An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

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