A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

Hungerford_bridge

I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]

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