An ingenious thief and the ‘bird lime trick’.

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Wapping in the 1890s, from Booth’s poverty map

Cash registers weren’t invented until the later 1870s, and that was in America. A busy pub like the Three Crowns in Upper Smithfield, Wapping didn’t have anything quite as fancy. But it did experience a creative attempt to take money from the ’till’ nevertheless.

Catherine Morgan ran the pub with her husband and at about 8 o’clock in the morning of the 10th May she was in parlour bar of the pub and noticed a young man come in. There was a glass partition between the parlour and main bar and she could clearly see the lad take out a long stick. He pushed the stick towards ‘the engine’, and inserted between its two handles.

Now I suspect someone out there knows what device the reporter is talking about here but it would seem to be some early version of a cash machine. This is made more plausible by what happened next.

As Catherine watched on in horror the young man withdrew the stick and she saw that there were two coins stick to it! Hurrying back through into the pub she grabbed him and shouted: ‘Give me that stick’. Just as quickly he broke off the end of the stick and wiped it on his trousers. Catherine unfolded his hand to discover two shillings hidden in his palm.

The police were called and Mrs Morgan held him captive until PC H31 could take him into custody. He appeared on more than one occasion at Thames Police Court before this appearance on the 20 May 1876. Now the court was told that this was not the first time the lad, by the name of Morris Cooney, had been seen practising his ‘trick’.

Earlier on the month he had almost been caught by the landlady of the Garrett Tavern in Leman Street, Whitechapel. He had come in and asked her for a light and a glass of porter. Once she had served him  she had gone out the back to the parlour to ‘see to the children’. Hearing ‘a jingle’ she came back to find him with his stick and a flash of silver. She challenged him but he gulped down his beer and ran out of the pub.

The stick had been daubed with bird lime, which made it sticky and ideal for Cooney’s purpose. Unfortunately for him his clever device was easily spotted by women as eagle eyed at Catherine Morgan. What was worse for Morris was that his appearance in court revealed a previous conviction for a felony so the magistrate was not inclined to deal with him summarily (which may have reduced his sentence). Instead he was committed for trial, at the Session or at Old Bailey, where he might face a long spell in prison.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 21, 1876]

The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]

A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

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When Julius Beale hailed  a cab at Regent’s Circus at 1 in the morning it is fair to say he was a little the worse for drink. As the cab headed off towards his home in Gower Street, Beale fell asleep and didn’t wake until he was dimply aware of being outside his front door. While his head was clouded by the alcohol he had consumed he felt sure he’d paid the driver and made it up the stairs to his front door. However, as the cab pulled off he was suddenly aware that his watch – an expensive gold time piece – was missing. Assuming he had left it in the cab or it had been lifted while he slept, he ran after the vehicle. Eventually a passing policeman helped him stop the driver. The cab was searched and his watch and chain was discovered under the seat.

The next morning Beale, the policeman and the cab driver were all in the Bow Street Police Court where a charge of theft was brought against the driver, John Leggatt.

Having heard Beale’s evidence Leggatt’s lawyer, Mr Abrams, cross-examined the prosecutor.  Crucially of course he had been inebriated and therefore his testimony was fairly suspect at best. Could he really recall exactly what had happened? Had he in fact even paid the fare for his journey? An alternative scenario was presented in which Beale was actually running away from the cab driver who was demanding his money.

The policeman confirmed Beale’s account of the events but this didn’t include any evidence that Leggatt had stolen the watch or that Beale had paid him for the ride. It merely confirmed that the ‘cabman was driving away at a trot, pursued [it seemed] by the prosecutor’.

As far as Mr Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, was concerned there was not enough evidence either to convict Leggatt in a summary court or send him for jury trial. He concluded that:

 ‘the circumstances of the case were very suspicious, but drunken men sometimes did very strange things, and it was quite possible that the prosecutor might have put the watch and chain under the seat himself. At all events no jury would convict the prisoner on the evidence of a drunken man’.

And so he discharged him.

At this Abram decided to push his (or rather his client’s) luck. He said he hoped that Beale would now settle his fare. Mr Henry strongly advised Beale not to however. The cabbie had been driving away at a trot and this seemed suspicious if he hadn’t been paid. He should have at least have taken the man’s address and best practice would have been to drive him directly to the ‘station-house, that the [police] inspector might settle any dispute’.

The magistrate invited Mr Abrams to apply for a summons if he wished to take it further but he declined, given what he had heard from the justice. His client however, was much less easily dissuaded and did apply for one. Mr Henry told him he ‘could have the summons if he liked but it would probably not succeed, as he (Mr Henry) had very little doubt he had been paid’. Reflecting on this Leggatt chose to cut his losses and not spend his money on a summons that was doomed to fail.

Was Leggatt a thief? Possibly, or perhaps he saw the dropped watch and thought he’d take advantage of the windfall. Was Beale a fare-dodger? Again, how can we know that? In all likelihood he did pay or the cab driver would have pursued him on the night. The moral is probably don’t get into a cab when you’re drunk.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 17, 1862]

Last night I went to a London Historians event at the Sir Christopher Hatton pub in Leather Lane where we were entertained by an excellent musician Henry Skewes (who set old ballads about convict transportation to music) and two fascinating talks on the history of crime. The first, by Dr Lucy Williams of Liverpool University, focused on the life of one woman convicted at the Old Bailey in 1876. Lucy, and the other speaker, Professor Tim Hitchcock of Sussex, are part of the Digital Panopticon project which is tracing the lives of those sentenced to exile in Australia after 1788.

Lucy uses the records of the courts, the census, and newspaper sources like these to track her ‘criminals’ through time and the findings of these long term project are already challenging what we understand about criminality and individual lives in the past. While I’m not part of the project my own work is already revealing how important it is to look outside the jury courts if we want to study criminality in the past. I started in the summary courts of the 18th century but have now moved on to this work on the 1800s, because here we seen a much better recording of crime and those involved in it. I will be presenting my academic version of this work in Liverpool, to the Digital Panopticon team, in September of this year.

 

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]

Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent

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Detective Burgess and detective-sergeant Chide were looking for an infant when they called at a house in Olney Street, Walworth, south London. They had presumably received a tip-off that child was there or that someone in the house knew of its whereabouts. The person they questioned was Mary Boyle, a 30 year-old ‘ironer’ who was known by several other aliases (including Green, Kemp and Campbell).

They arrested Mary and took her back to the station to question her. There she was placed in an identity parade with other women and picked out by the mother of the missing baby, Mrs Mabel Reed. Boyle was then told she would be formally charged with stealing a six week-old male child and £3 in cash ‘by means of a trick’.

Mary vehemently denied the charge. She insisted instead that it had been given to her to adopt. Then where was it, the inspector asked her. ‘I will not tell you if you keep me here for 25 years’, she replied, adding ‘why do you call this stealing?’

The case came up before the Lambeth police magistrate in early May 1893. The police were still looking for the baby and Mary Boyle was still refusing to tell them where it was or admit she had taken it.

Inspector Harvey stated that: ‘You told this lady [Mrs Reed] that you had been confined with a dead baby seven weeks ago, and that you were the wife of a tea merchant at Eastbourne, and that you wanted the child to adopt, so your friends would think it was your own’.  Mary responded by saying that the child was well cared cared by a family in Leicester.

The child remained missing however, al the police had managed to find were its clothes, and a search was ongoing which would now presumably switch to Leicester. One can only imagine the emotional state of the mother. The police asked for, and were granted, a remand so that they could continue their investigation. The magistrate informed Mary that she ‘stood in a very serious position’.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury reported the case on the 13 May, using almost exactly the same text as The Standard, but adding the detail that the police that called on Mary had no warrant, and that initially she had refused to go with them, and that the family the baby was placed in at Leicester was that of a church minister.

The story has a happy ending I am glad to say. The child was found, not in Leicester but in a ditch in ‘a lonely lane’ near Gravesend in Kent. It was taken to the nearby workhouse at Hastings and, because of the widespread press reporting of a missing child, the police were informed. Mabel Reed then traveled to Hastings to identify her son, who was, according to the papers, ‘none the worse for his exposure’.

Having reunited mother and baby the investigation now turned back to Mary Boyle and her initial crime. A few days later the press reported that this was not Mary’s first office; in fact she had already served a prison sentence for abducting children in the past.

On the 21 May, with story making national news, readers were told that Mary had again appeared before at Lambeth Police Court. Mr Sims  led the prosecution on behalf of he Treasury and he stated that he found show that Boyle could be tied to ‘three cases in which the prisoner had obtained children’. He explained how Mrs Reed, now described as a ‘governess’,  had answered the following advertisement placed by  Boyle:

‘We should dearly love to adopt your little darling entirely as our own, and have it registered in our own name, it would have the most loving care, a good Christian home, and every care and attention’.

Mabel Reed met with Mary Boyle and the latter told her that her husband was a wealthy tea merchant and that they would give the child a good life and name it Arthur after her own father. She was desperate it seemed, having (as was stated earlier) lost her own child just seven weeks earlier.

Reed was convinced and so must have had her own problems in keeping her baby (no husband is mentioned so perhaps she was a widow and the child illegitimate?) and accompanied Mary to London Bridge station. There Mary asked her for £3 to buy clothes for the child, which she gave her. She didn’t seem to wonder at why a wealthy merchant’s wife would need to ask her for money for baby clothes for a child she was giving up, however…

The story captured the imagination of the reading public and lots of letters were sent to the press regarding ‘lost’ or ‘adopted’ babies and children. Lloyd’s Weekly then ran a column on the ‘business’ of adoption and baby-stealing, mentioning that several infants had been found ‘in out-of-the-way places near Maidstone’ (which is also in Kent).

Along with the letters received by the press were several at the Olney Street house and other addresses known to have been occupied by Boyle. These apparently came from other distressed mothers (or would-be adoptive mothers) who were using their offspring. One said:

‘How many more times am I to write to you to know what has become of my little Harry?’

Mary’s landlady was also reported to have aired her suspicions about her tenant. When Mary had retried home after a few days without her own child she had enquired what had happened to it. Mary told her that she didn’t want her husband to know about it, ‘so I have put it away where it will be looked after’. The pair had then had a conversation concerning the discovery of a baby’s dead body in the Grand Surrey Canal, which Mary thought was awful, saying ‘if I did such a thing I should never be able to rest for  a minute’.  She also reported that Boyle had hung religious tracts up on her walls, ‘one of which she committed to memory every day’.

The article concluded by saying that Mary was currently in Holloway Prison under  examination by the chief medical officer there, Dr Gilbert.  The police were still investigating and the notion that Mary Boyle was not in full command of her mind was clearly an avenue they were considering.

Mary was brought up at Lambeth again on 23 May; the same story was repeated (so anyone as yet unfamiliar with he case could catch up), and she was again remanded. On this occasion two other young women gave evidence very similar to Mabel Reed’s. One was a servant and said she had met Mary Boyle at Waterloo station and had named over £2 for clothes for her child that was being giving up for adoption. In this case Mary had suggested her husband was a minister in the Band of Hope, a Temperance organisation that worked with young children. The other was told Mary was the wife of a deacon. It was also feared that in these cases the children were dead, and as she left the dock at Lambeth Mary was hissed by the watching gallery.

Victorian Britain had already witnessed several ‘baby farming’ scandals, this case (dubbed the ‘traffic in babies’) seemed poised to shock the public just as deeply.

At the end of the month the press reported that another child had been found alive, in the infirmary at Greenwich. Mary again appeared in court and was one again remanded for further inquiry. It was also reported that Mary Boyle told the police that the two children belong to Ms Kent and Miss White, (the servants that came to lambeth to give obedience on the 23 May), were indeed dead. When she appeared again in early June Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that the court was so crowded with women and children it resembled a nursery. Mary was still being held at Holloway and the case continued.

By July several women had testified to having been ‘conned’ in to giving up their babies by Mary Boyle. As the case against her was focused on the discovery of the child at Gravesend she was eventually tried at the Maidstone Assizes on 14 July 1893. She was convicted of ‘obtaining a number of children by fraud, and afterwards abandoning them’. The judge sent her to prison for 14 years.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 09, 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 14, 1893; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 21, 1893; Daily News, Wednesday, May 24, 1893; Daily News, Saturday, July 15, 1893; Issue 14754. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.]

A deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public

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Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

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There was a market for pretty much anything stolen in the Victorian period. Today we are familiar with the character of ‘knock-off Nigel‘ who sells ‘dodgy’ DVDs and electrical equipment in the local pub, but the trade in stolen property is timeless. Victorian London had a well-established second hand clothes trade, and pawn shops allowed the honsest (and dishonest) to pledge items in return for cash. In recent years we have seen an increase in the mdoern version of pawnbrokers – stores like Cash Converters have appeared on many high streets.

While thieves stole almost anything they could in the 1800s some things were cleary worth more – or were more salebale – than others. Cash was easily used, and had to trace back to the owner; watches were valauble, but much more easily identified. Handkerchiefs were easy to pinch, but you had to steal a lot of them to make any real money; larger goods (burgled from homes) might make a much better return but the risks were greater.

Edward Phillips and Samuel Prior were opportunistic thieves. The two lads (aged about 17 or 18) were stopped late one evening in April 1877 by two detectives in the East End. When they were intercepted on York Street, Bethnal Green, Phillips was carrying a carpet bag. The policemen searched it and found a brass door plate and one from a window, which was  tarnished, as if it had been in a fire.

The door plate was engraved ‘Miller and Co. Wine Merchants’, and so certainly seemed not to belong to the teenagers. They were arrested and enquiries were made.

The door plate had been taken from the wine merchants’ premises in Welbeck Street, while the brass window surround (which had been broken into four pieces to fit in the bag) came from the Brown Bear public house in Worship Street, Finsbury.

When the lads were searched at the station officers found ‘a knife, a screw-driver, and a pocket-pistol’. The bag had also been stolen. The pair admitted their crimes rather than face potentially more serious punishment at the Old Bailey. Their were probably intending to trade in the metal for money but on this occasion they had been foiled; the Worship Street Police magistarte sent the to prison for six months, with hard labour.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 5, 1877]