The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]

 

 

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