A very ‘strange robbery’ on the railway to Crystal Palace


The Crystal Palace, in its new home in Sydenham, Kent

When the London train steamed into Victoria from Sydenham one afternoon in early August 1872 a porter was astonished at the state of one of the first class carriages. The curtains were missing and there was nothing on the bare boards. A well dressed woman descended from the carriage and set off towards the line of waiting hansom cabs. The porter, a Mr Nash, went after her and stopped her before she got into a coach. Nash asked her to return with him to the station office where one of the inspectors, Frederick Bird examined her belongings.

The woman, whose name was Mrs Emily Willows (32), was distracted and seemed unsure of herself. She was carrying an umbrella and a rolled up length of fabric which turned out to be a rug, Inside the rug was a curtain, removed by Emily from the train she had just left. When her umbrella was opened two other curtains were found inside it! In addition Mrs Willows had a great number of rail tickets, all but one of which were stamped for use on that particular day.

Emily was handed over to the authorities, her husband called for and she was then presented at Westminster Police Court. Mr Willows told the magistrate that his wife had recently suffered a ‘paralytic stroke’ and three weeks later she had gone ‘quite out of her mind’. In his opinion she could not be held accountable for her actions, nor could he explain any of them, especially the large collection of tickets.

The justice said she would be remanded for trial for the theft but assured her husband she would be looked after. Mr Willows ‘begged that he might be allowed to take her home’ but the court was insistent she stay locked up. I doubt she ever stood trial for the theft and I wonder whatever became of her afterwards.

Sydenham was home to the Crystal Palace from 1854 following its removal there after the Great Exhibition (1851). It was a big attraction and drew large numbers of people to  south London. This created a mini boom in the area, transforming Sydenham from a small village to a major suburb. Now it is in the borough of Lewisham but in 1872 (indeed until 1889) it was in Kent.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 4, 1872]

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