On Thursday 5 April 1849 a young Greek (or possibly Austrian) man appeared at the Bow Street Police court charged with theft. It wasn’t his first appearance and it was not to be his last. It was part of series of pre-trial hearings that demonstrate the work that the Police magistrates did in shaping cases before they came before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey. Eventually, in May of the same year the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of transportation.
So what exactly was he accused of doing?
At the end of March Timonion Ulasto (variously written as Vlasto) was placed in the dock at Bow Street charged with stealing ‘a number of valuable coins from the British Museum’. One of the museum’s assistants, a Mr C Newton, told the magistrate that Ulasto had been introduced to him by ‘a personal friend’ and so he came with good credentials.
Ulasto professed to have a serious interest in the coins collection, especially Roman coins. He was also an acquaintance of General Charles James Fox, a notable collector. Fox’s name gained him almost unlimited access to the museum’s collection and he busied himself examining nearly everything they had.
On Saturday 24 March some members of staff began to have their suspicions about the coin enthusiast and started to watch him a little more closely. On the Monday these fears were realised. Whilst searching the room a catalogue ticket was found on the floor; this referred to a ‘certain coin of great value’ which was soon discovered to be missing.
The museum was reluctant to directly accuse Ulasto of theft since he had arrived with such good ‘introductions’, but as several more items disappeared over the next few days they decided to act. Mr Newton went to the police, who then applied to the magistracy for a search warrant, which was duly granted. Ulasto was reluctant to allow the search but when his premises were turned over coins to the value of £3,000 (about £175,000 in today’s money) were discovered in a drawer. Some of the items were identified (by catalogue tickets Ulasto had taken away) as belonging to the museum but others probably came from private collectors, General Fox among them.
Bail was refused (understandably) and Ulasto was remanded in custody, having declined to have an interpreter translate for him; it was common (particularly at Marylebone and the courts in the East End) for interpreters to appear to help defendants or prosecutors that had a poor or no command of English but the coin enthusiast was a well educated man who required no such assistance.
A few days later he was back up before the Bow Street magistrate, this time he was represented by a lawyer, as were the museum. General Fox was also represented in court so his interests could be looked out for.
The theft had shaken the authorities at the museum who had convened an extraordinary meetings of the directors, at which no less a figure than Sir Robert Peel (the former Prime Minister and, of course, the founder of the metropolitan Police) had attended. They set up an investigation in to what had happened and to discover exactly how many, and what value of coins, had been stolen.
The court was crowded – Bow Street was always the most popular court as it was the most senior, but this was an exciting and intriguing ‘crime news’ story. General Fox was there, as was the principal librarian of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, Lord Enniskillen.
Also in court that day was detective Inspector Charles Field, the inspiration behind Dickens’ character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Three years after the Ulasto case Charles Dickens wrote of his experience of joining Field on duty and watching him work. The inspector had executed the warrant to search Ulasto’s rooms and he was also investigating a series of other coin robberies in which the Greek featured as the most likely suspect. He asked for a further remand while he continued his inquiries.
Ulasto’s counsel requested that his client either be tried or released on bail but Mr Jardine, the magistrate, refused. He told the lawyer that the case was too serious to risk allowing ball and Timonion was again returned to prison.
He was again brought before the justice on the 10 April and again Field requested (and was granted) a further remand. On the 17 April he was up again; the newspapers gave a brief summary of what had occurred previously (although one imagines their readers were following the story fairly closely) and now the value of the items missing had risked to nearer £4,000.
The museum was able to provide evidence (from ‘sulphur casts’ made of the items it held) that the coins found at Ulasto’s lodgings were indeed their property. It was agreed that he should be further remanded until May.
Now the prosecution switched to General Fox who brought a separate charge for the theft of his property. No less than 71 coins produced in the court were from the general’s collection he said, and had been taken some time after he had first met Ulasto back in January at Fox’s London home at 35 Hill Street, Mayfair. The magistrate bound General Fox over to prosecute and the supposed coin thief was returned to his cell.
And that, it would appear, was that for the Police Courts. It is likely that Ulasto came up once more , to be formally committed for trial, but the papers don’t seem to have reported it. His case was heard, as we know, on May 7 1849 and he chose to plead guilty (to the theft of over £6,000 worth of coins – a huge amount, probably close to £350,000 at modern prices). If he was hoping for a reduced punishment then he may have been disappointed; the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for 7 years.
If Ulasto (first described as a citizen of Vienna) was Greek (as he was thereafter referred to) then I enjoy the irony in his desire to steal Greek and Roman antiquities from the British Museum. After all, the museum ‘owns’ a tremendous amount of other people’s property plundered by British adventurers and empire builders over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a native of Athens wished to repatriate some of his cultural heritage can we really condemn him?
[from Daily News, Saturday, March 31, 1849 The Morning Post, Friday, April 06, 1849]