William Luker, The Mansion House Police Court, (c.1891)
Sometimes, in order to understand exactly what is going on in a historical courtroom (like the Mansion House Police Court in 1866) we need to have some clarity about which laws were in operation and being utilised. That isn’t always easy because laws were amended and new rules superseded them. It is also often the case with the history of crime that the practice of those applying the law (in this case the Police Court magistrates of London) preceded that of lawmakers rather than following it.
In September 1866 Mary Ann Goodchild, ‘a young girl’ of 18 and a domestic servant, was brought before the Lord Mayor and Alderman Abbis in the City of London to answer a charge of theft. Mary Ann was accused of stealing face sovereigns from her master, Noah Aaron.
This was a serious offence, one worthy of a criminal trial before a jury and the possibility (if convicted) of a long prison sentence. However, the defendant was young, female and, crucially, prepared to admit to her crime.
The court was told that Noah Aaron, a general dealer who worked out of a property named Roper’s Buildings, had placed 44 sovereigns in a drawer in his bedroom. Sometime later he counted them and found that the money was short by £5. His suspicions immediately fell on Mary Ann because only she and his wife had access to the room.
The servants were the business of Mrs Aaron so when her husband told her what had happened she confronted Mary Ann with it. Having tried and failed to deny the charge Mary Ann admitted it but pleaded with Mrs Aaron not to ‘do anything with her’. Whether she hoped that this would not lead to a court case or was simply desperate to keep her position is not made clear, but having confessed she clearly hoped for some leniency from her employers.
Mrs Aaron would give her no such assurance and so Mary Ann was forced to give more information about the missing money. She said she had given it to another woman, Alice Alexander, ‘who she said had out her up to it’. In court at Mansion House Alexander was produced but denied all knowledge of the crime (as well she might). Mary Ann was left high and dry.
Since she had confessed to the theft Mary Ann was able to opt to be dealt with summarily. Under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (1855) magistrates were able to deal with cases of theft up to the value of 5 shillings without sending it on to a jury so long as the accused consented. If the defendant pleaded guilty then the theft of goods over 5s came under the power of the magistracy. In 1879 the basic requirement was raided from 5s to £2 as the summary courts began the main tribunal for hearing nearly all small-scale property crime in the capital.
Mary Ann was dealt with under legislation that was initially intended to speed up the process of justice in London and to keep the higher court clear of petty offenders. She was young and the summary jurisdiction acts were aimed at young offenders (albeit a little younger than she was).
The Lord Mayor sent Mary Ann to prison for four months, a fairly lenient sentence in the context of Victorian punishments but she was probably a first offender, again a factor that was at the heart of legislation that extended the summary jurisdiction of magistrates in the 1800s.
It hardly mattered to Mary Ann however. Having lost her job and without references, with her character therefore ruined and a criminal record added to her CV she was unlikely to find legitimate work in the future. When it launches later this week the Digital Panopticon project may allow us to find out whether Mary Ann managed to make it back to the straight and narrow or descended into a ‘career’ in criminality.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 11, 1865]