A ragged individual with a curious hobby

An unequal match.

John Tenniel’s cartoon of the battle between the police and the ‘criminal class’,

(Punch, c.1881)

When PC 585E discovered William Roast sheltering in a doorway he was understandably suspicious. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the perfect hour for burglars, and Roast appeared to be peering through the door’s keyhole. So the policeman touched him on the shoulder and demanded to know what he was up to.

Roast explained that he’d been unable to sleep so had gone for a walk. He’d actually been listening at the door for the sound of a clock chiming inside, so he could tell what hour it was. The copper was unconvinced and took him into custody. On searching him he unearthed a ‘a long piece of thick wire, with a hook on the end’.

At Bow Street the magistrate asked the officer what he thought the wire was for. The constable replied that he believed it was created for the purpose of unlocking doors. Roast had been charged with loitering ‘for a supposed unlawful purpose’ (loitering with intent in other words) and there seemed plenty of substance to that charge but the justice gave the man the chance to explain himself.

Roast’s defence was punctuated by ‘a series of short coughs every time he hesitated’ (which I think the reporter notes as way of suggesting the prisoner was allowing himself time to think up his excuses, when in reality he had none).

‘The reason I was out at that early hour is because I didn’t go to a place of worship on a Sunday, when I always stay in doors’ [it was Monday, so this was vaguely plausible].

‘But I felt rather restless, and found myself sitting up in bed, so I thought I would take a little exercise, and so I went for a walk at about one o’clock’.

He then added his explanation about wishing to know the time. The magistrate wanted to know about the wire, and why he had it.

 ‘Well sir, I suppose that’s my hobby. But I will be careful in the future, sir’.

If he thought that was the end of it he was to be disappointed. The magistrate said he hoped he would be more careful in future but told him that he would be remanded in custody while some more enquiries were made to see ‘what you were in the past’.

He clearly suspected Roast was a burglar or otherwise a thief, and probably one with a previous record of convictions. The burglar was the quintessential Victorian criminal and the papers were full of stories about their robberies and adverts for anti-burglar traps and alarms.

Roast (who was described in the press as  ‘a ragged looking individual’) was probably aware that even if he was ‘done’ for loitering with intent, unless other offences could be proved against him or his previous convictions earned him something worse, he was looking at a brief spell inside at worst.

The only William Roast I can find in the archives is from 1865 when a 29-year-old man of that name is listed as being in prison. The Digital Panopticon doesn’t tell me what he did and there are no William Roasts at the Old Bailey. So quite possibly he gave a false name or he was a very fortunate thief, and kept out of the arms of the law.

Just possibly of course, he was telling the truth, but I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, May 03, 1870

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