‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

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:

Mr Punch lands a blow on two young thieves in Fleet Street

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I’m sure we all have a memory of going to see the dentist as a child, and not always a happy one at that. I don’t remember much about him but I do recall the waiting room and the large pile of magazines you could read. I always opted for Punch because it had cartoons in it. I didn’t really understand most of them but they were still cartoons, so I tried to.

Punch has been around for a very long time and I use its political cartoons in teaching at visual sources for undergraduates. One of Punch’s founders was Henry Mayhew, whose investigative survey of life in London is also a treasure trove for social historians. In fact Mayhew’s work is sometimes the only primary source that used to tell the story of mid-nineteenth century London; something I find a little problematic at least. Mayhew’s journalism is useful, interesting and entertaining, but it is juts still one point of view, not the full picture.

From its creation in 1841 Punch, or the London Charivari (to give it its full title) liked to poke fun at the establishment. The French word ‘charivari’ referred to the ritual folk practice of humiliating those that offended public morals. In England we had a similar practice – ‘rough music’ – whereby wife-beaters, adulterers, ‘nags’ and the like were shamed by the entire village gathering outside their home to bash pots and pans together and shout abuse. We call this ‘Twitter’ today.

By the 1860s Punch, which had struggled at first, was well established and was being printed by the firm of Bradbury and Evans in London. Punch’s  head office was at 85 Fleet Street in the heart of the newspaper district.

On Saturday 19 December 1868 three men appeared at the Guildhall Police court on a variety of charges relating tot he theft of copies of the magazine. The first was Samuel Watts who ran a beer shop on Fetter Lane, just around the corner from Punch’s offices. Watts was initially charged with in the unlawful possession of 256 copies of Punch magazine ‘well knowing the same to have been stolen’. He protested his innocence and was represented by a lawyer.

His brief, Mr Lewis, told the court that the police had ‘made a great deal about the defendant keeping a house which was frequented by bad characters’. But no one had complained about his beer shop in the seven years he’d run it and it was hardly his fault if the odd ‘bad character’ came in from time to time. After all, ‘it was not to be expected that his house would be frequented by gentlemen only’. The police accepted that Watts was not really a suspect in the case and so the magistrate discharged him but then swore him in as a witness.

Next to appear were the real culprits: James Connor and Alfred Clarke. Connor was 24 and Clarke just 19 and they were charged with stealing 300 copies of the publication from the Fleet Street offices on the 9th December. The court heard that a parcel containing the copies was taken from behind a counter and left at a coffee house at 90 Shoe Lane, run by William Bye. The parcel was left in the name of John Clarke, to be collected later.

A little after 3 another lad named George Harrison entered the pub and picked it up. Bye saw him hand it over to Alfred Clarke at the door and go off with it. From there Clarke and Connor distributed the copies of the paper to a number of newspaper vendors to sell in the streets for whatever they could get. They asked just 1d back for each copy sold.

One of these was Richard Bailey. He was in the Three Lions pub and saw Clarke and Connor playing at skittles. They asked him to sell some copies and he agreed, as he had no work at the time and the money was useful. But although he managed to sell some – at  one and a half pence each – he soon realised the copies were stamped. They were supposed to be sold at 4 and he must have realised they were stolen. Not wanting to get into trouble he took them back to the thieves, who by now were playing bagatelle.

Connor and Clarke were eventually arrested by a detective in the City of London force. He picked up Clarke in Fleet Street and then discovered the missing copies of Punch behind the skittle alley in the games room of the Three Lions pub. On the 11 January Clarke and Connor were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the theft.

Clarke was sentenced to four months imprisonment but Connor came off much worse. He admitted to having previously been convicted (in 1866) and so the judge sent him away for seven years of penal servitude.

For stealing £12 worth of magazines. Ouch.

 

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 20, 1868]

A pair of well-read rogues at the Mansion House

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The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.

One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.

Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string.  The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.

The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.

It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8 a volume and had a set of them.  There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.

In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.

The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.

Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]

A well-read thief hides his plunder in his hat

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A Victorian coffee house, note the lack of female customers.

Francis Nicholls was a young man of about 25 years of age. He sounds like he possessed a certain degree of cunning and a great deal of cheek. At the end of October 1845 Nicholls was brought before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court and charged with a number of counts of theft.

On Tuesday afternoon (28th October) Francis visited a beer shop on Blackheath Road (run by William Gentry.  He sat himself down and ordered ‘some bread and cheese and a pint of beer’. Having downed his pint he called for another and for a “screw of tobacco” to enjoy with it. He then took out a notebook and asked for a pencil and proceeded to write something in it.

Mr Gentry now had ‘occasion to go out’ of his shop so asked his customer to settle his account, at which point the young man ‘rummaged in his pockets’ and admitted he had no money and couldn’t pay. He handed over his waistcoat and handkerchief in lieu of his bill (saying the publican could pawn them) and left.

Soon after he’d gone Gentry realised he had taken the pewter pint post he had been drinking out, so made a complaint to the nearest policeman.

Later, in the early evening, Francis entered the Victoria Coffee Rooms, also on Blackheath Road, and this time asked the serving woman, Mary Ann Wells, for ‘some coffee, a rasher of bacon, and a roll’. Having served him Mary Ann asked him to pay and again he pleaded poverty and apologised for having nothing to give her.

The servant called her mistress, Mrs Atkinson, who immediately sent for a police constable. The policeman, who happened to be passing by, was detective constable  John Evans (189R) and he secured the young man. Suspecting that Nicholls was concealing something DC Evans asked him to remove his hat. Nicholls refused and so Evans swept it from his head, whereupon out fell a squashed up piece of metal that had once been Mr Gentry’s pewter pint pot.

Back at the station a proper search was conducted and  a copy of The Times newspaper tucked inside Nicholls’ trousers, which was subsequently identified as belonging to the coffee house’s owner, Mr Atkinson. The young thief was locked up for the night.

Brought before Mr Grove at Greenwich it looked like a fairly straightforward case of theft and of the non payment of bills. But the magistrate suspected that Nicholls was a serial offender so ordered that he be locked up for a week so that the officers of the Toothily Fields Bridewell could come down and identify him. If he was a recidivist thief then he faced a few months in gaol rather than a few days of weeks.

Let’s hope he had a ready supply of newspapers or paper, because he was, unusually for London’s so-called ‘criminal class’, seemingly quite well educated.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1845]

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off

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Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]

‘for the protection of life and property’? A magistrate opts to believe the police despite the evidence in front of him.

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The Metropolitan Police Court Magistrate presided over the summary court of that name but he was not actually attached to the Metropolitan Police, so in some respects it is a bit of a misnomer. In reality as the nineteenth century unfolded, the police, (in the person of inspectors, sergeants and ordinary constables) played a much increased role in bringing prosecutions to court. In the first third of the century most cases were brought by the victims of crime, as had been the case throughout the previous century, and this situation persisted for much of the 1800s. Gradually, however, the police began to dominate proceedings, especially at this lower level of the justice system.

This was not without its problems. In particular there was considerable concern about how much authority a policeman’s voice carried in the courtroom. The Police were still a fairly new body in the mid 1800s, and although respect for the ‘boys in blue’ grew over time they certainly weren’t held in high esteem by everyone in Victorian society.

The working classes resented them for the most part, or barely tolerated them as a necessary evil. Henry Mayhew interviewed a costermonger (a person that sold food or other goods from a mobile street barrow) who declared that it was a source of pride for any of his class to punch one of the ‘Peelers’  that blighted their daily lives by moving them on when they were trying to earn a living.

The middle classes and the elites were just as ambiguous in their acceptance of the ‘new police’. They saw them (at first anyway) as an unwelcome extra burden on their pockets, or as a bunch of lower class busybodies who often got quite above themselves in telling them to do (or not to do) this or that.

It is probably fair to say that the ‘good old British bobby’ was not really accepted by society until well over a hundred years had passed since his creation. Dixon of Dock Green epitomises the trusted and honest copper of the 1950s, not the corpulent figure of the p’liceman from the late Victorian and Edwardian music hall.

So the police magistrate must often have been faced with a potential conflict between the police (as keepers of the peace) on one hand, and the public on the other. As a law man he had to try and square this tricky circle, and in this case from 1850 I think we can see how he falls back on the law to do so, whilst exercising some discretion at the same time.

In April 1850 Edward Williams found himself in the Worship Street Police Court accused of assaulting a policeman in the execution of his duty. It was a serious offence and the justices at Worship Street and the nearby Thames court (both of which served the supposedly ‘lawless’ and ‘criminal’ East End) normally came down hard on drunken brawlers that picked fights with the police or refused to ‘go quietly’ when asked.

Edward, then, was in trouble.

However, his version of events was quite different to that presented by the police who brought the charge, and in looking at both I think we can see some of the tensions that I’ve mentioned above.

PC Ward of N Division stated that he had been on duty with a  fellow officer outside a beer shop in Clapton when Williams had approached him. It was late, just before midnight, and Williams spoke to him asking him, ‘what I considered I was placed there for’.

Ward’s reply was: “For the protection of life and property”, which was the strap line of the Met in the 1800s. This didn’t satisfy Williams, who turned on him and told him: ‘that was a lie, that I was placed there , it seemed, for the purpose of insulting women, and he called me all the rascals and vagabonds he could lay his tongue to’.

At this the copper asked him to move along and go home. Williams, he claimed, refused and, after having been warned again, the young man struck him several times in the face, drawing blood. Eventually he was overpowered by the officers and taken to the station. PC Devitt (310 N) backed up his colleague’s testimony.

This assault on the person of a police constable was what had landed Williams, a supposedly ‘respectable’ young man, in court. He however, told a slightly different story and sought to justify but not deny, his attack on PC Ward.

Williams told the magistrate, Mr Arnold, that he had been walking out with a young woman, Frances Coleman, to whom he ‘had been paying his attentions’ (courting or dating as we would say now). He was walking her home to her parents but had to stop for moment and asked her to continue, saying he would catch her up.

As she passed the beer shop he heard one of the officers call out to her, ‘my dear’, then ‘whistle to her in a manner which could not be otherwise than insulting to a modest woman, and finally making a most disgusting noise with his mouth’. I leave that to your imagination.

He approached the policemen and remonstrated with them. So here, perhaps was the bones of PC Ward’s report. When the policeman denied acting in the manner Williams believed he had done, and then arrested him, he felt justified in resisting. The ‘assault’, he argued, was  the ‘perfecting justifiable result’ of the constable’s poor behaviour towards the woman he admired.

Frances supported her young man in court, confirming his evidence but at the same time allowing Mr Arnold some wriggle room. She said there was some noise emanating from the beer shop, something with which the police quickly agreed. Could the whistles and other offensive remarks have come from someone in there, asked the justice? She doubted it, repeating that she thought the calls towards her had come from one of the officers. However, despite two witnesses (Frances and Edward) telling a different tale to that of the constables the magistrate decided to believe one over the other but sought to use the beer house as a possible means of sowing some doubt.

Mr Arnold told the court that he could not imagine for one moment that the police would lie or to ‘knowingly and willingly commit perjury’ , but that at the same time neither would a decent young lady such as Frances. So it must have been the unruly occupants of the drinking den that acted so offensively.

The police then were in the clear despite the evidence to the contrary. As for young Edward however, his action had been ‘completely unjustifiable’. He had accused a policeman of doing something quite impossible for a public servant, and had then employed violence when asked to go home. Arnold opted to use the law in all its force to send a message that the police must be respected at all times, and especially when they were carrying out their duties.

He fined Williams £5 or one month in the house of correction if he could not pay. He found a way to implement the law and demonstrate that he was, in his mind, being even handed. I doubt Edward saw it that way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 21, 1850]