Another habitual criminal rightly punished, or a missed opportunity to make a difference?

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Following a spate of street robberies (or muggings) in London and elsewhere in the 1860s, colloquially known as the ‘garroting panic’, parliament passed a series of loosely connected laws that aimed to clamp down on criminal offending. This was a kneejerk reaction to a press conceived ‘moral panic’ and – as is so often the case – it would have a lasting impact on those caught by it.

One of those was Thomas Sims who, in April 1883, was working as a bricklayer in East London. Sims was trying to ‘go straight’ having previously been convicted of a crime that had earned him a sentence of seven years in prison.

Thomas had been released  on a ticket of leave (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of parole) some time around the beginning of 1882 and had been duly reporting himself to the Bethnal Green police station as was required under the terms of the Habitual Criminals Act (1869).

This legislation meant that anyone released on license would have to report the police once a month for the duration of their sentence and often afterwards for up to seven years. Offenders were recorded on a register and the police checked that they were ‘behaving’ themselves. At any time they could be brought before a magistrate if the police felt they were complying with the terms of their parole or were engaging in disreputable behavior.

Quite obviously this made it very difficult for men like Thomas Sims to escape the taint of prison and reintegrate into an honest life. He certainly thought so and in December 1882 he moved to Spitalfields and told the Bethnal Green station of his plans. The sergeant explained that he would now need to report in to the Commercial Street station but only did so once, on Boxing Day 1882.

He was picked up by police and gave them a false address. Detective sergeant Rolfe (K Division) brought Sims before Mr Hannay at Worship Street and said that, when asked, the prisoner had failed to produce his license. The magistrate asked him why he’d stopped reporting in and Sims told him that:

‘he would not go on reporting himself as everybody then knew that he had been convicted’, adding that he would rather back inside.

Hannay told him the act, ‘however stringent, was a very necessary one and require dot be enforced’. As Sims still had six months left of his sentence the justice sent him to prison for a year at hard labour, that 12 months to include the six he had outstanding.

Thomas Sims thanked him and was taken away to renew his acquaintance with a prison cell. Having stayed out of obvious trouble for over a year, and having held down a job as well, this prisoner was now back inside, a burden to the state.

There was worse to come. Following Sims’ release he went back to his offending pattern and was prosecuted in October 1884 for stealing money and a gold watch and chain, he was listed as 30 years of age. He got another 12 months in Cold Bath Fields prison. His conviction cited his previous ones, – the 12 months from Mr Hannay and the original seven years (with 3 years supervision) from Northallerton Quarter Sessions in October 1876, for stealing a gold watch and chain.

Another Thomas Sims (aged 42) was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in September 1894 for robbery with violence. Again, as in both his other listed larcenies, the stolen item was a gold watch and chain – he got five more years. Is this the same Thomas Sims? It is possible as ages can vary in the registers, and the crimes are quite similar. If it was Thomas then he didn’t live much longer, dying in 1903 aged just 51.

What a sad life and what a missed opportunity in 1883 to let a man ‘go straight’.

[from The Standard Monday, 23 April 1883]

‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

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It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]