There are moments of genuine comedy in the newspaper reporting of the police courts that offer a clear and (I expect) deliberate palliative to all the domestic violence, callous villainy, and desperately sad tales of poverty and attempted suicide that otherwise filled the daily columns. You can also see the influence of Charles Dickens and indeed the inspiration for many of his characters. Dickens was an observer of life as his saw it on his long walks around the capital and the crowded courtrooms of London must have been a rich source for the writer.
I’m sure that the readers of the Chronicle on Monday 23 August 1858 were well aware that the previous sitting at Bow Street Police court had heard the cases of 50-100 or more drunks, thieves, disorderly women, wife beaters, fraudsters and juvenile delinquents, let alone the ‘jumpers’, ‘crazies’ and numerous homeless beggars, but the first story they saw was one designed as ‘light relief’ from the grim reality of criminality and poverty in mid Victorian London.
Mary Ann Glover was brought up from the cells at Bow Street to answer a charge of stealing a watch and chain. The victim was Charles Johnson, and the two were apparently well acquainted. The evidence against Glover was presented by the arresting officer, PC Rook of F Division, Metropolitan Police.
PC Glover described how he was on beat near Clare Market at about 5 or 6 in the morning when he heard cries of ‘police!’. Hurrying towards the sounds he entered a house in Plough Court and found Glover and a man (Johnson) locked in an embrace and it appeared that she was trying to remove his watch and chain from his neck.
When the policeman intervened Mary said she was only going ‘to mind it’ for him but PC Rook grabbed it from her and said he would look after it and arrested Mary for the attempted theft.
In her defence Mary told Mr Hall (the Bow Street magistrate on duty) that she and ‘Charley’ were old friends, and called across for Charley’s confirmation:
‘Haven’t we Charley?’ ‘Yes’, said the victim (‘in a sleepy tone’) ‘we have’.
‘And I should never think of robbing Charley any more than I should you, please your worship. But I was out in St. Paul’s Churchyard* last night with the woman as keeps the house where I live, and she, poor thing, suddenly dropped down dead, and I ought to be at the inquest, please your worship, at this very moment, I did’.
Mary then began to recount the full events of that night and how she, with Charley, went on a drinking spree around several of the local pubs.
‘we went and had some drink at the Dark House, and then a little more at the Green Dragon; and after that…’
Here Mr Hall cut her short.
‘I don’t want to know the names of all the places where you drank. No doubt you drank at every public-house that was open’, he grumbled.
Mary went on to explain that Charley had got so drunk she thought she’d better look after him (‘there being so many bad characters in the district’) which was why she was helping back home and relieving him of his valuables. She would have continued to defend herself with a blow-by-blow account of her life and times but the justice had heard enough.
‘Stop. Stop. Hold your tongue for two minutes’ he told her and turned to the supposed victim.
‘Do you think she meant to rob you’, he asked.
‘Lord, no sir; she wouldn’t do it’.
‘Then what did you give her in custody for?’ Mr Hall demanded.
Charley started at him, amazed: ‘I did not give her into custody’ he spluttered.
The policeman had of course, and whether Mary was actually robbing her old acquaintance’ or protecting his valuables was moot; they saw themselves as fellow travellers on one side of the law and in their world the police were most definitely on the other. The last laugh then was on poor PC Rook who had effectively wasted the court’s time by bringing a charge ‘that never was’.
Mary was discharged and the pair waddled off together towards the inquest which with another little story to tell their chums down the Green Dragon (or wherever) later. Dickens might have written it himself.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, August 23, 1858]