An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

A befuddled old man ends up in the wrong bed

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It was about 10 o’clock at night and Jane Black was feeling unwell. Her husband worked in a nightclub and was often late home so she decided to take herself to bed. An hour later she work up, conscious that someone had joined her but as she moved to greet her partner she was instead shocked to find that she was in bed with a complete stranger!

Mary screamed and raced down the stairs in her nightclothes. The commotion woke the house and brought several other lodgers out of their rooms. The landlord went up to Mary’s room and found Edward Williams, an elderly man of 65 years, sitting on the edge of the bed in only his shirt. He was drunk and admitted:

‘I fancy I may have made a mistake. Well if I can’t sleep in the bed , let me sleep on the floor’.

The police were called and the uninvited ‘guest’ was arrested.

A prosecution for assault followed at Bow Street on the next morning and Mr Vaughan was told that Williams had been let in by the landlord. The landlord said he and his wife had retired to bed but later heard someone fumbling at the door, trying to get into the house. He had opened the door and asked who the person wanted. ‘Mary Ann Black, of course’, the stranger replied, so he’d let him in. It was dark, and he assumed it was Mary’s husband.

The magistrate decided that he needed to know more about Williams and so he remanded him in custody that enquiries could be made into his character and mental health.

This case really shows us that we have to be careful about how we read a newspaper report. What is written above is how the incident was recorded in Lloyd’s Weekly, and there is no real hint that this is anything other than an amusing and not very serious case of a drunken old man getting confused and finding the wrong door.

But on the 25 October Edward Williams, a 40 year-old labourer, was sent to Pentonville Prison for 12 months for indecently assaulting Jane Black. He was committed to trial by Mr Vaughan so we can sure this is one and the same man. Not a 65 year-old who lost his way but a would-be rapist that tricked his way into Mrs Black’s bed while her husband was at work.

That is quite a different story to the one the newspaper presented.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 14, 1888]

‘Tis good enough for such as thee’: one landlord’s resistance to a billeting order

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The Royal London Militia dept, Finsbury, 1857

Thomas Cole ran a pub on Shoreditch High Street called the Star and Garter. No doubt it was a fairly rough and ready establishment, popular with the locals but nothing special. Cole’s business was in selling drink (and some food) and providing paying accommodation for those that needed it. However, under the law he was also obliged – when required – to provide beds for soldiers for the militia.

This was a much resented obligation because it cost landlords money; in food and drink, laundry and candles, and of, in lost revenue as they couldnt let theses spaces to paying guests. It had caused problems in the American colonies in the preamble to the War of Independence and had been initially banned under the terms of the 1689 Bill of Rights. It was clearly still happening in 1855 however because three militia men turned up at Cole’s pub with the paperwork that said he was to put them up for a few nights.

Cole accepted the charge with bad grace and showed the trio from the Royal London militia upstairs to a ‘miserable room’ which he’d prepared for them. It wasn’t exactly 4 star accommodation, as two of them later explained at the Worship Street Police court.

Nothing could exceed the discomfort of the apartment, which was destitute of a chair, stool, table, washing stand, or a single peg to hang their clothes on‘.

At least there was a bed, just one however, but the mattress itself was rotten and

torn down the middle, and the framework so dilapidated that it would inevitably have broken down under their weight‘.

The men companied, but to no effect as Cole said the room was ‘good enough for such as they’, and so they returned to their headquarters to inform their officers who billeted them elsewhere.

That was on the 10 July and a few days later Captain Connor and Sergeant Brooks visited The Star and Garter to see the situation for themselves. They also received a rough welcome from the landlord who seemed determined that all soldiers were ‘a set of thieves and rogues’ , regardless of regiment or rank. Cole was very reluctant to let them inspect the room but eventually they did, finding it just as their men had described it.

Cole tried to say that the trio had exaggerated so that they could extort one from him to buy their silence but the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, didn’t buy his half hearted excuse. He said he understood he was unhappy at having to provide accommodation for the militia but the law was the law and he was obliged to. He fined him 40s and warned him about his future conduct.

Cole was adamant he wouldn’t  pay a penny and was prepared to go to gaol for it. Mr D’Eyncourt didn’t offer him that alternative though, telling him that unless the money was paid by the following day a distress warrant would be issued for the debt. In other words, pay up or the bailiffs would turn up and starting taking his possessions away.

The 1850s were a time of international tension for the British Empire with war in the Crimea and, two years later, the Indian revolution (or ‘Mutiny’) in 1857. Soldiers, and the militia, were very much a part fo the fabric of Victorian life but clearly not welcomed by everyone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 21, 1855]

The case of the missing linen and the frustrations of historical research

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The reports of cases heard before the London Police Court magistrates can be frustrating. It isn’t always obvious what individuals roles are and important contextual details are often omitted. I understand that editors had limited space and that reporters were jotting things down quickly, and not always with the knowledge that the editor was going to choose that particular story to run. These courts dealt with dozens of cases in a morning or afternoon but rarely more than one was immortalized in newsprint.

Today I am left wondering who Henry Jepson was. He may have been a private detective or even a member of the Detective Department at the Met, or simply a friend of the victim.

See what you think.

On Thursday 2 July 1868 Jepson received a letter. It was from Elizabeth Milner, a dressmaker, living at 6 Hasker Street in Chelsea. In her letter Elizabeth complained that she had been robbed and asked for his help. On Sunday (5 July) Jepson traveled from his Great James Street residence to Chelsea, talked to Elizabeth about the theft and decided to set a trap for the thief.

Elizabeth had told him that she suspected one of her servants was responsible, the char Sophia Williams. Acting on Henry’s advice she locked up her rooms and told Sophia she was going out for the day and wouldn’t be home until much later. Meanwhile Henry hid under her bed and waited to see what happened.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after Elizabeth had left Sophia entered the bedroom. Although he couldn’t see her Henry could hear her and noted that she left the bedroom and went into the parlour. He could hear her ‘ransacking boxes’ before she returned to the bedroom.

Henry had carefully selected some linen before he’d concealed himself and had left it, temptingly, on a chair. Peering out from his hide he saw he rifle through the linen and select ‘two new pillow cases’. As she started to leave the room Henry snuck out from under the bed to go after her. She must have heard him though because she quickly dumped them back on the pile and rushed off. Henry called for a constable who took her into custody.

This is the action that makes me doubt that his role was official; if he had been a detective he would simply have arrested her himself. Of course he may have, and then have handed her over to a junior officer, but it seems unlikely. There are no references to a detective named Henry Jepson in the Old Bailey either (this case does not appear), which is a little odd if he was one.

Sophia Williams was brought before Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court charged with multiple thefts. The police had found no less than 41 pawn tickets in her room, many, but not all, of which, related to property belonging to Elizabeth Milner. The magistrate remanded her in custody for  four days so the police could pursue their investigations.

And here the frustration continues because the case, and Sophia Williams, disappears from history.  If the police found more evidence she may have stood trial (at the Middlesex Sessions or the Central Criminal court at the Old Bailey). The justice may have decided to deal with her summarily and given her a few months in prison. But as there is no record of her in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records linked by the Digital Panopticon site we cant be sure. Selfe may have decided there was insufficient evidence or Williams could have had a legitimate reason for having so many duplicates for items she’d pawned.

In the end it is a mystery, not one worthy of Sherlock Holmes I accept, but an unsolved one nevertheless.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 07, 1868]