In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.
That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.
We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?
Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.
As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.
At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.
The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.
A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.
The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.
The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.
The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]