A ‘Champagne charley’ causes mayhem in the cells

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John Betts’ appearance at the Mansion House Police court in early May 1867 caused something of a stir. Betts, a notorious thief in the area, was arrested in Crutchedfriars in the City at 11 o’clock at night as he raced away from a victim he’d just robbed.

Charles Cadge had been walking with his wife in Gracechurch Street when they encountered Betts. The robber started him ‘full in the face, and then made a rush at him and snatched his watch from his pocket, breaking the guard’. It was a daring attack and had a City Police patrol not been just around the corner the thief might have evaded capture.

However, now he was up before the Lord Mayor, and he was far from happy about it.

Those waiting for their cases to come up were supposed to stand quietly once they had been brought up form the holding cells but Betts was in no mood to behave. He had made so much noise before his own hearing that he’d been taken back to the cells and while Mr Cadge and other witnesses (Inspector White and one of his constables) tried to give their evidence Betts made such a row that it was almost impossible to hear them.

Once in the dock he refused to give his name. Asked again (even though the warder of the City Prison said he was well known to him) he said he would only give his name if they gave him half a pint of beer. When this was not forthcoming he started singing the music hall standard ‘Champagne charley’.

The Lord Mayor admonished him, telling him to behave himself.

‘I shan’t’ Betts replied, ‘I want half a pint of beer. I have had nothing this morning. Look at my tongue’ which he stuck out, provoking much laughter in the courtroom.

The magistrate simply committed him for trial at the next sessions and the gaoler went to take him away. But Betts wasn’t finished and he lashed out, resisting the attempts to lead him to the cells. Two constables had to help the gaoler drag the prisoner down the stairs. As he passed a glass partition that allowed some light to the cells below Betts kicked out violently, trying and failing, to smash it.

Placed in a cell on his own he continued his protest, smashing ‘everything he could lay hold of, and armed himself with a large piece of broken glass in one hand and a leaden pipe which he had succeeded in wrenching up in the other’ and standing there in just his shirt, ‘he threatened with frightful imprecations that he would murder anyone that approached him’.

When he was told what was happening below him the Lord Mayor ordered that Betts be secured and taken directly to Newgate Prison, but this was easier said than done. Several men were sent to take him and after some resistance he gave in and said he only wanted a half pint of beer and he would desist. Finally the gaoler acquiesced and Betts was given a glass of porter, which was placed carefully on the floor of the cell in front of him. He tasted it, declared it was ‘all right’, gave up the weapons he’d armed himself with, and was taken to Newgate to await his trial.

When Betts (or in fact Batts) was brought for trial at the Old Bailey he refused to plead, pretending to be mute. A jury determined that he was ‘mute from malice’  not ‘by visitation of God’ (in other words he was shamming) and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. It wasn’t a great way to start one’s defence but by now I think we know that Batts was probably suffering form some sort of mental illness. Even his encounter with the police that arrested him suggests an unbalanced mind (as the Victorians might have described it).

Inspector White explained that:

On 2nd May, about eleven o’clock, I heard a cry of “Stop thief!” and saw the prisoner running—I stopped him with the assistance of another constable, and said,”Where are you going?”

He [Batts] said, “All right, governor, I am just going home; we are having a lark”—he ran round the urinal, took a watch out of his trousers pocket, and threw it against the urinal—I picked it up, and Cadge came up and identified it

On the road to the station he said, “It is only a lark; I did not take the watch, it was only a game; I did not throw it there”—he said nothing at the station except joking.

The prisoner said nothing in his defense and was convicted. It was then revealed that he had a previous conviction from Clerkenwell Sessions in 1864 where he’d been given three years’ penal servitude for stealing a watch.

For repeating his ofence the judge sent him back to prison, this time for seven years. He was let out on license in 1873 and doesn’t trouble the record again after that. Perhaps he went straight, let’s hope so as in 1867 he was only 21.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 04, 1867]

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