‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

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