This summer London has been subject to a number of acid attacks. Teenagers (some as young as 12 or 13) riding mopeds have swooped on victims to steal mobile phone or overpower other scooter riders to steal their vehicles. What has made these attacks even more heinous is the use of acid (or liquid victims believe to be acid) sprayed in the faces of those attacked.
The main crime here is robbery, ‘highway robbery’ in eighteenth-century terminology in fact. Thieves that stole money or property using force or the threat of force, and robberies that took place on the street (or ‘highway’) were deemed highway robbery. We might call them muggings of course.
Judges and juries tended to view any theft that was accompanied by violence or the threat of it more seriously than simple larceny, and so those convicted could expect the full force of the law. The same is still pretty much true today; violent theft is dealt with more severely than indirect non-violent theft (such as picking pockets or shoplifting).
In the 1700s this meant death by hanging but by the mid Victorian period imprisonment had largely replaced all other forms of punishment. Highway robbers could expect to be transported to Australia in the 1830s and 40s but by the late 50 transportation was effectively at an end. English prisons now filled with thieves, robbers and burglars.
When he was brought before the Marylebone magistrate in August 1858 John Jones was accused of perpetrating a robbery with a difference; a difference which singled it out as worthy of press attention and (potentially at least) the full severity of the law.
Francis Stretch was walking along Munster Street near Regent’s Park between 10 and 11 in the evening of the 25 August when he was attacked from behind. As he stooped to tie his shoelaces three men rushed up and one thrust a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Stretch noticed that the hankie was wet but wasn’t able to react quick enough.
He did notice a man he later identified as Jones take his watch from his pocket but before he could attempt to stop him or take hold of the thief he ‘became insensible’ and collapsed. The men ran off and Stretch later realised that he had been knocked out with chloroform.
Meanwhile the attack had been witnessed by a woman who was nearby. Shouting ‘stop their’ she ran after the fleeing thieves and a policeman, PC Whinkler (191S) joined the chase. The three men split up, the two others calling out ‘There’s no Peeler here, change your coat’, to Jones. PC Whinkler caught up with his prey soon afterwards in Charles Street and arrested him.
No watch was found on Jones and in court he denied any knowledge of it. Unfortunately for the victim and the policeman the female witness was not in court to confirm their testimony. As a result Mr Long, presiding, remanded the defendant for a few days to see if she could be produced. I expect that if PC Whinkler was able (as he insisted he was) to produce his witness then the magistrate would have committed Jones for a jury trial. It is likely this went to Clerkenwell and the Middlesex sessions because I can’t find it at Old Bailey. There, if the jury were convinced, Jones could expect a lengthy spell behind bars. Other Londoners would now be on the alert for the chloroform thieves just as modern city dwellers are (hopefully) keeping their wits about them when using their phones in public.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 26, 1858]