Daring burglars nabbed by a DC near the Duke of Wellington’s London home.

Picadilly 1897

Piccadilly, near Green Park, in 1897

In the early hours of the morning of the 27 April 1889 Detective constable William Wyers (294 C) had stationed himself in a secluded spot at the corner of Piccadilly and St George’s Place; from here he could watch Piccadilly and the homes of the wealthy that lived there.

In the Victorian period the crime that most exercised the queen’s subjects, after murder of course, was burglary. The papers were filled with reports of burgled premises and with advertisements for preventing intruders from entering your home. This was also the period that saw the birth of home contents insurance as homeowners sought to protect themselves from the supposed legions of ‘Bill Sikes’ and his ilk.

As DC Wyers watched he saw three men approaching a house at number 146 Piccadilly, adjacent in fact to where the Ritz Hotel is today.* He saw one of the men enter the gates of 146 and climb the steps to the front door. The man tried the door and seemed to fiddle with (perhaps to see it was unlocked). Finding it secure he retreated, climbed over the railings and lit a match, and waited a moment or two. From a distance Wyers couldn’t be completely sure what he was up to.

The ‘burglar’ then went back to the other men and slowly, and in single file, they each approached the property. The man (who was later established to be Arthur Thiviot, a stoker living on the Charing Cross Road) went back over the railings followed by one of his mates (William Booty, a porter ‘of no fixed abode’). While they did this the last man (John Pegg, a Soho printer) stayed back to keep watch.

None of them had noticed the detective constable however. DC Wyers took advantage of a passing hansom cab and jumped on to the back spring, hitching a ride towards them. He alighted opposite Apsley House, the London home of the Duke of Wellington. This now placed him behind the men and he crept on all fours to avoid being seen by the lookout Pegg.

Unfortunately for Wyers he wasn’t as careful as he might have been. Pegg saw him and whistled to alert the others. They ran for it, rushing across Piccadilly and into Hamilton Place, with the policeman in hot pursuit. Wyers caught Thiviot and Booty and cornered them in a doorway. Pegg was known to the police so the DC called him by name and ‘ordered him to stop’, which he did.

He asked Thiviot what he was up and what he had in his pockets. The alleged burglar told him he had nothing on him, and if he was a suspect then the copper better take him back to the station. Wyers thrust his hand into Thiviot’s pocket and produced  dark lantern, a common tool of the burglar.

‘Halloa, what are you doing with this?’ asked Wyers.

‘Oh, its all right Mr Wyers’, replied the stoker, demonstrating that the detective was also well known to the criminal fraternity, ‘I have just left my club. The stairs are very dark where I live , and I brought this lantern to show a light up there’.

It was a fairly pathetic excuse given the circumstances, but I suppose he had to offer something.

Myers grabbed Thiviot and told the others to follow him to the station, warning them that he knew where they lived should they chose to abscond. Thiviot also urged them not to abandon him. As soon as they met with two beat ‘bobbies’ on Piccadilly however, Wyers handed them over and all three were accompanied to the police station.

There all three were searched; Booty and Pegg were clean but Thiviot was found to have ‘a lock picker, a knife and a pair of scissors’ on him. DC Wyers then returned to 146 Piccadilly with Inspector Barrie and they discovered more evidence: a jemmy and marks on the door that suggested Thiviot had tried to force it earlier. They moved on to search Thiviot’s lodgings in Charing Cross Road where they also found a set of keys, ‘and a surgical lance’ (why this was mentioned is unclear, except perhaps to show that he must have stolen it at some point,  why would he have it otherwise?)

In court on the following Monday the Marlborough Street Police magistrate the three were remanded on a  charge of loitering with intent to burgle the home of Mrs Rose Joyce, 146 Piccadilly, London.

The three men went on trial at the Old Bailey in May 1889, but not for the attempted burglary in Piccadilly. Instead they were tried for burgling a warehouse in Charing Cross and the items found on Thiviot (the lantern for example) and the jemmy or chisel found at the scene of the attempted crime in Piccadilly, proved vital in convicting him. All three were found guilty and then admitted a string of previous convictions.

As a result Cheviot was sentenced to penal servitude for six years, the other two for five. The court also aware William Wyers the sum of £2 ‘for the ability he displayed in watching and apprehending the prisoners on another charge, which was not proceeded with’, this being the attempted burglary of Mrs Joyce’s home.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 29, 1889]

*The famous London landmark was not there in 1889 however, as it did not open until 1906.

A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

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In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

A ragged schoolboy fined for spoiling the Queen’s view

In January 1838 a young lad named Charles Scott was placed in the dock at Queen’s Square Police Court accused of damaging trees in St James’ Park.

Scott was dressed in the uniform of the Philanthropic School. The Philanthropic (later Royal Philanthropic) Society had been established in the late 1700s to provide care and education for the children of the poor.

The lad had been caught breaking off branches in the park and stripping them to create a stick – just the sort of thing young boys have done (and probably still do) for centuries. Charles’ misfortune was that because the trees in the park had suffered really badly in the winter chill the police were ordered to be especially vigilant in apprehending anyone inflicting more damage on them.

Whether the fact that the tree was on an island visible from Buckingham Palace made the ‘crime’ worse isn’t clear, but the policeman made a point of adding that geographical detail in court; damaging the Queen’s trees was apparently a serious offence.

Young Charles was convicted of criminal damage and fined 7s or a week in prison. It isn’t clear what option he chose but if he returned to the school I’m fairly sure he could expect further sanctions.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 24, 1838]

An echo of Oliver Twist in Bethnal Green

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If you are familiar with the plot of Oliver Twist you will remember that young Oliver is bound as an apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker, by the magistrate (who takes pity on the boy and saves him from the clutches of the brutish chimneysweep, Mr Gamfield). Of course Oliver is far from safe at the Sowerberrys, because of the callous nature of the undertaker’s wife and the other apprentice, Noah Claypole. Eventually Oliver runs away and tramps to London.

Dickens published the first chapter of Oliver Twist in 1837 (the year Queen Victoria came to the throne) and – as a former court reporter himself – he drew upon his experiences and those of the people he observed in the courts, debtors prisons, and workhouses of early Victorian London.

At the every end of 1839 the sitting justice at Lambeth Street Police Court, Mr Hardwick, heard an application to apprentice a pauper boy (just like Oliver) to a silk weaver in Spitalfields. The application was made by the Beadle of St George’s in the East whose name was not Bumble, but Overton. He wanted the boy off the parish books (and therefore its costs) and apprenticed to a weaver so he could earn a useful trade.

However, the Beadle of Bethnal Green, a man named Christie, appeared in court to object to the application. He told Mr Hardwick that the local silk weavers (the descendants of the Huguenot refugees that had fled persecution in France after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked  the  Edict of Nantes) were in a parlous state. The weavers had prospered in the East End until their monopoly on trade began to unravel in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s many of them were facing desperate times.

Christie told the court that in the last few weeks the Bethnal Green Poor Law Guardians had been forced to offer relief to 200 families, ‘and of those upwards of 150 were silk weavers’.  The weavers simply could not afford to take on apprentices at this time as there was not enough work to support their families as they were, let alone to feed more hungry mouths. Even if a weaver worked 15 or 16 hours a day he was unable to earn more than 7 or 8 shillings a week (about £17 in today’s money).

The beadle confirmed that the Worship Street magistrates had stopped binding apprentices in the area because of the hardship. Mr Hardwick agreed to the objection and refused to bind the lad, sending him back to the workhouse. The poor law guardians would have to wait for an improvement in the local economy if they were going to get their ‘Olivers’ off the books.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 1, 1840]

A Railway enthusiast escapes a fine for putting the flags out

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Frederick Marriott was the publisher of a contemporary magazine entitled the Railway Bell. Thus far I have been unable to find out much about this paper but it is probably reasonable to say that it carried information about the railways, which, in 1844, would still have been a fairly ‘new’ thing.

London had got its first railway in 1836 (Bermondsey to Deptford) but the 1840s saw a ‘boom’ in railway building. Bradshaw’s Descriptive Guide to the London & South Western Railway (THE guidebook for the Victorian and Edwardian train devotee) was first published in the 1840s so perhaps Marriott’s was an early rival.

Mr Marriott certainly knew a thing or two about publicity and marketing and in late October 1844, when a Royal procession was expected, he determined to make sure everyone had heard of the Railway Bell.

The publisher had a huge flag ‘measuring forty feet by twenty’ suspended from his property on the Strand so that it spanned the road below. The police had been called as several people had complained that the flag (described as merely ‘a puff for the establishment’ –  in other words nothing more than a giant advert for his business) – was flapping in the autumn minds and frightening passing horses.

Not only that but when Queen Victoria’s coach passed under the flag the noise it was making drowned out the voices of the local ‘parish children’ as they attempted to sing the National Anthem.

Marriott was summoned to court where he was defended by his brief, Mr Clarkson. The prosecution were able to bring plenty of witnesses to testify that the flag was a nuisance, and that it had stayed in place for days after the procession – being ripped to threads by the wind. But no one could actually pin the blame on Marriott for installing it.

Much to the obvious dissatisfaction of the prosecuting counsel and the magistrate at Bow Street (Mr Jardine) it seemed there was little that could be done. However Jardine did warn the court that the police would be fully justified in taking into custody ‘any person who suspended it [the flag] again’ and that they would face the full weight of the law if it came before him. He then dismissed the case against Marriott who presumably went back to his office rather pleased with himself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 08, 1844]

Two enterprising con artists almost fool the well-meaning folk of the City

In 1836 (the year before Queen Victoria began her long reign) two women appeared before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House police court. Mary Jones and Harriet Wilson were charged with attempting to get charity by presenting forged begging letters and petitions.

A string of witnesses were called to testify as to whether they had signed the various documents the women had presented. All of these were upstanding members of the community, described by the newspaper reporter as ‘the highest names in the charitable vocabulary’. All of them denied signing any petitions or writing a letter for either woman; several though were puzzled as to how the pair had managed to gain what looked like genuine signatures.

The women’s attempt at forgery was clearly quite effective and many of those that had seen (and were familiar with) the handwriting or signatures of prominent parishioners were fooled by the ruse. One man even said that he had no recollection of signing anything for them but it looked like his writing (this prompted laughter in the court).

The Lord Mayor (sitting as chief magistrate for the City of London) sent the women to prison for their pains as ‘first-rate hands in the trade of mendicancy’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 12, 1836]