PC George Stent (186M) was patrolling his beat along Rockingham Street at about 10.30 on the evening of the 14 December 1870 when he heard a noise. Following his hunch he turned into an entry to a business premises owned by Messrs. Nod & Hunter of Newington.
As he entered under a gateway he saw two young men, one standing on the wheel of a wagon and the other ‘concealed underneath it’. PC Stent arrested them and took them to the nearest police station and locked them up. In the morning the policeman made some enquiries and discovered that there had been a number of thefts in the area.
Returning to the yard he searched the waggon and found a pile of linen hidden underneath it. He took Turner’s boots with him and matched them with footprints he found at the scene of the crime – a good example that bobbies on the beat were using detection methods in routine enquiries in the late Victorian period.
The men appeared at Southwark Police Court of the 23 December and were named as John Turner (16) and John Smith (17). They were charged under the all encompassing Vagrancy Laws. These allowed the authorities to prosecute thefts and other crimes on the filmiest of proofs, effectively convicting persons on suspicion that they were going to commit a crime.
The lads had been engaged in a crime that was recorded by James Greenwood in his 1869 work The Seven Curses of London. This was called (in criminal cant or slang) ‘Going snowing – Going out to steal linen in process of drying in gardens’.
Linen would have been quite easy to sell on and was a fairly low risk crime – so long as you didn’t encounter a switched on policeman as Turner and Smith had.
The teenage gangsters were sent to prison for three months at hard labour, whether it taught them a lesson or not we shall never know as ‘John Smith’ is hardly a name we can trace through the court system.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 24, 1870]