The case of the missing linen and the frustrations of historical research

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The reports of cases heard before the London Police Court magistrates can be frustrating. It isn’t always obvious what individuals roles are and important contextual details are often omitted. I understand that editors had limited space and that reporters were jotting things down quickly, and not always with the knowledge that the editor was going to choose that particular story to run. These courts dealt with dozens of cases in a morning or afternoon but rarely more than one was immortalized in newsprint.

Today I am left wondering who Henry Jepson was. He may have been a private detective or even a member of the Detective Department at the Met, or simply a friend of the victim.

See what you think.

On Thursday 2 July 1868 Jepson received a letter. It was from Elizabeth Milner, a dressmaker, living at 6 Hasker Street in Chelsea. In her letter Elizabeth complained that she had been robbed and asked for his help. On Sunday (5 July) Jepson traveled from his Great James Street residence to Chelsea, talked to Elizabeth about the theft and decided to set a trap for the thief.

Elizabeth had told him that she suspected one of her servants was responsible, the char Sophia Williams. Acting on Henry’s advice she locked up her rooms and told Sophia she was going out for the day and wouldn’t be home until much later. Meanwhile Henry hid under her bed and waited to see what happened.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after Elizabeth had left Sophia entered the bedroom. Although he couldn’t see her Henry could hear her and noted that she left the bedroom and went into the parlour. He could hear her ‘ransacking boxes’ before she returned to the bedroom.

Henry had carefully selected some linen before he’d concealed himself and had left it, temptingly, on a chair. Peering out from his hide he saw he rifle through the linen and select ‘two new pillow cases’. As she started to leave the room Henry snuck out from under the bed to go after her. She must have heard him though because she quickly dumped them back on the pile and rushed off. Henry called for a constable who took her into custody.

This is the action that makes me doubt that his role was official; if he had been a detective he would simply have arrested her himself. Of course he may have, and then have handed her over to a junior officer, but it seems unlikely. There are no references to a detective named Henry Jepson in the Old Bailey either (this case does not appear), which is a little odd if he was one.

Sophia Williams was brought before Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court charged with multiple thefts. The police had found no less than 41 pawn tickets in her room, many, but not all, of which, related to property belonging to Elizabeth Milner. The magistrate remanded her in custody for  four days so the police could pursue their investigations.

And here the frustration continues because the case, and Sophia Williams, disappears from history.  If the police found more evidence she may have stood trial (at the Middlesex Sessions or the Central Criminal court at the Old Bailey). The justice may have decided to deal with her summarily and given her a few months in prison. But as there is no record of her in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records linked by the Digital Panopticon site we cant be sure. Selfe may have decided there was insufficient evidence or Williams could have had a legitimate reason for having so many duplicates for items she’d pawned.

In the end it is a mystery, not one worthy of Sherlock Holmes I accept, but an unsolved one nevertheless.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 07, 1868]

Assaulting the police is never a good idea, especially not if its outside Parliament

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William Pomroy, a police constable in A Division was stationed opposite Westminster Hall in the early evening of Tuesday 27 June 1866.  As the house had just finished sitting and many of the MPS were beginning to leave the building when PC Pomroy noticed a man trying to get in the way of them as they came out. He seemed determined to obstruct and argue with them so the constable asked him to move along.

He didn’t go far though and stood, legs akimbo with his hands in his pockets, blocking the pathway. PC Pomroy came up to him again, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and tried to propel him the direction of the other bystanders,, a little way off.

Instead of complying with the officer’s command however the man turned around and punched the PC in the mouth, cutting his lip. Not surprisingly he was promptly arrested and produced before Mr Arnold the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court on the following morning.

The accused’s name was Frederick Michael O’Connor and he spoke with a ‘strange Scottish accent’. The justice asked him what he had to say for himself.

I wished to see some of the members’, the man answered, ‘and was standing there for that purpose when I found I was suddenly in crowd, and I got pushed about, first one way and then another, and I found that I could not get out’.

As the MPs left the palace there ‘was a great deal of excitement, and people showed their feelings’ he added.

It sounds as if it had got quite rowdy and that the politicians were coming in for some stick from the gathered crowds (no change there then). He said that the policeman had pushed him and that he’d lost his temper and had struck out.

He [only] told you to move’ said Mr Arnold.

Yes, but I suppose I did not do it fast enough; and then he pushed me, and I hit him’ O’Connor explained somewhat sheepishly.

He wasn’t the usual rabble rouser or ‘rough’ and I doubt he made a habit of hitting policemen.  The copper had probably acted hastily as well, not being aware that the man was evidently upset at finding himself hemmed in by a crowd.

But assaults on the police could not be tolerated and he was fined 10sand warned he would go to prison for a week if he couldn’t pay.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 28, 1866]

Tables turned as a complainant becomes the focus of complaint

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Mr Selfe was the presiding magistrate at the Westminster Police court in June 1863 and he was not a man to be trifled with. So when James Cowen appeared not once but twice in his court to complain against another local man for criminal damage he was dismissed with a flea in his ear.

Cowen ran an ‘establishment called Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Greycoat Street, Westminster. It isn’t clear what sort of place (shop, beer house, cafe, or club) this was but the name suggests that Cowen was politically motivated in some way. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel had a powerful anti-slavery message and in 1863 America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War.

James Cowen described himself as a ‘medical reformer’ and on his best visit to the court on Saturday 13 June he complained that John Theophilus Rowland had broken a board he was exhibiting outside his premises. Cown produced the damaged board and gave it to Mr Selfe to examine.

The reaction of the magistrate was not the one Cowan hoped for however. Mr Selfe read the words on the board (which were not recorded by the reporter) and declared that he was amazed that Rowland hadn’t broke it over the complainant’s head! The message it carried apparently defamed the British royal family and, in Selfe’s opinion, Rowland was quite right to get angry and smash it up. He dismissed the charge and the accused.

Cowan could (and probably should) have left it there but he didn’t. A few hours later he was back at Westminster to ask the magistrate if he would help him to bring a case to the court of Queen’s Bench.

He stated that ‘no man a right to prevent the expression of his political opinions, and he would certainly make an application to the Secretary of State upon the subject’.

Mr Selfe was scathing in his response and dismissal of the idea. While he was entitled to take his case wherever he wished he didn’t think it would get very far. He told Cowan of a recent case where ‘a person had exhibited an offensive caricature in a shop window which a relative had destroyed’. The man brought an action for damages which was dismissed, and he thought that this one would be as well.

However, ‘a man who insulted the public by the exhibition of an outrageous and disgusting placard could not complain of its destruction’, and once again James Cowan was sent packing from the Westminster courtroom with his tail between his legs.

If only we knew what the sign had said…

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 14, 1863]

An avoidable tragedy as a builder’s misplaced retaliation ends in death.

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James Hall was working as a builder in a yard on Manresa Road in Westminster. He was climbing the scaffolding to readjust it when a piece of wood sailed past his ear. The wood had been thrown by one of his mates, as a prank no doubt, but he couldn’t see whom at the time and then he noticed a group of small boys playing nearby.

Grabbing a flint stone from he found lying by the poles he aimed it at the boys and let fly. It hit one of them, a lad named Frederick Littlewood, who  fell the ground. As his friends gathered round him he simply groaned ‘take me home’ and they ran for help.

Fred passed away the next morning, he was eight years old.

The inquest heard what had happened and the police arrested Hall and on the 10 June 1891 he was stood in the dock at the Westminster Police court for Mr Sheil to decided what to do with him. Hall was desperately sorry for what had happened; he clearly had no intention of killing the boy, or anyone for that matter. He said he only wanted to frighten the boys.

The magistrate decided he needed more information, more witnesses if possible, and so he released Hall on his promise to return to court in seven days and took his own recognizance to the value of £10.

It was a stupid thing to do but ultimately it was an accident. Hall himself was only 18, not that that would prevent him from hanging if a jury deemed that he had committed murder.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 11, 1891]

 

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

The red mist descends as a coachman gets tangled with an Italian organ

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It was half past five on a Friday afternoon in May 1876 and George Athersford, who was employed by Lady Scott of Cromwell Road, South Kensington, was driving the empty family brougham along Westbourne Place in Pimlico. As he turned into the road he came suddenly on a pair of musicians playing a street organ.

It was a common enough sight in London and a not inconsiderable nuisance to some people, but for whatever reason the coachman didn’t see the pair until he was upon them. The brougham was about the collide with organ when one of the musicians, Pietro Cordani, grabbed hold of the footboard to try and slow the coach down.

At this Athersford brought his whip down on the head of the poor Italian and hit him until he let go. The coachman drove away leaving two angry organ grinders in his wake.

Soon afterwards however, Athersford was back, this time with two lady passengers – Lady Scott and her daughter – on board. Seeing the driver that had attacked his colleague the other musician, Giacomo Malvicé, made a grab for the halter on the horse’s head and tried to pull the coach to a halt.

Again the driver reacted violently, lashing down at the musician and his friend. But this time a policeman was nearby and quickly intervened. Athersford was pulled down from his seat and the ladies got out of the carriage. George was clearly quite drunk, certainly too drunk to be driving in the officer’s opinion, so he summoned a cab for the ladies.

Athersford was taken into custody and brought before the magistrate at Westminster charged with assaulting the musicians and with being drunk and incapable whilst driving. In his defence the coachman said that he’d had a few beers and no food with them, but ‘he knew what he was about’. He admitted hitting Cordon but only lightly, so as to get him to let go of his vehicle. He asked Mr Arnold (the magistrate) to remand him while he called for some witnesses to support his version of events.

The case came back a few days later and the same evidence was repeated by the two musicians and by Lady Scott. Her husband gave the driver a good character reference (he’d worked for them for six months and had proved himself to be ‘steady and sober’ so his behaviour was a surprise to him).

Mr Arnold, the magistrate, said that Athersford had no right to use the force he had but said if he was prepared to settle the matter with the two Italians (by apologising and paying then some compensation I presume) that would be the end of the assault charge. The driver agreed which just left the small matter of the drunk driving. Here Athersford was fortunate to have an indulgent employer. In consequence of his previous good conduct (as testified by Mr Scott) the justice only imposed a small fine of 5s (or seven days in prison) which Athersford paid at once.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 29, 1876; Daily News , Saturday, June 3, 1876]

A lovers tryst in Chelsea, or a cunning deceit?

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With the memory of the royal wedding fading away but leaving, by all accounts, a warm romantic glow behind it, I thought I’d continue the theme a few days later.

In April 1887 Emma Banks took a room in a house in Smith Street, Chelsea. She had arrived with a man who purported to be her brother, but certainly wasn’t. The landlady, Mrs Jessie Gantlett, believed him however and his story that Emma only needed the lodgings temporarily while she found a position (in service).

All was well until the day that Emma left. Mrs Gantlett was shocked to find that another of her residents, Miss Price, had lost some items from her room. For whatever reason she suspected Emma and she searched the 22 year-old’s room.

There she discovered clothes belonging to Miss Price and some items of hosiery (stockings most probably) that were later identified as belonging to a hosier in Hammersmith. The police soon ascertained that Emma Banks had left the employment of Frederick Payne, a hosier, in March of that year, and he’d missed stock and £10 in cash from a locked desk in his shop.

When she was questioned by the police Emma broke down and admitted she’d been planning to abscond to Western Australia with the young man that had been visiting her. They’d bought the tickets for the journey she said and named him as James Tucker. So, he wasn’t her brother, but her lover.

Moreover, and perhaps Emma wasn’t aware of this, James wasn’t exactly free to elope to the other side of the world with his paramour. James Tucker was already married.

When the pair were brought before the Police Magistrate at Westminster Emma was initially charged with the theft, but it soon became clear that Tucker was also involved. He testified to knowing Emma for about two months and to ‘paying her attentions’. But he denied ever promising to marry her.

He had thought of leaving his wife, he admitted, and going to Australia. The clerk was outraged at his brazen admission of infidelity and his rejection of his responsibilities. He supposed ‘his wife was not a consenting party to this arrangement’ he inquired of the young man in the dock. ‘She was not’ he replied.

He’d bought the tickets with the money Emma had given him so he was guilty by association of the theft. Mr D’Eyncourt, the justice, told him he’d behaved terribly.

He ‘had deceived and led the young woman into trouble. As two felonies were proved he could not sentence him to less than six months’ hard labour’. In an odd  example of the changing nature of punishment in the 1800s Emma and James’ criminality meant that they would not be going to Australia after all, when 40 or so years earlier they would almost certainly have been sent there for doing exactly that.

So, was this a love tryst that ended badly or was Emma deceived as the magistrate suggested? I wonder how Mrs Gantlett felt knowing that she had effectively allowed a young unmarried couple to spend several nights alone together under her ‘respectable’ roof. Oh, the shame of it!

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 22, 1887]