A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

Dickens has a close encounter with the ‘swell-mob’

Dickens

Charles Dickens had some experience of the law. As a young freelance reporter he had covered the civil law court of Doctors’ Commons before working for a number of other papers in the 1830s. His familiarity with everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain is one of the strengths of his novels and his writings feature characters drawn from the world of crime, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Magwitch.

It would seem, however, that Dickens not only visited the courts of London (including, of course, the police courts) but the gaols and houses of corrections as well. In addition, as we shall see, on at least one occasion he was a witness himself in an attempted robbery that ended up in a summary hearing before a magistrate. In fact he was himself cheekily declared to a a member of the criminal underworld.

In 1849, when he was at the height of his fame and writing David Copperfield, Dickens was strolling along the Edgware Road with his friend Mark Lemon. Lemon was a celebrated actor who wrote hundreds of melodramas, was a joint founder of Punch magazine and so a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. A young man came close by them and Lemon felt a hand at his pocket. He swung up his cane and delivered a quick rap on the would-be thief’s knuckles who then swore at him and ran off.

The two friends set off in pursuit and were soon joined by a policeman in plain clothes. They caught up with the thief and he was arrested. There was some trouble on the way to the station as the youth hit out at his captors and tried to escape, but eventually he was taken back to the station and thence to court the next day.

Appearing in the Marylebone Police Court Dickens must have attracted a good crowd eager to hear the famous story teller describe his experiences, and they were not disappointed. The author explained how he and Lemon had chased after the man – now named as Cornelius Hearne (aged 19) –  and helped capture him.

We pursued him, and when he was taken he was most violent; he is a desperate fellow, and he kicked about in all directions. There was a mob of low fellows close by when he tried Mr. Lemon’s pocket, and we were determined he should not effect his escape, if we could prevent it‘.

PC 229D deposed that he had been on duty in plain-clothes (no reason is given but he might have been looking for known criminals whilst undercover). He confirmed the evidence of Dickens and Lemon and he described how Hearne tried to escape custody. The policeman told the justice, Mr Broughton, that the prisoner threatened him and kicked out at Lemon (who had hold of his arms as they marched him the police station).

While they walked Mark Lemon said the prisoner had spoken to him, asking him not to ‘say my hand was in your pocket’. The burden of proof for pickpocketing when nothing had actually been stolen – as Lemon admitted it hadn’t – fell on the intent. If the theatre man was adamant that he had felt Hearne’s hand inside his pocket, there could be no other explanation than that he intended to rob him.

Another policeman informed the magistrate that Hearne was well known to them and to the courts, having been convicted of several petty crimes like this in the past. Now the justice turned to the prisoner for his version of events. Hearne tried to bluff his way out, saying that he was innocent and that Dickens and Lemon had picked on him, called him names and struck out at him. That was why he had run away, he was no thief.

Now the exchange became more amusing for those watching in the courtroom (and for the readers of the newspapers). Charles Dickens declared that when he was at the police station he said he thought he recognised the prisoner, having seen him in the house of correction. This suggests that Dickens took his characterisation seriously and not only frequented courtrooms for literary reasons but also the prisons of the capital.

However, this seemed to be  lifeline for Cornelius Hearne. He looked from the dock to the bench and spoke to the magistrate:

Now your workshop, he must have been in “quod” there himself, or he couldn’t ‘ave seen me. I know these two gentlemen well; they’re no better than swell-mob men, and they get their living by selling stolen goods‘.

This provoked peals of laughter in the courtroom.

That one (pointing to Mr. Dickens) keeps “a fence”, and I recollect him at the prison, where he was put for six months, while I was there for only two‘.

Dickens and Lemon were described as being ‘highly amused’ by the suggestion but denied the accusations amidst all the laughter. Dickens said he had never traded in stolen goods and was not on speaking terms with that ‘highly respectable body – the swell-mob’. The swell-mob was a contemporary term for petty thieves and pickpockets who liked to dress fashionably and ape the manners of the middle classes, and were a popular vehicle for satirists and commentators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dicken’s characterisation of Toby Crackit draws heavily on popular portraits of the swell-mob.

Hearne was unlikely to have been able to read and while he may have heard of Oliver Twist he may not have recognised its author. Not surprisingly the magistrate was much more familiar with Charles Dickens and his friend Mark Lemon than the young man in the dock was. Mr Broughton told him that he had demonstrated ‘consulate impudence’ in trying to wriggle out of his crime by defaming the character of two gentlemen, and that if he had actually stolen anything then he would undoubtedly be facing a trial  at Old Bailey and could expect to be transported. However, since there was only an attempt to steal he would deal with him summarily.

Cornelius Hearne was sent to the house of correction for three months; ‘”Boz” and his friend then left the court’.

[from The Era, Sunday, March 25, 1849]