‘Getting away with it’ in Victorian London: two cautionary tales from Marlborough Street Police court

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Here are two theft charges, heard at the Marlborough Street Police court in 1889, neither of which resulted in convictions or further action. There must have been huge numbers of pre-trial hearings which were resolved at summary level and yet we have very few surviving documentation about this important tier of the criminal justice system. There are a handful of late nineteenth-century minute books for the Thames Police office, a few for Bow Street a little earlier, and then most of what survives is for the early twentieth century.

Which means, unfortunately, that historians of crime are perhaps overly reliant  on the reporting of the summary (magistrate) process by the Victorian press. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the newspapers were, understandably, selective. In each of the daily reports from Thames, Bow Street, Marylebone or the several other metropolitan police courts the editors pick one, perhaps two cases out of dozens that came before them. In a week a police court magistrate would hear hundreds of cases but only a dozen or fewer would be written up for the newspapers’ readership.

Historians of the eighteenth-century justice system are well aware that for some periods of the 1700s the publishers of the Old Bailey Proceedings (which recounted trials that took place at what was to become the Central Criminal Court) often omitted cases which ended in acquittal for fear of demonstrating to offenders that there were successful ways to avoid conviction. One of the purposes in reporting trials of criminals was show that crime did not pay so anything that suggested you could ‘get away with it’ was unhelpful at best.

So I wonder why these two cases were the ones chosen by the editor of the Standard newspaper in April 1889 to represent the business of the Marlborough Street court?

First Clara Newton was accused of stealing £3 and 3from a man she’d met in Oxford Street. Clara appeared in court dressed fashionably and wearing a red hat with a green feather. One imagines she cut quite a dash, and this might explain the reporter’s interest in her. She described herself as a barmaid, 21 years of age, who lived on the Euston Road. On April 22 1889 she met Captain Torry in the street and he invited her to have a drink with him.

The pair sat in a public house enjoying each other’s company until it was time to leave. Torry (rather ungallantly) ‘declined to see her home’ but did give her the money to take a cab. Now, I wonder whether he was hoping to extend the evening or perhaps even thought Clara was something other than a barmaid. Who knows?

She accepted his offer of a cab and asked to be shown to a waiting room where she could rest comfortably before the cab arrived. The captain told her where to go and was about to leave himself when she asked him to wait in the pub, presumably to ensure that she caught the cab safely. He agreed.

However, some moments afterwards he happened to ‘peep out of the bar door’ and saw her walking quickly away from the pub, and not towards the waiting room. Instinctively he checked his pockets and found his purse was missing. He grabbed his hat and followed afterwards, losing her briefly and having to ask a cab driver where she’d gone.

Torry caught up with her on Hanover Street and handed her over to the police. It was about 12 at night and the constable that took her into custody told Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street that she’d been searched at the station but the captain’s purse was not on her. She did have money – 2 sovereigns and 4s in silver to be exact – but none of the coins matched those that the captain thought he’d lost.

While there was a clear suspicion about Clara there was no real proof and so she was discharged. This result brought a smattering of applause from the court so either her friends were there to support her or the public felt that the captain was a ‘blackguard’ who had got what he deserved.

Next up was John Helmslie Hunt who was charged with trying to defraud a Piccadilly saddler named Garden. Hunt, using the name ‘Captain J.H. Hunt’ and giving an address in Wotton-under-Edge  (in Gloucestershire) had entered the saddler’s workshop in August 1888 and asked to purchase a holster flask. He was given the flask on credit since he appeared genuine and promised to pay the following day.

He never came back however. Not long afterwards inquiries made by Mr Garden ascertained that Hunt had pawned the flask on the Hampstead Road and had then disappeared. In fact he’d traveled to Canada where he’d stayed for several months before returning to London in the spring of 1889. In his absence a warrant had been issued for his arrest and in April the police caught up with him and thus he too was put in the dock before Mr Hannay on the same day as Clara.

It took a while for the magistrate to hear the case against Hunt but in the end he came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to send him for trial. Quite simply he doubted whether a jury would convict him so there was no public interest in sending him to the ‘Bailey. He too was released.

Both cases were unusual or at least ‘interesting’ but both showed that con men and women could defraud the unwary or steal from the distracted. Perhaps that was why the editor of the Standard deemed them suitable material for his daily review of the business of the police courts: they were there to warn his readership to take more care of their property and not to be fooled by people who looked genuine but were anything but.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 24, 1889]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

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