A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knife-wielding Belgians run amok in central London

Most if not all of the Belgians I know or have ever met are gentle, intelligent and considerate individuals and we rarely associate violence with that particular European nation. Recently there have been terrorist incidents and Belgium itself has been trampled over in two world wars (neither of which had been caused by its own actions).

So it was rather odd to pen that headline and I apologise to any Flemish speakers that were outraged by it but in 1853 it seems at least two Belgian nationals did cause a scene in the English capital.

An ornamental painter was strolling with his wife on Oxford Street at 11 at night, presumably on the way back to their home at 98 Dean Street, when two men rushed by. One seemingly deliberately shoved the unnamed painter and the artist, believing he had been insulted, turn down him. He put his fists in that most British of stances (adopting a ‘defensive attitude’) only for his assailant to pull out a knife.

According to the victim’s testimony at Marlborough Street Police Court the aggressor, named as Richard Demaine, ‘drew a stiletto, and held it up as to stab him’. Fortunately no one was hurt but one of the men escaped. The other was remanded in custody until he could find bail.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 07, 1853]

A Daring snatch and grab robbery is foiled by an alert policeman

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19th century ‘life preservers’

It would seem that George Miller was a member of a dangerous ‘gang’ of criminals. One afternoon in late October 1849 Miller and two companions were riding in a cart on New Bond Street.

Unbeknown to them however, they were being watched by a plain-clothed policeman named Tottman. PC Tottman observed the cart move up and down the street before turning into Union Street, where it stopped. Tottman followed and kept an eye on them.

One of the men got out of the cart and looked around into Bond Street where a cab ‘with luggage on the roof’ presently appeared. The man vaulted onto the back of the moving cab and began to try and undo (or cut through) the straps that held a portmanteau in place.

As the first man joined his chums in the cart another of the men began to follow the cab at a safe distance. Clearly they three were plotting to steal the luggage and make off with in their cart. Tottman was on to them but he too was being watched. A woman in the street was acting as a casual lookout for the gang and she spotted the PC and alerted Miller and his friends.

Now the cart sped off, turning into Sheppard Street as the driver ‘urged the horses into a gallop’. Tottman set off in pursuit and caught them. However, as he tried to gain the cart and clamber aboard he was attacked by the occupants.

He later told the magistrate at Marlborough Street that his shots of ‘stop’ were ignored and he was hit about the head with the butt of a whip and by Miller with a ‘life preserver’. This was not what we think of today as a ‘rubber ring’ thrown from ships or docks, but a  short cudgel that could inflict a nasty wound.

The policeman was badly beaten but refused to loose his grip and eventually managed to arrest Miller when the cart collided with a cab in Oxford Street, throwing all the occupants into the street. Miller denied being involved and said he had just been holding the cart for the others. The magistrate remanded him for further enquiry.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, November 1, 1849]

Transport problems in London are nothing new it seems

In October 1877 the Morning Post’s review of the doings of the Metropolitan Police Courts included a number of references to incident on or involving public transport.

John Shaw appeared at Worship Street charged with stealing 5s from Selina Claridge. Ms. Claridge had been traveling on a tram and while she had felt ‘touches at her pocket’ had not suspected the ‘very gentlemanly’ passenger who sat next to her.

However, when she alighted from the tram and checked her pocket she missed her purse. She immediately returned to the tramcar but Shaw had disappeared. She soon found him loitering in a doorway and charged him with the theft, which he denied.

Shaw was arrested and when he was searched the exact sum she had lost was found on him (‘in the same coins’) as was a tram ticket.

Two other witnesses came forward to report thefts by Shaw and in the end the court remanded him but also advised inquiries be made into his mental state as he appeared to be no common thief but a ‘gentleman of large means’.

 

Meanwhile over at Marlbourough Street the magistrate was presented with on the conductors of the London General Company, John Perry. Perry had been complained of for loitering outside the premises of a haberdasher on on Oxford Street.

The shopkeeper, a Mr. Johnson, was clearly fed up with the number of ‘buses that stopped and waited for fares outside his business. He told the court that in ‘conseqience of the number of omnibuses that congregated at Regent’s Circus, Oxford-street, it was impossible for a carriage to come to his door for a greater portion of the day’. Most of his customers one imagines, arrived that way, rather than by public transport.

Not only was it hard for them to stop but when they did they were subject to abuse by the drivers of the omnibuses. A nearby tobacconist spoke in support of the haberdashers complaint and it certainly seems to have been a problem for the traders on the busy London street.

Two police inspectors now deposed that the ‘buses were allowed to stop at certain places (what we would now describe as ‘bus stops’, clearly not then marked) but ‘only long enough to set down or take up passengers’. They were not supposed to loiter waiting for business and the constables on the beat were there to regulate this and move them on. The justice suggested an extra policeman be detailed to help in this busy area and fined the conductor 2s 6d and an extra 2s in costs.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1877]

A tragedy on Oxford Street

James Burtenshaw was driving his cart, laden with hay, along Oxford Street in the early autumn of 1889. At the same time a small girl pushed a child in a ‘bassinette perambulator’ along the pavement.

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It was about half past five in the afternoon and Burtenshaw hardly noticed the girl or saw the pram slip off the kerb. The girl was unable to control the pram and it tumbled over spilling an eighteen-month old baby into the street.

Burtenshaw sat atop his cart but his view of the street was obscured and he didn’t see young Frederick Harold Wright fall under the wheels of his vehicle. The cart passed over the boy, crushing his chest and killing him at once.

The boy’s mother was ill – one’s presumes this is why he was out with a neighbour or perhaps his sister. The family resided in Berners Street in Fitzrovia, just close by to the busy shopping street where the girl was walking the pram. Frederick’s father was away on holiday on the Ilse of Wight, his homecoming was now going to be a very sad affair.

The magistrate ordered that there should be an inquest but he said no blame attached to the cart driver. Burtenshaw was bound on his own recognizances to give evidence before the coroner but the whole episode was a tragic accident, not a crime.

[From The Standard, Thursday, September 05, 1889]

An ‘extraordinary scene’ in Regent’s Street

The Victorian press were selective in the court business they reported. Crime news then, as is often the case today, reflected the concerns of society, the attitudes of the press (or at least its owners and editors), and catered for the amusement of the readership. This is why they so often filled their column inches with burglaries, domestic violence, unruly youth and, just occasionally, the bizarre. This story, from 1891, falls into the last category.

An elderly man, who refused to give his name when required to do so by the magistrate, caused quite a stir at Marlborough Street Police Court. He did tell the court he resided at Ormonde Street in Regent’s Park, that he was ‘of no occupation’ and was 65 year’s old. His ‘crime” (which is no crime in modern law) was to have been ‘found in female attire in Regent-street on the previous night’.

Detective Sergeant Scott had been on duty just after midnight when he saw what he took to be two ladies walking arm-in-arm along Regent’s Street in the direction of Oxford Street. At that time of night this is itself was probably unusual. But as he watched them DS Scott observed that one of them – dressed in ‘a light blue gown, a white cape with Medici collar, and a matador hat of black and amber, trimmed with parti-coloured pon-pons and streamers a yard long’ walked with a ‘peculiar gait’.

A nearby woman (who was not English) gestured to the policeman and said “My Got! that voman is a man; look how he vorks”.

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As he gave his evidence the courtroom echoed to peals of laughter. The detective approached the pair and raised the skirts of the unusually perambulating ‘woman’. He saw she was wearing ‘ladies drawers and Paramatta boots’ and ‘her’ companion complained on her behalf: “What impertinence! Kindly leave the lady alone”.

But our doughty copper knew his duty and persevered. He resumed his search and found the disguise continued up the legs. Eventually he pulled up her heavy veil and revealed ‘false hair on the forehead and a moustache’. Finally he whipped off the woman’s hat (despite the protests of her friend) to show a ‘veritable bald’ pate.

At this point the man confessed saying he had ‘donned female attire with the object of gaining some experience with the ladies of the West-end’, as he claimed to be about to deliver a lecture of women’s dress and fashion. His companion fled leaving him in the arms of the law.

The magistrate quizzed him and while he gave no name he said he was a published author. He went on to try and explain his bizarre choice of clothes, including the Spanish bullfighter’s hat  and the cape (which he said was reminiscent of those worn at the court of Henry VIII). He added finally that he was a well known figure in the West End but the detective denied ever seeing him before.

While the audience in court found the whole story and the appearance of the ‘grotesque’ man hilarious the justice didn’t share their amusement; he remanded the poor old gentlemen for a week so the police could check his story.

Perhaps he was a writer doing his research but it is more likely he was cross-dressing but doing so in an age which had little tolerance for such ‘strange’ behaviour. Not for the first time am I pleased we live (hopefully) in a more enlightened epoch.

 

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 28, 1891]

A dangerous dog near Oxford Street

Every year our newspapers report  incidents where dogs attack babies and small children (quite recently an animal ran amok in a playground biting and injuring several kids before it was subdued). In 1991 there was a moral panic about such events which led to the passing of the Dangerous Dogs Act which restricted the breeding of certain types of dog and increased penalties for failure to control animals.

However, the problem of dangerous dogs is not a modern phenomenon but it seems it was dealt with less seriously in the past, as this case from 1840 indicates.

John Wallis Lambar kept a stable in Castle Court (off Oxford Street) and lived round the corner at Berners Street, was brought into Marylebone Police Court accused of owning a ‘ferocious’ dog. The animal had bitten a small girl who was playing outside the small tenements where she lived. The dog ran out of the stables and attacked her, biting her in the eye.

The child’s mother, a Mrs Shee, told the court that it wasn’t the first time the animal had attacked children in the area. Mr Lambar (‘who seemed to treat the matter quite lightly’) said his pet was far from dangerous and was instead ‘a very quiet animal’ and would not have bitten anyone ‘unless interfered with’. The court then heard supporting evidence that suggested otherwise, and that the dog was something of a menace in the community.

The magistrate recommended that Lambars compensate Mrs Shee and her daughter and that he secure his dog more carefully in the future. Today I would expect that the poor animal would have been destroyed.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 06, 1840]