William Helps was standing watching the concourse at Ludgate Hill railway station when a gentleman attracted his attention. Helps was a station inspector and the man explained that he’s just seen respectably dressed individual appear to steal a book from a book stall. Helps asked where the man was now and the passenger pointed him out as he boarded a third class carriage. The inspector followed him and noticed him hide the book under his coat.
Helps went back to the stall (W H Smith’s no less) and asked the lad serving there if he’d lost anything.
‘Yes, a shilling number of Fun’, William Robinson replied.
Fun was a humorous, satirical magazine that rivaled the more famous Punch. It had launched in 1861 and offered prose and verse alongside travel writing and reviews of popular theatre and music hall. It cost just a penny per edition so this must have been a compendium of covers, entitled ‘Essence of Fun’ which sold for a 1s.
Mr Helps approached the man who’d taken the book and confronted him:
‘What have you done with the book?’ he demanded.
‘Do not misunderstand me – the book you took off the book stall’.
‘I do not know what you mean’ said the man, getting up from his seat and heading off towards W H Smith’s. He started to fumble around under his waistcoat where the book was hidden but Helps was losing patience with him.
‘It is of no use putting it down on the stall again’, he said, ‘you had better give it to me’.
Sheepishly, the man handed it over and said he would happily pay for it but the inspector had him arrested and consequently, a few days later he was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court charged with theft.
The man’s name was Henry White and he worked for Pontifex and Co as a coppersmith. He’d previously worked for Price’s candles and he had never been in trouble before in his life. White’s solicitor (Mr Buchanan) assured the court that his client had never intended to steal the copy of Fun but the lad was busy serving customers and he was worried he would miss his train.
It was a poor excuse but the policeman who took him into custody said he was searched and he plenty of money on him so doubted theft was the intention. White had given a correct address, and ‘bore a very respectable character in his neighbourhood’, and so Alderman Whetham was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The magistrate found him not guilty of stealing but instead treated the case as one of unlawful possession. White was fined 10s, which he paid, and walked free from court, poorer but hopefully wiser.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1872]