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]

Odin makes an appearance on the Pentonville Road as as a sailor seeks sanctuary on a London rooftop

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The Pentonville Road, looking west (John O’Connor, 1884)

When PC Baylis (442G) and his fellow constable (PC Apps) were called to a disturbance in the Pentonville Road they got a little more than they bargained for. When they arrived it was to see a man standing on the roof of number 196 pulling up the coping bricks and stacking them in a pile, presumably so he could use them as missiles.

They entered the house and got on to the roof to confront him.  As soon as the man noticed the police he started chucking bricks at them. One struck Baylis on the side of the helmet but fortunately he wasn’t hurt. He did knock him over though and both officers were fortunate that they didn’t lose their footing and tumble to the street below.

It was a difficult situation and it was made more so by the low level of light available at 9.30 in the evening, even if it was the middle of the year. The man, later identified as a Norwegian sailor, spoke little or no English and seemed terrified as well as belligerent. A stand off ensued until a local man took things into his own hands. A volunteer soldier named Smith produced a rifle and fired a blank round up into the air. Thinking he might be shot the sailor calmed down and surrendered to the officers who took him into custody with the aid of a ladder.

Next morning he gave his name as Edwin Odin, a 20 year-old sailor who had recently arrived in London on a ship. With the help of a translator he explained that he had running away from some sailors in East London who wanted to hurt him or worse, and he’d taken refuge on the roof of the building (a bedding factory). When the police had appeared he panicked thinking they were his pursuers, which is why he attacked them.

Mr Horace Smith presiding, seemed to accept this excuse but suggested that the sooner he return to Norway the better it would be for all concerned.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]

Violence and intimidation on the Hornsey Road

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The early Metropolitan Police (note the stove pipe hats which weren’t replaced with the more familiar helmets until 1863)

Thomas Jackson was a ‘powerful fellow’. He had been arrested after a considerable struggle, and charged with assault and with threatening women in an attempt to extort money from them. This unpleasant character appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court on Saturday 28 May 1853.

His victim, and the chief witness against him, was police constable John Hawkridge (71S). Hawkridge explained to the magistrate that he had been on duty on the Hornsey Road at half-past eight the previous evening when he was told that a man was threatening women with a bludgeon.

Rushing to the scene he found Jackson walking menacingly behind a small group of women waving his club at them. When he saw the policeman however, he dropped his violent display and ‘pretended to be drunk’. He claimed he was only asking for few pennies for his night’s lodging. Unconvinced, PC Hawkridge decided to give him an alternative place to sleep, and arrested him.

He was marching him off towards the nearest police station but as they passed a ditch on Hornsey Road his prisoner jumped him and the pair fell to wrestling on the ground.

Jackson seized ‘him by the stock on his neck, and tried to strangle him, and struck him a violent blow on his head, which knocked him down and inflicted a severe bruise. He was half stunned’.

The fight continued with the copper’s assailant kicking and punching him as he lay on the street. Eventually however PC Hawkridge eventually gained the upper hand and again began to escort his prisoner towards the station house. Jackson made yet another attempt to escape, however, desperately trying to pull a concealed knife on his captor.

Fortunately for PC Hawkridge a couple of gentlemen travelling in a passing carriage saw the policeman’s difficulty and intervened to help. Having secured Jackson at last, all four men travelled to the Highgate police station. Even then Jackson had to be transferred to a stretcher, so belligerent was,  and it tookseveral officers tied him down to carry him inside to the cells. One imagines he passed an uncomfortable night there before being brought up at Clerkenwell the next morning.

The court heard that numerous complaints ‘had been made [that]  persons of the prisoner’s description had been the habit of prowling about the neighbourhood of Hornsey, etc. begging, and intimidating ladies‘.

The magistrate told the prisoner in the dock that had he actually been convicted of stealing money with menaces he would have faced a punishment for highway robbery. As it was he would go to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 29, 1853]

‘It is really quite dreadful to see young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. Two young girls are led astray

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We might like to believe that children grow up faster these days or lose their innocence at an earlier age than they did in the past, but how true is this? There is a temptation to believe that everything was better in the past when prices were lower, the elderly were respected, and there was less crime. Often this mythical ‘golden age’ is associated with the 1950s the last decade before standards dropped as the ‘swinging sixties’ turned society upside down.

In reality of course the problems we face today are not really new ones just old ones in modern packaging. There were, for example, concerns about youth gangs in the Victorian period, and fears about the feckless nature of working-class youth go back to the end of the Napoleonic wars and beyond, as Geoffrey Pearson showed in his seminal study of youth crime Hooligans in 1983. So it is not at all surprising to find Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reporting on ‘rival gangs of roughs’ staging pitch battles in the capital in 1887.

Members of ‘gangs’ from Child’s Hill and Hendon fought with ‘lads’ from Maida Vale, Kilburn and Lisson Grove that autumn, arriving in ‘forces of 50 to 100, armed with sticks and belts’. According to the police ‘quite a riot followed’. Two of the combatants ended up before the magistrate at  Marylebone where they were charged with assault on a policeman that intervened in the battle. Edward Martell (17) was sent to gaol for 21 days and Arthur Hillman (19) for two weeks. But it was two other young people that caught my attention in the report of cases heard at Marylebone that week, Mary Ann Cook and Helen Cawthorn.

Mary was 12 and Helen 13 and they were brought in for being found drunk and incapable. The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen, was told that Mary Cook was lying in the gutter late on Sunday night when PC Miles (122S) discovered her as he patrolled Camden High Street. He picked her up and took her to the police station. Helen Cawthorn had already been taken to the Temperance Hospital on Hampstead Road and PC Sinclair (302S) had been called to collect her by officials there. Once they were both at the police station the desk sergeant sent for a doctor to examine the girls and he confirmed that they were both quite drunk.

In court the police deposed that enquiries were made and it had been discovered that the pair had ‘been with some ‘low rough boys’ from the neighbourhood and it was them that had led them astray and encouraged them to drink. They suspected that the boys had taken them to a public house but they couldn’t find out yet which one that was. Presumably they would have brought a prosecution against the landlord if they had.

Both girls’ parents were in court to speak up for their children. Mrs Cook said that her daughter had asked to go out to play on Sunday evening and she had allowed it. The first she heard of any trouble was when the police informed her that Mary was in custody. The mother was clearly shocked as she and her husband ‘were abstainers and encouraged their children in temperance principles’. Mr Cawthorn also said his daughter was usually very well behaved and that this was out of character.

The magistrate addressed the girls and said that ‘really quite dreadful to see two young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. He accepted that the local boys had led them on but they should have known better than to go to a pub with them.  ‘It was the first step down hill’ he declared but fining them would do not good (since they’d have no money to pay)  and prison would ‘only make them worse’. So he discharged them into the care of their parents and hoped the disgrace of a court appearance would serve as sufficient warning for the future.

At this point a Mr Thompson steeped forward. He was a police court missionary, a member of a charitable organization that acted to help defendants if they promised to take the pledge and abstain from alcohol. He stated that it was his belief that both girls had once belonged to a Band of Hope, a temperance organization that had been established  mid century in Leeds. Children could join at the age of six and were taught to avoid the evils of drink. Thompson said he would try to get the pair reinstated in the group so they could be steered away from the dangerous path they had set themselves upon.

The police court missionaries started as an offshoot of the Temperance  movement but established themselves as an important part of the life of the police courts. They advised magistrates who came to trust them, especially where  (as was often the case) the offence the accused was up for involved drunkenness. In 1887 parliament passed the Probation of First Offenders Act which allowed a person charged on a first offence to be released without punishment if the court deemed it appropriate. There was no supervision order at first but this followed in subsequent legislation and eventfully, in 1907, the Probation service was created. Not only did probation offer the first real alternative to a custodial sentence it also signaled a new welfare approach to offenders, once aimed at helping them to reform rather than simply locking them up and hoping they learned the appropriate message.

It was an important breakthrough in offender management so it is deeply troubling that 112 years later probation has been allowed to fall into such a parlous state that the justice secretary has had to admit today that its experiment with part privatization has failed. David Gauke has effectively reversed the 2014 decision of one of his predecessors, the woefully incompetent Chris Graying, and returned the supervision of those on probation to public sector control. Grayling’s mistake has cost the taxpayer close to £500,000,000 and Dame Glenys Stacey (Chief probation inspector) said it was ‘irredeemably flawed’. It is not just the financial cost of course, Grayling’s bungling has had a negative effect on the lives of those realised into supervision and the general public who have suffered because of poor or insufficient supervision.

In May this year Grayling cancelled was forced to cancel ferry contracts he’d sanctioned to ‘ensure critical imports could reach the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit’ costing us £50,000,000. He had already been forced to pay £33,000,000 in compensation for not including Eurotunnel in the bidding for the same contracts. £1,000,000 was paid to consultants in seeking to make a contract with a ferry company (Seaborne Freight) who had no ships.

Chris Grayling is still a minister in Her Majesty’s government.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 25, 1887]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘A lawless rabble’: A jeweller is charged as guardsmen riot in Knightsbridge

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Police constable James Jacobs (404B) was on his beat in Knightsbridge at 11.30 on Tuesday 8 May 1877. He was quickly alerted to the behaviour of a large group of soldiers who were abusing passers-by and causing a breach of the peace. The 15 or 16 men of the Coldstream Guards were drunk and Jacobs ordered them to move along and go back to their barracks as quietly as possible.

The guardsmen were in no mood to obey a policeman’s order or cut short their fun and games so instead they headed for the nearest pub, the Queen and Prince tavern. As soon as they pushed their way in though the landlord refused to serve them, ordered them out, and closed up. PC Jacobs once again told them to go home and they again refused him.

A confrontation was now brewing and another officer came to assist his colleague. PC Smith (273B) waded into the dispute and got his ears boxed for his trouble. He seized the solider that had hit him and the pair fell to the ground wrestling. As the officer was down a solder kicked him in the head and another attacked Jacobs, punching him in face, splitting open his cheek and temporarily stunning him.

More police arrived and several of the soldiers were arrested and dragged off towards the police station. By now a crowd of onlookers had gathered and decided to hiss and boo the police and call them names. Shouts of  ‘cowardly beasts’ were heard and sticks and stones were hurled at the backs of the officers who were trying to escort their captives to custody. A jeweler named Frederick Buxton tried to haul an officer away from his charge and was himself arrested.

James Vince, a groom, also intervened trying to rescue one of the guards and swearing at the policeman holding him. A woman named Harriett Ansell rushed up and struck a policeman over the head with one of the sticks the soldiers had discarded. Both she and Vince were also arrested.

It had turned into a riot with dozens of people involved and utter chaos on the streets. Eventually the soldiers and the three civilians were brought back to the station house but at least one of the guardsmen had to be carried face down ‘kicking and biting like a wild beast’. The soldiers were probably collected in the morning by their regimental sergeant at arms to face whatever punishment the army had in store for them. Meanwhile the three civilians were set in the dock at Westminster to be summarily tried by Mr Woolrych the sitting Police Court magistrate.

He dismissed the charge against Harriett for lack of concrete evidence and suggested that the young groom had been set a ‘bad example’ by Buxton who, as a respectable jeweler, should have known better. Buxton was fined £4 (or two months goal) and Vince was told he would have to pay £2 or go to prison for a month. He described the soldiers, who were members of one of the finest regiments in the British army, as a ‘lawless rabble’ who had attacked two policeman who were only doing their duty. It was the soldiers  who were ‘cowardly’ that night, not the police.

Twenty years earlier the Coldstream Guards had distinguished themselves in service in the Crimean War, fighting at the battles of Alma, Inkerman and the siege of Sebastopol. Four soldiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, in that conflict. So I like to think the army punished the men that disgraced the uniform of such a famous regiment, the oldest in the history of the army, for brawling drunkenly in the streets of the capital of Empire.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 10, 1877]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here