A curious (and confusing) case of a two bob’ fraudster and his mate.

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There are plenty of cases of fraud that came before the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian period. From individual attempts to extort money from gullible ‘punters’ to full-blown and well-organized ‘long firm’ scams, the courts were kept busy with the full gamut of fraudsters. Some had quite elaborate ruses but William Jewell and Joseph Richards simply relied on talking fast and confusing their victims.

Jewell was a 38 year-old waterside labourer from Bethnal Green while Richards was a simply ‘labourer’ from nearby Mile End. In September 1895 both were placed in the dock at the North London Police court on a charge of being ‘suspected persons’ and with attempting to defraud tradesmen. Being ‘suspected’ was a catch-all term which allowed the police to pick up people they thought were up to no good.

Jewell was the main player in this case, Jackson seems to have acted as his accomplice, or look out. The scam went something like this:

Jewell entered a shop (such as Henry Amos’ confectionary shop in Well Street). He put a sixpence on the counter and asked for a pennyworth of sweets. The shopkeeper’s wife served him and  handed over the sweets and 5 pennies in change.

Now Jewell took a penny form his pocket, added it to the pile already there and asked Mrs Amos to please change it for a sixpence. Before she had time to scop up the pennies Jewell said: ‘Give me a shilling instead of the sixpence and the coppers’.

He was trying to confuse the poor lady and would have succeeded in gaining an extra sixpence had not Mr. Amos been listening in. He came in from the back room and Jewell scarpered. The eagle eyed confectioner spotted Jackson just outside the shop as Jewell ran off, he was nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper.

Unsuccesful here, the pair tried the same ruse at Mrs Muffett’s newsagent’s in Hackney Wick. Again it was Jewell who entered the shop and engaged Mrs Muffett in conversation. He asked for the evening paper (which cost a halfpenny)

and put a shilling on the counter. The newsagent gave him ‘eleven pence halfpenny change’. He then asked for his shilling back and Mrs Muffett obliged, assuming he’d found the 1/2d  for the paper in his pocket. But Jewell pushed the money back over to her and asked her to change it for a florin (a two shilling piece).

She didn’t have one she told him.

‘Then I have to give you a halfpenny’ he replied. ‘No, you have to give me a shilling’ she said, as he’d wanted to get back 2sf rom her. Again his attempt had failed but probably worked on other occasions. Shop assistants had (and have) to be alert  to possible attempts by customers who try to persuade then that that have given them large amounts than they have (‘I gave you a £20 note…’) or accused them of shortchanging them.

In these days of contactless debit transactions and a virtually cashless society we forget sometimes how easy it was to trick someone who is not expecting it.

Mrs Muffett called the police and with Mr Amos help the two men were picked out of a police identification parade. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute Jackson but Mr Taylor (the duty magistrate) decided there was ample proof of Jewell’s fraudulent intent, and he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour. Three months, for trying to trick two women out of two bob seems pretty harsh to me.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 27, 1895]

‘Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’; a desperate attempt on a defenceless woman.

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Prisoners quarrying at Portland Prison c.1880s

Celia Harrison was having tea with her aunt and her grandmother, Emma Harrison, on 22 July 1895 when there was a knock at the door. It was 6 o’clock the 10 year old recalled and when her grandmother answered the door it was father who stood in the doorway. The visitor (William Harrison) demanded to know if his brother Jack was at home. He wasn’t and the elderly woman seemed nervous and wasn’t inclined to let her son in.

William seemed angry and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol. Celia heard him say: ‘I mean doing for him when he does come home’ and she saw that he was holding a knife. Celia, in fear, ran out into the garden.

Charles Rattison was a tram driver who lived upstairs from the Harrisons at 6 Salisbury Road, Highgate. Just after 6 o’clock he heard raised voices coming from below. When he heard a cry of ‘murder!’ he leapt up from his chair and rushed downstairs. To his horror he saw Emma Harrison flat on her back on the floor with her son William sitting cross-legged on top of her, slashing at her throat with a knife.

Rattison acted swiftly, wrestling the man off of her. In his rage William, who couldn’t see who his attacker was, growled at him: ‘Are you Jack?’ ‘No’, Rattison replied, ‘I am Charley’. William Harrison now said:

Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’.

Fortunately he didn’t get the opportunity because another neighbour arrived and managed to take the knife from him. Harrison fled before the police could get there but PC Thomas Russant (637Y) caught up with him as he tried to escape. The copper was threatened by the would-be assassin who told him:

Where is my bleeding knife; I wish I had a sharp-shooter, I would put some of your lights out’.

On the 23 July Harrison was in court before the North London Police magistrate. Detective Sergeant Godley testified that the victim was too ill to attend but that she was thankfully recovering well in the Great Northern Central Hospital. He added that Emma was the widow of a policeman who had been pensioned off in 1876 after ‘many years service’ to the force. I imagine Y Division viewed this attack as if it was perpetrated against ‘one of their own’.

William Harrison stood impassively as others, including his daughter, gave their evidence. The magistrate remanded him for a week so that his victim had more time to mend in hospital before giving her version of events. This took some time, she was, after all, 68 years of age and so the case didn’t come before a jury until September that year where William Harrison was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm. The jury rejected his plea that he was drunk at the time, not that it was an excuse anyway. Harrison had form as well, having previously been prosecuted for wounding his wife. On that occasion he’d gone down for 11 months. This time the judge sent him away for 7 years of penal servitude.

William Harrison, who was simply described as a labourer, served five years and three months of his sentence, much of it at Portand Prison. He was released on 1 December 1900 at the age of 44. Thereafter he seems to have escaped trouble with the law but whether his wife and family were happy to have him back is less clear.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 24, 1895]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]

‘Marry in haste’:An unhappy husband and his reluctant bride

The Metropolitan Magistrates

Police Magistrates had to deal with all sorts of things on a daily basis. As well as often being the first stage in most serious criminal prosecutions police court magistrates had the power to lock up drunks, vagrants, wife beaters and a host of other petty offenders who opted to have their cases dealt with summarily. In addition the magistrate was also assumed to know everything about the law, and so people came to him to ask advice on all manner of issues.

In early July 1898 a man turned up at the North London Police court to ask for Mr D’Eyncourt’s counsel. The man, whose name wasn’t reported by the The Standard newspaper, told the experienced magistrate that he’d only been married for fours months and he’d just discovered that his wife ‘was a wrong ‘un’.

In what way?” D’Eyncourt enquired.

When we was courting’, the man began, ‘we agreed that she was to get up and boil the kettle and I was to fry the bacon. But she won’t do either’, he complained.

This glimpse in to the mundane provoked laughter in the courtroom.

She lies in bed whilst I get my own breakfast, and when I ask her to get up she threatens to do all sorts of things’.

Asked to elaborate the poor young husband continued.

‘The other night she started breaking up the home, and threatened to knife me. She then went to bed with the landlady…last night she went to Sadler’s Wells with a woman, and came home at half-past twelve. I was in bed and asleep, and she and the woman came home and pushed their fists into my face, and swore they would chuck me out’.

Mr D’Eyncourt was sympathetic but also puzzled that  the young man had married ‘a woman about who  you know very little’. He advised him to move out, take rooms elsewhere and ask his wife to join him (without her friends of course). If she didn’t comply ‘within a reasonable time’, he should have no more to do with her.

The poor lad mumbled ‘she says she don’t want me’.

‘I can tell you know more’ said the justice, dismissing him.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 04, 1898]

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]

The workhouse girl who failed to take her opportunities and took the silver instead

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Yesterday we celebrated 100 years of women over 30 having the vote in England. Britain wasn’t the first nation to give women the vote however, that was New Zealand in 1893. In 1893 in England women were still firmly viewed as second-class citizens.

Many young working-class women found work in London as domestic servants. One such woman was Harriett Sabin, a 17 year-old who found herself before the North London Police court in February 1893, charged with theft.

Harriett had been hired in December 1891 to work at a house in Clissold Road. She had got the position through the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) which had been formed in 1874 by Henrietta Barnet and Jane Nassau Senior. MABYS helped young women who had grown up in workhouses to find work in the homes of the better off and by 1890 the charity had over 1,000 volunteers throughout the capital.

It soon became evident that Harriett wasn’t suited to the position she been found however. She had arrived with ‘an indifferent character’ but ‘had pleaded for a chance’. Sadly her opportunity didn’t last very long though and she was given notice to quit at the end of a month. While employment hadn’t worked out Harriett was determined she would get something out of the experience.

On the penultimate day of December 1891, while the family were at dinner, Harriett got hold of a key and absconded through a side gate with a number of articles belonging to the house and staff that worked there. A search was made and it was found that the following items were missing:

‘a silver teapot, a gold bracelet, two gold brooches, a gold ring, a case of dessert knives and forks, and an umbrella’.

Another servant also reported that she had lost some items and suspicion inevitably fell on the girl from the workhouse. A warrant was issued to arrest her but she was nowhere to be found. Harriett had disappeared and nothing was heard about her until she surfaced in December 1893 in Northampton where ‘she was in custody for a similar offence’.

The police investigation, led by Detective-sergeant Bowers, had traced several of the stolen items to a pawnbrokers in Wood Green. In court the magistrate was at pains to point out that the pawnbroker was also at fault here. In the eighteenth century pawnbrokers were heavily criticised by commentators like Henry Fielding (the novelist and Bow Street magistrate) for allowing thieves a mechanism for laundering stolen goods. In this case a silver watch had been accepted even though it was engraved with the name of the owner – Mr Attree, Harriet’s former employer.

Many of the goods were produced in court for members of household (the Attrees and their staff) to swear to. The pawnbroker’s assistant, John Smith, was also there (n doubt shuffling uncomfortably under the magistrate’s glare).

DS Bowers had traveled the 60 miles north to question Harriett and reported that she had been convicted of theft there, and sent to prison for two months (which helps to explain why she had seemingly ‘disappeared’). Since she was now before Mr Ware and Mr Lane (the two sitting justices at North London) that sentence must have been completed. They decided that since she was clearly ‘a bad girl’ she would  to prison for a further three months.

The system was harsh. Harriett, a workhouse girl from a pauper background, had been given an opportunity to carve out a better life for herself, albeit as someone else’s drudge. She didn’t take it, or couldn’t adapt to it, and we don’t entirely know why. As a result she ended up exchanging one closed institution (the poor house) for another (the prison).

She was just 17 when she appeared before the magistrates at North London Police Court, and would be nearly 20 by the time she would be released from gaol. In effect her life was already ruined. I can only imagine what the future held for her but with a set of previous convictions and no character references to support her, that future must have seemed bleak to her.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 07, 1893]

A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}