A casual thief with a lot of attitude


Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) did not believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also bound some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

He disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial. At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

A sad example of Victorian poverty

Police Constable Williams of N Division, Metropolitan Police, was patrolling his beat late in the evening of November 28th 1863 when he saw a man he found suspicious. As the PC retreated into a doorway he saw the man stop outside a building on Kingsland Road near to a yard for the King’s Head pub.

The man unfastened his coat and trousers and withdrew a parcel which he flung into a nearby  empty building. The PC showed his lamp and demanded to know what the man was doing and what was in the package.

“A dead kid” came the reply. The officer now asked him to show him but the man, Charles Law, at first refused. PC Williams insisted and the two retrieved the parcel. It contained the tiny dead body of a female child.

When asked how he came by it Law replied: “It was a premature birth from a poor woman, and I, being a medical man, undertook to get rid of it to save the burial fees, which would have been 7s and 6d”. He then added that he wished he’d buried it in the garden and avoided being caught with it. The policeman took him into custody.

Back at the station house another body was found in his pocket, both were ‘rather small’, both premature and about six months old according to the divisional surgeon who appeared to give evidence at Law’s hearing at the Worship Street Police Court. He was unable to say whether the children had breathed at all or had been still born.

The building into which the body had been thrown was a house in the process of being built or renovated and the court was informed that in daylight anyone could have seen and found the remains of the children Law was disposing of. The clerk told the justice that under law exposing bodies in this way was an offence at common law. As Charles Law stated himself to be a ‘medical man’ he was saved the inconvenience of being remanded in custody and was bailed at his own surety of £80 and two from his friends at £40 each.

Was Law an abortionist? He told the court one of the women lived in Nottingham and that he was merely clearing up on their behalf. There is no Charles Law prosecuted at the Old Bailey for abortion (which was illegal) so perhaps he was telling the truth. It may be however, that there was simply not enough evidence against him. It does however, tell us something about the desperation of women who either wished to lose unwanted children or who miscarried and could not afford the fees to bury their offspring.


[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 29, 1863]

A pickpocket’s minor offence against society reveals a much worse ‘crime’ against humanity.


“This morning John Smith and John Pratt expiated their heinous offence, by forfeiting their lives on the scaffold in front of Newgate”.

                       The Standard, Friday, November 27, 1835

So ran the first line of a news report in the London press on 27th November 1835. We are not told what it was that the pair had done to merit a death sentence but we can be fairly sure that the paper’s readership did.

However the details of their offence were probably not revealed; the court case at the Old Bailey carries only their names, ages and sentence with the nature of their offence rendered with letters missing:


Smith and Pratt were prosecuted for being homosexual and a third man, William Bonill, was charged and convicted as an accessory*.  The papers reported the last hours of the men in Newgate. Pratt was reluctant to confess his sins to a dissenting minister who visited him in the condemned cell, sending him away before calling him back to ‘make his peace with God’.

A crowd turned out to see them ‘turned off’ as was usually the case with these public displays of ‘justice’. Smith went to his death calmly but Pratt had to be helped onto the scaffold outside Newgate gaol. The executioner ‘adjusted the ropes and caused the plank to fall which closed the world upon them’.

One of those watching the execution was Thomas Palmer. Palmer was a young lad who seems to have been unmoved by the gruesome spectacle he was witnessing. While others stood and doffed their caps as Smith and Pratt had their necks broken in public, Palmer ‘dipped’ the pockets of a gentleman. He removed a pocket book (a wallet) but it had nothing of value in it.

He wasn’t quick enough however, to avoid capture by one of the officers keeping watch over the crowd. He came before the magistrate at Guildhall on the following day to be charged with picking pockets, there was no report of what happened to him so I suspect he was either reprimanded and discharged or sent to prison for a week or two.

Pratt and Smith had been caught in August at Bonhill’s house in Southwark. They were the last men to be hanged for sodomy in England and the only two persons hanged outside Newgate gaol between 1834-6. The pair had been prosecuted under Lord Landsdowne’s Offences against the Person Act (1828) a wide ranging piece of legislation that included confirmation of the death penalty for rape (abolished in 1841) and for shooting, stabbing or wounding (repealed in 1837).

The death penalty for buggery was finally removed from the statute in 1861 (although no one was hanged for it after Pratt and Smith). If this seemed enlightened it certainly wasn’t. In 1885 new legislation made it easier to convict men of ‘indecency’ when sodomy could not be proved. This was the act that caught Oscar Wilde and prematurely ended his life. At his trial in 1895 the judge (Mr Justice Wills) handed down a two year prison sentence but declared it: “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and added that the case was “the worst case I have ever tried”. Wilde died within three years of his release, his health health adversely affected by the conditions he experienced in Reading gaol.

In 1967 homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales, this was extended to Scotland in 1980. Following a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights decriminalization followed in Northern Ireland in 1982. It took until 2001 for the laws about consensual sex to be applied to heterosexual and homosexual men equally, when the age of consent was lowered to 16; again this took an intervention from Europe to achieve.

The arrest of Thomas Palmer (my jumping off point for today’s blog from the Police Courts) revealed an event that marked a watershed in the LGBT rights in this country. Hopefully the vast majority of people in the UK would be disgusted, not at the actions of Pratt and Smith as many were in 1835, but at a state that executed people in public for being gay.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 28, 1835]

  • Bonill was not hanged but instead transported to Australia for 14 years

‘Dangerous’ dogs unmuzzled and on the London streets



In recent years there have been several tragic instances of children being killed or badly injured by dogs. The laws against the possession of particular breeds of animal seem woefully ineffectual and a return to dog licensing has been mooted in some quarters. But this is not a modern phenomena; like so many of the cases that came before the Victorian Police Courts it seems they too had a problem with dangerous dogs.

In November 1890 no less than 27 people were summoned before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for ‘allowing their dogs to be at large without being properly muzzled’.

And these were not just the ‘rough’ working classes (who generally fit the modern stereotype of the ‘dangerous’ dog owner. No, the 27 included no lesser figures than:

‘Captain Lionel Byng, Royal Horse Guards; Madame Grylls, Conduit Street; Lady Hothwell and Earl de Grey’.

They were prosecuted by Mr Blanchard Wontner (whether as a private person or in some official capacity it is impossible to say from the court report). He told the court that despite the fact that more and more summons were being taken out, ‘week after week dogs were found on the streets unmuzzled and uncared for’.

This was a temporary crack-down it seems, because he added that the process of obtaining summons and prosecuting culprits would continue until people routinely obeyed the letter of the law and muzzled their animals.

The magistrate, Mr Hanney, commented that there were some persons ‘who cared more for the comfort and convenience of their dogs than they did for their fellow-creatures’. He handed down a variety of fines from 2s to 10s and singled out one persistent offender with a penalty of 40s.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 27, 1890]

Pinching the hotel’s silverware lands a ‘respectable’ young man in trouble

Sometimes the news reports of the Police Courts of the metropolis give us an indication of how the hearing worked in practice. Most of the cases I’ve looked at over the last 7 months  have a cast of characters: the ‘prisoner’/defendant; victim/prosecutor (this can be a police officer in later cases); witnesses (for both sides);members of the legal profession and, of course, the magistrate himself.

The accused had the opportunity to have their case heard before the police court or to go before a jury, but the latter risked a stiffer penalty so many probably opted to take their chances at summary level. I doubt many could afford a counsel so defended themselves. But until this case I wasn’t sure whether the prisoner could actually question the prosecutor or witnesses, or simply make a statement in their defence.

In late November 1845 John Studd Weeding (a ‘young man of respectable appearance’) came before the Guildhall justice in the City accused of stealing silverware from a London hotel.

Mr Radley (the owner of Radley’s Hotel on Bridge Street) testified that Weeding had stayed at his premises on Sunday night and that on the morning he had left, saying he had an appointment at a nearby hairdresser. One of Radley’s staff was concerned because the man had not settled his bill ‘or left any luggage’, so he ‘directed the porter to watch him’.

The porter followed Weeding at a distance and saw him enter a silversmith’s shop. There he sold a silver fork and a dessert spoon, both of which were monogrammed with an ‘N’. When this was reported back to the waiter who had raised the concern, he then undertook a quick inventory of the hotel’s plate, and soon found some items were missing.

At 5 o’clock the prisoner had finished a glass of brandy at the hotel when the waiter approached him and asked him to step ‘in to the counting house’ (presumably the accounts office at Radley’s). Here he accused him of taking one of the hotel’s silver spoons.

Weeding hotly denied this and said he could produce friends who would vouch for his respectability. The waiter said he was satisfied with this and suggested they send someone to fetch them.

At this Weeding backtracked and so the waiter called for a policeman who searched the young man. ‘Not only the spoon, but two silver forks, all marked “Radley’s Hotel”… were found in his possession. There were also three forks, a tablespoon and a dessert spoon, all marked ‘N’…as well as a duplicate for a teaspoon and three silk handkerchiefs, pawned for four shillings’.

The court was told that the police believed the items not belonging to Radley’s had been lifted from the Mount Ephraim Hotel (which was in Tunbridge Wells). The magistrate asked Weeding if he wished to question any of the witnesses, the first time I’ve seen a report of what may well have been standard practice. He didn’t and made no statement either.

The magistrate then told Weeding he was now likely to face further charges from Tunbridge in addition to the one at Radley’s and remanded him in custody so more evidence could be sought.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 26, 1845]

Turning pints into cash…literally


When the landlord of the Cock in New Street began to note that his pewter pint pots were disappearing at an alarming rate he called in the police to investigate. He suspected two of his regulars, John McGuire and Henry Hughes, and constables Boardman and Hardwick of the Met’s finest headed off to search their lodgings.

In a back room on the second floor they found the missing pots and the two men hard at work, melting them down to make counterfeit coins. As the constable rushed into the room one of the pair grabbed the mould and plunged it into a nearby bucket of water.

Since the mould was made of pipe clay (plaster of paris) it was ‘of course immediately dissolved by the water’, as the press report noted. However the policemen did find a pipe bowl filled with pewter and some base shillings which were  ‘well executed’ , and ‘only required the last touch before being uttered’.

This was a mini coining factory  that had been exposed by the landlord’s desire to put an end to theft of his beer pots. Pewter pots were one of the commonest items stolen in 19th century London, being easily sold on or pawned.

The Marlborough Street magistrate remanded both men for a few days for more evidence. That evidence was forthcoming because he then committed for their trial at Old Bailey. When they appeared, on the 14 December 1840 the pair were convicted of coining. Both were young – Hughes 19 and McGuire 20. McGuire was recommended to mercy by the Old Bailey jury and the judge was lenient, sending him to prison for a year. Hughes was considered to be the main culprit and he was sentenced to two years trabsportation to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 25, 1840]

A case of mistaken ‘respectability’

Green Park and St. James's Park c. 1833


In the early nineteenth century character was often assumed through appearance and context. So a woman that was on the streets at at night alone was often assumed to be a prostitute; a working-class man walking in the dark would arouse suspicions that he was a thief; and a group of individuals associating together for no obvious legitimate reason, would be consider to be up to no good.

In 1830 the New Police were newly established and their role was very much to keep order as they patrolled the streets. Station Houses had not yet been built and Peel’s officers used the old watch houses that had existed since the late 1700s. The early Met was soon open to criticism that it was fun of men (often from the old watch) that were unfit to serve and too ready to fraternise with local women or accept a drink from publicans keen to get them ‘on side’.

They also faced questions that they were not worth the money ratepayers were now having to fork out for them and so, in many ways, they needed to justify their existence and quell this mounting tide of criticism.

In November 1830 an unnamed lady was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street. There was no clear charge levelled but it was certainly suspected that she had been up  to something.

The circumstances were, as the report describes, that she had come in a coach to meet some friends after their visit to a theatre. The coach had set them down on St James Street, so she could walk through the park to her home in Vauxhall. As she walked however, she was approached by the ‘driver of a cabriolet, and another low individual’ who called out insults to her.

Afraid and alone she called for a policeman but just at the same time a group of gentlemen came along, followed by a small group of ‘loose women’  (contemporary code for prostitutes). Prostitutes frequently used the London parks as places to pick up clients and the old watch and the ‘New Police’ were well aware of this.

The police arrived and, responding to the complaints of the gentlemen, moved to arrest the women. They nearly all ran off however, but one woman was captured and taken to the watch house. This was the lady who had called the police in the first place but her protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears and the policeman charged her as disorderly.

The circumstances were against her; she was a single woman walking in the park late at night, and other disorderly women were discovered with her.

When she came before Mr Conant, the magistrate at Marlborough Street, the copper confirmed she was amongst the crowd that had scattered when he approached them. The justice was about to hand down a summary punishment (a  fine or a short prison term) when he paused.

She told him (again) that she was innocent and respectable and gave him the names of the friends she had been meeting and her address, so her facts could be checked. He agreed to suspend judgment until this had been done. He then sent a messenger to see if her story could be confirmed.

When he returned the messenger had good news: ‘the prisoner’s friends were of the first respectability, her father having formal been governor of one of the islands, and at present held a high military station in this country, and that they were greatly alarmed at her absence’.

The policeman declared himself now satisfied that she was innocent and the lady was called back into court where Mr Conant told her she was free to go without ‘the slightest stain on her character’. She might have thought twice about walking across St James’ Park alone in future though. The policeman was perhaps been too eager to catch someone, and with a more open mind or more careful questioning he might have avoided causing the unnamed young woman such an unpleasant experience. One imagines his sergeant conveyed this to him, in less polite term.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 24, 1830]

Trouble down at the gas works


The Police Courts of London dealt with a lot more than crime in the nineteenth century. Petitioners often approached the bench asking for help because they were poor or having trouble with their landlords. Employers and employees also used the courts to negotiate issues relating to contracts and pay.

On Monday 23 November 1874 John Jones was in court on  a charge of having left his place of work without giving the one week’s notice required. George Today a foreman at the Phoenix Gas Company, appeared to give evidence. He told the magistrate that he had hired   Jones as a ‘scoop-drawer’ at 38s and 9d a week. That was the 27th June but on Friday the 13th November he collected his wages as usual but did not report for work on the Monday.

It seems Jones didn’t enjoy his job. The scoop he was tasked to work was heavy (containing a hundred weight of coal) and he was exposed to extreme heat. But, his foreman explained, he was very well paid. And he was for the 1870s at least, his £1 and 18s was the equivalent to the wage of a highly skilled craftsman and  reflected a period in which the domestic economy was doing very well.

There were placards all over the shop-floor according to the foreman, each stipulating that leaving work without notice was subject to a 20s fine. Jones said he’d seen none at all. The head engineer told the court that the scoop Jones operated was a new one, and despite the Jones’ protestations that it was harder to use, he claimed instead it was easier and that Jones had two men employed to help him.

Finally it was revealed that Jones had left the Phoenix works only to be immediately employed by a rival firm. Confronted with this Jones admitted it. The work was ‘easier’ there he told the justice, after all he ‘was not going to kill himself’ now, was he?

It was an open and shut case as far as the magistrate was concerned and he fined Jones the required 20s plus 2s costs. Jones was probably not that bothered; he had a new job that he preferred at a similar or better rate.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 23, 1874]

P.S today is my good friend Martin Russell’s birthday, so many happy returns to him. He is one of the best photographers around as this link to his Flickr site shows. 

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

L0014220 Mentally ill patients in the garden of an asylum, a warden l

Occasionally the newspapers reports of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Court feel quite voyeuristic and uncomfortable to modern eyes. Alongside all the petty thefts, domestic violence and embezzling clerks there are moments of individual tragedy. The Victorians were beginning to understand ‘madness’ but had a far less enlightened view of the effects of mental illness than we do today. Those exhibiting symptoms of mental illness were rarely treated with much compassion, and more often with ridicule or scorn.

In November 1886 a woman appeared at the Lambeth Police Court asking for protection. If she gave a name it wasn’t reported by the journalist that attended that day – the reaction of the court, however, was.

Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate, heard the lady’s complaint that certain named persons had threatened her and then said he thought she’d been in this court before, under similar circumstances.

‘I have been here, and shall come again until I get protection’ she told him. His Worship responded: ‘If you are in danger you shall have protection, but I must know a good reason for it’.

‘I am in danger; I have been shot at in the street, but the bullet hit a lamp-post’ (this provoked laughter in the public gallery). ‘There is nothing to laugh at’ the women objected, (‘excitedly’ the paper reported).

When the calm of the court was restored Mr Chance asked if she had any other examples.

‘I have had an attempt made upon me to poison me. You may not have heard of a poison called the “Varieties” (more laughter)… it is no laughing matter, I can tell you’. She went on, ‘there is scarcely a dozen that know its deadly effects. A dose or two will bring on apoplexy, epilepsy, madness, prostration, consumption, and death’.

She continued to be interrupted by peals of laughter and finished with several other ‘curious statements’ before the justice turned to the clerk of the court and requested that inquiries be made – about her, not her allegations.

In all likelihood if the unnamed woman had no family or friends to look after her the result of her requests for help would be confinement in a ‘lunatic’ asylum. These were dread places, worse perhaps than the workhouse or even a prison. Experimental therapy might involve water baths, straitjackets and and worse and few recovered to be allowed to leave in anything other than a coffin. There is a growing body of academic historical research into mental health care in the 1800s  and we have several 3rd year undergraduates at the University of Northampton who are researching the topic for their final year dissertations.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1886]