A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

An early example of the problems facing Peel’s ‘New Police’.

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In the first year or so from their creation in 1829 the ‘New Police’ experienced a somewhat troubling baptism of fire. Resented by the working class for interfering in their day-to-day lives, and looked down upon and resented by the middle class for being another expensive charge on the rates, the new ‘Peelers’ were attacked from all sides. Added to this was the reality that in the first 18 months of their existence a large number of new officers were disciplined and discharged for drunkenness, corruption, or for fraternizing with local prostitutes.

It was, then, an inauspicious beginning for Sir Robert Peel’s new force of law and order.

The reports of the Metropolitan Police Courts in the early years (when ‘Police Office’ is a more accurate term) are not as regular, or often as fulsome as they were after mid century, but this one from 1830 gives us a sense of the difficulties the police had in establishing themselves as protectors of the public and the state in the 1800s.

In early May 1830 PC John Harding (99 E) was placed in the dock at Bow Street accused of assaulting a member of the public. The charge was brought by a respectable member of society, a Middlesex magistrate no less, named Mr Mallard.

Mr Mallard claimed that he had seen PC Harding maltreating a woman in Russell Street, near the British Museum. It had been around 6 o’clock in the afternoon when he saw the policeman dragging a woman (later identified as Sarah Scott) up and down the street, while she protested.

Harding was not apparently on duty as he wasn’t wearing his badge, as the Middlesex justice told his colleague at Bow Street. When Mr Mallard attempted to stop the PC from continuing with his abuse of Sarah he received short shrift and a mouthful of invective. Crossing the road Mallard took out his pocket book and started to write down the copper’s details so he could report him.

At this PC Harding strode across towards him, ‘seized him by the collar’ and said: ‘I’ll teach a fellow like you to take a Policeman’s number!’ Mallard explained that he was a magistrate but Harding was undeterred; instead he grabbed him by the arm and ‘dragged him through St Giles into the High-street’, while a crowd of baying onlookers hooted at him.

Finally, Mallard was able to present PC Harding with his calling card and was released. He went and complained to the commissioners but was informed that the policeman was only doing his duty (as regards arresting the woman) and so would keep his job. Sarah Scott appeared and gave evidence that supported the magistrate’s version of events, while PC Harding argued that he had arrested the woman as she was interfering with his attempts to chastise a young street tearaway.

Mr Halls, the Bow Street justice on duty, was clearly conflicted. When presented with the word of a magistrate versus that of a policeman he felt unable to decide what the merits of the case were. Instead he chose to pass it up through the system, to the Sessions of the Peace, where a jury could decide whom to believe.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1830]

Beware Greek numismatists that show an interest in your collection

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On Thursday 5 April 1849 a young Greek (or possibly Austrian) man appeared at the Bow Street Police court charged with theft. It wasn’t his first appearance and it was not to be his last. It was part of series of pre-trial hearings that demonstrate the work that the Police magistrates did in shaping cases before they came before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey. Eventually, in May of the same year the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of transportation.

So what exactly was he accused of doing?

At the end of March Timonion Ulasto (variously written as Vlasto) was placed in the dock at Bow Street charged with stealing ‘a number of valuable coins from the British Museum’. One of the museum’s assistants, a Mr C Newton, told the magistrate that Ulasto had been introduced to him by ‘a personal friend’ and so he came with good credentials.

Ulasto professed to have a serious interest in the coins collection, especially Roman coins. He was also an acquaintance of General Charles James Fox, a notable collector. Fox’s name gained him almost unlimited access to the museum’s collection and he busied himself examining nearly everything they had.

On Saturday 24 March some members of staff began to have their suspicions about the coin enthusiast and started to watch him a little more closely. On the Monday these fears were realised. Whilst searching the room a catalogue ticket was found on the floor; this referred to a ‘certain coin of great value’ which was soon discovered to be missing.

The museum was reluctant to directly accuse Ulasto of theft since he had arrived with such good ‘introductions’, but as several more items disappeared over the next few days they decided to act. Mr Newton went to the police, who then applied to the magistracy for a search warrant, which was duly granted. Ulasto was reluctant to allow the search but when his premises were turned over coins to the value of £3,000 (about £175,000 in today’s money) were discovered in a drawer. Some of the items were identified (by catalogue tickets Ulasto had taken away) as belonging to the museum but others probably came from private collectors, General Fox among them.

Bail was refused (understandably) and Ulasto was remanded in custody, having declined to have an interpreter translate for him; it was common (particularly at Marylebone and the courts in the East End) for interpreters to appear to help defendants or prosecutors that had a poor or no command of English but the coin enthusiast was a well educated man who required no such assistance.

A few days  later he was back up before the Bow Street magistrate, this time he was represented by a lawyer, as were the museum. General Fox was also represented in court so his interests could be looked out for.

The theft had shaken the authorities at the museum who had convened an extraordinary meetings of the directors, at which no less a figure than Sir Robert Peel (the former Prime Minister and, of course, the founder of the metropolitan Police) had attended. They set up an investigation in to what had happened and to discover exactly how many, and what value of coins, had been stolen.

The court was crowded – Bow Street was always the most popular court as it was the most senior, but this was an exciting and intriguing ‘crime news’ story. General Fox was there, as was the principal librarian of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, Lord Enniskillen.

Also in court that day was detective Inspector Charles Field, the inspiration behind Dickens’ character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Three years after the Ulasto case Charles Dickens wrote of his experience of joining Field on duty and watching him work.  The inspector had executed the warrant to search Ulasto’s rooms and he was also investigating a series of other coin robberies in which the Greek featured as the most likely suspect. He asked for a further remand while he continued his inquiries.

Ulasto’s counsel requested that his client either be tried or released on bail but Mr Jardine, the magistrate, refused. He told the lawyer that the case was too serious to risk allowing ball and Timonion was again returned to prison.

He was again brought before the justice on the 10 April and again Field requested (and was granted) a further remand. On the 17 April he was up again; the newspapers gave a brief summary of what had occurred previously (although one imagines their readers were following the story fairly closely) and now the value of the items missing had risked to nearer £4,000.

The museum was able to provide evidence (from ‘sulphur casts’ made of the items it held) that the coins found at Ulasto’s lodgings were indeed their property. It was agreed that he should be further remanded until May.

Now the prosecution switched to General Fox who brought a separate charge for the theft of his property. No less than 71 coins produced in the court were from the general’s collection he said, and had been taken some time after he had first met Ulasto back in January at Fox’s London home at 35 Hill Street,  Mayfair. The magistrate bound General Fox over to prosecute and the supposed coin thief was returned to his cell.

And that, it would appear, was that for the Police Courts. It is likely that Ulasto came up once more , to be formally committed for trial, but the papers don’t seem to have reported it. His case was heard, as we know, on May 7 1849 and he chose to plead guilty (to the theft of over £6,000 worth of coins – a huge amount, probably close to £350,000 at modern prices). If he was hoping for a reduced punishment then he may have been disappointed; the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for 7 years.

If Ulasto (first described as a citizen of Vienna) was Greek (as he was thereafter referred to) then I enjoy the irony in his desire to steal Greek and Roman antiquities from the British Museum. After all, the museum ‘owns’ a tremendous amount of other people’s property plundered by British adventurers and empire builders over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a native of Athens wished to repatriate some of his cultural heritage can we really condemn him?

[from Daily News, Saturday, March 31, 1849 The Morning Post, Friday, April 06, 1849]