seen walking up and down the queue of persons waiting to enter the court, ‘asking people their business’. The lawyer complained that this was unfair on ‘other solicitors’. Arguably while this behaviour isn’t the same as ‘ambulance chasing’ it is indicative of a legal profession which is motivated by the desire to make money by winning (some might say ‘stealing’) clients from other lawyers. The magistrate was suitably annoyed, and said he would deal with the ‘touting nuisance’.

[From Daily News, Friday, July 6, 1888]