‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

‘You are not here to cross examine me’: a magistrate condemns a Friendly Society’s failure to support an elderly member

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In October 1889 the secretary of the Hope Teetotal Friendly Society* was summoned before Mr Montagu Williams at Clerkenwell to explain why he was refusing to pay sick money to one of his members. His argument, which was rejected by the magistrate, reminds us that until 1908 there was no statutory relief for the elderly, no Old Age Pensions as there are today. As a result very many working-class men and women had to keep working well into their 70s and 80s, however infirm or incapable they became.

Indeed William Cox was too ill to attend court and so the complaint was brought by his wife, Caroline, herself ‘an old woman’. She told Mr Williams that her husband had been paying his dies to the Society since 1857 and now, at the ripe old age of 82, she believed he was entitled to weekly payments. He was suffering from ‘bodily infirmities, aggravated by old age’.

In defense of the decision not to pay William the Society’s solicitor, Rendall Moore, said that he was not suffering from any disease so they were not obliged to pay. He didn’t believe ‘old age’ was an illness and a similar request from Cox had been dismissed only five years earlier.

The magistrate declared that just because the complainant was not entitled to payments previously he clearly seemed to be entitled now and he ordered the Society to pay William Cox 15s weekly from now on. A solicitor for Mrs Cox now requested that the Society also pay the costs of the case and when even the Society’s own doctor admitted that William had been left ‘broken up’  by the delay in paying his relief Montague Williams was happy to award them.

The Society’ s lawyer now unwisely chose to question the decision asking the magistrate ‘whether he considered that mere old age was sickness?’

‘You are not here to cross examine me’, thundered the magistrate and the order to pay was immediately entered into and Mr Moore left court with his tail between his legs.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 30, 1889]

*amusingly the Society held its meetings in the local pub.

A specialist thief on the Great Northern Railway

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King’s Cross station, c.1862

When, in October 1868, a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take the private detective long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross. The man was sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’, all matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveler that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective quickly moved to fall in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’, not obviously then, a thief,  and he gave  name as Robert Johnson. When challenged he emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]

A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ in court once again.

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Clerkenwell Prison , c.1862

PC William Warren (208N) was perambulating his beat when he saw a man and a woman leant up against the railings at the corner of Nelson Place on the City Road. The pair were arguing and when the man saw the officer he called out to him. He gave his name as John Stourton and claimed the woman had picked his pocket, stealing his purse and half a sovereign. Warren arrested the woman and took her back to the station.

Since a search there revealed nothing PC Warren retracted his steps and searched the areas around the railings. There he found the purse close to where the pair had been standing. It had clearly been dropped by the thief as soon as she’d seen the officer appear.

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Lewis but she was more commonly known as ‘broken-nosed Liz’, and was a notorious thief. A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ as Reynolds’s Newspaper described her, Liz had a string of previous convictions. PC Barker (124N) told the magistrate that she had served six months for stealing a watch in 1859, three years for a similar offence in in May 1860 and had committed two like offences since she’d got out of goal.

Whilst the case showed up Liz as an old offender it didn’t too much for Stourton’s reputation either. The court heard that the stonemason, a married man with children, had picked up Liz in the street after she had asked him to buy her a drink.  It was a common enough ploy for women soliciting prostitution and having had a drink she told the justice that Stourton then went with her to a nearby house ‘for an immoral purpose’. She denied stealing anything and was trying to undermine her accuser by pointing out his own, less than respectable, character.

It didn’t work in front of Mr Barker who committed her to take her trial at the in due course. She was brought to the Middlesex quarter sessions on the 17 October where the jury convicted her and she was given yet another sentence of penal servitude, this time for seven years. Her previous convictions really counted against her here, as the system punished her severely for not learning her lesson.

In reality of course there was little hope for someone like Liz. At 35, with a history of prostitution and crime and little hope of finding work she was condemned to repeating her actions and lifestyle until poverty, the cold or an angry punter ended her miserable existence.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]

Tears in the dock as a young pickpocket tries to win hearts and minds

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What is the purpose of pockets? Today it seems that they have become a semi-practical part of fashion, not always that useful and sometimes there just for show. In the eighteenth century ‘pocket picking’ was made a capital offences, which suggests that it had become a serious problem. The actual law refers to ‘stealing privately from the person’ – in other words stealing without the victim being aware of it.

It was also one of the earliest forms of theft to be removed from the threat of hanging, along with shoplifting. Both forms of larceny were often committed by women and children and so prosecutors were less inclined to bring a charge and juries reluctant to convict when they knew that it might result in an execution. Today it is unlikely that someone would be sent to prison for picking pockets unless they were a serial offender for whom alternative measures had been tried and had failed.

But let’s return to the pocket.  In the 1600s women used pockets as they might use handbags today. They were usually concealed under their dresses or petticoats, so not as decorative fashion accessories. Men also had pockets and these were sewn into the linings of their clothes, again with the intention that they were not visible.

This meant they were a good place to keep valuables (money, jewelry, papers etc.) It also meant they were targeted by thieves. Pockets would have been of no use if a woman had to take off her outer garments to access her pockets so openings in the outer ware enabled her to reach her concealed pockets. It was through these ‘hidden’ opening that pickpockets were able to strike.

Of course that took skill and an ability to get close to the person for long enough to ‘dip’ their pockets, either removing items or cutting the strings that attached it to your clothes. Women and children were especially good that this because the possessed the manual dexterity to secretly invade another’s clothing and were not seen as of much of a threat when close to you in a crowd.

Pockets went out of fashion for ‘ladies of quality’ in the 1790s, being gradually replaced by the handbag, but remained part of working class clothing and male fashion. I was interested by the following short report of a pickpocketing case from 1859 because the nature of pockets is specifically referred to.

William Burke was brought before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court accused of picking a man’s pocket. The victim said that he had been walking along the Goswell Road when he felt a tug at his pocket. Looking down he saw Burke – with his handkerchief in his hand – making his escape. The prosecutor rushed after him and caught him up, handing him over to a policeman.

The court was told that several victims had lost handkerchiefs to pick pockets in the area recently and the victim stated that as a result he had started to ask his tailor to make his pockets inside his coat.  Mr Corrie didn’t think that would stop the thieves: he had been having pockets made inside for a while but ‘but still he had his handkerchief taken from his pocket’.

William Burke began to cry – he was only 10 years old after all – but the magistrate (and reporter it seems) dismissed this as a act; an attempt to gain sympathy and ward off a more severe punishment.

Did it work? Well Mr Corrie sentenced the lad to 3 months in the house of correction with hard labour. That seems pretty harsh for a 10 year-old found guilty of stealing a hankie but young William took it well, smiling at the magistrate as he sentenced him.  Perhaps he feared worse.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1859]

A deserted wife takes advantage of a change in the marriage laws

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In 1857 Parliament passed a landmark act that fundamentally altered the ability of married couples to obtain divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) was only one step on the pathway to modern divorce law but it was an important one. In essence it enabled divorce to be dealt with by the civil not the ecclesiastical (church) courts so long as the grounds were adultery. It wasn’t equal (the nineteenth century was a deeply patriarchal society after all) so while men only had to prove that their wife had committed adultery women had to show an additional cause (such as cruelty or desertion).

One extra clause in the act allowed a woman to protect any earnings she had from falling into the hands of her husband if he deserted her. Previously men were deemed to own everything on marriage and so could walk away and take everything with them. This important legal change brought Louisa Lichfield to Clerkenwell Police court in July 1858 to ask for Mr Tyrwhitt’s help.

Mrs Lichfield was a ‘respectably dressed and very lady-like female’ who gave her address as 4 King Street, Lower Road, Islington. She applied to the magistrate for an order under section 21 of the  Matrimonial Causes Act to protect her property from Henry Lichfield, a greengrocer of Cross Street, Lower Road, Islington.

Louisa’s solicitor (Thomas Wakeling) explained that in February 1855 she had arrived home with her husband who, ‘without any provocation’, assaulted her and threw her out of their home, dislocating her shoulder in the process. He told her that ‘she had no business there, and that she should never enter his place again’.

She had pleaded with him and returned to him several times only to be shunned and rejected again and again. With no income or saving Louisa fell into poverty and went to ask help from the parish authorities of St Marylebone. They were unwilling to help and passed her to St Mary’s, Islington and even though Henry was well aware of her desperate situation he did nothing to help her.

Since that time she ‘had been partly supported by her friends and partly by her needle’ (in other words she earned money by sewing). In the meantime she had managed inherited some money and property from a deceased relative and now was frightened that Henry would claim it and take it from her. The new law enabled her to protect it and she was therefore seeking an order from Mr Tyrwhitt to do this. The magistrate was happy to oblige her.

I think this shows that Louisa, and/or her friends, well aware of the change in the law and how it might benefit her. She was lucky to have such allies in this situation as few women would have been to organize an effective legal challenge without them. Louisa was not a rich woman from a privileged background, she was the deserted wife of a small businessman, a member of the aspiring middle class. She was disadvantaged by the system but the 1857 act did at least go some way to protecting her from the worst her husband could do, and Louisa was an early beneficiary.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1858]