A deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met

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Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]