‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

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Thieves use chloroform to overpower their victim

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This summer London has been subject to a number of acid attacks. Teenagers (some as young as 12 or 13) riding mopeds have swooped on victims to steal mobile phone or overpower other scooter riders to steal their vehicles. What has made these attacks even more heinous is the use of acid (or liquid victims believe to be acid) sprayed in the faces of those attacked.

The main crime here is robbery, ‘highway robbery’ in eighteenth-century terminology in fact. Thieves that stole money or property using force or the threat of force, and robberies that took place on the street (or ‘highway’) were deemed highway robbery. We might call them muggings of course.

Judges and juries tended to view any theft that was accompanied by violence or the threat of it more seriously than simple larceny, and so those convicted could expect the full force of the law. The same is still pretty much true today; violent theft is dealt with more severely than indirect non-violent theft (such as picking pockets or shoplifting).

In the 1700s this meant death by hanging but by the mid Victorian period imprisonment  had largely replaced all other forms of punishment. Highway robbers could expect to be transported to Australia in the 1830s and 40s but by the late 50 transportation was effectively at an end. English prisons now filled with thieves, robbers and burglars.

When he was brought before the Marylebone magistrate in August 1858 John Jones was accused of perpetrating a robbery with a difference; a  difference which singled it out as worthy of press attention and (potentially at least) the full severity of the law.

Francis Stretch was walking along Munster Street near Regent’s Park between 10 and 11 in the evening of the 25 August when he was attacked from behind. As he stooped to tie his shoelaces three men rushed up and one thrust a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Stretch noticed that the hankie was wet but wasn’t able to react quick enough.

He did notice a man he later identified as Jones take his watch from his pocket but before he could attempt to stop him or take hold of the thief he ‘became insensible’ and collapsed. The men ran off and Stretch later realised that he had been knocked out with chloroform.

Meanwhile the attack had been witnessed by a woman who was nearby. Shouting ‘stop their’ she ran after the fleeing thieves and a policeman, PC Whinkler (191S) joined the chase. The three men split up, the two others calling out ‘There’s no Peeler here, change your coat’, to Jones. PC Whinkler caught up with his prey soon afterwards in Charles Street and arrested him.

No watch was found on Jones and in court he denied any knowledge of it. Unfortunately for the victim and the policeman the female witness was not in court to confirm their testimony. As a result Mr Long, presiding, remanded the defendant for a few days to see if she could be produced. I expect that if PC Whinkler was able (as he insisted he was) to produce his witness then the magistrate would have committed Jones for a jury trial. It is likely this went to Clerkenwell and the Middlesex sessions because I can’t find it at Old Bailey. There, if the jury were convinced, Jones could expect a lengthy spell behind bars. Other Londoners would now be on the alert for the chloroform thieves just as modern city dwellers are (hopefully) keeping their wits about them when using their phones in public.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 26, 1858]

A burglar nabbed by a quick thinking householder and a brave bobby

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The men that served as Police Court Magistrates in the various summary courts of the capital were not appointed to a single court indefinitely. The policy seems to have been to move them around after a period to time so that they had experience of a variety of locations. This would serve a number of purposes: some courts (notably Bow Street) were more prestigious; others, (like Worship Street) were particularly busy with drunks and petty criminals.

It also meant that no single magistrate could (well not for long at least) establish a sort of fiefdom in any one part of London and so it guarded against corruption in public office. It also served to share they experience of the magistracy around the metropolis and make it that much harder for repeat criminals to avoid being recognised by the bench (something my research has shown they went to great lengths to do, providing a string of aliases to avoid the repercussions of revealing ‘previous convictions’ which would drawn down a heavier sentence.

On Monday 11 August Mr Tennyson D’Eyncourt was beginning his spell at Worship Street in the East End. He had replaced Mr Arnold who was off to the slightly calmer atmosphere of Westminster. D’Eyncourt’s first task to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to commit a burglar for trial by jury.

In the dock at Worship Street stood an ‘athletic middle-aged man’ who refused to give his name. He was charged with breaking into the house of Miss Jane Harriett Burgess, a ‘maiden lady’ living on the City Road at Fountain Place. Miss Burgess herself had played an active role in the arrest of the unarmed intruder and he had finally been apprehended by the determined work of police constable Mattock (G162) who was also in court that day.

Miss Burgess told the magistrate that at 10 o’clock on Saturday night she had retired to bed and as she entered her bedroom she noticed that the window was open. The room had been ‘thoroughly ransacked’ and she quickly determined that a number of her possession were missing including ‘a mahogany writing-desk’ and a carpet bag. She stated, for the record, that they had all been in the room earlier that evening.

Hearing a policeman’s rattle sprung (police were not issued with whistles until the 1880s) she rushed over to the window and looked out. There she saw a man moving carefully along the parapet to the next house along. When he got to the party wall in between the houses he couldn’t go any further though, and stopped.

Miss Burgess now demanded to know what he was doing there and the  man ‘cooly replied that a burglary had been effected, and that he had made his way up there to assist in apprehending the thieves’. He then turned around and tried to retrace his steps back past the lady’s window as quickly as he could. Miss Burgess pounced and grabbed the man’s leg as tried to make his escape. She clung on tight and was almost pulled out of her window and over the parapet, letting go just in time.

Meanwhile PC Matlock, who was walking his beat along Fountain Place, had been alerted to the crime by a gentleman in an adjoining house. He had seen the head and shoulders of a man appear from the window of an unoccupied house next to him. PC Matlock made his way up to the roofs of the buildings via a trap door and soon found Miss Burgess’ property arranged so the thief could retrieve it. He also picked up two (probably stolen) silk handkerchiefs the burglar had dropped.

It seems the thief was making his way along the roof of the properties dropping down and through windows where he could to plunder the rooms below. PC Matlock caught up with him and challenged him. The man gave the same story about being engaged in catching burglars and then again tried to slip past the constable. He was too slow however, and PC Matlock took him into custody and back to his station.

In court the burglar offered no defence and no clue to his identity so D’Eyncourt remanded him in custody so that the paperwork could be completed for the man to take his trial.

The trial was called for the 18 August that year and the man, now revealed as George Andrews (42) pleaded guilty to ‘theft from a specified place’ and was sent to prison for 12 months. It was a lesser charge than burglary and perhaps he was offered (or his brief suggested) owning to that rather than risking being found guilty by a jury of that more serious offence  which carried a punishment of transportation to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 12, 1851]

An ill-conceived attempt to impose unwanted laws leads to rioting in London

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In June 1855 a bill was introduced to Parliament to close down shops and to suspend public transport  on Sundays, to better enforce the observation of the Sabbath. The bill was presented by Lord Robert Grosvenor and it sparked a series of demonstrations by working-class Londoners attacking the bill and the hypocrisy of the aristocratic class that sought to impose it. As the history Gerry White has described the ‘mob’:

‘assembled along the carriage drives between the Serpentine and Kensington Gardens crowds assembled to hoot and hiss the phaetons of the rich and their Sabbath-breaking servants. There were cries of ‘Go to Church!’ and horses were made to shy and bolt.’

The disorder spread and on Sunday 1st July around 150,000 people turned out to protest and Lord Grosvenor’s house was attacked and his windows smashed. The police eventually restored some order after a baton charge but almost 50 constables were injured. It was an example of the periodic outbreaks of rioting that London has seen down the centuries, the most recent of which being those that started in Tottenham in 2011. Perceived injustice, legitimate concerns ignored, overly officious policing, and extended periods of hot weather can combine to tip communities over the edge and inspire hot heads to take to the streets.

After the August 2011 riots hundreds of people found themselves before the capital’s magistrate courts, mostly of charges of looting. The punishments handed down to some (like Nicolas Robinson, jailed for 6 months for stealing a bottle of water) also demonstrate a historical continuity; in times of ‘moral panic’ or when authority is so obviously challenged the courts tend to overreact. At the end of the Gordon Riots (1780) dozens were publicly hanged  in mass executions as a show of determination by the state to those that had caused such chaos in the metropolis for a week in June.

In the aftermath of the riots against Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill there were dozens of prosecutions before the London Police magistrates. On Sunday 15 July Reynold’s Newspaper reported several examples including that of Charles Whitehouse, a lad of 14, who was present in the crowd gathered outside the peer’s London home in Park Street.

The case (that of smashing windows and so causing criminal damage) was presented by Inspector Webb of the Metropolitan Police. Webb described how he had seen the boy throw a stone towards his lordship’s window and had moved into the crowd to arrest him. Several of those assembled complained, saying that he had done nothing, but the inspector ignored them and tried to extract him and take him back to the station house.

As the inspector and a group of constables led Charles away there was a cry of ‘rescue’ and the crowd turned their fury on the police, pelting them with stones and anything else they could find. The attack was so violent that the police were forced to take refuge in the Mount Street workhouse. Two of his officers had been so badly hurt they still hadn’t been able to return to their duties.

He continued to explain how, while they sheltered in the workhouse, ‘the mob became so furious, calling for the release of the boy, otherwise they would pull down the building, that it was thought advisable, to prevent more serious consequences, for the constables to sally out with their prisoners, and literally fight their way through the mob to the lock-up house’.

In his defence Charles said that he had been forced to throw a stone by others in the crowd. His cap had been swept from his head by a man behind him who urged him to join in with the collective rage against the Grosvenor property. He was warned that failure to do so would mean he never saw his cap again.

Whether this was a weak excuse or the truth is impossible to say, but it made no impression on the Marlborough Street magistrate, Mr Hardwick. Addressing the boy he declared:

‘You must have been very imperfectly educated to have done an act of malice to a person to whom you are a stranger and who never did you the last harm’.

His next words were aimed at any of those present in court that might have been involved and, via the newspaper, the wider reading public. The boy’s actions were serious he said, and as for the context – the widespread rioting – that, if proven, could result in a  sentence of transportation to Australia. If anyone came before him charged with inciting or organising the rioting and stone throwing he would commit them for trial as he was ‘determined that both property and the public peace shall be protected’.

The boy’s father appeared in court and was there to hear his son be fined the relatively huge sum of 40s (over £100) for throwing one stone. He was mortified he said, and had tried to prevent all three of his children from getting mixed up in the trouble. On the day he had taken two of his boys on a long walk as far away from the crowds as he could but had never thought that Charles was likely to get mixed up in it.

Boys will be boys of course, and whatever his motivations I’m sure Charles was simply excited that something was happening and his curiosity got the better of him. Like Nicolas Robinson he ended up doing something he would probably never have done if it hadn’t been for the circumstances, and both young men paid the price for it as the authorities hit out at those they could catch in the wake of both incidents of rioting.

Lord Grosvenor quickly dropped his unpopular Sunday Trading bill and peace returned to the capital’s streets. Riots are often symptoms of underlying tensions based on perceptions of (or actual) inequality, the lack of a voice, impotence and frustration; it only takes a small spark (like the killing of Mark Duggan by the police, or the death of Cynthia Jarrett) to ignite the flames.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 15, 1855]

Two ungrateful sons take out their anger on their mother’s effects

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Mercer Street, Seven Dials c.1890

When Mrs Lang lost her husband she also lost the main breadwinner and the driving force for the family business. The Langs had run a coppersmith business in Mercer Street, close to  Covent Garden. Fortunately for Mrs Lang she had two grown up sons and they undertook to help out in the running of the workshop.

However, the brothers, William and George, were not keen to take on the business for ever and soon began to resent working for their mother. They hit on the idea to emigrate and decided to seek their fortunes in Australia. Australia, which had once been deemed only fit as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted criminals, was now flourishing. It had enjoyed its own gold rush and the transportation of felons had come to a halt in the 1860s. Now, in May 1890, it looked like an attractive destination for the Lang brothers, but they needed to the funds to get there and establish themselves.

They began by asking their mother for money, above and beyond what they earned from working in the shop. The requests soon turned to demands, and eventually to demands with menaces. So concerned was Mrs Lang that she told her solicitor who wrote to the men warning them to desist.

This did nothing to deter them however and after their mother rejected demand for a sum of £500 they threatened to ‘do for her’ and then went to her home and smashed it up. The damage they did was considerable. While the elderly lady sheltered in her bedroom the pair set to work on her effects. When she felt it was safe to emerge she found a trail of devastation:

All ‘her pictures and ornaments had been smashed, and were lying about in atoms. The damage would amount to quite £30’ [£1,800 today]. A week later William went further, assaulting his mother by striking her ‘several blows’.

After appearing in court at Marlborough Street William was formally committed for trial while George, although acquitted of causing the damage, was ordered to find sureties (to the tune of £50) to keep the peace towards his mother for six months.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 16, 1890]

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]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]