A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

The uninvited guest of the Duke of Westminster

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Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster 

James Clarke may have simply seeking a place to sleep when he clambered over the gates of Grosvenor House on Park Lane. He’d left clear footprints by the gates and it wasn’t difficult for the special constable on duty in the grounds to find and secure him.  When a large iron rod was found near to where he’d been hiding the policeman suspected that Clarke might have had more criminal activities in mind.

Clarke was arrested and brought up before the Marlborough Street magistrate after a night in a police cell. Clarke said he’d been ‘tramping during the day’ and just thought it looked a decent place to get his head down for the night. He’d picked up the bar on route, and there was nothing suspicious about it.

Perhaps he took it for protection as we know that anyone sleeping rough then (or now) was very vulnerable to being abused, robbed or assaulted. But it was as likely (more so maybe) that Clarke was going to use the bar to break a window or even to threaten or attack one of the residents if he’d got in.

I suppose in some circumstances he might have been given the benefit of the doubt but Grosvenor House was the London home of the 1st Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor.  The duke was instrumental in developing both the wealth of the Grosvenors and their stud at Eaton Hall in Cheshire. When he died he was believed to be the richest man in England.

So it is hardly surprising that he had a policeman on special duty in the grounds of his house. His family was close friends with the queen and Victoria not only raised him from marquis to duke, she was godmother to his eldest son. I doubt the wandering labourer knew exactly whose grounds he had broken into but the magistrate did. He sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

The current Duke of Westminster is also a Hugh. A billionaire he also estimated to be the richest man alive under the age of 30, and he has continued the close connection to the royals, being named godfather to Prince George of Cambridge, who is third in line to the throne. Wealth like the Westminsters is rarely diluted and inheritance means that when this duke marries and has children they will be as rich, if not more so, than their predecessors. Meanwhile people like James Clarke are still sleeping rough on the streets and gardens of the modern capital.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 04, 1888]

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’ll do for you now, you ____’: a policeman fights for his life

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PC James Baker (127E) was on duty in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road, one late evening in early April 1863. As he walked his beat he noticed a man acting suspiciously so he kept his eyes on him. Following at a distance he saw the man disappear into nearby Bedford Square, where he lost sight of him.

Baker looked around and then found the man, in the company of two others, leaving 60 Gower Street. The policeman was sure they had just committed a burglary so rushed across to apprehend them. Two of the men managed to evade him altogether and ran off, but the other he nabbed. PC Baker told that if he came quietly he wouldn’t hurt him, and the man stopped resisting arrest.

If must have a been a common problem for beat bobbies unless they could quickly call for back up. Baker was on his own and could hardly be expected to collar all three suspected burglars. It seems unlikely that PC Baker carried handcuffs as these were initially at least, only issued under special circumstances usually being held at police stations.

Even if he was carrying a set they would have been of limited use. A pair of barrel handcuffs, D shaped and opened with a key, were hardly on a par with the efficient snap shut device modern officers can use. Moreover police in the 1800s were cautioned to only use handcuffs when the prisoner was deemed to be violent, and PC Baker had extracted what he believed was a sort of promise from his prisoner not to be.

Sadly for him the promise wasn’t worth the candle. Soon after the officer and his captive had set off for the nearest station house the suspected burglar whipped out a life preserver 111130b5-5592-46b7-c288-8b3979db59d4(right) and thumped the constable over the head with it. As the officer shouted ‘stop thief!’ and tried to call for help the man cried:

‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’ and beat him again. More blows rained down on the officer as he lay on the ground and the burglar escaped leaving PC Baker lying in a pool of his own blood and severely concussed.

Fortunately for Baker he was found by a fellow officer not long afterwards and helped to University College Hospital where he was treated for his injuries. Tow men, named simply as Egan and Sinnett, were rounded up and charged – both with burglary and Egan for attempted murder – and brought to the Bow Street Police court in late April when PC Baker had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. The policeman was better but far from well. He still suffered from his injuries and may well have sustained long term brain damage. He hadn’t returned to duties yet and may not have been able to continue in the force.

Egan and Sinnett denied any involvement and given the circumstances there has to be some doubt that they were the men responsible for the crimes of which they were accused.  I can find no trial for the attempted murder of PC Baker or any record of a trial or imprisonment of men fitting their identities in 1863 at all. However, they were described as ticket-of-leave men, former convicts released early from previous sentences of imprisonment (for previous burglary offences). This suggests that while they may have been the guilty parties (and the report states that the magistrate committed them both for trial) they may also have been rounded up as ‘the usual suspects’ by local police determined to get someone for the near murder of a colleague.

It reminds us that the Victorian police were vulnerable to violence from desperate criminals. They were lightly armed and hardly armored (no stab vests in 1863, no helmet even) and usually patrolled alone equipped only with a rattle and a lantern (whistles and torches came later). It was no picnic being a bobby in nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, April 27, 1863]

A young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

‘An habitual offender who accepts imprisonment as an occupational hazard’: the sadly typical story of Lydia Lloyd

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There are those moments in research when your own work links with that of others working in a similar area. Because I know several of the wonderful people behind the Digital Panopticon website and database and was present when they launched in 2016 I remember the exhibition that accompanied it. The site allows you to trace individuals caught up in the English criminal justice system from the later 1780s to the beginning of the twentieth century through their prison and transportation records. Within the site the team have managed to create ‘life archives’ of a number of criminals which reveal the mishaps and opportunities that led them to feature in a number of institutional records.

One of these was Lydia Lloyd who first appears in the DP in 1865. Her life story reveals a woman who first got in trouble in her teens and went to on prostitution and a number of encounters with the summary courts before, in 1870, she was sent to prison for eighteen months for theft. As Dr Lucy Williams notes, Lydia was one of ‘many women living on the margins of society, trapped in prison’s ‘revolving door’.

Whilst in prison she continued to break the rules, and the system was hard on those that it didn’t break quickly. Lydia (pictured in 1879 below) was punished for laughing in chapel, and for striking another inmate with her tin mug. Both infringements resulted in her being denied daily exercise for three days.  She didn’t learn from this and continued to offend inside, and then again once she’d been released.

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Lydia turns up in my daily search of the Police court, in February 1879. She appeared at the Hampstead Police court, described as a laundress, accused of burglary and the theft of a shawl. The alleged victim was Charles Augustus Mackness, the landlord of the Railway Inn, Church End, Finchley in north London.

Mr Mackness told the magistrate (Mr Marshall) that between half past five and six that morning he’d been awakened by a ring on his doorbell. A policeman was at the door and explained that he’d been alerted to a light passing several windows and thought he might have an intruder. Mackness searched and found Lydia under the bed in the tavern’s ‘best bed-room, which they kept for visitors’. Lydia was arrested.

Looking around the room it was evident that she’d been through several drawers and the wardrobe and had stolen a shawl and possibly, a blanket that had been on the bed. I wonder if the latter was just to keep her warm as I doubt the room was heated and it was February.

Lydia denied taking the shawl but she could hardly explain why she was in the landlord’s rooms. Moreover her ticket of leave, which she carried with her, was produced in court showing she had been given seven years imprisonment in 1873, with a further five years’ of police supervision. That was six year’s earlier and Lydia had failed to comply with the terms of her parole. Not that it was easy for a former offender to ‘go straight’ even if she’d wanted to. For Lydia there was only going to be one outcome here: the magistrate remanded her and she was later formally indicted to appear at the Old Bailey for breaking in to Mr Mackness’ house.

The jury convicted her in early March and the judge handed down another custodial sentence, this time ten years’ penal servitude. Once inside Lydia again continued with her disruptive behaviour, fighting, talking in chapel, arguing with other inmates, and damaging prison property. None of this would have helped her, fighting the system was pointless, as the prison diarist Austin Bidwell recognized:

‘An English prison is a vast machine’, he wrote. ‘Move with it and all is well. Resist, and you will be crushed as inevitably as the man who plants himself on the railroad track when the express is coming’.

(From P. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, (London, 1985. p.229)

Lydia came out of gaol in September 1884 when she was 43 years of age, again released on license. The Panopticon believes she died just seven years later at the age of 50, she’d spent much of the past 28 years inside. At some point she managed to have three children but her brushes with the law, and a lifetime addicted to alcohol, meant she must hardly have known them.

This sort of construction of a ‘criminal life’ is invaluable in demonstrating the affect that the criminal justice system had on the lives of ordinary working-class men and women who while far from perfect individuals, never really did much more than break the laws surrounding petty theft. Today our prisons are full of very similar neglected and damaged people, who have ‘failed at life’ and/or been let down by society.

As a footnote, I grew up in Church End, Finchley. The Railway Tavern was demolished in 1962, the year before I was born. The Minstrel pub was built on that site and my friends and I used to drink in there in the early 1980s. It too has gone now, and another bar has taken its place. Dr Williams studied for her first degree in History at Northampton, where I taught her.

It is a very small world.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 25 February, 1879]