John Davidson was an experienced City of London detective. In February 1882 he was walking in St Paul’s Churchyard (which in the past was a much less ‘respectable’ area than it is today). Davidson was not keeping an eye out for terrorists (as he might have been today, given our state of high alert) but instead for thieves.
He soon spotted three women he knew to be ‘habitual’ criminals and decided to follow them.
The women made their way to Ludgate Hill railway station before carrying on to Cannon Street and boarding a train heading for London Bridge. The women had third class tickets but Davidson had his suspicions that they weren’t travelling for the purposes of going somewhere, but to steal from the other passengers.
He was correct.
He followed them on to the train and got off when they alighted at London Bridge. He hadn’t seen them do anything in particular but he remained sure they had. The detective now approached some of the other travellers and enquired whether they had lost anything.
One lady told him she had lost his purse so he decided to arrest the women. With the help of a nearby constable the three were taken into custody and back to a police station where they were searched.
No purse was found however, but he still charged them with picking pockets and they appeared at Southwark Police court on the following day.
Leonara Gray (23), Jane Fowkes (25) and Mary Kay (23) were presented and denied all charges against them. Detective Davidson was able to bring along Mary Ann Watts, a schoolmistress from Southwark Park Road who said she had been travelling on the train when the three got into her carriage.
Kay sat on one side of her while Gray occupied the other side, Fowkes sat opposite her. She kept her purse safely (she thought) in her ‘dress pocket’ and she was sure it was there when the women sat down. As the women left the train Detective Davidson entered the carriage and asked if she had lost anything. She checked and found her purse was gone.
She told the court if contained ‘a sovereign, a shilling, and her railway ticket’. Not a massive haul but enough to cover the three third class tickets and plenty left over.
A female warder from the Westminster Prison testified to knowing the three as ‘clever pickpockets’; ‘they had all been convicted at various terms’, she added. Although the evidence against them was circumstantial at best and I doubt a jury would have convicted them now, in 1882 that was enough to earn each of them 3 months hard labour.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 21, 1882]
P.S apparently Ludgate Hill station (which closed in 1929) was built over the site of the old Fleet prison, which seems an appropriate connection for our three light-fingered felons.