‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]

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 battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

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.]

The detective and the banker’s clerk

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London bank clerks dressed in the height of male fashion in the Victorian period

In the middle of a May night one of the housemaid’s at a hotel in Exeter was disturbed by sounds on the landing. Opening her door she was confronted by a man in ‘his nightshirt flourishing a pistol about, … in a state of great excitement’. She called her boss and the landlord escorted the guest back to his room, assuming he had ‘been partaking too freely of wine’.

The guest, who was a young man from London named Charles Pinkatone,  didn’t heed his host’s instructions to retire to his room for long however. Shortly afterwards the household was again in uproar and this time it was the landlord’s wife who discovered Pinkatone blundering about brandishing his gun, ‘capped and loaded’.

Nothing anyone could do would quieten him or persuade him to go back to bed so the police were called. This didn’t help and the young man ended up assaulting the copper and being arrested and remanded in custody at Exeter to face a local magistrate.

Police intelligence seems to have traveled more quickly in the 1860s than we might think, because one London detective was soon on the train for Exeter with a warrant for Pinkatone’s arrest.  Robert Packman had been investigating a forgery case and Pinkatone was a prime suspect. When he caught up with he young man in Devon and having confirmed his identity he charged him with forging and uttering two cheques; one for £100, the other for £200.

The two men returned to London and on the way Packman’s prisoner was talkative, and told his captor he intended to come clean and admit his guilt. When he had been handed over by the authorities in Exeter Pinkatone had £173 in gold, ‘8s in silver and copper, a gold watch and chain, and a portmanteau, containing apparel’.

Packman wanted to know what he had done with he rest of the £300 he had exchanged the forged cheques for. The fashionable dressed young man told him he had spent it: ‘He paid about £45 for his watch, chain and appendages; £1 for a pistol, which he bought a few days before he was locked up; £1 for a portmanteau [a suitcase]’. The rest of the money he had ‘lost’ (meaning, presumably, he had gambled them away at cards).

When the pair reached London Pinkatone was produced before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House and fully committed for trail. Representatives of Messr’s Martin & Co, bankers of Lombard Street attended. As did Pinkatone’s former employer, Mr Barfield (of Loughborough & Barfield), who told the magistrate that Pinkatone had been his clerk but that he had ‘absconded without giving any notice’. The two cheques were produced in court and Barfield confirmed that the forged signature and writing on them was Pinkatone’s but the cashiers at the bank where he cashed them were unable to positively identify who had presented them.

It is possible that this helped Charles in the long run. I can’t find a record of him appearing at the Old Bailey for this or any other offence in the late 1800s. Maybe he pleaded guilty and it wasn’t published in the Sessions Papers. Perhaps the banks let him go because they knew they could not prove his guilt but his reputation was such that he would not work in the area again. It is one of many cases which touched the newspapers but disappeared just as quickly, a mystery which must remain unsolved.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 08, 1862]

Update – thanks to a reader I can now say that Charles was not so lucky; he pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on 12 May 1862 and while the jury asked for leniency (on the account of this being his first offence) he was sent to prison for four years.

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]