On the 24 June 1851 two young lads were brought up before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court charged with having stolen property valued at over £100. Benjamin Lawrence was 16 years of age, and his confederate, John Jones, just 15.
The charge sheet presented by the police listed the stolen items (not all of which had been recovered) as follows:
‘a gold snuff-box, Waterloo medals, gold lace off cavalry jackets, two gold lace pouch belts, a cornelian ring, an opera glass, and other articles of much value in jewellery, gold lace, etc’.
The boys had worked as grooms for a Miss Walter at 9 Devonshire Place and the property, which belonged to Major Morse Cooper, had been stored in a room above the stables where the prisoners had worked. Miss Walter was not sworn at Marylebone but a statement was read on her behalf.
This explained that she had employed Lawrence as a live-in groom but had sacked if on the 8 April. Jones had replaced him but lasted only a few weeks. She reinstated Lawrence in May (‘after application had been made by him’) but he repaid her trust by absconding on the 19. It was soon after this that the theft of Major Cooper’s possessions was discovered.
The lady’s butler, informed that a robbery had been perpetrated, had been up to the storeroom to find the place ransacked, with a ‘number of boxes and drawers had been broken open […] evidently […] forced by means of a chisel’.
This was no petty pilfering, the sort of thing that servants were often accused of. This was a serious robbery and the nature of the items stolen meant that the thieves would have had to dispose of them through a ‘fence’, someone acting as a receiver of stolen goods.
The first police witness, sergeant Battersby of D Division, said that he had been informed that the lads had sold some of the goods to ‘a Jew in Hounsditch’.
Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London and close to the large Jewish community in Spitalfields, was a well-established jewelry and second hand clothing quarter, and so an obvious place to try to exchange stolen goods for ready cash. The ‘Jew’ (unnamed) did not appear in court but the police sergeant had visited him and he had admitted buying (and the selling on) some clothes from Devonshire Mews. It seems the clothes (a ‘pair of hunting breeches and a blue frock coat’) had been sold on to an actor at the Surrey Theatre (now the Old Vic) and the sergeant had retrieved them and brought them to court.
Sergeant Battersby had tracked Jones down to another mews in Belgrave Square where he had found work with the Marquis of Ely. He denied any involvement and tried to blame the theft on his friend ‘Ben’. Battersby arrested him. Lawrence was picked up in Clapham Rise by PC Spice (47V), who recognized him from a description that had been circulated to police districts. Lawrence was clearly ‘known’ to the local police because PC Spice put his hand on his shoulder and said:
‘Ben I want you, you must go along with me, for you have absconded from your service, and a great deal of property has been stolen’.
PC Spice told Mr Broughton (the sitting magistrate at Marylebone) that the boy had denied stealing but admitted receiving one shilling, out of the four that the lads had received for selling the property.
Having heard all the evidence presented by the police Mr Broughton turned to the young prisoners in the dock to hear what they had to say for themselves. Lawrence admitted being ‘there when it was done’ but denied having anything to do ‘with the gold lace or the other valuable things’. Jones said he wasn’t there when the robbery was committed and denied knowing about the sale to ‘a Jew’.
This caused sergeant Battersby to interject: ‘Why, you told me you were present when the sale took place’. Jones was either confused, or was changing his story as the seriousness of his situation finally dawned on him.
Both boys were remanded for further examination where, the report suggested, it was hoped or expected that a ‘great portion of the stolen property will be produced’. This was because the police had told the magistrate that they were keen to pay another visit to Houndsditch, believing that ‘property of considerable value might be met with at the Jew’s premises’.
The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18 August. It probably took this long because the police were tracking down a third culprit, James Morton, who now appeared with the others. Morton was also a groom and he admitted being present when the major’s boxes were forced open, but denied being culpable.
The defense was that another lad – a ‘sailor boy’ – had carried out the robbery, they had simply profited from it, a lesser crime. They were also at pains to deny having anything to do with the theft of the gold lace or a gold snuff box, the ‘valuable things’ that Major Cooper had lost.
A local tailor testified that one of the prisoners had brought him a pair of trousers to alter. ‘I believe they were dark-blue trowsers—some stripes or braiding had been taken off the sides of them, and they were torn, as if in taking off the stripes’, he told the court. These sounded like part of a cavalry uniform.
Elias Moses (the ‘Jew’ mentioned the summary hearing) also testified at the Bailey. He was a secondhand clothes dealer from Sandys Row, Bishopsgate and he remembered buying a number of pairs of breeches from Lawrence for 4s. He couldn’t recall the date but it was in May at Devonshire Mews, and Morton ‘was with him’. He said Lawrence had assured him that the goods were his to sell so whether he suspected they were stolen or not, he was covering himself.
The final witness in court was Major Leonard Morse Cooper himself. He was related to Mrs Walter by marriage (she was his mother–in-law) and had left his property there for safekeeping. While everything had a value (‘one hundred guineas would not replace what I have lost’ he said) he was most concerned to retrieve his Waterloo medal.
Jones was acquitted of the robbery but the other pair were convicted. Benjamin Lawrence was sent to prison for six months, and it seems he had a short life, dying in 1866 at the age of 31. Morton was recommended to mercy by the jury, who clearly held him to be less culpable than his fellow defendant. He still went to gaol though, and for the same period.
According to Hart’s Army List for 1849 Major Cooper entered military service in 1814 as an ensign. He was promoted to lieutenant in the 20th Light Dragoons June 1819, rising to captain in the 11thLight Dragoons on 25 February 1831 and thence to major (which he purchased) in 1840. Cooper was cited in divorce proceedings in 1850 (so a year before this case). Cooper was said to have been a frequent visitor to Mrs Frances Cautley, the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley, who was serving abroad in India, and she to him. The accusation was that Mrs Cautley had carried on ‘an adulterous intercourse and criminal conversation’ with Major Cooper. The major had subsequently settled a court case by paying £1000 in damages to Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley.
So perhaps his reason for storing his property with his mother-in-law was to keep it out of the hands of any creditors he might have, especially his highly prized Waterloo medal.
There were 39,000 Waterloo medals created but not all were awarded. As a cavalryman Cooper was amongst 6,000 who were recognized for their service at the final battle of the Napoleonic wars. They were made of silver, had the prince Regent’s head on one side and the figure of victory on the reverse (with the words ‘Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo’ and the date – 18 June 1815).
At Waterloo the 11 Light Dragoons ‘under the command of Lt Col Money were sent into action when it looked as if the enemy were breaking up. They broke a French infantry square and carried on with the pursuit of Napoleon’s fleeing soldiers’. If Cooper was part of that attack, and carried his troop’s colours, then it is understandable that he would want to get his medal back. It was, after all, a part of his life that was above reproach, unlike his more recent history.
[from Morning Post25 June 1851; Collection of Nineteenth Century British Divorce Proceedings, Volume 2]
I am very grateful to my colleague at Northampton, Dr Caroline Nielsen, who uncovered the Old Bailey case against the trio of boys while researching for her own work on disabled military veterans in the 18thand 19thcenturies. Caroline is currently finishing a book entitled Old Soldiers: The Royal Hospital of Chelsea, Military Pensions and British Society, 1660-1834.