‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]

“The girls sent me to see the guvnor”: a burglar’s weak excuse.

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Henry Morris was woken in the middle of the night by a cry from his brother. Getting up he noted that it was four in the morning and he shuffled his way downstairs and headed towards the kitchen of his house in Chicksand Street, Spitalfields, because that was where his sibling tended to sleep.

The house was home to Morris, who was a tailor, his family and another couple who used the shop at the front for their millinery business. He usually locked up before he retired for the night but on this occasion he’d neglected to secure the back door, which opened into a yard at the rear.

The tailor pushed open the kitchen door and peering in he saw a stranger moving about the room. Morris challenged the intruder, who said that ‘he had come to see the guv’nor’, adding that ‘the girls’ had sent him. Morris  shouted out for help, raising his wife and the people at the top of the house, and a policeman (PC George Tooth – 151H) was soon on the scene. The unwanted guest was searched but found to have nothing on him. Nor was anything missing from the house, but the police constable still escorted his charge back to the nearest station.

In the morning William Wren was presented at Worship Street Police court on a charge of ‘burglarously entering’ the premises with an intention to steal. Wren, who said he was a labourer, denied any attempt at burglary; he said ‘he’d only lifted the latch and walked in’. He added that he had been taken to the house by two women he’d picked up (the mysterious ‘girls’ mentioned earlier) and had been drinking.

Mr Bushby didn’t care much for his explanation, there was little legal distinction in his mind. In his opinion Wren was an opportunist thief who, but for Morris’ intervention, may well have pocketed what he could find from amongst the possessions of the house’s occupants.

PC Tooth also thought that Wren was up to no good. He’d found a rope outside which would have allowed Wren to drop down into the yard behind the Morris’ property. This opinion was shared by a detective attached to H Division who also stated that he was sure he knew Wren as a previous offender. The magistrate wanted to check this information as it would certainly influence his decision making. As a precaution he remanded the labourer in custody for a few days so enquiries could be made.

It seems the hunch that Wren was a criminal was correct. In his trial at the Old Bailey in mid December the suggestion that he was a little drunk was brought up in his defence but did him no good. The jury found him guilty of breaking in with intent to steal and he confessed to his previous conviction from May 1884. Having been in court just seven months earlier under a different name (John Gregg) he could expect no mercy from the judge. He was soon led away to start a five year sentence of penal servitude, despite having stolen absolutely nothing – on this occasion at least.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 28 November 1885]

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

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.