A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?


Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]


A daring jewel thief on Houndsditch


An old clothes shop in the Jewish community of Houndsditch 

In 1883 Mr Samuel Morris Samuels ran a jewellers shop at 157 Houndsditch in the City of London. The street was to become infamous in the early twentieth century when a gang of politically-motivated robbers raided a similar establishment at number 119 killing three City policeman in the ensuing attempt to arrest them. The criminals escaped and were later surrounded the following January leading to what has become known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

Samuel Morris Samuels was a member of East London’s large jewish community in the late 1800s. The great synagogue was close by, at Bevis Marks, and thousands of his co-religionists lived in the crowded houses of nearby Spitalfields. The 1800s saw waves of Jewish immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement but Samuels family had probably been in England for decades, if not centuries.

He knew a man called George Wyatt quite well. Wyatt, who dressed well and so was fairly comfortably off, worked for the Electric Light Company as an engine fitter. Im190102Cass-Edi1883 was the year that the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company was founded in London and Sunderland but Wyatt may have worked for a lesser known firm. Edison bulbs (like the one in this advertisement from 1901) have become fashionable again today – they must have seemed like ‘magic’ for our Victorian ancestors.

Wyatt was a regular customer at Samuels’ shop and so the jeweller didn’t pay that much attention to him when he came in at about one o’clock on Sunday 14 January 1883 and asked to look at some watch movements. He bought one for 2s and left. While he was browsing however, the jeweller was busy with another customer who he was ‘showing a parcel of jewellery and other things’. He soon realised after the engineer had left that he was missing a number of things from his counter. Locking up, he chased after Wyatt, caught him and took him back to the shop and called for the police.

At 1.30 PC Foc (55 City) arrived and Mr Samuels handed him a number of things that Wyatt had admitted having in his possession. It was quite a haul:

‘Six gold weddings rings,  which had been stolen from a  tray of eight, a silver watch, and two sets of watch movements’ were surrendered.

When he got him back to the police station PC Fox searched him and found another four watch movements, all later identified as belonging to the Houndsditch jeweller. But this was not the extent of Wyatt’s light-fingered activity.

When detective Robert Leeman searched Wyatt’s rooms he found: ‘a large quantity of miscellaneous property, consisting of gold and silver watches, watch cases, watch movements, and earrings’.

Not surprisingly this haul landed Wyatt in court before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court. There he was asked to explain himself. He provoked considerable laughter in court when he admitted taking the goods but stated that the prosecutor had ‘sold him £90 of worthless goods, and he was only serving him as he had been served’. The magistrate remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

This week I am going to attempt an experiment in my methodology. I have selected the year 1883 because its calendar corresponds with our own and so I should be able to track a week’s reportage of the Police Courts just as a contemporary reader would have done. So let’s see if Mr Wyatt turns up again as he is not in the Old Bailey that month.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 28, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street


Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]

A strange man at Worship Street – was he the ‘Ripper’?

Illustrated Police News Jack the Ripper

Today I am spending most of my time in Whitechapel planning out a history trip for my undergraduate students. This is something I do every year – take a party of students studying my third year module on ‘Crime and Popular Culture’ in the nineteenth century to visit the sites associated with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Plenty of commercial walking tours exist of course, some much better than others.

Personally I’m not a fan of the exploitative type that thinks that projecting an image of a dead woman onto the brick walls of modern Spitalfields is appropriate. I’d much rather listen to an expert who can impart some context and tell the audience about the history of the area and its peoples as well as treat the murder victims with the respect they deserve. Those tours do exist, so if you want to take one do some research before you make your choice.

I don’t have the luxury of being able to pay for a commercial tour so I do it myself. But Whitechapel is constantly changing so I need to revisit the place regularly to see what changes I need to make to my route. This time however there is added piquancy to my trip because I have almost finished making the edits to my first draft of a new ‘Ripper’ book. This has been written in collaboration with a former student of mine who thought he had a new solution to the world’s most infamous cold case. Andy has done the research on the murders and has added several to the original police file, while I have concentrated on the social history to provide context. We have a draft manuscript, all we need now is a publisher…

Anyway, back to Whitechapel and back to 1888 and a month after Mary Kelly became the fifth canonical (but not , we argue, the last) victim of ‘Jack’, what was happening at the Worship Street Police Court? Worship Street (along with Thames) served the East End and several of the murdered women in the ‘Ripper’ series appeared here on a variety of cares relating to prostitution, disorderly behaviour and drunkenness in the late 1880s.

Joseph Isaacs, a 30 year-old cigar maker, was charged with theft. His name suggests he belonged to the large immigrant Jewish population of the area which have been closely associated with the murders. Quite early on a man named John Pizer was arrested on suspicion of being the killer. Pizer (who was also known as ‘leather apron’ – a local man with a reputation for threatening prostitutes). Pizer was able to provide an alibi and was released but some experts still believe he may have been the killer.

The idea that the murderer was a Jew was helped by widespread anti-semitism and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’. Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant tension suffused society in the 1880s and the killings brought all of this to the surface.

Joseph Isaacs was accused of stealing a watch. He had entered a shop in the West End of London holding a violin bow. He asked the shop’s proprietor, a Mr Levenson, if he could repair the bow. As they discussed the transaction however, Isaacs suddenly ‘bolted out’ of the shop. Mr Levenson quickly realised that he stolen a gold watch and raised the alarm.

Isaacs was arrested some time later in Drury lane but not in connection to this offence. He’d been picked up because his appearance seemingly matched the description offered of a man seen near Mary Kelly’s home on the night of her murder. At Worship Street Police court Mary Cusins, the deputy of a lodging house in Paternoster Row, Spitalfields, testified that Isaacs had stayed there for ‘three or four nights’ around the time of Kelly’s murder.

‘On the night of the murder she heard him walking about the room’. She added that ‘he disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind’.

All this had emerged as the police made house-to house enquiries in the wake of the murders. The police have ben widely criticised for their failure to catch ‘Jack’ but most experts now acknowledge that they did all the right things things at the time. Without forensics, and chasing a man that attacked strangers, they had very little to go on and were really dependent on the killer making a mistake. Jack didn’t really make any mistakes, however, and eluded the growing cordon that the combined force of the Met and the City Police threw out to trap him.

Isaacs was remanded by the sitting magistrate at Worship Street (Mr Bushby). He had allegedly stolen a watch but there was no sign of it. But more importantly Detective Record said that he still had some questions to answer with regards to his movements around the time of Mary Kelly’s murder. Isaacs appeared a week later, again in the company of Detective Record. He had been cleared of any involvement in the Ripper murders was convicted of stealing Julius Levenson’s watch and sent to prison for three months at hard labour.

Another possible suspect eliminated and another line of enquiry completed, the men of H Division’s search for the world’s first serial killer continued…

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 08, 1888]

An absent minded book thief at Euston


Emma Hawkins clearly loved books. In fact she sometimes became so caught up in the reading of books that she quite forgot where she was, or even that the books might not belong to her.

The housewife from Rickmansworth was visiting London one afternoon in November 1886 and, whilst waiting for her return train was browsing the second-hand section at W.H.Smith’s bookstall at Euston Station. Seeing something she liked she took it over to the counter and paid a shilling for it.

Having acquired a cheap novel for the journey home she set off to catch the 4.45 which was making ready to depart. She stepped up onto the train and was about to settle down in her seat when a man approached her.

Edward Mallett was the chief clerk at W. H. Smith’s and he had been watching Emma whilst she browsed the book stall. He had seen her select a number of titles, picking them up and placing them back again, before she took one and put it in her bag. He felt sure he’s seen her steal and so had followed her to her train.

Mallett demanded that she open her bag and let him the contents. Inside were three books, the one she’d paid for and two others that she hadn’t. He’d only seen her pinch one but all three were his stock.

She pleaded with him not to take it further, offering to pay ‘double the amount’ for the books. He declined and handed her over to a policeman and she was brought before the Police magistrate at Marylebone to answer for the theft.

Detective-sergeant Hunt, who was employed by the London and North-Western Railway, told Mr De Rutzen that she had admitted the theft when arrested. He told the court that she had:

‘a box and a bag with her, in which [the] Witness found eight books, some of them from two libraries in London. There were also some new silk handkerchiefs and a long list of articles’.

So had Emma been on a shopping or  stealing spree in the capital? Her husband insisted it was not the latter. His wife, he explained, was easily distracted and ‘he was sure absentmindedness would explain her conduct’.

‘She had taken a book from a shop, and was about to go away with it without having paid for it’, he said, ‘so engrossed was she in the contents of the volume, and he had to remind her that she had not paid for it’.

It was a fairly weak defence and Mr De Rutzen was not inclined to accept it at face value. However, nor did he wish to remand an otherwise respectable woman in prison. If she and her husband could provide two sureties to the value of £20 then he was prepared to bail her to appear at a later date once further evidence had been collected.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 18, 1886]

A City Road ‘Fagin’ gets away with it


We are all probably familiar with the character of Fagin, created by Charles Dickens as the central villain of Oliver Twist. Fagin is a receiver of stolen goods, who trains a gang of juvenile thieves (led by the Artful Dodger) to go out and pick the pockets of unwary Londoners. In his ‘den’ the boys bring him the proceeds of their escapades in the form of hundreds of silk handkerchiefs, pocket books (wallets) and watches and chains.

Fagin was a fictional character of course, he didn’t actually exist. But Dickens was very familiar with the Police Courts (he had reported from them as a journalist before he became famous) and he had probably seen plenty of ‘Fagin’ in his time. Fagin was a ‘fence’, a receiver of stolen goods, and may even have been based on a real life Jewish criminal called Ikey Solomons.

In 1854 a man named Mark Isaacs appeared at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch. He had ben remanded in custody a few days later on a charge of receiving ‘£50 worth of silk damask’ a high value material belonging to a wholesale upholsterer based in the City Road.

The upholsterer, a Mr Thomas Farnham, had ordered the material especially and had taken delivery in late September and had locked it in a closet. Within two days it had gone, stolen it seems by a person or persons unknown. However, a month later it resurfaced, being offered for sale – by Isaacs – to an auctioneer in St. Paul’s Churchyard at 4s a yard.

At the sale – which Farnham was soon made aware of – Isaacs (and another man) told the purchaser (Mr Barnes) that he had bought the cloth from Debenham and Storrs, who traded from King Street, Covent Garden (and are the ancestors of the modern Debenhams who still exist today). It was a lie of course, they were trading in stolen goods, the problem Farnham had was in proving it.

However, Mr Barnes was in on the act. He was working with Farnham and carefully paid for the cloth with a crossed cheque. This meant that Isaacs would have to pay it into a bank, he couldn’t change it up for cash and this allowed the police investigation to trace him.

Isaacs was apprehend by the police and inspector Brennan of the met asked him where he had got the damask. Isaacs told him that he’d bought it off a man named Vann who had since gone to America.

How convenient.

Another witness at Worship Street recognised Isaacs as the brother of a man he knew called Coleman Isaacs, who had been hawking samples of silk damask at the City of London Theatre. Faced with what appeared to be mounting and damning evidence the magistrate committed him for trial.

Isaacs appeared at the Old Bailey on 27 November but was accused of theft, not receiving. Perhaps this was a mistake on the prosecution’s part. It was very hard to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Isaacs had stolen the goods that he said he had legitimately purchased from Mr Vann. The case was short and the jury were unconvinced. Mr Isaacs was acquitted and Mr Farnham left with justice or his 184 yards of silk.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 15, 1854]

‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.


London, in fact, knows nothing of real milk, which differs as thoroughly as chalk is unlike cheese, from the spurious stuff we are at present contented with. Commercial milk is a compound which any conscientious cow would indignantly repudiate, 

Punch, 1849

When George Day was charged with stealing milk at Thames Police court it revealed the wholesale adulteration of milk in the capital, something the sitting magistrate was clearly unaware of. The ‘audience’ at Thames however, laughed throughout the hearing, suggesting that they were well aware of the practice and were amused by both the candour of the various witnesses and the ignorance of ‘his Worship’.

The prosecution was brought by Thomas Stevens who ran a dairy and kept cows at Dock Street in Whitechapel. George Day was a regular customer but Stevens had his suspicions about him. The dairyman was pretty certain that the milkman was pinching his milk by the fairy subterfuge of paying for one pail whilst collecting two.

On Thursday morning (18th September 1845) Day appeared as usual (carry two emptily pails) and asked for six quarts of milk. John Knott was milking a cow and when he’d filled one pail (with around 11 quarts) he handed it to Day. Normally those buying milk wholesale like this would have it taken to be strained in the dairy but Day said he was in a hurry so told Knott that he would carry in himself. However, Knott noticed that the milkman had set it down nearby and headed into the dairy without it.

All of this had been seen by Stevens who had hidden himself in a room above one of the cow houses and was spying on him from a window. He saw Day stroll into the dairy carry his empty pail where he was served by another of Steven’s employees, Mrs Gilbert. She gave him six quarts of strained milk, which he paid for.

So the con was pretty obvious: Day presumably appeared each morning with two empty pails which could hold up to about 12 quarts each. He asked and paid for six quarts of fresh milk and ended up with more than twice that amount by the simply tactic of getting his milk directly from the cow and hoping no one noticed. He was caught because the dairy was more alert than he thought it was.

However, the case was made much more interesting because of what George Day did next.

Having received the six quarts for strained milk (i.e. ready to sell to his customers) he carried it over to a pump and topped it up with water. When he admitted this before Mr Broderip at Thames Police Court the place collapsed in laughter (with the exception of the magistrate that is).

‘Is that usual?’ the justice asked him.

‘For him to do so it is sir’, explained the dairy owner.

‘I have regally bobbed it – it’s all right’, confirmed Day, seemingly unembarrassed by his admission that he watered down his milk.

Mr Broderip was confused, what did ‘bobbing’ mean? That was, he was told, the term used to describe adding milk and chalk to strained milk to make it go further. Far from being ashamed to have been caught out George Day was quite happy to tell his worship ‘a few secrets of the milk trade’.

‘We never sell it without water. Of course warm water is the best, ’cause then the people believe it’s just been yielded by the cow. Nothing like it, sir. We adds a little chalk to the score sometimes, and the customers don’t mind it’.

As he had made to leave the dairy, with his two pails balanced carefully over his shoulders with a yoke, Thomas Stevens had run after him and accused him of stealing his milk. Despite Day’s loud denials he was given into the custody of a nearby policeman and so had ended up before the Thames magistrate.

He denied his crime and continued to argue he had done nothing wrong in ‘bobbing’ the milk he sold on the streets.

‘Law bless your worship, its not the first time it’s been done by thousands’ (prompting yet more roars of laughter in court). It was ‘and old saying’ Day told the court, ‘that more milk was drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’.

The practice of adulteration (or ‘bobbing’) was evidently widespread and well known.

Mr Broderip was satisfied that a felony had been committed but before he could draw up the indictment to send Day for trial he needed formally to hear Mrs Gilbert’s evidence. Therefore he remanded Day overnight for the dairywoman to appear. As for ‘bobbing’ he suggested that the public (via the newspapers) needed to be made aware of this sharp practice, and after this report they certainly were. My suspicions however are that most working class Londoners were already well aware of the reality of what their milk contained, although it may have come as a shock to polite society. Regardless the magistrate declared that it was one of the most ‘impudent’ defences he had heard for a long time.

Day was eventually tried for the theft of 11 quarts of milk but I’m unsure of the outcome. He was listed as being in the Middlesex House of Detention awaiting trial (probably at the Middlesex Sessions). Given the extent of evidence against him I rather suspect he would have been convicted and then imprisoned for a few months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 19, 1845]

Food adulteration was a massive problem for the Victorians: ‘As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the colour’. (1) 

(1) Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England, Professor Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College [http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html]