A distraction robbery in Poplar

Any visitor to London today should be wary of the crowds that surround street entertainers at sites such as Trafalgar Square or Covent Garden. As the performer is dazzling you with his conjuring tricks pickpockets are just as deftly lifting purses from the unsuspecting onlookers. In some cases it might even be part of the act.


This appears to have been the case in May 1870 at Poplar. While Fredericka Ellinge watched a fire-eating act she was flanked by two men. As the crowd watched James Geary swallow a lighted taper, John Bryant extracted a purse from Ms Ellinge’s pocket and handed it to Charles Bushby who stood on the other side of her.

Bushby exclaimed “all right!” and examined the contents of the purse, and then put it in his coat. He tried to make it look like part of the performance; another ‘trick’ to add to his mate Geary’s show. But when Ms Ellinge demanded the return of her purse the men sidled away and escaped.

They were later arrested by detectives from K Division and brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court. The officers told the court that the ‘fire-eating was very common in Poplar, and was got up by thieves to attract a crowd, and give facilities for those foolish enough to look on’. The justice, Mr. Lushington, committed all three defendants for trial.Geary was 24 years of age, Bushby  19,  and Bryant just 16 – none of them appear in the Old Bailey records (which is where they were committed to) so I rather suspect they were not prosecuted (because the evidence was scanty) or they were acquitted and the case not written up in the Proceedings.

Although Fredericka got her her purse (and the 12s 6d it contained) back, one hopes this served as a salutary lesson for her to be more careful about what entertainment she stopped to watch in future.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 22, 1870]

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