In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.
Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.
Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:
‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.
On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.
Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.
It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.
Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.
She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.
The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.
Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.
As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.
So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]