There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts. In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.
Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.
As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.
Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.
Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.
The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.
Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.
The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.
Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]