No happy ending for buttons in this East End pantomime

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Throughout the history of crime the roles of ‘fences’ (receivers of stolen goods), pawnbrokers, and those involved in the second hand clothes market, are frequently cited by commentators as problematic. Put simply, if thieves didn’t have somewhere to easily dispose of their ill-gotten goods then they might not steal in the first place. 

This was certainly the underlying theme in the Morning Post’s report of a theft hearing at the Worship Police court in late December 1870. Elizabeth Brown (aged 22), Charlotte Quigly (20) and her 45 year-old mother, also called Charlotte, were presented before Mr Bushby accused of stealing and selling a quantity of buttons from the younger Quigly’s employer. 

Mr Williamson, a wholesale manufacturer of buttons based in Hackney, East London, had noticed that his stock was going missing. Having been unable to pinpoint where the theft was occurring he called in the police. Detective Chapman of W Division (which was the Clapham force) soon discovered that a large quantity (‘several gross’) of buttons had been sold to traders in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Hackney by younger Charlotte Quigly’s sister. This gave him a clear link to the source of the depredations. 

He pursued this line of inquiry and found out that Charlotte and Elizabeth Brown had both sold parcels of buttons to shopkeepers in Bethnal Green Road. Armed with this evidence he arrested and questioned the two young women. Brown had left Williamson’s employment a year earlier and quickly admitted her crime; she had been driven to it by poverty she declared, and threw herself on the mercy of the detective.

With the two younger women in custody Chapman continued his investigation and soon arrested Mrs Quigly, charging her with selling some of the buttons in the full knowledge that they were stolen. Why her younger daughter was not arrested is not clear, but perhaps she was considered to have been acting on instructions from her mother or older sister, or there was simply insufficient evidence against her. Whatever the truth the three women appeared in the dock at Worship on the 29th having been remanded for the theft a few days earlier. 

The remand gave time for Willaimson’s solicitor to bring a motely collection of shopkeepers to court as witnesses. Isaac Levine (of 17 Bethnal Green Road) and tailor, and  Mr Hyams of Brushfield Street, Hoxton (a tailors’ trimming seller), plus another half-dozen traders were called to confirm the detective’s evidence. 

Examined by Mr Beard (the prosecuting solicitor) they said they had been offered the goods as ‘job lots’, as damaged or faulty, or some other story to explain why the buttons were available so cheaply. Few of them had asked any questions, or sent the women away, let alone pass on any suspicions to the police. Moreover, none of them wrote down their purchases in their account books. Clearly they must have known that the stock they were buying was ‘dodgy’ at best, but chose to do nothing and profit from it regardless. 

Mr Bushby was suitably appalled at their behavior, and said so.

‘[T]he system they pursued was  eminently calculated to foster crime like this’ he thundered, and ‘he fervently hoped the time would come when they and such as they would be looked after by the police’.  

‘The were as much answerable for the crime of the prisoners as the prisoners themselves’, he added, and told them he was astounded that they had the nerve to come to his court and swear that they had believed these goods were merely ‘damaged’ and not – as they clearly were – stolen.   In future they had better start recording all purchases in their logs books or they would find themselves in the dock as receivers. 

Having finished his tirade he granted the police a further remand to continue to gather evidence against the three defendants.  Sadly, this is where their trail goes cold. None of them appear in the papers after that and I can see no jury trial either. I suspect they were either summarily punished or that Charlotte Quigly (the younger) was simply dismissed from Mr Williamson’s employ. 

Here then was one Christmas season story involving buttons that didn’t have a happy ending. 

[from The Morning Post Thursday 29 December 1870]

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

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Today’s story picks up on where we left it yesterday, with a young lad of 12 being committed for trial for killing another youth in a fist fight at Rotherhithe. A police inspector from the Thames office was also charged with being an accessory, as he was seen to encourage the boy to strike down his opponent. The trial took place on 10 May 1858 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

Martha Warren was the first witness to take the stand. She swore that she saw the fight taking place in Cross Street, Rotherhithe at 1 in the afternoon. There was a ring of boys surrounding the pair, but only three adults were present, one of whom was Henry Hambrook a police inspector although at the time he was on sick leave and was quite close to retiring from the force.

Martha testified that she had heard the policeman utter the words ‘Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again’, and soon afterwards saw the victim, Thomas Boulton, fall down after William Selless landed just such a blow under his ear. It was clearly a shock to William to see what effect his assault had had on the other boy, and as we saw yesterday he ran all the way home to his mother scared of what would happen next.

Martha was able to identify one of the three men gathered at the scene, his name was John Ventham, and she must have known him as a local man. Under cross examination she was clear that none of the men had tried to separate the lads, instead they watched and encouraged the fight. She heard Hambrook tell Sellers:

‘Keep up to him, young one, and give him right and left’ before whispering something else in his ear. 

When Boulton fell to the floor with a scream Hambrook did nothing to help she added, but simply ‘put up his hand and went away’. Others did come to help, including a woman who rushed over to fetch some water in a tub. The stricken lad was carried off by one of the bystanders, a Mr. Kitchen, but died of his injury.

James Francis also witnessed the fight and heard the policeman offer his advice to Selless. He gave some background to the fight as well, telling the court that the two lads were actually friends and that the quarrel between them had arisen over ‘three buttons’ and an accusation that Selless had failed to look after the other boy’s goat. Boulton had started it and he was, as others had noted, the taller and slightly older of the pair (Boulton was 13, Selless just 12).

The fight was conducted like a boxing match – the pair traded blows and they fought in rounds. Selless had been knocked down early in the conflict, but regained his feet. Perhaps the crucialy part of Francis’ testimony was when he said that ‘they fought very severely for little boys, [but] not so violently as they did when Hambrook came’.

This suggested that the police inspector, who should surely have put a stop to the fight actually chose to escalate it and his actions had a direct impact on the tragedy that happened that day.

The fight seems to have been quite well balanced for the most part, Selless went down twice, his opponent three times, as they squared up to each other. It must have gone on for 15 minutes or more before Selless landed his fatal blow. Thomas Simpson, a local surgeon, who testified that the cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel close to the lad’s ear, examined Boulton. He suspected that the injury was caused by the fall however, not the blow itself. It was an accident born out of the fight, nothing deliberate or malicious.

‘The sudden fall would be quite sufficient to rupture the blood vessel’ he said, ‘considering the excited state the vessels were in—it was what would be called an apoplectic fit—there was not the slightest mark under the ear’.

Simpson then offered Hambrook a character witness saying he was ‘a kindly disposed, humane person’. Several others stepped up to give similar testimonials for the policeman including the officer that arrested him, who added that he was about to be pensioned out of the force on account of his failing health.

The jury were directed to convict both defendants on the strength of the facts given in court and they duly did. Both were recommend to mercy however, and the judge took this into account in sentencing.

He sent Sellers to prison for just three days, accepting that he had no intention to cause the death of his friend. As for Hambrook he also accepted that the man had no desire to encourage the boy to kill and that if he had ‘he should pass a very different sentence’ upon him. However, he was a police officer and his had a duty to uphold the law and keep the peace.

Instead ‘he had incited the boy Sellers [sic] to continue the contest; and there was no doubt that owing to his suggestion the fatal result had taken place’.  He would therefore go to prison with hard labour for three months.

At this Hambrook pleaded for mercy. He was ill, suffering he said from heart disease and wouldn’t cope with hard labour. The judge, Baron Martin, was implacable, there was no way he could reduce the sentence he said and the policeman was taken down.  Hambrook was 52 in 1858 so while not old, he was not young either and he might have expected a hard time in prison (as all coppers can). Moreover his disgrace would have meant the loss of his pension along with his liberty and livelihood. As for William Selless he seems to have stayed out of trouble after this but didn’t live a long life. Records suggest he died in March 1892 at the age of just 46.

This fight between two friends who fell out over something ill defined and certainly trivial ended in tragedy. Thomas Boulton lost his life and a police inspector with many years of good service lost his reputation and his future economic security. As for William Selless we should remember he too was just a child and he would have to live his life forever haunted by the sound of his friend screaming as his blow sent him crashing to the floor.

What a senseless waste of three lives.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 13, 1858]

A little bit of common sense as Easter concentrates the mind of the ‘beak’.

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The magistrates operating at London’s several Police Courts applied the law as they saw it but used their discretion when appropriate. It is not accurate to describe the courts as spaces to demonstrate the power of the state but nor were they arenas for the poor to negotiate their way to a better life. Moreover, we must not see the magistracy as a group of like-minded individuals who always presented a united front, or who invariable took the side of the police or indeed, the wealthier or middle classes.

They did tend towards a moral position in most things; drunks, wife beaters and prostitutes could expect short shrift, as could recidivist thieves or tradesmen that attempted to defraud or trick their customers. Some justices had particularly fearsome reputations as ‘no nonsense’ law givers (like Mr Lushington in the late 1800s) while others might have earned contrasting reputations as ‘kindly gentlemen’.

In popular culture it is the character of Mr Fang in Oliver Twist that represents one contemporary view of the uncaring Police Court magistrate. Mr Fang, on no evidence whatsoever, initially sentences Oliver (who has fainted clean away in the courtroom though illness and exhaustion) to ‘three months – hard labour of course’. Dickens had reported on the courts of the metropolis and was aware of the institutions he was critiquing and the men that served them. He used Mr Brownlow as the voice of reason and charity who ultimately saves Oliver from being caught up in the Victorian justice system.

Sometimes though we do get a sense of the humanity of the Victorian bench and perhaps at certain ties of the year this was more likely to be highlighted by the court reporters who attended these daily summary hearings. The reading public may well have needed to reminded that while justice was swift and harsh for those that deserved it, it could also be ‘just’.

Easter was certainly a time when charity and ‘good Christian’ values were uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, especially the upright moral middle classes of Victorian England.  Over at Westminster Police court in March 1865 Easter was just a fortnight away and Mr Arnold was in the high seat of the courtroom. He had several charges that day one of whom was James Davis. Davis cut a melancholy figure in court:

‘A poor, miserable-looking fellow, covered with rags, was brought up on remand’ the report described, ‘charged with hawking without a license’.

Davis had been held in the cells for a couple of days while enquiries had been made, and this experience had clearly not done him much good. This probably factored into the justice’s decision-making, but before we leap to the conclusion of the case let us door-to-door the circumstances of the charge.

PC Rowe (113 B) was on patrol in Chelsea when he noticed Davis wandering from door to door in King’s Place off the King’s Road. A ragged looking individual had no business being in such an elevated part of town and the policeman was immediately suspicious. There had been a series of burglaries and robberies recently, committed by people that pretended to sell things at the door (we are familiar with this sort of trick today).

As Davis left one house PC Rowe collared him and asked him what he was doing. Davis was indeed trying to sell stuff and had a card of shirt buttons  and the previous householder had bought some from him. Rowe asked him if he had a license to sell goods in the street and off course since he didn’t, he took him into custody.

On his first appearance before the magistrate Davis pleaded poverty, saying he was ‘half starved’ and was trying to ‘get an honest living’. Nevertheless, the law was the law and Mr Arnold reminded him so that he could seek advice from the relevant authorities. In this case that was the Inland Revenue and a few days later a gentleman from the Excise appeared.

The offence Davis had admitted to carried a maximum fine of £10 but the revenue man said this could be reduced ‘by a quarter’ under legislation passed in 1860 and 1861. This was still a huge sum for a man in Davis’ parlous state to find. £10 was the equivalent of almost £600 in today’s money and would have bought you a skilled tradesman’s labour for a nearly two months. Davis was selling his buttons for a few pennies, and trying to scrape a few shillings together to eat and put a roof over his head.

So taking all of this in account Mr Arnold acting with charity, compassion and no little common sense. This man, he declared:

‘could not pay £2 10s, and if he sent him to prison it was for trying to get an honest living. Nothing was known of him [meaning he was not ‘known to the police’ as a repeat offender or trouble maker] and he (Mr Arnold) should not put the law into force’.

He told him he ‘must not do it again’ but released him on his own recognizances with the warning that he might be required to attend his court again in the future, presumably if he was caught selling without a license once more. Another man was similarly convicted and released, so that Mr Arnold could award punishment at a later date. The inference was that as long as he behaved himself and obeyed the law, that ‘later date’ would not transpire.

Quite how James Davis managed to keep himself together and earn his ‘honest living’ without being able to afford to purchase a hawking license is not clear, but at least he was out of gaol and with no stain against his character.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 31, 1865]