Robbed by a neighbour; an everyday hazard for London’s many tenants

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This was probably a fairly typical property crime: the theft of a lodger’s property by another person living in the same house. Many Londoners lived cheek by jowl with others in the 1800s in lodging houses that had little privacy or security. Individuals would share landings or rooms and sometimes (in the poorest homes) even a bed, so these Victorians often knew their neighbours intimately.

Frederick Hart lived as a lodger in the home of Mrs Clough in Shepherds Bush. The shop assistant wore a watch a chain on special occasions and kept it safe (or so he thought) in a locked box in his bedroom. He had worn in on Sunday 16 August 1886, perhaps to church or to for some occasion on his day off, and when he got home he careful locked it away.

On the following Tuesday (the 18th) he noticed that the box had been interfered with and the lock forced open. There had been a crude attempt to refasten the box and when he opened it to his horror he found that his Albert chain* was missing.

Fred’s suspicions immediately fell on Mrs Clough’s daughter, Florence. He questioned her and she told him she knew where it was. When he pressed her she admitted taking it and pledging it at a pawnbrokers. Fred summoned a policeman to whom Florence admitted both the crime and tearing up the pawn ticket. This would make it hard for the young man to get his watch chain back but it is was not the most worst thing about her crime.

Mr Paget, the magistrate at Hammersmith, told her that ‘breaking open a box was a serious matter’. It wasn’t as if Hart had been careless and had left his valuables lying around for anyone to steal. He had gone to the trouble of locking them away but she had still violated his privacy and stolen from him.

Florence Clough was given a good character reference by her mother, who told Mr Paget that she always helped her. ‘And robbed the lodgers’ quipped the magistrate, clearly in no mood to be lenient. He sent Florence to prison (most likely to Westminster house of correction where most summarily convicted women were sent in the 1880s).

Her sentence was three months at hard labour. She was 15 years old.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 22, 1886]

*meaning it had a bar at one end for attaching to a buttonhole.

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Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]

‘What a fool I have been!’

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Camberwell Green, c.1901

Sarah Mary Hopkins was a 48 year-old woman who had, for the past three years, lived under the roof of her master, James Bowler. Mr Bowler was very old, nearly 90 years of age, and he had befriended Sarah when she was a child.

In 1867 he had given her a position as his housekeeper and trusted her so completely that ‘she had control of everything’. He even wrote her into his will so that she would be provided for when he died.

Without knowing anything else about Sarah’s life it would seem that, as a spinster or widow, or at least with no male partner that she declared, she had found herself in a very fortunate position. She had a steady wage and a comfortable home to live in, with an employer that both respected and cared for her.

Why then would she jeopardise all of this? Sadly it seems this is exactly what she did do in the summer of 1870.

On Monday 25 July Mr Bowler noticed that some of his silverware was missing. Three spoons seemed to have disappeared. On Tuesday ‘two more’ had gone and a purse with £4 3s and 6d in it (about £200 in today’s money). More worryingly Sarah also vanished from the house, and wasn’t seen again that week.

Mr Bowler called for the police and PC Elliott (388P) managed to trace Sarah to a property in Camberwell. The policeman challenged her about the thefts but she denied it, moreover she even denied knowing anybody called Bowler and said she wasn’t employed as a housekeeper at his address.

PC Elliott was suspicious, it seemed that Sarah had been drinking and she was also sporting a black eye, perhaps there was a man involved. Her lodgings were searched and ‘the constable found thirty pawnbrokers’ duplicates relating to watches, silver spoons, rings, and other valuable articles, which she had plundered [the] prosecutor of’.

When the case came before the Lambeth Police court magistrate Sarah admitted her crime and declared, ‘what a fool I have been’. The justice remanded her in custody to wait his adjudication. He may well have wanted to find out a little more about her motivation. The black eye suggests that she might have been involved with someone who was intimidating her or otherwise pressurising her into stealing from the old gentleman. Perhaps too he wanted to hear if Mr Bowler was prepared to forgive her this breach of trust and plead for leniency.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 30, 1870]

‘Daring robbery’ on an American ship (and some causal racism in the London press).

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Thomas Connell was described in the Greenwich Police Court, as a seaman. He had been charged with stealing clothes and boots belonging to two sailors serving on an American merchant ship lying at dock in London.

Connell had been employed on the ship, the Chaos, but when it returned to London to offload its cargo of timber, he was laid off, ‘his services no longer being required’. He headed off into the notorious sailor’s quarter – the Ratcliffe Highway – to spend his pay and reacquaint himself with the delights of the land. However, it seems he also took advanatge of some of his fellows doing similarly to filch some of their possessions to add to his own.

Martin Hunshon had been out on the town and when he got back to his bunk on the Chaos he carefully stowed his ‘best’ clothes. When he woke in the morning however he found that his trunk had been forced open and some of his possessions were missing, including the clothes he had worn the night before and some money he had left in a waistcoat pocket.

He clearly had his suspicions about his shipmate because when he reported the theft to the local police he gave them Connell’s name. PC Bigover (163K) acted on this and visited him at his lodgings. Connell then reluctantly accompanied  the copper to a nearby pawnbroker where he was quickly identified as having pledged some of the items Hunshon was missing, for money. Back at the police station he was searched and found to have on him two portraits, one of which belonged to Hunshon.

We then have a bit of contemporary English racism as the court reporter described the appearance of the other man from the Chaos who claimed to have lost items, possibly stolen by Connell. Rather than analyze or represent it I’ll set it down exactly as it was written in 1858:

‘Maurice Mitchell, with face shining like a piece of polished ebony , dressed à la negligèe, with a splendid open worked shirt front, and carrying in his hand a dandy white hat, then stood at the entrance to the witness box.

Mr Secker [the magistrate] ‘Well, my man, and who are you?’

Mitchell (laughing) : ‘Me sar: oh I’m de ship’s cook, I am’.

Mr Secker: ‘Well stand forward, or you won’t see those beautiful red tops. I want you to examine those boots’.

Mitchell (laughing) :Oh, I see dem sar. I bought dem, sar, in a America. I know ’em. I wore dem on Sunday, and on Monday dey was gone. Oh yes sar, dem boots are mine.’

This then brought a response from Connell, who was Irish, as the continued use of colloquial language makes clear:

‘How sur, could I shtale the dock walls. I found the bundle outside the wall, and ye don’t think I’d let it lay there. I didn’t stale it but I pleaded guilty to the pawning’.

As was the correct procedure, the magistrate offered Connell the chance to take his trial in front of a jury rather than being dealt with. summarily, by himself. Connell  at first agreed but when he was told he was be remanded in custody he changed his mind.

‘I don’t want, sur, to lay by. So I’ll plade guilty. You can jist now settle it you plase, sur’

The magistrate looked at him and told him that the offence was serious, as he had not only stolen items but had broken open the chest to do so. He should, therefore, send it up for a trial but since he had pleaded guilty he was going to give him five months imprisonment at hard labour, a considerable sentence for a relatively petty crime.

The two victims were happy as they got back most of their property. ‘Blackey’ (the press referred to Mitchell) seized the handle of the bundle of goods, and declared: ‘Thar, we can go now’ and the pair quit the court, leaving their former shipmate to his fate.

[from The Morning Post, 3 June 1858]

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

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]

A young man gambling with his future ‘borrows’ some opera glasses

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Samuel Palethorpe was perhaps a typical young man from a respectable, if not wealthy background; typical in that he had indulged his passions rather more than he might, and had gotten into trouble as a result. If he had come from working-class roots then his brush with the law in May 1870 might have had more severer long term consequences.

Samuel had fallen into financial difficulties, probably as a result of his addiction to gambling. As so many have done before and afterwards, he determined that the best way to get himself out of this financial pickle was to have one last throw of the dice, and play the horses again.

His problem was that he didn’t have the money to stake in the first place, and this is when he chose a course that would eventually end up with his appearance before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House, on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretences.

Palethorpe visited Mr How’s chemical apparatus shop in Foster Lane and purchased six pairs of opera glasses. He charged the items to his uncle’s account, having stated that he had been sent to collect them. This was a lie; his relative, Mr Samuel Peace Ward, had no knowledge of the transaction and when he found out (because the bill was delivered to him), he was furious.

In the meantime the young man had pawned the glasses and placed all the money (about £5-6) on the horses. He had hoped to redeem the pledges and restore the glasses as well as settling his debts and having some money left over to pay his passage to America, and a new life. Sadly for him, lady luck wasn’t smiling on his and the bets failed.

At this point it has to be said that he did the ‘decent thing’, and handed himself in at the Bow Lane Police Station, admitting his crime. He also forwarded five of the pawn tickets (the ‘duplicates’) to his uncle – one he had lost – who was able to redeem them and return them to Mr How.

Appearing in court Samuel was apologetic and his uncle was understanding. No one would benefit from a jury trial his lawyer told the magistrate, London’s Lord Mayor. Instead he hoped Samuel could be dealt with summarily.

His worship agreed and, after admonishing Palethorpe for effectively ‘throwing his money into the Thames, for backing the favourite horse means the same thing’, he fined him £2 2s and the costs of redeeming the items. Of course Samuel had no money so would go to prison for two months, a lesson for him perhaps. His uncle assured the court that once he came out he would be taken to the country, so ‘he might be removed from his evil associates’.

In other words, he would have a chance to start over – a chance not often extended to the offspring of London’s poorer classes. Let’s hope Samuel took it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 10, 1870]