A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

‘He bolted across the road like an arrow’: the young man that never listened in school

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As schoolboys we were always being told to avoid pushing and shoving at bus stops. We were to queue quietly, just as we did whilst waiting to enter class or the dining hall. To do otherwise risked both the health and well-being of other travellers (especially elderly ones) and the good reputation of the school. It largely was irrelevant to me since I walked to and from school anyway, but like many things I was taught there, it has remained with me.

George Barratt had not learned any such lesson or, if he had, he chose a different path. He almost certainly lacked the benefit of grammar school education (or much education at all) and in his late teens or early twenties he was living a chaotic life, and stealing to survive.

Mr J H Loongrin was an infirm and elderly man and on Friday 12 July 1889 he was waiting to board an omnibus in the City of London. Suddenly he felted himself being jostled and then pushed forward. He steadied himself but then looked down and saw that the bow of his watch was broken, the section that held it secure in his pocket via a chain. Luckily Mr Loongrin was a cautious soul and always secured his watch using two chains. His watch was still in his pocket.

As he looked up he saw a young man (Barratt) ‘bolt across the road like an arrow’. Loongrin reacted quickly, calling over a nearby police constable and pointing out Barratt’s disappearing form. PC Daly (City) set off after him down Ropemaker Street, eventually finding him hiding in a lavatory at number 9 White Street.

When he was dragged out the constable found he had another watch on his person (presumably stolen earlier) and when he got him to the station investigations revealed a string of previous convictions for theft. Barratt was represented by a lawyer (Mr Purcell) who told alderman Fuadel Phillips that his client would prefer to be dealt with summarily and avoid a jury trial. This was a de facto admission of guilt and the alderman magistrate sent Barratt to prison for three months with hard labour.

The lesson is clear, listen to your teachers and respect the elderly.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 15, 1889]

History in the making as the Match Girls’ strike meets the Police courts

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On occasion ‘bigger’ history touches the reports from the metropolitan police courts as the magistracy sought to deal with everyday issues in London. This is one of those.

Lewis Lyons appeared at Worship Street Police court in July 1888 to answer a charge that he had obstructed the highway in Fairford Row, Bow. The law of obstruction was one of the most frequently prosecuted actions at summary level since it was a misdemeanor that was usually brought by the police. They patrolled the streets and so anyone blocking the road, whether by selling from a coster’s barrow, gambling with dice, busking with an organ and monkey, or lecturing the public on politics or religion, was liable to be asked to ‘move on’ by a policeman. If they refused then they would have their name and address taken and be escorted to the nearest police station.

Lyons was addressing the crowd that had gathered there to listen, most of them young women who worked nearby. He was talking to them about their conditions of work, how they were being exploited by their employers and, presumably, urging them to resist. He was a well-known socialist agitator who counted Annie Besant amongst its circle of acquaintances. Fairford Road was the home of Bryant and May, the match manufacturers. The firm paid their workers very little and forced them to work in appalling conditions. Lyons told the gathered crowd that Bryant and May were ‘sweaters’, who ‘employed girls who had no organization at low wages, and reduced that wage by fines’.

Trouble had started in June when Annie Besant’s article on conditions in the factory had been published in The Link, a radical newspaper. The article had been informed by whistle blowers amongst the match girls and when Bryant and May reacted by sacking an employee a strike committee was organized.

Lyons was speaking on the 6 July 1888 which was the day when nearly the whole factory had downed tools and come out in solidarity to protest the conditions and poor pay they had to put up with. While Besant’s article might had helped precipitate the action she wasn’t the leader of the Match Girl’s strike. As Louise Raw has shown this was an action organized by the working-class women of Bryant and May themselves, although with support from middle class Fabians and socialists like Besant, Lyons and Charles Bradlaugh, the Northampton MP. Besant helped broker a deal with Bryant and May’s management and on 16 July the strike ended with the employers acquiescing on all of the women’s demands. Meals would be taken off the ‘shop floor’ (and so away from the noxious phosphorus that was central to the manufacturing process), unfair deductions and fines were stopped, and grievances were no longer to filtered through the male foreman on the shop floor but would go directly to management.

Lyons was unable to persuade the magistrate at Worship Street that he was not guilty of obstruction. He claimed that the crowd was caused by the police not by himself, that the crowd was already there, and that anyway the police had ensured that carts and wagons could get in and out of the factory the whole time. He had plenty of support in court, including a woman named Sarah Goslin who several of the watching match girls in court mistook for Besant, rushing over to say ‘It’s all true!’.

Mr Bushby was unmoved, perhaps unsurprisingly given the challenge to his class that the Match Girls strike represented. He fined Lyons 20s or 14 days imprisonment. I imagine he paid because he wasn’t a poor man. He later bailed out Besant when she was arrested. The strike was an inspiration for the trade union movement and the 6 July 1888 was a key point in that ongoing battle between workers and bosses, with the following year saw the successful Great Dock Strike, which also started in the East End of London.

The scenes of police grappling with protestors in Fairford Street must have shocked the reading public, especially those with property and businesses but within a few weeks a new story would dominate the newsstands of the capital. By the end of August 1888 it was clear that a brutal serial killer was stalking the streets of the East End, the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 14, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) . It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is is published by Amberley Books and is available on Amazon

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

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Daniel Risbey was in East London to visit his wife, who was an inmate at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street. The fifty year-old fisherman from Essex was unfamiliar with the capital and certainly a stranger to the dodges and pitfalls that often befell the unwary. He must have stuck out like sore thumb.

As he left the hospital and was making his way along Mile End Road a man stopped and chatted to him. As they conversed he noticed another person just ahead stop and appear to drop some pieces of paper on the street. The first man, who had introduced himself as Thomas Windsor, picked them up and showed them to Risbey.

‘Why’, Windsor declared, ‘these are £5 notes!’ and he called the other man back. He now joined them and said his name was George Boyce and that he’d recently come into money following a payout for an incident on the railway. Boyce had received the princely sum of £300 and declared that ‘he meant to do some good with the money, and would lend to any deserving man’.

What a stroke of luck then, for Risbey to run into two such generous chaps on his visit to London. The pair now said that they trusted him enough to have some of the money up front while they sorted out the ‘usual arrangements’ of a loan and suggested he wait in a local pub while they did so. This proved, they said, that they had ‘confidence’ in him. To show them that he was worthy of that confidence they asked him to hand over his purse and money while they sorted things out. He had several £5 notes, they had his money – which only amounted to about 5s anyway.

The fisherman took out a few pennies for a beer, handed over his purse and walked over to the nearest pub to wait. After an hour they hadn’t returned and he was about to leave when a police sergeant appeared and asked him to accompany him to the station. When he got there Boyce and Windsor were in custody and Sergeant Rolfe explained the situation.

The officer had seen the two men talking to Risbey, knew them as ‘sharpers’ (or confidence tricksters) and watched them. He followed them after they left Risbey and, with some assistance, arrested them. When searched all they had was three pence, the notes, a few Hanoverian medals, and the Essex man’s purse. Both were charged with theft and presented at Worship Street Police court on the following morning, Thursday 6 July 1882.

The whole episode was related to Mr Hannay the sitting magistrate. The notes were fake – from the ‘Bank of Engraving’ Sergeant Rolfe explained. The medals were used to represent sovereign coins and the two men were well known to the police. On this occasion Daniel Risbey was lucky, thanks to the sharp eyes and wits of the local police all he lost was his innocence and he left London a little wiser than he arrived. At least on the next occasion he visited his wife in hospital he’d have a tale to tell, if he chose to tell it at all. As for the two ‘sharpers’, Mr Hannay committed them for trial.

I think we’ve all heard of the confidence trick but it isn’t often that it is so clearly described in those terms. The paper was reporting this as news, as a warning to readers, and as gentle dig at the expense of the ‘country bumpkin’ come up to town and taken for a fool. We might nod sagely at how gullible he was (as many of those reading the Standard in 1882 would have done) but how many of us have fallen, or come close to falling, for internet scams that have promised us easy money or other benefits that have few strings attached. Remember folks, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 07, 1882]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London (including the life of pet food salesman…).

The book is available on Amazon here

Tragedy in the Temple and a stabbing by a Dorset Street resident; all part of daily life in 1880s London

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Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.

It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.

Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.

Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.

The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.

The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.

At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.

By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.

Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.

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Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

 

 

 

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here