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]

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]

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]

A thief opts for the lesser of two evils

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The Criminal Justice Act (1855) allowed defendants in court to have their cases heard by a justice of the peace in a summary court, or elect to go before a judge and jury. This act was intended to speed up the prosecution system by enabling more smaller property crimes (larcenies) to be dealt with by the magistracy. Many of those brought before the ‘beak’ may well have thought it beneficial to give up their ‘right’ to a jury in return for escaping the longer sentence that judges could hand down.

In March 1872 there were a couple of cases before the Guildhall Police Court where defendants chose this option. One of them concerned the theft of a silver watch – a fairly serious crime which in previous years might have attracted a sentence  of death (before the 1820s) or transportation.

Charles Cordell gave a false address in court when he was accused of stealing Joseph Cook’s silver watch on Ludgate Hill on Thanksgiving Day*. Cook and his wife were walking on Ludgate Hill at about 4 o’clock when he saw Cordell  next to him and felt him try to take something from his waistcoat pocket. As he looked he claimed he saw the man steal is pocket watch, and immediately  grabbed hold of  him.

‘You have stolen my watch’, he cried, ‘You are mistaken’ replied Cordell, struggling to get free but the prosecutor and his wife held him tight by the hands. Cook called out for help and a policeman soon arrived on the scene. As Cordell protested his innocence the watch fell from his trousers onto the street.

Mr Cook bent down and retrieved his property and the policeman took Cordell prisoner and marched him to the station house. There he was searched and found to have ‘six handkerchiefs, a breast pin and a knife’ on him.

In court he gave an address in Spitalfields, an area synonymous with crime, and admitted having been charged with felony in the past. He pleaded guilty and waived his rights to a jury trial. The magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 05, 1872]

*If this is the traditional feast day  celebrated by the Americans then this means early November, or it may be what we tend to call the Harvest Festival, but perhaps readers may know of another festival more applicable to late February/early March.

Three suspicious characters on the London Bridge line

John Davidson was an experienced City of London detective. In February 1882 he was walking in St Paul’s Churchyard (which in the past was a much less ‘respectable’ area than it is today). Davidson was not keeping an eye out for terrorists (as he might have been today, given our state of high alert) but instead for thieves.

He soon spotted three women he knew to be ‘habitual’ criminals and decided to follow them.

The women made their way to Ludgate Hill railway station before carrying on to  Cannon Street and boarding a train heading for London Bridge. The women had third class tickets but Davidson had his suspicions that they weren’t travelling for the purposes of going somewhere, but to steal from the other passengers.

He was correct.

He followed them on to the train and got off when they alighted at London Bridge. He hadn’t seen them do anything in particular but he remained sure they had. The detective now approached some of the other travellers and enquired whether they had lost anything.

One lady told him she had lost his purse so he decided to arrest the women. With the help of a nearby constable the three were taken into custody and back to a police station where they were searched.

No purse was found however, but he still charged them with picking pockets and they appeared at Southwark Police court on the following day.

Leonara Gray (23), Jane Fowkes (25) and Mary Kay (23) were presented and denied all charges against them. Detective Davidson was able to bring along Mary Ann Watts, a schoolmistress from Southwark Park Road who said she had been travelling on the train when the three got into her carriage.

Kay sat on one side of her while Gray occupied the other side, Fowkes sat opposite her. She kept her purse safely (she thought) in her ‘dress pocket’ and she was sure it was there when the women sat down. As the women left the train Detective Davidson entered the carriage and asked if she had lost anything. She checked and found her purse was gone.

She told the court if contained ‘a sovereign, a shilling, and her railway ticket’. Not a massive haul but enough to cover the three third class tickets and plenty left over.

A female warder from the Westminster Prison testified to knowing the three as ‘clever pickpockets’; ‘they had all been convicted at various terms’, she added. Although the evidence against them was circumstantial at best and I doubt a jury would have convicted them now, in 1882 that was enough to earn each of them 3 months hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 21, 1882]

P.S apparently Ludgate Hill station (which closed in 1929) was built over the site of the old Fleet prison, which seems an appropriate connection for our three light-fingered felons.

Real life ‘dodgers’ pinch a purse in the East End

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This week my second year undergraduates at Northampton are exploring the topic of juvenile crime. In particular they are looking at the notion that ‘delinquency’ was ‘invented’ in the early 1800s. Now of course I am not suggesting that children and young people did not start committing crime or being ‘delinquent’ before then but rather than the 1800s saw a concentration of attention on young offending for the first time.

In 1815 a committee of concerned individuals was created to investigate the ‘alarming increase’ in juvenile crime. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (published in parts between 1837-9) highlighted the problems, and in the second half of the century the Reformatory (and Industrial) School movement offered an alternative solution to locking young offenders up with adult ones.

In January 1840 at Worship Street Police Court (one of two magistrate courts that served the East End of London) two youngsters were placed in the dock and charged with theft. Timothy Regan was recorded as just 10 years old and his female accomplice Mary Wood was 16.

They had met with a girl of 8 (Martha Sarah Briggs) who was on her way back from running an errand for her mother. Mrs Briggs had sent her  daughter out with a crown piece to buy some bread. As she ran home with the loaf and the change Regan and Wood and a third boy (not in custody), ‘got her between them…hustled the girl, and forcibly took from her the purse with its contents’.

The three thieves then made their escape but the whole incident had been seen by a passerby who quickly gave the information to the police. The young thieves were tracked to a pub where they had ordered “ale-hot”. Just as they were served the police arrived but they had either posted a lookout of this was a well-known ‘flash house’ (where thieves and criminals gathered) and the young crooks abandoned their drink and legged it.

Sergeant Brennan (20G of the Metropolitan Police) caught Wood and Regan but not the other boy. Both were well known to the police the policeman later told the court. When they were locked up in separate cells they called to each other, using cant or slang so the police would not understand them (or so they hoped).

Mary told her younger companion that ‘if he did not split they would not be lagged’; in other words if he kept his mouth shut they would not be able to build case against them. In court the pair denied saying any such thing and even tried to deny knowing each other. Unfortunately for them they were identified by little Martha and the justice committed them for trial by jury.

At the Old Bailey on 3 February they were formally indicted for pickpocketing; stealing a purse (valued at 2s 6d) containing 4s 4d belonging to a Mr John Briggs (all property of curse belonged to the male head of the household, whoever had charge of it).

The other lad was never caught and so Timothy Regan and  Mary Wood stood trial on their own. While the Worship Street court had their ages as 10 and 16 respectfully (possibly because this is what they told the magistrate or the police), the Old Bailey records them as 15 and 18. In court the police reported that Wood had in fact said ‘Don’t split, or we shall be booked, don’t tell them that I know Pinfold [presumably the other offender] or you’.

It was a very short trial; the account of it is just a few exchanges and ends with the boy’s previous conviction being cited in court. They were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for ten years.

For stealing 4s and a purse.

 

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 17,1840]