I have discussed the perils of travelling on the Victorian railway network in previous posts on this blog. The railways not only made Britain smaller and allowed Victorians a new freedom to move around the country quickly and cheaply, it also broke down some of the well-established barriers between the classes. Not everyone was entirely comfortable with this, no least because it also opened up new opportunities for crime.
Alfred Thomas and Ann Mark were skilful thieves who exploited the new railways to earn an illegal living. Their patch was the South-Eastern Railway, which ran (until 1922) from London to Dover. They dressed ‘fashionably’; in other words they didn’t look like criminals or members of the lower working class but passed as respectable.
Ann dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm. She also had a small lap dog and must have seemed to those that saw her a charming young woman with a distracting animal. Alfred was similarly presentable and when the pair traveled together he pretended to be her brother. What could be less threatening: two siblings traveling together on the railway?
However, all was not as it seems and these two were eventually exposed and brought to the Southwark Police Court to be prosecuted as thieves.
The first witness and victim was Mrs Susannah Pledge, a ‘lady residing at Bermondsey’. She testified that she was in a second-class carriage on the train to Dartford and was sat next to Ann while Alfred sat opposite. Ann was playing with her ‘handsome little dog’ letting it crawl in and out of her muff. At Plumstead Alfred rose and leaned over to Ann to speak quietly to her, then at the next station he got up again and bid her farewell, saying: ‘Give my love to brother’.
As soon as the young man had gone Mrs Pledge realised that her dress had been cut and her purse removed from her pocket. Mr Walter Rutherford (described as ‘a gentleman’) was also in the carriage and saw what went on. He was suspicious of the pair and saw Alfred reach over towards Mrs Pledge and scoop up something from the floor of the train just as they pulled in to Woolwich station.
He called the guard and helped track Alfred down to a third-class carriage further along the train. Another woman in the the carriage had also been robbed in the same way. Alfred escaped however, dashing across the station towards the waiting room.
The railway company, mindful of its reputation and the effects of these sorts of thefts on its customers, had hired a detective to investigate the problem. Detective Dennis Scannel (who was officially employed by the Metropolitan Police in M Division) was seconded to the railway. This suggests that the police themselves were well aware that protecting customers on the railways was also part of their role. Today we have the British Transport Police but this force wasn’t created until after the second world war.
Scannel told the Southwark magistrate, Mr Coombe, that when he’d arrested and searched the pair he’d found significant amounts of coin on them. He’d recovered four to five pounds in silver and found the ladies’ empty purses under a grate in the waiting room where Alfred had been seen to go directly after the train arrived at Woolwich.
The prisoners were represented in court by a lawyer who said they would plead guilty to the crime in the hope that the magistrate would deal with them there and then and not send the case before a jury. This would minimise their sentences of course. The counsel for the prosecution explained that several other robberies of a similar nature had occurred recently and he and the police were convicted that these two were responsible.
Mr Coombe weighed up the evidence; picking pockets was notoriously difficult to prove and conspiracy even more so. If he sent the pair before a jury one or both of them might well be acquitted. At least by gaoling them today he would protect passengers on the railways for a limited period and by alerting the public (via the newspapers) to the risks they took while traveling he might also reduce the number similar thefts. So he did as the prisoners’ lawyer asked and in finding them guilty sent them to prison for six months at hard labour and ordered the two ladies to be reunited with their purses and missing money.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 12, 1862]