Picking pockets under the eyes of God

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The interior of St Stephen’s Church, Westminster in the nineteenth century 

I think we imagine Victorian Britain as a much more religious place than our current society. That may be true, but as with many of our assumptions or impressions of the past it doesn’t always stand up to examination. In 1851 a religious census was taken which included Jewish and Christian non-conformist and Catholic chapels alongside the established Church of England churches.

It showed that on average that year 10.8m people attended some sort of religious service, about 69% of the population (of nearly 18,000,000). The census itself has been criticized as being inaccurate and therefore worthless as a statistical exercise but we can read in a number of ways. About half of the number attended CoE services, but there were nearly 400,000 Catholics in a country where Catholicism had been under extreme pressure for centuries. There were also very many more non-conformists (Methodists for example) despite the Anglican Church being the official church of the crown and state.

Yet even in such a supposedly religious country almost a third of Britons did not attend church at all, which should cause us to question its supposedly dominant role in shaping Victorian society and morality. And some of those attending church were not there for their spiritual enlightenment either, as this report from April 1853 (just two years after the census) shows.

James McMachlin and George Wilson were practiced pickpockets. They infested the crowds that gathered at any event in mid Victorian London and a church service, especially a prominent one, was as good a place as any for them. In April the Bishop of London was presiding over a large conformation ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in Rochester Row, and the locals filled the venue. It gave the two thieves ample opportunity to mingle with the congregation and ‘dip’ the pockets of the unwary.

Among those targeted were Jane Elizabeth West and the Honorable Miss Georgina Colville, but they were not alone. Mr Childerson the churchwarden was robbed, as was an unnamed lady who lost the huge sum of £25 from her purse. Miss Burdetts Coutts was not so naive however and managed to keep an eye on her valuables as she attended another service (this time conducted by the Archbishop of York at St John’s, Smith’s Square, Westminster)  where the same pair of crooks were operating. smith-square-18282

Unfortunately for McMachlin and Wilson Sergeant Loom of B Division, Metropolitan Police, was on duty in the church in plain clothes. He was on the look out for thieves (which suggests a church service was a not uncommon place for crime) and he noticed the pair. Wilson had a coat draped loosely over his arm, to cover his actions. He watched as the other thief (McMachlin) got close to Miss West and placed his hand near her pocket. He rushed over and grabbed him and the young woman soon realized she’d been robbed (although she’d not felt her purse get lifted).  He removed McMachlin with some difficulty and then went back into the throng to search for Wilson, who was in the process of robbing Miss Colville. When cornered he dropped her purse and protested his innocence.

Both men were brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court and a crowd of churchgoers, including Rev. Tennant from St Stephens and two of his curates, were present to witness the hearing. McMachlin and Wilson denied the crimes they were accused of and denied knowing each other but they were still fully committed for trial by a jury. I doubt that they were ever tried though, gaining convictions against such operators was notoriously difficult unless the victims could swear that they had seen the theft happen. Not surprisingly then neither man appears in the published records of the Old Bailey or in the Digital Panopticon.

Today less than half of the UK’s population describe themselves as ‘belonging’ to a religion. This number has been rising as well. In 1983 65.2% people identified themselves as Christian, by 2014 this had fallen to just 41.7%. Moreover, only 16.3% of the population were declared as members of the CoE in 2014. Where worship is up is in the Catholic Church and in other churches where immigrant communities gather.

I am an atheist but I attend a Greek Orthodox church at important points in the year out of love and respect  for my wife’s family. Every time I go – regardless of whether this is Easter or ‘just a Sunday’ – it is packed, with standing room only. Strangely then it is the immigrants to this country that are upholding its Christian ‘tradition’, despite ‘Christianity’ being waved as a symbol of Britishness by some of the discordant voices of the Far (and not so far) Right.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 25, 1853]

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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