‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

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