A daring escape from police cells by three desperate robbers

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On Saturday 5 May 1866 three men were fully committed to trial by the sitting magistrate at Worship Police court in the East End of London. George Hensey, Patrick Madden, and William Thomas Morgan had been charged with robbing the house of Edmund Fox, at Albert Terrace, Hackney, and had got away with upwards of £9 in silver plate (about £500 today).

The magistrate had them taken back to the cells in the court while the police van (the ‘Black Maria’) was sent for to take them off to a more secure location. The men never made it to prison however, because on Sunday morning the gaoler found the ventilators in the cell had been forced apart with one of the 2 inch oak seats and all three felons had escaped!

The Morning Post reported that the men must have escaped into the courtyard adjoining the cells and then got out through one of the doors. ‘The work must have been not only rapidly, but silently and skillfully effected’ and while it was an embarrassment to the authorities no one at Worship Street should be held accountable it declared.

The escape was not made public until Tuesday as the police searched for the missing men. As all three were ‘well known to the police’ it was assumed they would be found quickly and returned to custody but as yet, there was no sign of this happening.  No men with those names appear in the Old Bailey in 1866 nor is there a victim listed by the name of Edmond Fox so this might have meant that all three got away with it on this occasion.

However, a Patrick Madden was found guilty – at Middlesex Quarter Sessions – of stealing plate worth £9 from the home of a Mr ‘Windover Edmunds Fry’ in May 1866, having previously escaped. He was convicted and sent to prison (the term itself is not listed). Men named William Morgan and George Henley (not Hensey) do feature in hulk and prison records in the 1860s but I can’t tie any of them to this case.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 09, 1866]

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:

‘I would have given him a good trimming; such vagabond roughs deserve it’; A ‘have-a-go hero’ in Islington.

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Yesterday’s post concerned the disorderly and violent behaviour of youth gangs in late nineteenth-century London. Given that it is still something Londoners are worried about (only this week there was a report of more stabbings and a shooting in south London) I’m bound to wonder if this is a new phenomenon, or sadly just a continuation of a form of bad behaviour that has existed for decades, if not centuries.

Perhaps today it is the fact that violence is so often associated with teenagers and young men in the early 20s that is so shocking; the waste of young life makes it all the more tragic. But everyday violence on the street is always (or should always) be shocking, simply because there is never any justification for it. If the court reports from the Victorian period are in any way an accurate guide to that society we can also be sure that mindless and routine violence was every bit a part of daily life then as it seems to be now.

In August 1855 Frederick Mountford, a provisions merchant, was walking home from work along Shepperton Road in Islington.  It was about six in the evening and Mountford was looking forward to his tea. Up ahead of him he saw two men, one younger and one older, having an argument. As he approached he witnessed the younger one, who seemed rather the worse for drink, strike the other, knocking his pipe from his mouth.

As the victim staggered away his assailant pursued him, seized him around the waist and wrestled him to the pavement where he proceeded to beat him. When he began to kick him in the head Mountford rushed up to stop him, earning a mouthful of abuse for his trouble:

‘You ______’, the man said, ‘I will serve you the same way’, carrying out his threat immediately and knocking the merchant senseless to the ground.

Mountford was saved by the intervention of another young man who arrived and punched his attacker hard in the face. Two nearby witnesses called the police and the man was led away to face a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in the morning.

James Bright was described in the paper as ‘ a short, thick-set ruffian’. The magistrate (Mr Tyrwhitt) praised the young man who’d helped capture him. His name was Charles Miller and he explained that he would have happily have thumped Bright multiple times had he not ‘sprained my thumb with the first blow’.

Then you did not approve of his brutal conduct?’ Mr Tyrwhitt enquired.

I did not, sir’, Miller replied, ‘and I would have given him a good trimming; such vagabond roughs deserve it’.

The court heard  from the witnesses who had seen the assault on the pipe man and the merchant unfold from their windows, and was told that Mr Mountford was still recovering from the beating he had sustained.

After commending Miller for ‘his courage’ the magistrate turned to the prisoner in the dock.

Such as you imagine that you can “run a-muck” indiscriminately in the public streets. You will have to pay a fine of £5, or go to two month’s hard labour’.

The ruffian didn’t have £5 (which was almost a month’s wages for a skilled tradesmen in 1855, and probably more like 2 or 3 months’ pay for young Bright) so he was led back to the cells and taken away in the van to start his sentence.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, August 22, 1855]

The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]