A magistrate falls victim as he leaves work

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If a reader had opened his newspaper on the morning of Thursday 30 August 1888 they would, as yet, have had no inkling of the major news story that was about to dominate the news hole in the summer autumn of that year. Within 24 hours the unknown murderer known to history at ‘Jack the Ripper’ would have began a killing series that left at least five women dead and horribly mutilated. The story of the Whitechapel murders came to be known across the world as newspaper readers were treated to a detailed and blow-by-blow account of the police investigation and the panic that gripped the East End of London.

On 30 August however that all lay in the future. The Standard‘s readers were instead entertained by a series of reports from the capital’s Police Courts, and, on this occasion by the robbery of one of the magistrates themselves, Mr Saunders who presided at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Mr Saunders was making his way home from the court having left it at four in the afternoon. As he headed towards Liverpool Street station to catch a train he was jostled by a young lad. The boy was 16 or 17 years of age and he ran into the magistrate making out that it was an accident.

This was a common form of street theft; before the elderly magistrate realised what had happened the lad had pinched his pocket watch and had made his escape. Being somewhat ‘infirm’, Saunders was unable to chase after him.

The story was reported underneath all the other reports from the London courts. These were read avidly by Londoners of all classes and it is quite likely that some of the audience enjoyed the fact that a ‘beak’ like Saunders had fallen victim to one of those that he spent so much of his time locking up. Street theft like this was hard to prove unless the culprit could be caught quickly with the evidence on him. Hopefully for the lad’s sake he did get away on this occasion because I hate to think what Mr Saunders would have done if he later appeared before him in the dock!

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 30, 1888]

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A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

One funeral and two pickpockets

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In July 1881 the dean of Westminster Abbey, the Rev Arthur Stanley, died. He had served as dean since 1863 and wrote several religious articles. His burial in the Abbey was recorded in a contemporary work about the Abbey written by Stanley and published (posthumously) in 1886.

“Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (author of this volume) … was followed by the Prince of Wales, as representative of the Sovereign, by other members of the Royal Family, by representatives of the three Estates of the Realm, of the Cabinet Ministers, the literature, arts, science, and religion of the country, and by a large concourse of the working-men of Westminster—the majority mourning for one who had been their personal friend.”

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Historical memorials of Westminster Abbey, (London, 1886).

Sadly it would seem that while many people turned out to mourn the dean’s passing others saw it as an opportunity for easy profit. Funerals draw a crowd and crowds (as any unwary visitor to Covent Garden ought to realise) draw pickpockets.

Two people were caught in the act of picking pockets amongst the mourners that afternoon and both appeared at Westminster Police Court in early August.

Daniel Green was just 17 but had already earned himself a ‘bad character’. He was seen attempting ‘to pick several ladies’ pockets’ before he was arrested by Sergeant Reader of E Division. He was probably there as a member of the crowd himself but when he had been a constable in A Division he had learned to recognise many of the ‘known thieves’ in the vicinity. When he was searched Green was found to have several handkerchiefs on him but the owners could not be traced. Mr D’Eyncourt  sent the youth to prison for three months at hard labour.

Jane Thomas was 53 years old – so should presumably have known better than to attempt to pick pockets inside the Abbey. There was less evidence against her so the magistrate used the Vagrancy Laws to have her convicted as a rogue and vagabond. She too got three months hard labour for her pains.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 03, 1881]

The perils of being a ‘known thief’

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Steam boats at Old Swan Pier, near London Bridge

After 1869 there was a change to the law. This was one of the long term consequences of the moral panic surrounding ‘garrotting’ (a form of violent street robbery) that occurred in London in 1862. The Habitual Offenders Act (1869) saw the creation of a register of prisoners who had been convicted. This included taking details of their physical features and photographing them. In 1871 the act was modified so that it was now limited to all those sentenced to a month or more in prison. The registers are held by the National Archives at Kew and and will be a part of a new historical online database, the Digital Panopticon.

Before that the court had no official record of previous offenders although there were plenty of instances where a person’s criminal record dogged them through the justice system. From the 1750s the Bow Street police office, run by Sir John Fielding (the ‘blind beak’) had attempted to create its own database of London’s criminals. Their early efforts were destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and subsequent records were lost to history when the office moved to a new building in the late 1800s.

Many constables, watchmen, gaolers, and magistrates could however identify persons who had appeared on more than one occasion but this was limited by memory and geography. If, for example, a defendant was brought up before the magistrate at Bow Street and convicted and sentenced to, say, a month in the house of correction, on release he would ‘disappear’. If he was arrested and brought before the justice at Worship Street (in the East End) then he may have been unknown to them.

It was then, as it is now, the case that repeat or persistent offenders were likely to receive a stiffer sentence, or at least not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to conviction. So we can see the benefits to the authorities of a systematic system of identifying known criminals. By contrast we can also see why it was in the interests of thieves to try to pretend they were first offenders by denying previous convictions (that might be hard to prove) or by using alias, which many did.

The John Cox that appeared at the Mansion House Police Court in June 1866 was described in the papers as ‘a well known thief’. He was brought up on a charge of robbing a young lady named Elizabeth Gallagher, on Old Swan Pier as she waited for a steam boat by London Bridge.

He was seen ‘dipping’ her pocket by an officer named Henwick, who may have been City policeman or more likely someone working for the steam ship company. Henwick acted quickly and arrested Cox before he could make his escape, and told him there was no use him denying what he’d done.

In the Mansion House court Cox’s luck went from bad to worse as the gaoler of Coldbath Fields prison rose to give evidence. He told the presiding magistrate, Alderman Gabriel, that he knew the prisoner of old. Cox had served time in the prison for being a rogue and a vagabond and had also been sentenced to three years penal servitude at the Middlesex Sessions.

As a result, instead of dealing with him summarily by awarding a short prison sentence, the alderman fully committed Cox for trial. As he was a taken down Cox turned his anger on the gaoler, warning that he ‘would be “down on him” [at] the first opportunity’, and was led away muttering curses to the cells.

Cox was clearly guilty of the crime but the consequences of being identified as a repeat offender: as someone who had not learned his lesson previously, was severe. On 9 July 1866 he pleaded guilty to picking the pocket of Elizabeth Gallagher and was sent to prison for seven years.

Cox was listed at 23 years of age in 1866. In 1874 another man, also named John Cox (aged 35) was convicted at the Bailey of housebreaking. Listed as a previously convicted felon he was sent down for ten years. Was this the same John Cox? There is a slight difference in age (3-4 years) but it is not impossible. Cox would have been out of gaol by 1874 and would have found it very hard to gain legitimate paid employment. He may also have made acquaintances inside that would have helped him ‘progress’ from the smaller crime of picking pockets to the more serious one of breaking into someone’s home or business.

There is an alternative outcome however. In 1879 a John Cox was convicted with another man, William Price, of stealing 20 ‘dead soles’. The pair pleaded guilty and Cox was shown to have been convicted in 1870 and a further five charges were heard and proved against him. He was sentenced to 8 years.

I suspect one of these cases (but not both) was our man. From 1869 or 1871 onwards we could be clearer if we checked the Register created in the wake of the garrotting panic. That is an exercise for another day but is the sort of exercise the Digital Panopticon project was created to make possible, the tracing of criminal ‘careers’ and lives of those sentenced at London’s Central Criminal court.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 23, 1866]

Footnote: yesterday I received my copy of a new volume about the history of crime. A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (edited by Jo Turner, Paul taylor, Sharon Morley and Karen Corteen) is published by the Polity Press and is full of short articles about criminal justice history across the 18th and 19th centuries. It features a short entry by your truly (on the Whitechapel Murders of 1888) and is an excellent companion to my own text book covering the period from 1660-1914

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

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‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]

Preying on unwary visitors to the Zoological Gardens

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London Zoo in the late 1800s

Stephen Westbrook was visiting the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s  Park (better know to most of us as London Zoo of course), when he felt a tug at his pocket. As he span round he saw a man behind him holding his gold watch! Westbrook, a well-heeled gentleman who resided on the Camberwell Road, South London, called the thief a ‘scamp’ and made a grab for him.

The other man was too quick for him. Dumping the offending item into the outstretched hand of his victim the thief took off, running through the gathered crowds who were intent on viewing the menagerie.

Westbrook gave chase and caught up with his prey, securing him with ‘some difficulty’ and handing him over to a nearby policeman. A week later the pair were in Marylebone Police court, with the ‘scamp’ facing a charge of picking pockets.

Westbrook told the magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, the circumstances of theft and a police spokesman explained that the prisoner, James Bodi (alias Potter), had a string of similar fences as long as his arm. The magistrate asked Bodi/Potter if he had anything to say in his defence. He hadn’t and the 32 year-old sawyer from the parish of St Luke’s was committed for trial.

Next up was another case of theft from the zoo. This time the defendant was a woman, Eliza Dyne and she was a ‘respectably dressed’ 37 year-old. She too had been using the crowded areas of the zoo as an ideal place to pass unseen amongst the crowds, dipping into bags and pockets. On this occasion she had taken 9s from the dress pocket of Mrs Mary Chessington (who presumably had no connection to a zoo of the same name…). Eliza was, like James, unable to escape arrest and she too found herself committed to a higher court and a jury trial.

Nether appear in the Old Bailey records however, so perhaps they went somewhere else like the Clerkenwell sessions. Like so many cases that come before the summary courts, the outcome is uncertain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 24, 1876]

A fake vicar at Bow Street

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Eyebrows were raised when George Stanley appeared in the dock at Bow Street in May 1877. He didn’t look like your average thief, in fact he closely resembled a vicar, so what was he doing there?

Stanley, an ‘elderly man’ having ‘the appearance of a shabby-genteel clergyman’ was charged with loitering in and around Charing Cross with the intention of stealing from passers-by. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, thought he seemed familiar and Sergeant Kerlay of Scotland Yard confirmed that he was a ‘known criminal’, and had been convicted several times before.

The habit of a cleric was a disguise, the sergeant explained, that allowed him to go about the crowds unsuspected. He usually had an accomplice, a woman, and he always carried an umbrella. He held the ‘brolly point down and slightly open, so that when his assistant had stolen something she could drop it in ‘without exciting the slightest suspicion’.

A prison warder from Holloway also testified that Stanley was a former inmate, he knew him well despite his ‘disguise’. The prisoner however, said, in a voice ‘that belied his aspect’ that the whole thing was ‘a pack of lies, and no magistrate should listen to such nonsense’. Mr Flowers clearly disagreed, as he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour.

 

[from The Standard, Monday, May 14, 1877]