‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

‘I’m a teetotaller and don’t like to see him drink spirits’ says a thieving 14 year-old poisoner

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In early September 1888, just before real panic set in across London as a result of the Jack the Ripper (or Whitechapel) murders, a 14 year-old lad was brought before the Lambeth police court charged with theft and poisoning.

John Voisey accused the lad, Alfred Ellis, who was employed alongside him at  a cabinet makers in Peckham, of drugging his drink and stealing a sovereign from his pocket. He said that on the 29 August he’d entered the workshop on Victoria Road, and hanged his waistcoat in the ‘back shop’. In the pockets were three sovereigns, worth around £80 each in today’s money.

At half twelve he sent Alfred off to fetch him a quartern of gin (a quarter of a pint), and gave him one of the sovereigns to pay for it with. The boy soon returned with the gin and the change. However, when he checked his money one of the sovereigns in his waistcoat was missing.

Moreover when he tasted the gin it wasn’t right, and he suspected something else had been added to it. That something, he resumed, was ‘spirits of salts’ which were used in the workshop and a bottle of which was kept in the backroom, where he’d stored his waistcoat. Spirits of salts was actually hydrochloric acid, a dangerous poison but one with a quite distinctive smell.

Fortunately Voisey hadn’t imbibed much of it but he clearly thought  Alfred was responsible and collared him. Had the boy stolen his money and tried to distract him by making him ill? This was what Mr Chance at Lambeth had to decide.

The magistrate asked for medical evidence, which was provided by a chemist named Barithwaite. He declared that the gin was indeed adulterated with spirits of slats but not to degree that would kill. It could give the victims severe stomach cramps however. More seriously even for Alfred was the fact that a police search found that he had 17s6on his person that he couldn’t account for.

Alfred denied stealing but confessed to poisoning John Voisey’s drink. He didn’t mean any harm he said, but didn’t approve of him drinking. ‘I am teetotaler’ he declared (mindful perhaps of winning magisterial approval) ‘and don’t like to see him drink spirits’. Mr Chance said he would consider the case for a day or so and wanted a second opinion on the poisoning from the police surgeon. He remanded Alfred in custody in the meantime.

The remand was not good news for little Alf; on the 17 September 1888 he was tried at the Old Bailey and pealed guilty. The jury strongly recommended him to mercy on account of his youth and this probably saved him from further punishment. Judgment was respited by the judge and I can find no record of him ending up in prison.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 08, 1888]

It was on Saturday 8 September 1888 that Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was discovered in the rear of a property in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. 29 Hanbury Street was home at the time to Harriet (sometimes ‘Annie’) Hardiman, who ran a cat’s meat shop from a room on the ground floor. In my recent study of the Whitechapel murders I suggest that Harriett was even more closely linked to the ‘Ripper’ murders than being living on the premises where one of the victims was found.

The book, (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London.

The book is available on Amazon

Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

A man offers a free ride and gets more than he bargained for

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Mr Savory Moriston had been out in the Haymarket, dining with friends during one of his regular visits to London. Moriston was a Hamburg based merchant and in a couple of days time he was bound for Australia, once more on business. As we waited for a cab at one on the morning two young women sidled up to him. Introducing themselves they said they lived ‘over the Waterloo Bridge’ and, since Moriston was heading to Lambeth, they entreated him to give them a lift. When a cab arrived all three got in.

If Moriston was familiar with the Haymarket in the 1850s then it is fairly likely that despite their ‘well-dressed’ appearance he would have realized that Emily Morton and Susan Watson were prostitutes. The Haymarket was notorious for the sex trade in the 1800s and the girls had probably been working the bars and theatres around the West End all evening. Now they saw the opportunity of a free ride home and another possible punter, perhaps one a little the worse for drink.

The girls bided their time and it was only when they were crossing the Thames that Moriston felt a hand in his coat pocket and then realized his handkerchief was missing. I remained silent at this point but decided to check his money. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out 13 sovereigns to count them.

It was probably not the most sensible move because it alerted the women to the fact that he possessed a much bigger prize than a silk hankie. Soon afterwards Susan leaned in and began to whisper in his ear, all the time stroking his breast with one hand. Meanwhile her other hand was heading for his trousers. Within seconds she had pinched two sovereigns.

Moriston was aware however and kept his cool. As the cab approached a policeman the merchant hailed him and the women were taken into custody at Tower Street Police station. There they were searched and the sovereigns were found, one in Watson’s glove the other in a pocket concealed in her dress. The handkerchief had been dropped as soon as the policeman was seen, it was found on the floor of the cab.

It was a serious theft and one that warranted a jury trial. Moriston was reluctant to go to court however, as his business commitments required him to leave London in a few days. He said he was content to have the young women dealt with summarily. Mr Norton presiding said that while he would not normally approve of such leniency he accepted that the German visitor to London was committed to be elsewhere and so agreed. He sent Susan Watson to gaol for two months and discharged Emily Morton, as nothing had been found to incriminate her.

[fromThe Morning Post, Thursday, August 11, 1853]

‘So after getting all you could out of him, you walked off with someone else?’: Love, music and discord in Lambeth

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The path of true love does not always run smoothly, and when things go wrong love can quickly turn to animosity. James Gray had been courting Georgina Hastings for three years, bringing her gifts and acting as a security for some of her purchases.

One of these was a pianoforte that she needed for her music lessons. Officially Georgina’s music tutor was guarantor for the piano but in reality it was understood that it was Gray that had undertaken to keep up repayments should Georgina miss any. She worked as a concert singer and she was a very attractive young woman, both of which meant that she was not short of admirers.

At some point her love for James cooled and someone else replaced him in her affections. When he found out James took his rejection badly.

After an evening’s work at the theatre Georgina came home around midnight to her rooms at 22 Lambeth Square to find the piano and several items of her clothing missing. She spoke to her landlady (Ellen Hare) and discovered that James had been round and cleared them out. Hare had given him the key after he convinced her that the property was his to take away. Georgina went to the police to get warrant for Gray’s arrest and on 1 August 1854 the couple were reunited in Lambeth Police court.

Gray was represented in court by a lawyer, Mr Wontner, who was to go on to serve as a police court magistrate later in the century. He established that Miss Hastings did not own the piano and that Gray was her de facto guarantor. He also prompted her to agree that the couple were to be married before she had ‘kicked him off for another lover’.

‘I don’t know what you mean by kicking him off’, Georgina replied, ‘but I suppose I had a right to change my mind if I thought proper’.

‘Yes, undoubtedly’, responded the lawyer, ‘but my client is a mason, and would have made you a good husband; and after three year’s courtship, I think it was quite time your loves were cemented’.

By now there was widespread chuckling in the court, though at who’s expense it is hard to judge. Georgina was unmoved, ‘that may be your opinion’ she said (it clearly wasn’t hers).

Mr Wonter continued, outlining the sums of money (amounting to around £100) that James had given his lover either in cash or presents over the three years of their relationship. Georgian challenged this admitting only that Gray had provided her with ‘five, ten, and sometimes fifteen shillings a week’. Even taking the mid point of these figures (76d) that still works out at close to £100 over three years so Wontner was not that much far of the mark.

And then, he told her, ‘after getting all you could out of him, you walked off with someone else?’

Georgina ‘did not condescend to answer this question’.

In summing up his client’s defense Mr Wontner told the magistrate (Mr Norton) that his client had removed ‘the property on finding he had been jilted and cut by Miss Hastings, and under the perfect conviction that it belonged to him’. Mr Norton, while he might have sympathized with Gray could not see any justification for taking the lady’s clothing. The lawyer conceded this and said his client was prepared to return the clothes and the piano, so long as he was no longer expected to act as security for it.

The magistrate agreed, and having removed the felonious elements of the charge this became a simple dispute over property. That being settled he was happy to discharge James Gray, who walked away to lick his wounds and find a new lover. Miss Hastings was free to return to her singing and her piano lessons but her reputation had undoubtedly suffered for having her love life publicized in the newspapers.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1854]

An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]