Two thieves ‘going snowing’ are caught by the peeled eyes of a child detective.

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I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.

One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.

Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.

Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.

However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.

Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a  distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.

Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]

The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.

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‘Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, How he got it, from what source?’ A policeman in the dock at Thames

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If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper city time, ask a policeman,
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.

This well-known music hall ditty (which I’ve mentioned before) reflects a contemporary working-class distrust of the police by suggesting that they weren’t always as honest as they should have been.

When William Harris, a Ratcliff wine cooper, and his wife got home from a night out they found the door of their house open and a policeman guarding it. It was half-past midnight and the couple must have been both surprised and concerned.

The officer quickly moved to reassure them. He told them he’d found it ajar and had investigated. There may have been a burglary but he wasn’t sure, no one was on the premises, but they had better check if anything was missing.

Mr Harris rushed upstairs and looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. It didn’t seem as if it had but then he realised his pocket watch and chain was missing from the dressing table. He went down to report it the loss to the constable.

Earlier that evening PC Patrick Barry (382K) and PC John Prestage (also K Division), were patrolling on Broad Street in Ratcliffe when the latter called Barry’s attention to a door that seemed open. PC Prestage told his colleague to wait outside while he investigated. He went upstairs but reported that no one was in the the house. He then sent Barry off to  to report a suspected robbery, telling him he would stand guard in the meantime.

Barry soon returned with sergeant Richard Plumsett, who had been checking the patrols of his constables as was normal practice. Sergeants would set constables off on their beats and time them to ensure they were  in the right place at the right time. He came over the the house in Broad Street and spoke to both officers. This was about 11.45 at night.

Just after 12.30 Sergeant Plumsett was back and now he found Barry, Prestage and Mr Harris embroiled in an argument. Harris was complaining about the loss of his watch but wasn’t keen on going along to the police station to officially report it. PC Prestage told his superior that:

‘Mr Harris does not seem satisfied about losing his watch: I don’t know whether he wants to blame the police for it’.

The sergeant then noticed that Prestage was drunk, or at least under the influence of alcohol. He immediately instructed the pair of them to return to the station with him.

Back at the King David Lane police station the situation developed. Mr Harris arrived later on and accused the policeman of robbing him. With a drunken officer and an unhappy local resident the desk sergeant, Robert Smith, told Prestage that he’d better turn out his pockets to satisfy the cooper’s suspicions.

‘Have you got a watch?’ Sergeant Smith asked.

‘Yes, I am in the habit of carrying two watches’, replied PC Prestage, and unbuttoned his great coat to reveal a watch on a chain around his neck.

‘Where is the other watch?’ the sergeant continued, and it was handed over.

When Mr Harris was shown the watch he immediately identified at the one he had lost from his dressing table. The police had no choice and the next morning PC Prestage found himself in the dock at Thames Police Court in front of the imposing figure of Mr Lushington.

The magistrate asked him to explain himself but all he could say was that he was ‘under the influence of liquor and was not aware he had taken the watch’. This was too serious for Mr Lushington to deal with there and then so he remanded him for a week with a view to committing him for trial at the Middlesex Sessions.

On 17 December 1877 John Prestage (described as a baker, not a policeman) was tried and convicted of theft at Middlesex Sessions and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He was 20 years old and pleaded guilty. He was sent, as so many of those sentenced were, to Cold Bath Fields prison. I’m curious to know why he wasn’t described as a policeman when the newspaper report is very clear that he was.  The Daily Gazette (a Middlesbrough paper) reported the case at Middlesex as that of a ‘Dishonest Policeman’ so there seems to be no doubt as to his occupation.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 03, 1877]

The student who thought he knew the law better than a magistrate

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John Williamson was a Law student who lived in Queen’s Road, Bayswater. In November 1874 he entered the Spread Eagle pub  accompanied  by a soldier he’d spent the afternoon drinking with, and demanded to be served.

The publican, Mr Barwell, took one look at Williamson and his companion and decided they were drunk and so refused to serve them. Victorian landlords were wary of serving drunks because they were obliged (under the terms of their licenses) to keep ‘orderly’ houses and overly inebriated customers could be troublesome.

The law student took this refusal badly however, and when he got outside he took out his anger on the landlord by smashing one of his windows before running away. The police were called and Williamson was arrested in Davies Street nearby and taken into custody.  He was then held overnight at a police station before being presented at Marlborough Police Station in the morning charged with being drunk and causing criminal damage to the value of £4.

Williamson, as a student of the law, decided (unwisely it has to be said) to challenge the legal basis for his arrest. He declared the arrest was unlawful because the ‘constable did not see him break the window’. Instead of arresting him and holding him in custody the policeman should have taken his name and address so that Mr Barwell could have applied for a summons.

Mr Newton (the sitting justice at Marlborough Street) told him he was wrong. The constable had acted correctly; the young man was drunk and acting in a disorderly manner. He convicted him of the damage and ordered him to pay for the damage he’d caused. In addition to the £4 for replacing the window he fined him 20s (a not inconsiderable amount) for being found drunk. The magistrate warned him that if he failed to pay either of the sums owing he would go to prison for six weeks.

It was an object lesson in presuming to know more than one’s ‘betters’ and I’m fairly sure the experienced legal professional enjoyed making his point absolutely clear to the precocious young undergraduate. Whether the  lesson was learned is a moot point.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 24, 1874]

The odds are stacked against a young wife, hemmed in as she was by the demands of patriarchy and the cruelty of her abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton will be looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

A respectable ‘kleptomaniac’ is caught out at the Soho Bazaar

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The Soho Bazaar, c.1815

Mary Allen was almost certainly a pseudonym. The woman using this device was quite respectable and claimed to be protecting her ‘respectable friends’ from the disgrace of being associated with her.

‘Mary’ (as I am going to continue to call her) was arrested in November 1835 at the Soho Bazaar and charged with theft. She was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street by a police constable from St Anne’s station house having been given into custody by Ann Castle. who operated a stall at the bazaar.

Mrs Castle set out the facts of the case before Mr Chambers.

‘At about four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, as she was attending some Ladies who were at her stand, the prisoner  passed by; and, no doubt considering that her attention was occupied with the other Ladies, she laid hold of a muslin collar, thrust it into her muff, and walked hastily away to another part of the bazaar’.

It was a classic shoplifting ploy; to pinch an item quickly and calmly and hide it in a pocket, coat or, in this case, the large muff that women used to keep their hands warm in the colder months of the year.

However, ‘Mary’ had been seen and Ann Castle confronted her. At this the thief pleaded with her to let her go, thrusting the collar back to her. Ann was not in the mood for leniency and summoned a nearby police constable, who took her back the station.

Once there ‘Mary’ refused to give her name or address. She told the police she would rather ‘suffer the greatest punishments the law could inflict rather than say who she was’.

This was an example of what was to become a much more common occurrence in the nineteenth century; middle-class women caught for shoplifting presented the police and courts with a dilemma. All the demands of class deference and chivalry suggested that these female thieves should be treated differently from the ‘usual suspects’ who were routinely arrested, prosecuted and gaoled. Indeed, in the later 1800s the courts began to treat these ‘criminals’ as mad rather than bad, and society applied the term ‘kleptomania’  to them suggesting that they, as members of the ‘weaker’ sex, were unable to help themselves.

‘Mary’ however, was clearing helping herself to the goods on display at the Soho Bazaar. When she was searched at the station along with the collar the police found, ‘a package of twenty-two silk laces, a gilt thimble, a Prayer Book, with silver clasps, a jet bracelet, a jet necklace, a caddy-spoon, and some fancy toilet articles’ in her muff.

The bazaar itself was an unusual venture. Opened in 1815 it offered ‘respectable’ women an opportunity to display and sell items they had made themselves. So it was an early example of the craft markets we are familiar with today. So ‘Mary’ was not only stealing, she was stealing from her own class.

There were several other stallholders in court and one identified the laces as her own. Since the rest of the items remained unclaimed however, Mr Chambers said it would be necessary for the police to make other enquiries. The police inspector said he would do so and, additionally, said the police were also investigating thefts from the Pantheon Bazaar committed by a woman who fitted ‘Mary’s description. The Pantheon bazaar had existed much earlier, being built in the 1770s, although it was destroyed by fire in 1792. Samuel Smirke rebuilt it in 1833-34 so it must have just opened in time for ‘Mary’ to thieve from it.

The magistrate asked ‘Mary’ why she had committed the crime but she was unable to explain. ‘She could not tell what had induced her to disgrace herself in such a manner, except that she must have been mad at the time’, reported the press. In the end she was released but asked to reappear if others came forward to prosecute her.

This is a good example of how class-ridden the criminal justice could be in the 1800s. This was a fairly open and shut case of theft. We might sympathise with ‘Mary’ as someone possible suffering with some form of mental illness but that wasn’t why the court was gentle with her. It was entirely down to the fact that she was a member of the respectable middle class. If she had been a poor working-class woman the magistrate would have committed her for jury trial (where she would faced the possibility of being imprisoned or even transported for the crime) or, had he chosen to be lenient, sent her to the house of correction for a month or more.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 13, 1835]

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 mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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Charles Brighton had gone to bed at about 11 at night on the 26 October 1874. Brighton, a stableman, lived with his wife and children in Lombard Street, Mile End. He employed William Goodsall to help him in his stable work and Goodsall lodged with the family.

Between half past midnight and one o’clock in the morning Brighton was woken up by the cry of ‘fire!, fire!’ coming from downstairs. He recognised Goodsall’s voice and rushed down to find his sitting room in flames.

He found that the ‘house [was] full of smoke, the passage on fire, and the flames catching the stairs’.

With some outside help (including some members of the fire brigade who arrived swiftly) he managed to fight the fire and put it out. However, when he went into Goodsall’s room he began to suspect the blaze had started there, and had been set deliberately. He couldn’t find his servant anywhere and so his suspicions grew.

Others were affected by the fire. The wife of a dock constable (whose husband was presumably on duty at night and so not at home) had to jump out of a window to escape the flames, falling and injuring herself in the process. Brighton’s family escaped unharmed but it must have terrifying for them.

Later that morning Goodsall was found and arrested. Back at the police station he was asked if he set the fire and seemed to admit it: ‘All right, I have done it’ he reportedly told the desk sergeant, adding ‘I won’t swear if it was wilfully done or an accident’.

The case was heard at Worship Street Police Court before Mr Hannay. The magistrate examined the evidence and was told that there might have been a bit of unpleasantness between Goodsall and Mrs Brighton. What this was is not made entirely clear, either in the newspaper report of the pre-trial hearing nor in the Old Bailey trial that took place later in November.  It appears that Goodsall and Mrs Brighton argued because ‘Jim’ (as William was known) had visited the school where the Brighton children studied and their mother took exception to this.

It seems very unlikely that this alone caused the young man (Goodsall was 24) to set his room on fire to spite his employer, so perhaps there was more to it. Mr Hannay committed him for trial and on the 23 November the jury convicted him despite his defence that he had been out drinking at the time of the blaze. The Old Bailey judge sentenced him to two years in prison.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 8, 1874]