‘For aught known the contrary these women were respectable characters’. The establishment protects its own

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Great Windmill Street in the 1850s, London’s entertainment district 

Prostitution is a perennial issue for society and one which shows no signs of going away. Often described as ‘the oldest profession’ prostitution itself. of course, is not (and has never been) an offence by itself. As the Police Code for 1889 notes:

‘Prostitutes cannot legally be taken into custody simply because they areprostitutes; to justify their apprehension they must commit some distinct act which is an offence against the law’.

Police Code, (1889) p.143

They could however, be arrested under the Vagrancy Act (1824) , the Town Police Causes Act (1848) and the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) if they were causing a nuisance on the streets and this is often where police encountered them.

Police powers to deal with brothels were only really effectual from 1885 and the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (which also raised the age of consent to 16 and made homosexual acts easier to prosecute). Yet well before then police divisions recognized prostitution as a public order nuisance and saw the women employed in the sex trade as part and parcel of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London.

Thus, like so many policing agents before and since, the police in the Victorian capital engaged in periodic cleaning up operations to clear the trade from the streets, pubs and theatres.

Or at least they tried.

The problem they had was vast however and it didn’t help when the powers that supposedly operated the justice system did little to help the rank and file officers who were attempting to close down ‘houses of ill-repute’ or taverns and clubs that masqueraded as legitimate entertainment venues.

In some cases, one imagines, this was because the owners of these premises were paying for protection from prosecution; in others it may well be that the clientele were of a similar class to those before whom any miscreants would be brought. The establishment has a long track record of looking after their own.

In January 1850 Inspector Lestor and Sergeant Burney of C Division conducted a series of raids on West End hostelries.  Acting on information police raided the saloon (on Piccadilly), the Waterford Arms on the Haymarket, and the Saxe-Coburg on Windmill Street, Soho. At two in the morning the Piccadilly Saloon was still busy and the police found no less than sixty single women in the building, some in the saloon, others in upstairs rooms. There were about forty males there, all described as ‘gentlemen’.

According to the superintendent of C Division, giving evidence at Marlborough Street Police court:

‘Thirty at least of the women he knew to be common prostitutes, and he believed the remainder were of the same loose character’.

The evidence was the same for all three of the venues the police had entered. In each drinking was taking place and ‘immoral’ women could be found alongside ‘respectable’ men. It seemed a cut-and-dried piece of police work but Superintendent Beresford was to be thwarted by the clever arguments of lawyers hired by the defense and by the collusion of the police magistrate Mr. Bingham.

Thomas Beale ran the Picadilly Saloon and was represented by Mr Clarkson. He asked the police witness if  there had been any evidence of ‘drunkenness or disorderly behaviour’ in his client’s property. The police had to admit that no, there was none. Mr Parry (for Mary Ann Smith at the Waterford Arms and Harriett Ottley at the Saxe-Coburg) asked similarly and the same answer was given.

Mr Bingham now delivered the knockout punch: he said the summons against the trio had been brought under section 44 of the Police Code which made it an offence to ‘knowingly permit of suffer prostitutes to meet and assemble in houses of private report’. Not only was there no ‘disorderly behaviour, there was no proof that the venues’ owner had played any role in bringing or allowing immoral women on their premises.

Indeed ‘for aught known the contrary’, he declared, ‘the women present were respectable characters’. He dismissed the summons and the three defendants were released. The West End’s reputation as a haven for rich men to drink, gamble and buy sex was preserved, for a few more decades at least.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 22, 1850]

‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

A ‘flasher’ in the theatre is exposed

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Mr Hope was enjoying a night out at the theatre with his wife in early January 1842 when  his attention was caught by a young man in a nearby box. He was ‘fashionably dressed’ and appeared to be a little the worse for drink. This was not an uncommon sight at the Haymarket (or any other) Theatre, but Mr Hope felt there was something about the way that the young gentleman behaved that concerned him.

As he watched from the comfort of his private box he noticed that the other man seemed to be focused on a couple in a nearby box. When the man in that box rose and left briefly, the young man stood up, opened his trousers and ‘indecently exposed his person’. The poor woman had been ‘flashed’ and wasn’t sure what to do. Mr Hope reacted quickly, moving over and into her box and taking her hand to lead her back to the safety of his own. Leaving her in the reassuring company of his wife, he went in search of a policeman.

Having found one he returned to the box and explained to the woman’s husband exactly what had happened. The culprit – Thomas Sale Pennington – was pointed out and the constable asked him to come along quietly and without disturbing the other theatregoers or the performance. Pennington refused and suffered the indignity of being dragged from the venue by his collar before being frog marched to a police station.

On the following day Pennington was stood in the dock at Marlborough Street and charged with ‘an unparalleled act of indecency’. Whilst he didn’t deny exposing himself the young man did try to excuse himself on account of being drunk. Pennington said he had no recollection of the couple concerned and could hardly remember what he was supposed to have done. He also said he’d been a student at Oxford for the past four years and could provide plenty of character witnesses who would testify on his behalf.

If he thought this would go down well with Mr Maltby the magistrate he was sadly mistaken. The only issue for the justice was in establishing his guilt. For the victim and her husband (who were not named in the newspaper report, no doubt to save their blushes) the most important thing was in protecting her from having to relive the incident.  Mr Hope pleaded that his evidence and that of the lady’s husband were sufficient to save the lady from taking the stand but the magistrate and his chief clerk said she would have to answer a few questions.

Having satisfied himself that Pennington was guilty as charged and that his drinking did not mitigate his actions Mr Maltby turned to him. The justice told him that he was guilty of ‘committing a willful and intentional insult’. The public, he continued, ‘must be protected from such disgusting conduct’ and he sent him to prison for three months ‘as a rogue and vagabond’. He gave him leave to appeal to the Sessions but since there he might have been handed an even longer sentence had a jury convicted him, I doubt he took that up.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 6 January, 1842]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]