‘Nobody could say any good of him’: A stateless German at Bow Street

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Map of Prussia and the German States in 1862 (nine years before Unification)

Mrs Lavinia Roberts lived with her husband above his photographer’s studio in Charing Cross. One evening in August 1862 she went upstairs to their bedroom around 7 or 8 o’clock. To her horror a man was in the room, rifling through her drawers. Clothing was strewn all over the floor and he was holding some of her jewelry in his hands.  She demanded to know what he was doing there.

Ich spreche kein Englisch. Ich verstehe nicht’, he replied.

Mrs Roberts knew just enough German to make sense of this. The burglar didn’t speak English and so couldn’t understand what she’d said.

He understood that he’d been discovered though and was now in trouble and he fled. Lavinia followed him downstairs and called for a policeman. Another resident of the house heard the commotion and came out of a room and helped restrain the unwanted visitor. When the police arrived – in the person of PC Killick  (511A) the German thief was escorted to the nearest police station and charged with attempted burglary.

The man’s name was Fritz Tuell and he said he was from Prussia. Fortunately A Division had a German born officer on the strength – PC Reimers (595A) – and he was able to translate for the prisoner. When the case came before Mr Henry at Bow Street Police court the next day PC Reimers explained that Tuell was fairly recently arrived from Prussia.

After Mrs Roberts had described the events that night as she experienced them PC Killick deposed that he found a bracelet, chain and a French coin dropped just close to where the gentleman was detaining Tuell on the stairs.  All of this was translated so the German could understand and he was asked if he wished to cross-examine either of the witnesses. He did not and admitted stealing the items in question, which were valued in total at over £5.

Tuell now spoke (via PC Reimers) to explain that he was a nail maker who had arrived in London 10 days earlier. He’d not had any work in Prussia or Germany for the past three years and had moved around that country, going from place to place (presumably seeking work). He had come to England when his options seemed to have run out there.

Mr Henry asked to see his passport but Tuell didn’t have one. That was odd the magistrate said, why was this?

‘He has sold it’, Reimer told him. Apparently it was common practice for foreigners to sell their passports to someone who wanted to travel back to the continent but had lost (or sold) their own.

There are a good many foreign thieves in this country’ he explained; ‘and when one of wants to go to his own country he buys a passport from some one newly arrived – taking care that the description answers. He then returns to his own country, and pretends he has only been in England a few days, and that the passport is his own’.

He added that he wasn’t sure that this is what Tuell had done, nor was he suggesting he was a bad character with any previous convictions; it was just that he was aware ‘that there is such a system’.

It was news to Mr Henry and he was clearly disturbed to find it out. It added to his conviction that the Prussian nail maker should stand trial in London for his attempted theft and not be dealt with summarily – which was the man’s preference  and the reason he’d confessed so readily.  Having said that he intended to indict Tuell Mr Roberts piped up, saying that it would be inconvenient for him to attend a trial as he was travelling abroad very soon. That was ok, the justice said, it was his wife’s testimony that was required. Unfortunately Mrs Roberts was going with her husband he was told.

Really the case must go for trial’, Mr Henry insisted, ‘it is much too important to be dealt with summarily’.

Tuell had broken into a house and raided a bedroom, despite only arriving in London a few days earlier. It was a ‘daring’ robbery attempt and would have to be judged before the sessions because that court could hand down a much stuffer sentence.

He then concluded by asking PC Reimer to explain to the prisoner that he could send to Germany for character witnesses to support him in court. The prisoner looked just as dismayed as he had for the whole of the proceedings and responded to the policeman in his own language.  Translating Reimer said ‘nobody could say any good of him’, and he was taken down to wait for his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 07, 1862]

When it is the victim’s character that is really on trial, and that is what really matters in a male dominated courtroom

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Sometimes what might seem to be a fairly straightforward prosecution can reveal all sorts of other things, including contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Take this case as an example: in March 1895 George Brown was charged with stealing ‘a metal bracelet and brooch’ from Mollie Dashwood. The location of the theft and the behaviour of the victim both gave the accused (and the newspapers writing up the story) the opportunity to attack the woman’s character rather than treat her as someone who had been robbed.

Mollie (or Mrs Dashwood as she presented herself) told the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court that on the previous Saturday evening (23 March) she had suddenly felt faint so had dropped in to the Black Horse pub for ‘a drop of brandy’. It was there she met George Brown who was known to the landlord and described as his friend.

George was there with some chums and they invited Mollie to join them in a few drinks. George showed an interest in her bracelet and began to play with it on her arm; flirting with her is how we might see it. After a while he managed to persuade her to go into the billiard room with him, perhaps because it was quieter, and there he helped her off with her boa (her feather scarf that she would have worn as a sort of collar accessory). According to the barmaid at some point Mollie removed the bracelet and her brooch and asked her to look after them, but she refused.

Things were getting a little intimate and the landlord had noticed.  This was what was concentrated on in court as Mollie was cross-examined by the magistrate and the prisoner’s counsel. She was married and gave a (false) address in Catherine Street where she said she lived with her husband. Dashwood was her stage name: she was a former ‘serio-dancer’ who had ‘roved’ (i.e. travelled) a lot. This may have meant that Mollie performed on the stage at the music hall, dancing to popular songs like ‘Tar ra ra boon de ay!’ and showing rather more of herself than was always considered to be ‘respectable’. She had married in May 1883 at a Kensington registry office but she refused to share her husband’s name with the court (or indeed her real address) for ‘strong family reasons’. Maybe he didn’t really exist, the pair were estranged, or, more probably, he didn’t approve of her going out drinking.

It was all very mysterious and was made more salacious when William Temple, the landlord of the Black Horse, said he remembered Mollie calling at his house and borrowing sixpence. She had been a little the worse for drink and had told him ‘he was the only man in the world she loved’. This brought the courtroom out in shared laughter and might have undermined Mollie’s case had not the bracelet and brooch seemingly really been stolen. Where were they and who had them?

Whilst Mollie Dashwood’s reputation was being dragged through the mud in open court and all sorts of conclusions were being leapt to, it was also revealed that Brown had a previous conviction for theft and so the justice decided to send the case before a jury. Brown is hardly an unusual name and nor is George so perhaps it is no surprise that I have so far been unable to see if this case ever came to trial. Given the lack of any concrete evidence against Brown and the level of doubt created by Mollie Dashwood’s ‘unladylike’ behaviour (in entering a pub on her own and drinking with a group of men at the bar) I suspect a jury would have thrown it out anyway.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 28, 1895]