A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms

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I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

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Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]

 

The Police Court: a progress report

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I thought I’d do something a little different this morning. I’ve been writing reports from the Victorian Police courts for over two years now and have collected several hundred stories which were beginning to give me some historical findings that I might be able to analyse more broadly.

There is a difference I’ve found, both in the nature of cases, the way the courts are used by the public, and the way in which they are reported by the press, and this seems to move in patterns across the period 1830-1900. I’m not at a stage where I can be completely sure about this but it does seem that the newspapers are clearly highlighting particular sorts of case or crime in much the same way as we see ‘hot topics’ appearing in our own papers today.

Sometimes that is a sort of criminal activity (and notably this is fraud of some sort when the Mansion House or Guildhall courts are reported). Other times it is begging and vagrancy – real concerns of the mid Victorians who had reframed the Poor Law to treat the ‘undeserving’ poor more harshly. Later see we plenty of domestic violence cases highlighted as this was something that certainly concerned several of the late Victorian magistrates who wrote up their memoirs. Child neglect, abject poverty, and suicide were also topics that come up time and again with varying degrees of shock, sympathy and distaste.

One of the key problems I’ve faced in undertaking this sort of research is that the papers only ever offer us a snapshot of the magistrates’ work. The daily or weekly newspapers run about a half page on the Police Courts and that means they cover about 5-8 courts and report on one (sometimes two or three) cases from each of them. But we know that these courts were busy places, dealing with hundreds of cases daily, especially on Monday mornings when the police cells emptied of the weekend’s drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters.

Judging by the archival records I have looked at from Thames Police court (one of the few places where records from the 1800s have survived) most of those prosecuted there were fined for being drunk and disorderly, or drunk and incapable. Very many others were in for some form of assault and received fines or short prison sentences. Cases which were complicated and led to serious charges being heard at the Old Bailey were relatively few by comparison but were more often reported by the papers, because of course they were often more interesting for the readership.

So what we get is a fairly lopsided view of the police courts and I have been aware that I am also engaging in a selection process in offering up the ones for you to read. Once I realised that dozens if not hundreds of people were reading my blog did that affect they way I chose which cases to cover? It is a difficult question to answer; there are all sorts of factors that determine what I write about. I am drawn to certain types of case because they seem to offer insights into Victorian society at different points, but other times I just find the story sad, amusing or unusual.

Today I am speaking at the 2018 East End Conference, a gathering of largely amateur historians who have a fascination with the Whitechapel Murders and the context in which they occurred. I on quite late in the day and as this is the 130th anniversary of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of ‘Ripperologly’ (the study of the murders) and the problems of historical evidence. This is because the Ripper case and the character of ‘Jack’ has been manipulated from the beginning of any interest in it. He has been used by tour guides, entertainers, politicians, social reformers, historians, video game makers and others for all sorts of purposes. Each generation has shaped their own ‘Ripper’ to suit contemporary concerns or tastes.

In the process we have lost touch with the reality of the murders which were brutal in the extreme. The Ripper figure has become separated from the real killer and an entertainment industry has grown which has exploited the victims and the area in which the killings took place. In the light of recent movements that oppose misogyny (like the ‘Me Too’ movement) I believe Ripperology needs to reflect carefully on the sometime casual way in which the killer has been turned into some sort of cult comic book figure – the mysterious topped hat gent with a knife and a Gladstone bag swirling his cape through foggy backstreets.

This characterisation has arisen from the lack of hard evidence we have for who ‘Jack’ really was. The vacuum has been filled by speculation – which is not in itself a bad thing – and by a vert partial reading of what evidence we do have. Much of this is gleaned from the Victorian press in the 1880s and I can see (simply by reading them every day for this blog) how careful we need to be about that material.

So writing this blog and writing and researching my own ‘Ripper solution’ book has helped me think more carefully about how we use and present ‘history’ and that will form part of what I have to say this afternoon. Normal service – in the form of the reports of the magistracy – will return tomorrow with a tale of pyromaniac who risked the lives of those he lived with. A tale appropriate for Guy Fawkes I thought.

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An ‘Eliza Doolittle’ has her living taken away from her

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Poor Ellen MacCarthy. All she wanted to do was sell a few flowers to the visitors around St Paul’s but she fell foul of the City’s restrictions on street vendors. As a result she was arrested, had her violets taken off her, and she ended up in front of the alderman magistrate at Guildhall.

Giving evidence against her PC 371 (City) stated that he had seen Ellen ‘annoying and stopping’ passers-by in St Paul’s Churchyard at 7 in the evening on Saturday 26 October 1850. He said there had been ‘repeated complaints’ from local inhabitants about flower sellers and so he told Ellen to move along.

Although she  initially obeyed his instruction she was soon back again, selling violets to anyone who would buy them – just like a Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady does at Covent Garden. The copper confiscated her basket and sent her away again.

Ellen was not to be deterred however: within the hour she was back with a new stock of violets, although this time she was selling them from a saucepan as the policeman had withheld her basket. Presumably infuriated the policeman now arrested her and took her back to the station. She was later bailed out, but without her stock.

Alderman Sidney was cross with the policeman who he felt had overstepped himself. There was no need, he said, for the police to detain the poor woman’s violets – how else was she to make a living? Yes, he agreed, she was causing a nuisance and the copper was correct in moving her on, and in arresting her, but once bailed her flowers should have been returned to her.

Ellen said that her violets were now ‘quite dead’ and unfit for sale so she was out of pocket to the tune of 16d, a sum she ‘could ill afford to lose’. The alderman sympathized with her but she had been in the wrong and so decided she had been punished enough by the loss and let her go with a caution not to appear before him on a similar charge in the future.

PC 371 left court probably wondering what he’d done to earn the opprobrium of the ‘beak’ when he’d only been doing his duty. Flower girls like Ellen were not that far removed  (in the public mind) from prostitutes in mid Victorian London, and St Paul’s Courtyard was notorious as a place for that ‘trade’ as well. Perhaps the alderman saw something else in Ellen, just as Henry Higgins did with Eliza.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 29, 1850]

Here are two other stories from the police courts that feature ‘Elizas’

“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law

A ‘barbarous’ attack on ‘Eliza Doolittle’ at Charing Cross

 

Police made to look sheepish in a case of mistaken identity

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By the 1860s London was a very modern city, boasting many of the ‘modern’ features that we take for granted today. It had department stores, theatres and music halls, trains (including an underground railway), buses and trams, and its streets were crammed with tens of thousands of commuters rushing to and fro to work and back. It was a commercial centre and the seat of government; a social and cultural capital and the largest one in Europe.

However, for all its modernity it still represented a nineteenth century city with elements that have long gone today. For example, cattle and sheep and were still driven into the capital to be sold at markets like Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End for the meat trade. Today our beef and lamb arrives in temperature controlled vans and lorries, and the only animal hooves that touch our streets are those belonging to the police and horse guards.

This process of cleaning our streets of animals (‘urban improvement’ as our ancestors termed it) began in the 1800s and was completed, largely, by the end of the century. Markets were moved out of the centres to the peripheries, streets became the preserve of  people, not beast, and politeness reigned. Of course they were soon replaced by vehicles and London’s streets soon echoed to the sounds of horse drawn trams, omnibuses and hansoms, all eventually to be supplanted by motorised versions.

In 1868 Henry Goodwin came before the alderman at Guildhall Police court. Goodwin was a drover and his job was to bring sheep into London for sale. Goodwin was licensed by the City of London and wore his badge on his coat. However, his ‘crime’ that day was to have driven more sheep into London than the regulations allowed.

PC William Kenward (426 City Police) said that he was on duty on the 21 September just before 8 in the evening when he saw the defendant coming over Blackfriars Bridge with a drove of sheep. He thought the man had too many sheep and asked him what the head count was. The drover grumbled that ‘he had better count them himself’. PC Kenward counted 160. That was too many so he took the drover’s number (which was 1543) but the man refused to give his address.

The man in the dock was Henry Goodwin, senior (and he wore badge number 263). He declared he’d not driven sheep through the city for 18 months. The police had issued the summons to the wrong Goodwin. This was easily done as both of them were Henrys. It was also quite dark and both PC Kenward and his colleague (PC Clark 489 City) admitted they couldn’t be sure in the poor light that the man in the dock was the person they’d seen on the bridge. The older man was also able to produce a witness who testified that Henry senior was drinking with him in the Three Stags pub on the Kennington Road at the time the drove was crossing into London.

All in all it was a case of mistaken identity by the police and Alderman Causton felt there was insufficient evidence for him to proceed against the drovers. Father and son were released without further action and probably had a chuckle at the policemen’s expense. Nevertheless it shows us that even as late as 1868, just 150 years ago, one of London’s busy bridges was being blocked by a flock of sheep 160 strong. It is the sort of scene we associate with rural Britain, not the modern city. The image above is of Dingwall (in Ross Shire, Scotland) in the 1950s. We might imagine this is not that far from how London might have looked in the 1860s, as the Goodwins brought their flock to market.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 07, 1868]

A man just wants to have Fun, but forgets you always have to pay.

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William Helps was standing watching the concourse at Ludgate Hill railway station when a gentleman attracted his attention. Helps was a station inspector and the man explained that he’s just seen respectably dressed individual appear to steal a book from a book stall. Helps asked where the man was now and the passenger pointed him out as he boarded a third class carriage. The inspector followed him and noticed him hide the book under his coat.

Helps went back to the  stall (W H Smith’s no less) and asked the lad serving there if he’d lost anything.

‘Yes, a shilling number of Fun’, William Robinson replied.

Fun was a humorous, satirical magazine that rivaled the more famous Punch. It had launched in 1861 and offered prose and verse alongside travel writing and reviews of popular theatre and music hall.  It cost just a penny per edition so this must have been a compendium of covers, entitled ‘Essence of Fun’ which sold for a 1s.

Mr Helps approached the man who’d taken the book and confronted him:

‘What have you done with the book?’ he demanded.

‘What book?’

‘Do not misunderstand me – the book you took off the book stall’.

‘I do not know what you mean’ said the man, getting up from his seat and heading off towards W H Smith’s. He started to fumble around under his waistcoat where the book was hidden but Helps was losing patience with him.

‘It is of no use putting it down on the stall again’, he said, ‘you had better give it to me’.

Sheepishly, the man handed it over and said he would happily pay for it but the inspector had him arrested and consequently, a few days later he was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court charged with theft.

The man’s name was Henry White and he worked for Pontifex and Co as a coppersmith. He’d previously worked for Price’s candles and he had never been in trouble before in his life. White’s solicitor (Mr Buchanan) assured the court that his client had never intended to steal the copy of Fun but the lad was busy serving customers and he was worried he would miss his train.

It was a poor excuse but the policeman who took him into custody said he was searched and he plenty of money on him so doubted theft was the intention. White had given a correct address, and ‘bore a very respectable character in his neighbourhood’, and so Alderman Whetham was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The magistrate found him not guilty of stealing but instead treated the case as one of unlawful possession. White was fined 10s, which he paid, and walked free from court, poorer but hopefully wiser.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

‘I believe this to be an act of extortion’: a cab driver and his passenger clash at the Guildhall.

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So, Cabbies, how long would you wait for a fare to come back and pay you?

John White drove a hansom cab in 1856 (cab no. 3,264) and he had a fairly regular customer in Mr Kelly, a Holborn surgeon. It was often the case that the medical man asked White to wait for him, usually for a few minutes but on one occasion for up to an hour.

So when he’d ferried the doctor to his destination from his Fetter Lane residence and been left waiting again, White did so. He’d dropped his passenger off at 2.45 in Blackfriars but after the man had ran off he saw nothing of him. The cabbie waited; an hour passed, then another and it was only when the clock sounded nine in the evening that White gave up and moved off.

He’d waited over six hours to get his payment and decided to summon the surgeon to court to extract the fare plus the waiting time, which he put at 12and sixpence.

The case came up before Alderman Carter at the Guildhall Police court in the City. White made his case and the magistrate questioned him. Why had he waited so long, he wanted to know, did he know the gentleman well?

Yes, I know him well. I have taken him twenty times before. I waited, thinking he would come back, but, finding he did not come, I sent  a man to his house to see if it were right to wait any longer’.

Next he turned to Kelly to see whether he could offer any explanation for the accusation that he’d run off without paying what he owed. He could:

I certainly did run away when I got out of the cab’, he admitted, presumably because he was racing to a medical emergency. ‘but before doing so, I put my hand through the door at the top of the cab, and placed a shilling on the roof for the complainant’s fare’.

So he had paid, he insisted, but had White seen him do so, or collected the money? Seemingly not. The alderman wondered if the coin had rolled off. The doctor was adamant that the cab driver would have noticed however: ‘he could see my hand’, he declared and suggested White was try to get more money out of him than was reasonable.

I believe this to be an act of extortion’, he said, ‘and therefore it is I defend it at great inconvenience to myself’.

However, he admitted that he’d not seen the cabbie take the shilling so could not be sure that he had, in reality, paid him.

Alderman Carter decided on a compromise. He told White that while waiting for so long was ‘ridiculous’, he might have been justified in waiting two hours and so he was entitled to claim the fare for that, which was 4s. In addition he could have his fare (sixpence) and costs of 2for the summons.

The surgeon seemed satisfied with this and paid immediately, donating a further 10sto the Poor Box. What White thought of it is not recorded but I doubt he’d be driving the good doctor around again anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 17, 1856]