The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.
One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.
Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string. The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.
The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.
It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8s a volume and had a set of them. There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.
In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.
The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.
Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.
[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]