An open window is an invitation to thieves

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Ellen Dunn was sitting at her desk in the evening, doing her household accounts. She had her receipts and an account book open in front of her, and a bag containing around £12 in cash on the floor beside her chair. The widow lived at 68 Warden Road in Kentish Town and her daughter was in a room upstairs.

At about eight o’clock Mrs Dunn heard a noise in the room. Looking up she watched with horror as the window ‘was thrown open’ and someone entered the room. Ellen ran out of the room to the front door to see who was breaking in but couldn’t get out; someone or something was preventing her from opening her own front door.

She went back into the room and leaned out of the open window and yelled ‘police!’ This brought her daughter running downstairs to see what the matter was. There was no one visible in the street but Mrs Dunn’s bag of money was missing. The next morning the empty bag was found in the front garden – Mrs Dunn realized had been burgled.

Fortunately the police had a witness from within the Dunn’s own household. Amy Sefton was a 14 year-old serving girl, probably very junior, but she proved to be a very capable young woman. She said she had seen a group of lads watching the house just before the robbery had taken place. She saw a boy she recognized as someone who lived locally run away from the house clutching a bag that seemed very similar to the one found that morning.

He took the bag to his mates who were clustered around a lamppost. Using the light it offered the boys peered inside. ‘Here is a go: there is some money!’ one of them cried, clearly delighted with the prize.

Then they removed the cash, stuffed it in their pockets and dashed off. One of them was dispatched to throw away the bag and this is when they spotted Amy watching them. They swore at her but she held her ground and made sure she got a good look at them. This resulted in the police picking up a lad one 17 named William Hine, who was produced at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

Hine was charged (along with several others in absentia) with entering a dwelling house and stealing £12. It was a serious property crime and the magistrate remanded William in custody so the police investigation could continue. The justice made a point of commending Amy for her quick thinking and bravery.

This would be a hard case to prove however; Amy said she would be able to identify William and one or other of the lads but without forensics or any of the money being found on them the police may have struggled to build a case against them. Hine doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey records or in the Digital Panopticon. His absence from both doesn’t mean he wasn’t prosecuted further but without a clear trail I wonder if, on this occasion, the lads got away with it. On thing is likely however: Mrs Dunn would have been careful not to leave her windows open in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 28, 1893]

As the ‘Ripper’ strikes in Whitechapel a wannabe Charlie Peace is nabbed in Clapham.

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The 31stAugust 1888 is etched on the memory of anyone familiar with the biggest crime news story of that year. It was at about 3.45 that morning that PC John Neil (97J) found the body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nichols lying dead in near the entrance to a stable yard in Buck’s Row. Her throat had been cut and (although the constable could not have known this at the time) her abdomen had been ripped open. Polly Nichols is largely accepted to have been the first victim of the killer most commonly named ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Personally I think it quite unlikely that Mary Ann Nichols was the first of the murderer’s victims and, in a new study I hope to publish early next year, myself and a colleague will reveal the person we think responsible for Polly’s, and another dozen or more, murders and assaults.  But that, as they say, is a story for another day, so let us return to late August 1888 and see what was troubling the police court reporter at The Standard that day.

While he didn’t garner many column inches (and nothing that compared to the Whitechapel murderer later that autumn) John Terroad did reckon himself some kind of ‘super villain’.

220px-Charlie_Peace_executionPerhaps likening himself to the infamous Charlie Peace – the self-styled ‘king of the lags’ – Terroad claimed to  have committed over 120 burglaries in London in his short career. Given he was only 23 years of age in 1888 this was some résumé, but on this occasion he’d been caught.

[Right: Charles Peace and his executioner, William Marwood, in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors]

Up before the ‘beak’ at Wandsworth he was charged with entering the house of Mr Harry Bishop in Manor Street, Clapham, as well as that of a Mr Williams in Putney Common, and Edward James’ home in Ilchester Gardens, Lavender Hill. An older accomplice (Frederick Merce, 45) was also charged with aiding and abetting in the Clapham break-in. Both men were committed for trial. They pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and were sent to prison for ten months each at hard labour.

Charles Peace was hanged for the murder of Arthur Dyson at Leeds in February 1879, a decade before the ‘Ripper’ eclipsed him as the most famous criminal of the nineteenth century.

[from The Standard (London, England), Friday, August 31, 1888]

An unexpected intruder tests a housekeeper’s nerves

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When the housekeeper turned up to work at 5 Queen Street on Wednesday 13 August 1873 she didn’t expect to be surprised. The house was unoccupied at the time, as the family were out of London and so the unnamed ‘keeper simply worked there in the day and locked it up  again at night. So as far as she was concerned the place was empty.

Imagine her astonishment then when, as she approached the property she saw a ‘wild-looking’ man staring out of a third-floor window. The housekeeper gathered her courage and headed upstairs to confront him.

He was clearly a disturbed individual and after he had given her a very incoherent explanation of being in the house, she urged him downstairs and out of the building, found a policeman, and had him arrested. On Thursday it went before the alderman magistrate at Mansion House, who remanded him to Newgate so his situation could be looked into.

On Friday the man was back, giving his name as John Smith, and repeating a claim he’d made earlier that 5 Queen Street had been his home for the past two years. This was palpably untrue and suggested that Smith was not in his right mind.

He was examined at Newgate prison by the surgeon, Dr Gibson, who declared him insane, violent and dangerous. He said he was ‘quite unfit to be at large’. Sir Robert Carden, the presiding magistrate, had no hesitation in committing the man to Bow Street workhouse from where he would be moved to a lunatic asylum at the earliest convenience.

No one seemed to know however, just how John Smith (if that was his name) had managed to gain access to the property when it had apparently been secured by the housekeeper.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, August 16, 1873]

Prison doesn’t work, and history has the proof.

It is what we all dread when we wake up in the night and hear a noise we can’t place. Was that the wind? Perhaps a cat? Or is there someone in our house?

Mrs North, the landlady of the Duke of Cambridge pub in Lewisham High Street, awoke to see a strange man in her bedroom.  He was staring directly at her and she shouted, ‘who are, and what do you want?’

At this he panicked and rushed towards the open widow, escaping into the night as Mrs North’s husband work and gave chase. He shouted ‘stop him’ from the window but he was gone.

When she’d recovered from the shock the landlady found that the burglar had carefully sorted a pile of their property to take away, including ‘some money’ and their pet canary. He’d left empty handed on this occasion but robberies were reported from other local pubs in late April 1883 and the same individual was suspected.

The police investigated break-ins at the Pelton Arms in East Greenwich on 24 April, where William Davis, the landlord, said he’d woken up to find the place burgled and clothes and a bag containing £2 and 10 shillings missing. The Rose of Lee (at Lee)* had been broken into on the same night as the Duke of Cambridge, and ‘property to the value of £6’ stolen.

The police had some leads and on the day after the Lewisham and Lee thefts PC Drew (75R) was watching a man named Edward Toomey and alerted his sergeant, Hockley. They seized Toomey, who was wearing some of the clothes identified as being stolen from the Pelton Arms, and pretty much admitted his crimes. As they led him off to the station Toomey reached into his pocket and pulled out the North’s canary, letting it fly off into the London skies. He’d got rid of the evidence and freed a caged creature just as he faced up to seven years’ for his own offences.

The case came up before the Police Court magistrate at Greenwich where one of Toomey’s associates turned informer to save his own skin and Mr Balguy committed Toomey to face trial at the Old Bailey.

Edward Toomey was tried at the Central Criminal court in May 1883 along with two others (Thomas Prosser and Cornelius Shay). Toomey was just 17 years of age and his accomplices were 38 and 18 respectively. Only Toomey was convicted and he was sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.

This early brush with the law and punishment did nothing to curb Edward’s criminality, nor indeed his MO. In 1885 (just after he came out of gaol) he was back in again after being convicted of burgling the Lord Nelson pub in East Greenwich. He got another year inside.

Did he learn from this one? Well no, he didn’t.

In January 1887 (just over a year after his conviction, and soon after his release) he was sent back to prison for burgling a jeweller’s shop in Lee High Street. This time the judge gave him a more severe sentence: five years penal servitude. At least that was that for Edward’s criminal career we might think, but no. In 1903 now aged 37, Toomey broke into the ‘counting house of the managing committee of the South Eastern and Chatham railway company’ and robbed the safe, taking away over £80 in cash. For this latest crime he went to prison for another five years. He was released on license in 1907 aged 41.

Edward’s experience is proof (if proof is needed) of the ineffectiveness of prison as a punishment for crime. It did him no good whatsoever and failed to protect the property of the persons he robbed. Sadly home secretaries and justice ministers are unlikely to read histories of crime and punishment, if they did perhaps they’d come up with some more innovative forms of dealing with serial criminals.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 09, 1883]

*where, many years later Kate Bush played her first gig.

A ragged individual with a curious hobby

An unequal match.

John Tenniel’s cartoon of the battle between the police and the ‘criminal class’,

(Punch, c.1881)

When PC 585E discovered William Roast sheltering in a doorway he was understandably suspicious. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the perfect hour for burglars, and Roast appeared to be peering through the door’s keyhole. So the policeman touched him on the shoulder and demanded to know what he was up to.

Roast explained that he’d been unable to sleep so had gone for a walk. He’d actually been listening at the door for the sound of a clock chiming inside, so he could tell what hour it was. The copper was unconvinced and took him into custody. On searching him he unearthed a ‘a long piece of thick wire, with a hook on the end’.

At Bow Street the magistrate asked the officer what he thought the wire was for. The constable replied that he believed it was created for the purpose of unlocking doors. Roast had been charged with loitering ‘for a supposed unlawful purpose’ (loitering with intent in other words) and there seemed plenty of substance to that charge but the justice gave the man the chance to explain himself.

Roast’s defence was punctuated by ‘a series of short coughs every time he hesitated’ (which I think the reporter notes as way of suggesting the prisoner was allowing himself time to think up his excuses, when in reality he had none).

‘The reason I was out at that early hour is because I didn’t go to a place of worship on a Sunday, when I always stay in doors’ [it was Monday, so this was vaguely plausible].

‘But I felt rather restless, and found myself sitting up in bed, so I thought I would take a little exercise, and so I went for a walk at about one o’clock’.

He then added his explanation about wishing to know the time. The magistrate wanted to know about the wire, and why he had it.

 ‘Well sir, I suppose that’s my hobby. But I will be careful in the future, sir’.

If he thought that was the end of it he was to be disappointed. The magistrate said he hoped he would be more careful in future but told him that he would be remanded in custody while some more enquiries were made to see ‘what you were in the past’.

He clearly suspected Roast was a burglar or otherwise a thief, and probably one with a previous record of convictions. The burglar was the quintessential Victorian criminal and the papers were full of stories about their robberies and adverts for anti-burglar traps and alarms.

Roast (who was described in the press as  ‘a ragged looking individual’) was probably aware that even if he was ‘done’ for loitering with intent, unless other offences could be proved against him or his previous convictions earned him something worse, he was looking at a brief spell inside at worst.

The only William Roast I can find in the archives is from 1865 when a 29-year-old man of that name is listed as being in prison. The Digital Panopticon doesn’t tell me what he did and there are no William Roasts at the Old Bailey. So quite possibly he gave a false name or he was a very fortunate thief, and kept out of the arms of the law.

Just possibly of course, he was telling the truth, but I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, May 03, 1870

‘Long Bob’ is nabbed as the American Civil War causes ripples in Blackfriars

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In early March 1865 Mr John Crane’s (a gunmaker’s agent) warehouse in Birchin Lane, in the City of London, was raided. Thieves broke in and stole a number pistols over the weekend of the 4th to 6th March. Three men were arrested as they attempted to sell on the guns on the day the burglary was discovered. However, it was believed at least one other man was involved and, by April 1865, the police had been looking for him for nearly a month.

Robert White, who went by the nickname of ‘Long Bob’ was presented at the Mansion House Police Court on the 4th April charged with being involved in the burglary. The middle-aged ‘commercial traveller’ had been brought in by City detectives Hancock and Harris after being found trying to sell a pair of revolvers to a pawnbroker in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.

The case was prosecuted by Mr Davis, a Cheapside lawyer. He produced the pawnbroker’s assistant to give evidence. The assistant told Alderman Carter (who was sitting in for the Lord Mayor) that a man fitting White’s description but giving the name ‘Martin’ had pledged two ‘six barrelled revolvers’ on the evening of the 4th March. The man was loaned £2 5s against the security of the weapons.

Later that evening ‘Martin’ (White) was back, this time with five more guns which he offered for sale. Asked for their provenance White told the pawnbroker’s man  that they belonged to a ‘friend of his’ who had asked him to sell them. They were part of a large order for the Federal Army, he added, and were surplus to requirements.

In early April 1865 the American Civil War was almost at an end. The Union blockade of the South which had been increasingly effective in choking the Confederacy’s economy was strengthened by the capture of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Only a few days later (on the 9 April 1865) General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union troops at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending four years of bitter conflict.

The Blackfriars pawnbrokers was run by a Mr Folkard and the police (in the person of Detective Edward Hancock) visited as part of their inquiries into the theft. They notified the ‘broker that stolen guns were in circulation but what happened next is far from clear.

The pawnbroker’s assistant – a Mr Parker – had given ‘Long Bob’ £5 for the revolvers he wanted to sell. White wanted £7 10s which Parker had said he would have if his master was convinced they were worth that. White agreed to return later. In the meantime of course, the police had been.

When White returned Parker told him that the guns were stolen and that if he gave back the money he’d given him he could have back the guns. This seems bad practice at the very least; if he knew they were stolen he should have detained the thief and called for a constable. However, White denied knowing anything about any robbery and said he would get the money back. Shortly afterwards he returned, with money and the pistols. Parker now kept both.

Amongst all this the revolvers produced in court were identified as belonging to the gunmaker’s agent, Mr Crane.

There was some confusion and dispute about the facts presented in the Mansion House Court and it can’t have been easy for the Alderman to work out who was telling the truth. The police suggested that when he visited Mr Parker he’d shown him the two pistols that White had pledged but hadn’t mentioned the other five he’d tried to sell. He added that under questioning the prisoner (White) said that Parker had agreed he could have the guns back if he retuned the £5 he’d been advanced for them. When he’d returned however the ‘broker had kept both the guns and the money, something Parker now denied.

The magistrate decided that all this argument about who did what and when needed to be picked over by a jury and so he sent Robert White to join the others accused of stealing Mr Crane’s pistols. He would face a trial at the Old Bailey.

On the 10 April four men appeared in the dock at the ‘Bailey: John Campbell, James Roberts, Edmund Collins and Robert White. They were charged with stealing 50 revolvers from the warehouse of John Crane. The weapons had a collected value of £130.

In front of the jury and Old Bailey court Henry Parker explained that while he was aware of the robbery he hadn’t associated Roberts with the theft because he was a regular visitor, often trading items under the name of Martin. This fitted with White’s image as a commercial traveller and suggests that he was part of a shady underground in Victorian London where thieves worked together to shift stolen goods through the second-hand market.

Should Parker have been more careful? Probably. Was he attempting to make some money for himself or Mr Folkard’s business on the back of this crime? Possibly, but that is hard to prove. In the end all four men were convicted of the burglary. Collins received a good character and got away with six months’ imprisonment. Campbell went down for 10 years of penal servitude while White and Roberts got seven years.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 05, 1865]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]