‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

‘I will give him a blow that he won’t be able to hit me’: a family squabble turns sour

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On the 15 May Ann Fadden was standing outside her front door, at one in the morning, as her brother Jeremiah Coghlan came by with a friend that he lodged with. Jeremiah was drunk, and an argument broke out. Truth is always hard to discern in court records where accusations of ‘he said, she said’ are thrown about, but it seems that Coghlan has some sort of long running feud with Ann’s husband, James Fadden.

At some point Ann and her brother Jeremiah started grappling with each other and she called him names. He may have had a rather distinctive nose because she later admitted shouting:

“Go along, you long-nosed vagabond and look out, he is down the street, and if he hits you he will give you something”.

She was referring to the fact that her spouse, James, was visiting friends just a little way off (‘listening to the newspaper being read’) and she was expecting him home anytime soon. In fact James had heard all the souting and was already on his way. When he saw Coghlan fighting with his wife, James intervened telling his brother-in-law to go home.

When the young man refused, Fadden threatened to punch him on his (quite distinctive) nose.

Ann again tried to stop things escalating, warning her brother off a fight with a stronger man but ‘Jerry’ wasn’t interested in being talked down. According to John Coghlan, brother to both of them, he was in a belligerent mood and growled that ‘I will give him a blow that he won’t be able to hit me’.

With that he shoved his sister out of the way and rushed at Fadden. Coghlan threw a punch and Fadden fell to the ground, where he lay senseless for several minutes. As soon as everyone recovered their wits they released James was bleeding from a cut to his neck and he was taken to Guy’s Hospital.

There the house surgeon, Mr James Wood, treated him but the bleeding couldn’t be stopped and his patient ‘gradually sank’. On the 3 June James Fadden died and now the charge against Jeremiah had become one of murder or manslaughter.

Coghlan was arrested the next morning by PC George Vellacott (M224). Coghlan was still in a rage and in no mood to apologies for what he had down. At this stage of course he was being arrested for wounding, not for killing the other man but he hardly helped his own case. As the policeman explained that he must take him to the station the young man declared:

‘If I am given in charge I shall do for the b—; if I get over this I shall do for him’.

A knife was found at his lodgings that seemed likely to have been the murder weapon and the police took it as evidence to be produced later at trial.

Having been remanded several times by the magistrates at Southwark on 11 June 1859 he was fully committed for trial.

Jeremiah appeared at the Old Bailey on 13 June, just days after his committal by Mr Burcham. He was accused of ‘willful murder’ but convicted of manslaughter. Only one person spoke up for him there, William Jennings a leather dresser, who had known him for ten year and lived with him. Jeremiah was only 22 in 1859 but it wasn’t his first brush with the law. He had been imprisoned the year before, although it is not clear why.

From the records of the Digital Panopticon we also learn that Coghlan was Roman Catholic (and so probably of Irish ancestry) and worked as a dyer (and industry closely connected to the Thames by Bermonsdey).

He was transported to Australia for a sentence of 20 years, arriving in Western Australia in 1862 after a spell of imprisonment in England. Both his sister and his brother gave damning evidence against him in court.

What was wrong with this young man? Was he unable to control his temper? Had he completely alienated his family? It is a very sad story

[from The Standard, Monday 13 June 1859]

A Waterloo veteran is desperate to regain his medal, as a reminder of better times.

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Light Dragoons at Waterloo 

On the 24 June 1851 two young lads were brought up before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court charged with having stolen property valued at over £100. Benjamin Lawrence was 16 years of age, and his confederate, John Jones, just 15.

The charge sheet presented by the police listed the stolen items (not all of which had been recovered) as follows:

‘a gold snuff-box, Waterloo medals, gold lace off cavalry jackets, two gold lace pouch belts, a cornelian ring, an opera glass, and other articles of much value in jewellery, gold lace, etc’.

The boys had worked as grooms for a Miss Walter at 9 Devonshire Place and the property, which belonged to Major Morse Cooper, had been stored in a room above the stables where the prisoners had worked. Miss Walter was not sworn at Marylebone but a statement was read on her behalf.

This explained that she had employed Lawrence as a live-in groom but had sacked if on the 8 April. Jones had replaced him but lasted only a few weeks. She reinstated Lawrence in May (‘after application had been made by him’) but he repaid her trust by absconding on the 19. It was soon after this that the theft of Major Cooper’s possessions was discovered.

The lady’s butler, informed that a robbery had been perpetrated, had been up to the storeroom to find the place ransacked, with a  ‘number of boxes and drawers had been broken open […] evidently […] forced by means of a chisel’.

This was no petty pilfering, the sort of thing that servants were often accused of. This was a serious robbery and the nature of the items stolen meant that the thieves would have had to dispose of them through a ‘fence’, someone acting as a receiver of stolen goods.

The first police witness, sergeant Battersby of D Division, said that he had been informed that the lads had sold some of the goods to ‘a Jew in Hounsditch’.

Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London and close to the large Jewish community in Spitalfields, was a well-established jewelry and second hand clothing quarter, and so an obvious place to try to exchange stolen goods for ready cash. The ‘Jew’ (unnamed) did not appear in court but the police sergeant had visited him and he had admitted buying (and the selling on) some clothes from Devonshire Mews. It seems the clothes (a ‘pair of hunting breeches and a blue frock coat’) had been sold on to an actor at the Surrey Theatre (now the Old Vic) and the sergeant had retrieved them and brought them to court.

Sergeant Battersby had tracked Jones down to another mews in Belgrave Square where he had found work with the Marquis of Ely. He denied any involvement and tried to blame the theft on his friend ‘Ben’. Battersby arrested him. Lawrence was picked up in Clapham Rise by PC Spice (47V), who recognized him from a description that had been circulated to police districts. Lawrence was clearly ‘known’ to the local police because PC Spice put his hand on his shoulder and said:

‘Ben I want you, you must go along with me, for you have absconded from your service, and a great deal of property has been stolen’.

PC Spice told Mr Broughton (the sitting magistrate at Marylebone) that the boy had denied stealing but admitted receiving one shilling, out of the four that the lads had received for selling the property.

Having heard all the evidence presented by the police Mr Broughton turned to the young prisoners in the dock to hear what they had to say for themselves. Lawrence admitted being ‘there when it was done’ but denied having anything to do ‘with the gold lace or the other valuable things’. Jones said he wasn’t there when the robbery was committed and denied knowing about the sale to ‘a Jew’.

This caused sergeant Battersby to interject: ‘Why, you told me you were present when the sale took place’. Jones was either confused, or was changing his story as the seriousness of his situation finally dawned on him.

Both boys were remanded for further examination where, the report suggested, it was hoped or expected that a ‘great portion of the stolen property will be produced’. This was because the police had told the magistrate that they were keen to pay another visit to Houndsditch, believing that ‘property of considerable value might be met with at the Jew’s premises’.

The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18 August. It probably took this long because the police were tracking down a third culprit, James Morton, who now appeared with the others.  Morton was also a groom and he admitted being present when the major’s boxes were forced open, but  denied being culpable.

The defense was that another lad – a ‘sailor boy’ – had carried out the robbery, they had simply profited from it, a lesser crime. They were also at pains to deny having anything to do with the theft of the gold lace or a gold snuff box, the ‘valuable things’ that Major Cooper had lost.

A local tailor testified that one of the prisoners had brought him a pair of trousers to alter. ‘I believe they were dark-blue trowsers—some stripes or braiding had been taken off the sides of them, and they were torn, as if in taking off the stripes’, he told the court. These sounded like part of a cavalry uniform.

Elias Moses (the ‘Jew’ mentioned the summary hearing) also testified at the Bailey. He was a secondhand clothes dealer from Sandys Row, Bishopsgate and he remembered buying a number of pairs of breeches from Lawrence for 4s. He couldn’t recall the date but it was in May at Devonshire Mews, and Morton ‘was with him’.  He said Lawrence had assured him that the goods were his to sell so whether he suspected they were stolen or not, he was covering himself.

The final witness in court was Major Leonard Morse Cooper himself. He was related to Mrs Walter by marriage (she was his mother–in-law) and had left his property there for safekeeping.  While everything had a value (‘one hundred guineas would not replace what I have lost’ he said) he was most concerned to retrieve his Waterloo medal.

Jones was acquitted of the robbery but the other pair were convicted. Benjamin Lawrence was sent to prison for six months, and it seems he had a short life, dying in 1866 at the age of 31. Morton was recommended to mercy by the jury, who clearly held him to be less culpable than his fellow defendant. He still went to gaol though, and for the same period.

According to Hart’s Army List for 1849 Major Cooper entered military service in 1814 as an ensign. He was promoted to lieutenant in the 20th Light Dragoons June 1819, rising to captain in the 11thLight Dragoons on 25 February 1831 and thence to major (which he purchased) in 1840. Cooper was cited in divorce proceedings in 1850 (so a year before this case). Cooper was said to have been a frequent visitor to Mrs Frances Cautley, the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley, who was serving abroad in India, and she to him. The accusation was that Mrs Cautley had carried on ‘an adulterous intercourse and criminal conversation’ with Major Cooper. The major had subsequently settled a court case by paying £1000 in damages to Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley.

So perhaps his reason for storing his property with his mother-in-law was to keep it out of the hands of any creditors he might have, especially his highly prized Waterloo medal.

There were 39,000 Waterloo medals created but not all were awarded. As a cavalryman Cooper was amongst 6,000 who were recognized for their service at the final battle of the Napoleonic wars. They were made of silver, had the prince Regent’s head on one side and the figure of victory on the reverse (with the words ‘Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo’ and the date – 18 June 1815).

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At Waterloo the 11 Light Dragoons ‘under the command of Lt Col Money were sent into action when it looked as if the enemy were breaking up. They broke a French infantry square and carried on with the pursuit of Napoleon’s fleeing soldiers’. If Cooper was part of that attack, and carried his troop’s colours, then it is understandable that he would want to get his medal back. It was, after all, a part of his life that was above reproach, unlike his more recent history.

[from Morning Post25 June 1851; Collection of Nineteenth Century British Divorce Proceedings, Volume 2]

I am very grateful to my colleague at Northampton, Dr Caroline Nielsen, who uncovered the Old Bailey case against the trio of boys while researching for her own work on disabled military veterans in the 18thand 19thcenturies. Caroline is currently finishing a book entitled Old Soldiers: The Royal Hospital of Chelsea, Military Pensions and British Society, 1660-1834.

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

Teenagers in church, but not for the sake of their souls

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Police constable William Gearing (86B) was on his beat in Horseferry Road when he noticed two things that were suspicious. First, a lamp in the street had been extinguished, something he associated with criminals operating under cover of darkness.

The second was that there was a light flickering in the nearby Roman Catholic chapel. Given that it was 11.45 at night he assumed that the priest was not taking a late service or communion and decided to investigate.

The gate of the chapel was open but when he tried the door itself it was locked. He somehow found the keys and entered the building. Two men were in the chapel and they panicked, rushing up into the gallery to hide. PC Gearing went outside to call for help and as soon as another officer arrived they managed to secure the two intruders.

Once the pair –Joseph Isaacs and John Mason – had been locked up back at the nearest police station house, PC Gearing returned to the chapel to investigate. There he found evidence that the men had been trying to rob the place: several drawers were opened and a cupboard in the sacristy had been forced. He also found some of the church’s silver placed wrapped up in a large handkerchief ready to be taken away. The final clue was a portion of recently lighted candle and some false keys, both essential ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth-century burglar.

He carried on his enquires and discovered that the chapel had been securely locked the evening before so the men had to have picked the lock (or used their false keys) to enter. In court at Westminster one of the duo, Isaacs, said they’d found the keys in the sacristy cupboard but couldn’t account for why they were in the chapel in the first place. Mason, probably wisely, said nothing at all.

Mr Paynter wanted to know if the men had previous form for burglary. The police told him that Isaacs had served time for highway robbery while Mason had been imprisoned for three months under a different name, for theft. The magistrate duly committed them to take their chances with an Old Bailey jury.

On the 24 November 1856, less than a week after the Westminster hearing, the pair appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to simple larceny, a lesser offence than breaking and entering. They were only youngsters, both just 17 years of age. Isaacs got four years, his companion 12 months.

According to the Digital Panopticon neither lad repeated their offences (or at least were not recorded as being caught for anything after 1856). Joseph lived until he was 63, dying in 1902. John Mason was not so fortunate, he died in 1870, at the young age of 31. He was buried in St Pancras.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 19, 1856]

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016