The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]

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A ‘bully’ is seized; a case of mistaken identity in Leicester Square

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Stagg & Mantle’s store on Leicester Square

One of the things that fascinates me whilst reading the reports of the Victorian police courts is the changing use of language, especially slang. Language is always evolving of course; one only needs to spend time around young people to see how they create new words and adapt old ones. Slang (like underworld cant or Cockney rhyming slang) effectively excludes those that don’t understand it and allows conversions to occur in the hearing of those we’d rather didn’t understand what we were saying.

However when we look back into history to read about the people from the past through their own words the changing use and definition of words can be quite confusing. For example ‘gay’ which has changed its meaning considerably over the centuries. Now it almost universally refers to homosexuality but this probably only dates back to the 1930s, and only to men (and possibly only in the US). For most of the twentieth century in Britain it means happy, cheerful and it still is used like that.

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In the late 1850s (a period of concern about sexual health following revelations about the disastrous state of British troops in the Crimean War) ‘gay’ was a slang term for female prostitution (as seen in a famous cartoon from the time – shown on the left).

Another family word today is ‘bully’ which I think we would all understand to mean someone who uses their strength or position of power to intimate or exploit someone else. Bullying is rightly at the top of school and work agendas as something that needs to be dealt with and that vulnerable people should be protected from.

So would you be surprised to discover that in the 1800s (and indeed earlier) ‘bully’ was a slang term for a protector? It seems strange until we unpack it a little more and find that ‘a bully’ in Victorian terminology meant a prostitute’s protector, or in modern language, her ‘pimp’. Victorian bullies profited from the money made by street prostitutes and ‘protected’ them from other bullies or competitors for their territory.

Once you know that this report from the mid 1870s makes more sense.

Detective Leader of C Division (Metropolitan Police) was standing at the corner of Leicester Square watching a crowd of people outside Stagg and Mantle’s department store. Some of the more fashionable London streets attracted prostitutes and thieves and the police often watched for well-known or suspicious characters to catch them in the act of committing crime. Detective Leader was in plain clothes and looked like an ordinary member of the public.

Looking across Leader suddenly noticed a man, possibly drunk, wade into the crowd and start an altercation with a small group of women. He quickly intervened to separate them only to find that the man seized him by the collar and then declared that he was under arrest. The man, who was a recently discharged soldier named William Corrington, told the policeman that he (the soldier) was a detective and that he was arresting him (the actual detective) and would take him to the nearest police station. His explanation was that Leader was a ‘bully’ and so he must have believed he was trying to protect the women from the former solider.

The detective tried to explain  that the man was mistaken; he was the copper and he had been watching these women, but Corrington was too drunk to understand. A nearby uniformed officer saw what was happening and came to his colleague’s assistance and the man stood aside. But this was only temporary, when he saw that the detective wasn’t going anyway the ex-army man lurched forward again declaring:

‘You are loitering here again, and I shall take you to the station’.

Since Corrington could not or would not see sense, Leader and PC Harding (28C reserve) hauled him off to the nick and he was presented before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street in the morning on a charge of ‘annoying’ the detective in the course of executing his duty. The magistrate fined him 20(or 14 days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay).

Poor Corrington. He’d been discharged from the army only a few days earlier, we don’t know why. He was clearly drunk but possibly suffering in other ways. Prostitutes were exploited themselves of course, but they also preyed on drunk men and maybe William had fallen victim and had had his pocket pinched in the past. It is often remarked that the police (in plain clothes) can look remarkably similar to the criminals they are pursuing so maybe this was an honest mistake. This story does tell us as well, that the West End of London was considered a ripe spot for petty crime and vice in the 1870s, and little has changed there today.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 09, 1875]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

A City Road ‘Fagin’ gets away with it

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We are all probably familiar with the character of Fagin, created by Charles Dickens as the central villain of Oliver Twist. Fagin is a receiver of stolen goods, who trains a gang of juvenile thieves (led by the Artful Dodger) to go out and pick the pockets of unwary Londoners. In his ‘den’ the boys bring him the proceeds of their escapades in the form of hundreds of silk handkerchiefs, pocket books (wallets) and watches and chains.

Fagin was a fictional character of course, he didn’t actually exist. But Dickens was very familiar with the Police Courts (he had reported from them as a journalist before he became famous) and he had probably seen plenty of ‘Fagin’ in his time. Fagin was a ‘fence’, a receiver of stolen goods, and may even have been based on a real life Jewish criminal called Ikey Solomons.

In 1854 a man named Mark Isaacs appeared at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch. He had ben remanded in custody a few days later on a charge of receiving ‘£50 worth of silk damask’ a high value material belonging to a wholesale upholsterer based in the City Road.

The upholsterer, a Mr Thomas Farnham, had ordered the material especially and had taken delivery in late September and had locked it in a closet. Within two days it had gone, stolen it seems by a person or persons unknown. However, a month later it resurfaced, being offered for sale – by Isaacs – to an auctioneer in St. Paul’s Churchyard at 4s a yard.

At the sale – which Farnham was soon made aware of – Isaacs (and another man) told the purchaser (Mr Barnes) that he had bought the cloth from Debenham and Storrs, who traded from King Street, Covent Garden (and are the ancestors of the modern Debenhams who still exist today). It was a lie of course, they were trading in stolen goods, the problem Farnham had was in proving it.

However, Mr Barnes was in on the act. He was working with Farnham and carefully paid for the cloth with a crossed cheque. This meant that Isaacs would have to pay it into a bank, he couldn’t change it up for cash and this allowed the police investigation to trace him.

Isaacs was apprehend by the police and inspector Brennan of the met asked him where he had got the damask. Isaacs told him that he’d bought it off a man named Vann who had since gone to America.

How convenient.

Another witness at Worship Street recognised Isaacs as the brother of a man he knew called Coleman Isaacs, who had been hawking samples of silk damask at the City of London Theatre. Faced with what appeared to be mounting and damning evidence the magistrate committed him for trial.

Isaacs appeared at the Old Bailey on 27 November but was accused of theft, not receiving. Perhaps this was a mistake on the prosecution’s part. It was very hard to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Isaacs had stolen the goods that he said he had legitimately purchased from Mr Vann. The case was short and the jury were unconvinced. Mr Isaacs was acquitted and Mr Farnham left with justice or his 184 yards of silk.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 15, 1854]

A mugging outside Swan & Edgar’s reveals the reality of everyday crime in London

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Some of the cases that come before the nineteenth-century magistracy are useful in revealing how criminals operated.

The most common type of offending throughout the 1800s was theft. This usually meant relatively petty, non-violent thefts such as shoplifting, picking pockets and embezzlement. The archetypal serious property crime of the 1800s was burglary and the papers devoted considerable space to the problem. However while ‘classic’ robbery (the sort we associate with highwayman) was largely confined to the previous century, it still happened in the Victorian period.

This example, from Marlborough Street in 1889, looks very much like a mugging to modern eyes, but then that is what robbery was.

It was a Sunday morning and a barrister-at-law named Moyses was passing by the windows of Swan & Edgars, the department store, at Piccadilly Circus when a man approached him. The man appeared to want to speak to him as he placed one of his hands to the side of his face and leaned in.

‘Then in a second or two he was knocked violently against one of the pilasters, and felt a hand in his pocket and something snap’.

The man, whose name was John Harrington, had struck him, pushed him against the building and then had stolen his watch from inside his  coat. AS several passers-by raised the alarm the thief attempted to make his getaway. Unfortunately for Harrington the crowd pressed in too quickly and he was surrounded; within moments a police constable arrived and the would-be thief was captured.

However, when Harrington was searched at the police station Mr Moyses’ gold watch was nowhere to be found. In court the justice was told that a second man had been involve din the attack. According to Henry Hart, a singer, as Harrington had assaulted the barrister another man had come up and ‘the prisoner passed something to him’. This must have ben the watch. So while the crowd concentrated on the attack on Mr Moyses, the other member of the ‘gang’ escaped.

This will be familiar to anyone who is aware of how pickpockets and thieves operate in modern London, indeed probably at Piccadilly Circus. If you are unlucky enough to be mugged or (more gently) ‘pickpocketed’, the initial thief will palm your phone or wallet to a confederate who will walk or run off sharply. They will then pass the stolen goods to someone else, or drop them in a ‘safe’ spot to be collected later, by another member of the gang.

All of this made (and makes) it extremely hard to get a conviction. For anything to stick in court there needed to be proof that a crime had occurred and that the accused could be associated directly with it.

In this case the witness, Hart, was potentially crucial. He said that he had seen the assault on Mr Moyses, and watched the prisoner Harrington try to escape from the ring of people that surrounded him. As Harrington had attempted to ‘dive’ between the legs of the gathered crowd the ‘vocalist’ had followed, grabbing onto the tails of his coat and holding him long enough for the police to effect an arrest.

The policeman had searched the immediate area for the missing watch, using his lamp, but nothing was found. At first he thought Mr Moyses was drunk because he was so dizzy from the attack. As a precaution he took both assailant and victim back to the police station in Vine Street where it became clear that the law man was simply suffering from the ‘violence of the attack’ made on him. In court Mr Moyses denied being drunk and said he was merely ‘dazed’ by what had happened.

In the end there wasn’t really sufficient evidence for a charge of theft however. There was no gold watch, no accomplice, and it was far from clear that Harrington had done much more than shove the barrister against the Swan & Edgar building. As a result all parties were dismissed and Mr Moyses would have had to accept that he needed to be a little more aware of where he was and what he was doing in future, and keep strangers at a distance.

As for Harrington, well so long as he kept out of Marlborough Street Police Court for the foreseeable future he was probably safe. If he appeared there again however, he was likely to face the full force of the legal system – especially if he found that the barrister prosecuting him was his previous victim!

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 12, 1889]

A ‘notorious’ thief’s cross-examination skills backfire at the Guildhall

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Sir Robert Carden by ‘Spy’ (aka Leslie Ward) (Vanity Fair, December 1880)

In yesterday’s post I was able to show that a policeman who stayed in court (when all witnesses had been asked to leave) effectively undermined his own evidence and allowed a magistrate to exercise his discretion in a case he clearly felt slightly uncomfortable about. The newspaper reports of the London Police Courts, anecdotal as they undoubtedly are, can therefore be extremely useful to understanding how the summary process operated in the nineteenth-century capital.

This case, from the Guildhall Police Court in 1859, also reveals the nature of the hearing and, in particular, how the accused’s voice could be heard. In this instance the accused, a young man whom the papers certainly wanted to represent as a ‘bad character’, decided to act as his own defence counsel, cross examining the complainant in court.

As we will see, it probably wasn’t the wisest of strategies.

The complaint was brought by a ‘highly respectable young woman’ named Miss Martha Orange. The young lady in question was walking along Ludgate Street in the City at around 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon when he realised that a young was at her side. He touched her on the shoulder and startled, she quickly crossed over the road to escape his attentions.

Very soon afterwards he was back and she realised she’d lost her purse. As she turned to confront him he ran off. Calling for others to help her catch him Miss Orange ran off after him. A few streets away he was captured by a policeman (PC Collins 337 City) in London House Yard and taken into custody. The lad had dumped the purse but it was found in the yard by a butcher’s son named Phillips Jeacocks, who handed it in.

The purse had contained quite a lot of money, which is why Miss Orange was aware it had been stolen from her. The prisoner, who gave his name as John Howard, now took it upon himself to challenge the woman’s testimony. In doing so he certainly asserted his rights but the nature of his line of questioning also suggests a familiarity with the legal system. I suspect that this familiarity exposed him as a ‘known’ offender, and he was later described as a member of a notorious local gang of thieves.

Howard started by asking the prosecutor if she had seen her purse in his hands. Miss Orange admitted that she hadn’t.

‘How do you know I took your purse?’ he enquired.

‘Because there was no one else near my pocket’ she replied.

He also cross-examined the butcher’s boy: ‘Will you swear I am the man?’ he demanded. ‘I am most sure you are’, said Phillip Jeacocks.

Having heard from the two principal witnesses the court now listened to the report of the police. Constable Haun (360 City police) declared that he was sure that the prisoner had previous convictions at Guildhall and Mansion House.

‘I was never at either place in my life’ Howard protested.

The arresting officer, PC Collins said he recognised him as someone who had escaped arrest after another man’s pocket had been picked. Now a Met policeman added that Howard belonged to a ‘notorious gang in Golden Lane’. Haun continued his evidence by telling the magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, that Howard had been imprisoned in Holloway and may well have been convicted at Old Bailey. Nowadays a prisoner’s previous convictions would not be revealed in court prior to conviction, but then again in the 1800s a person’s criminal record was not so easy to determine; these were the days before pretty nay kind of forensic science existed.

Unfortunately for Howard (if that was his name) even Sir Robert recognised him. Haun added that several of the lad’s ‘associates’ were in court that day, offering moral support to their chum. At this the magistrate warned the watching public to keep a close eye on their valuables, while he assured them he would make sure that Howard couldn’t pick any pockets for a couple of weeks at least.

This was because he intended to commit the lad for a jury trial where he might expect a severe custodial sentence. Howard twigged this and immediately put in a plea for justice to be served summarily: ‘I would rather you would deal with the case here sir’ he said.

Miss Orange had one last statement to make saying that at the police station Howard had admitted his crime and told her he was driven to it by his mother’s poverty and the need to look after her. He hoped she might forgive him and promised to mend his ways. His attempt to appeal to her good nature didn’t work but was overhead by PC Haun. Whether it was true or a lie he now denied it anyway, perhaps to avoid admitting guilt but maybe also to save face in front of his friends.

Sir Robert commended Miss Orange for the ‘coolness and courage’ she had displayed in apprehending and prosecuting the supposed thief. As for Howard, he turned to him and said: “I shall send you for trial, where you will have the opportunity of convincing a jury of your innocence’.

Howard did appear at the Old Bailey, on the 24 October 1859, indicted for stealing Miss Orange’s purse. Just as he had failed to undermine Miss Orange’s case at Guildhall Howard singularly failed to convince the jury of his innocence either. They found him guilty and when an officer from the Clerkenwell Sessions appeared to confirm that the prisoner had a previous conviction from August 1858 – for larceny for which he received a 12 months prison term) his goose was cooked. The judge at Old Bailey sent him into penal servitude for four years.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 27, 1859]

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]