A ‘good citizen’ or a man ‘with felonious intent’? Unpicking the truth on the late Victorian Strand

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This is one of those cases where the truth is very hard to get at. On the surface it involves a deception but one in which the motive is far from crystal clear. It also turns on perceptions and appearances, and contemporary assumptions of what one sort of behaviour and circumstances implied.

Let us start with John Tattershall. He was walking on the Strand late at night when he saw a crowd of people surrounding a young woman in her twenties. The woman was sobbing and being held by a man (also in his twenties) who explained that  he was a detective and had just seen her take money from someone. The woman was denying it and Tattershall was suspicious and challenged the officer. At this the detective said he had to go after the victim, and ran away.

The young woman was Amelia Willis and she had been walking on the Strand at 12.30 on the  2 July 1875. It was a Friday night and it would seem odd that an unmarried woman was walking out so late at night on her own. Quite by chance she met someone she knew, or rather someone she had known from her childhood. The two fell in together and chatted for a while. Her old friend gallantly gave her enough money to get her bus home. She was walking away to find one when a man grabbed her arm and told her he was a detective and was arresting her for robbery.

Henry Williams (25) was on the Strand when he saw a woman and a man close together. He said something to her and gave her some money. It was very late and the Strand was a notorious spot for prostitution and street robbery. Williams suspected that a crime had taken place and decided to intervene. Pretending to be a detective officer he ‘hoped to prevent ‘a drunken man from being robbed’ by a prostitute.

Police constable 363 E saw the crowd of people on The Strand and a man run away from them. There were several shouts and the copper went after the suspect, catching him within yards. The man he arrested refused to give his address and a satisfactory explanation so the officer took him back to the station and left him to cool off in the cells over night. In the morning the man, Williams, was taken before the sitting justice at Bow Street Police court.

Sir T. Henry was as confused by the case as we might be. He suspected that the ‘evidence rather pointed to some felonious intent’ but what it was if couldn’t pinpoint. However, Williams’ continued refusal to give his address was an offence and he warned him that he could either oblige the police and the court or he would pay a fine of £10. Williams still objected to telling the court where he lived and so the magistrate said he would pay the money or go to prison for a month.

So, was Williams a citizen with a sense of duty, or a charlatan who had some ulterior motive? Perhaps he was suffering from a mental illness and was  deluded? Was Amelia telling the truth? And if so, what was she doing all alone on the Strand at midnight on a Friday? This case presents more questions than answers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 03, 1875]

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