The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.


The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]


‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town


At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

Young love triumphs as the old police give way to Peel’s bluebottles


Today’s post takes us further back into the nineteenth century than this blog usually ventures. We step out of the Victorian period and into the last months of the reign of George IV. The newspapers had been reporting the ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police Courts for  several years but their coverage was still quite patchy, and there was no systematic attempt to report from all of the capital’s magistrate courts. This report, from Bow Street in March 1830 – the capital’s premier summary court – is of interest because it shows the public and private role of the police courts in the early 1800s. It also mentions the New Police, created by Robert Peel in 1829, who had just started their their dual mission to protect the ‘person and property’ of Londoners and ‘preserve the public tranquility’*.

In the months following the creation of the Met existing parochial policing arrangements seemingly continued in some manner. The Watch were largely disbanded and replaced by the ‘boys in the blue’ but parish constables continued in some places in London as they did outside the capital. These men were possibly amateurs serving the communities in rotation or entrepreneurial thief-takers acting like modern private investigators. One of these of was a man named Wright (we don’t have his first name) who was described as ‘a constable of Chiswick’ by the Morning Post in March 1830.

Wright was summoned to Bow Street to answer a charge of assault. He had allegedly attacked two brothers – George and Charles Ideyman – in an attempt to ‘rescue’ a young woman. When the case came before the magistrate (Mr Minshull) it quickly became clear that this was not a ‘public’ or criminal matter (of theft or violence) but instead a ‘private’ (or civil) one.

Charles Ideyman was in love with a 16 year-old heiress who lived in Chiswick. The girl is named only as Miss Smith and her mother was in court to hear the case and give evidence. Miss Smith was due to inherit £7,000 when she reached the age of maturity at 21 and her parents had very clear ideas about who would be a suitable match for their daughter. They made it abundantly clear to her that Charles Ideyman was not marriage material.

The Smiths did everything they could ‘to prevent the match; but on Sunday evening last [the paper reported] Miss Smith ‘contrived to escape from home, and on the following morning she was married at Chiswick church to [Charles] Ideyman’.

Having lost their daughter (and her marriage value) the Smith employed constable Wright to get her back. He went to the Ideyman family home and demanded access. When he was refused entry he turned violent , punched George Ideyman and:

‘broke down every door in the house with a pair of tongs, and demolished several windows’. When Charles confronted him he too was attacked and so scared was his younger sister that she remained in a ‘precarious state’ for several days afterwards.

Under questioning Wright said he was only doing what he thought was appropriate to fulfil the task he had been sent. He believed he was ‘authorised in adopting the best means he could in effecting his object’.

When the magistrate suggested that it must have been a ‘love match’ Mrs Smith declared that while it was it was ‘in decided opposition to her daughter’s best friends’. She and her husband did not accept the marriage and would never be reconciled to their daughter or her new husband. The Ideyman’s solicitor pleaded for calm and reconciliation. He urged Charles to be good husband to his young wife and added: ‘do not permit any one to widen the breach which you have already been the making of in the family’.

Wright was bailed to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace to answer for the assault. Bail was set at 40s for himself and two sureties of 20each. Hopefully his employers (the Smiths) stood these. We might hope also that Charles and his bride lived happily ever after and perhaps were even reconciled to her parents. Mr Minshull clearly didn’t think it was any business of his to interfere however.

The footnote to this report of a private quarrel was the appearance in the dock of a ‘miserable-looking man’ named Daniel Hobbs. Hobbs, without even ‘a shoe to his foot’ was brought before Mr Minshull having been arrested the evening before by a constable of the New Police for being drunk. Hobbs had been ‘lying in one of the kennels in the neighbourhood of Long-acre’ [Covent Garden]. He was taken to a watch house (the predecessors of police stations) and searched.

Amazingly he had loads of money on him, including a £50 note and several gold sovereigns. In court Hobbs was recognised as someone who was often found drunk and sleeping rough, sometimes with as much as £400 in his possession. Who was this person and what was his story? Sadly (and typically) the paper doesn’t tell us so you’ll have to make up your own. What these two reports do show is that in 1830 the ‘old’ police and the New were operating at the same time (if not, it seems, side-by-side) as Londoners adjusted to the coming of the professionals and the courts worked out who now had the authority to act as law men and when.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1830]

*to quote Charles Reith, A New Study of Police History, (1956)

The perils of drinking with strangers


William Kirbyshire, of Aswell in Hertfordshire, had come down to London to get married. As he strolled along Regent Street a man stopped him and asked the way to Leicester Square. William apologised and he too was a stranger in the capital and regretted he was unable to help. The man thanked him and walked away. A few minutes later William decided it was time for some refreshment and he entered the next public house he came to.

As he propped up the bar nursing his drink he noticed the man that had asked him for directions chatting to two others. One of them came over and introduced himself as William Hook. Hook asked William if he ‘knew of any place of amusement where the evening could be passed pleasantly’. William mentioned a couple of places and Hook suggested they go there together, but the visitor to London declined.

Hook was seemingly persistent in making friends however and offered to treat him to a bottle of champagne, an offer that was soon lowered to beer. As the pair were joined by Hook’s companions, Peter Stevens and William Smith, the drink began to flow and very quickly the conversation turned to boasts of strength.

Hook declared that he could throw a ‘certain weight 30 yards’ and was prepared to put money on it. It took some persuasion but eventually William agreed to meet Hook and the others at a different pub later that day. When he arrived the three men were already there, and Hook bought them a round. They soon moved on to a third pub – this was turning into what we might call a ‘pub crawl’ – and Hook was in effervescent mood.

He stated loudly that he ‘thought nothing of spending £20 on a lark, as he could have £100 whenever he wanted it’.

The impression he was giving was a wealthy young man who had deep pockets. He was also luring the unwary Kirbyshire in however, and Smith and Stevens soon played their part in this.

As William and his new found chums began to toss coins (a simple game of chance) Smith leaned over and whispered to him that since Hook ‘had plenty of money, he might as well have some of it as anybody else’. William was ready to play and bet and won a shilling from Hook straight away. The others now persuaded him to carry on and managed to get him to lay a huge bet of £10 (about £500 today). Reluctant at first he was only convinced when he saw Stevens put down 5 sovereigns.

Hook won the toss and paid up but William he felt he’d been cheated. He claimed that a ‘plant had been played on him’ by the men and demanded his money back. When they gave him back a few sovereigns but refused to hand over the rest he called a policeman and had them arrested. The next day the four men all appeared before the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police court.

Mr Beadon, the justice, was unsympathetic. As far as he was concerned while the trio of gamblers were ‘known bad characters’ in the area and this was clearly a scam, they hadn’t actually broken the law. Instead William was simply a dupe and he had ‘acted in a very foolish manner in drinking and betting with strangers’. Hook, Smith and Stevens were discharged while William Kirbyshire slunk away to lick his wounds and put the whole thing down to experience.

London was a dangerous place for the unwary. It remains so today and visitors were constantly being warned to keep a close eye on their possessions in the crowded streets and not to take strangers at face value. One wonders what William’s future wife thought of the whole affair, if he even chose to tell her.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 11, 1857]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox


The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

A ‘long firm’ swindle on Kingsland Road


The long firm fraud – where a criminal organisation sets up a seemingly legitimate business (such a distribution warehouse) for illegitimate purposes – was a noted practice of 1960s gangsters like the Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie. The deception featured at the heart of Jake Arnott’s 1999 novel about the fictional criminal gang leader, Harry Starks. But long firm frauds weren’t new in the 1960s as this case demonstrates, they were well known in the 1880s if not earlier.

William Hammond (an agent in the leather trade) appeared at Worship Street Police Court in March 1883 charged with ‘having conspired [with two other men] to cheat and defraud Samuel Chittick by fraudulently removing certain goods with an intent to prevent an execution for an unsatisfied judgement’.

In layman’s terms what this meant was that Hammond had run up large debts (to the tune of £167 the court heard) and Chittick had been forced to take him to law to recover his money. Hammond operated out of premises on Kingsland Road in north-east London but when a sheriff turned up to remove goods and chattels to the value of the debt he ‘found them empty’.

Chittick’s lawyer declared that he would prove that Hammond had:

‘actively assisted in removing the goods, leather and machinery, and further that he had said Mr Chittick would not get a farthing of his money’.

But there was more the lawyer insisted. He didn’t believe that Hammond’s co-accused (a man named Thomas Marshall) was as culpable, the real villain was the leather salesman.  He told the magistrate – Mr Bushby – that he could prove that Hammond had set up the business as a fraudulent venture. Marshall had already been convicted in the previous year of fraud at this address but now he was able to provide evidence that Hammond was the main operator. It was Hammond who had set up the false business and installed Marshall to run it.

He said that ‘goods were obtained merchants ostensibly for the purposes of legitimate business, but instead of the goods being used in the way of fair trade, they were removed in bulk from the premises soon after delivery, and sent to a firm carrying on business as Lodes and Son at Norwich, and sold under cost price’.

This was, he hoped Mr Bushby would official record, a ‘mere “long firm” swindle.

Hammond had escaped the law for some time by relocating himself to Norfolk but had made the mistake of suing a local newspaper there for libel because it had accused him of carrying on  similar racket in Norwich. This backfired and he had been arrested and convicted there. After his conviction he had been handed over the Metropolitan Police who were keen to question him about the Kingsland Road case.

Several people testified to the truth of the lawyer’s allegations and the magistrate remanded Hammond in custody, waiving away the prisoner’s request to be granted bail. Hammond was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in April that year. He was convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 06, 1883]

A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East


We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit.