A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

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