Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]

The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

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Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

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Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Robert Mace was a former solider, discharged from the army in 1853 having previously served in India. He was 31 years of age, had no job and no home to speak of. He was in London, in Ratlciffe, on the night of the 3 February 1860 and was intending to make his way back to his last place of settlement, Maidstone in Kent. However, it was cold, it was getting dark and he was hungry so he knocked at the door of the Ratcliffe workhouse and asked for relief.

Mr Snelling,  the porter at the union workhouse opened the door and told him to go away. He would t be admitted there and that was the end of it. Mace did go away for a bit but unable to find shelter and still starving from lack of food he tried again, with the same response from Snelling. As he walked away from the workhouse gates he saw a policeman, PC Polter (276K) and asked him to help. The constable said he was sorry but he couldn’t make the workhouse admit him.

Mace bent down, picked up a stone from the street and lobbed it at a gas lamp that illuminated the gates of the poor house. The lamp smashed and since he’d committed criminal damage right in front of him PC Polter had no option but to the arrest the man and take him before a magistrate.

Robert Mace appeared before Mr Selfe at Thames Police court on the following morning. He explained his situation  and the magistrate had some sympathy with him. Since the workhouse porter was also summoned to give evidence Mr Selfe wondered why he hadn’t simply admitted the man as he’d requested?

Because. the porter insisted, the man was perfectly capable of making his way to Maidstone. Mr Selfe was amazed at this, did the porter rally think this man could make that trip and find shelter and ‘refreshment’ on the way?

‘There are half a dozen workhouses between ours and Greenwich’ Snelling stated, ‘He could have called at any of them on the way to Maidstone’.

‘Well you might have taken him into the house, I think, and given him some bread and a night’s lodging’ Selfe said, adding ‘he is a poor, emaciated fellow’.

Snelling dismissed this:

‘The weather was fine last night. He could have got several miles on his road between three o’clock and eight’.

‘Not so fine’, the magistrate countered, ‘I walked home in the snow from this court at five o’clock, and I was very cold, although I had an overcoat on, and was well wrapped up’.

‘It was tolerably fine for a walk’ the porter insisted.

The lack of humanity the porter displayed was clearly staggering even to a contemporary audience – the reporter ‘headlined’ the piece as ‘The model union’ with deep sarcasm. Regardless of whether the Ratcliffe workhouse should have admitted him or not Mace was guilty of criminal damage although the victim was the Commercial Gas Company not the union.

Mr Selfe decided that  it would probably do the former soldier more good to be incarcerated in a prison than a workhouse so sentenced him to five days. He hoped that the bed and board he’d receive there would be sufficient to set him up for the long walk to Maidstone which, depending which route he took, was considerable being about 50 miles from London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 February, 1860]

A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

‘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]

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.

Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.

The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.

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William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out. 

Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.

His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.

So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.

However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.

In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.

Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.

At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.

So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.

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