The polite thief and her ‘have-a-go’ victim

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Female prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction 

Mary Driscoll was well known to the establishment at Southwark Police Court. A ‘powerful -looking female’, she was in the dock for ‘highway robbery’ before the sitting magistrate, Mr Coombe.

Her victim was a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Samuel Hunter and he gave his evidence without the need for a lawyer. Hunter alleged that at about midnight on Friday 9 April 1858 he was crossing from London Road to Borough Road when a hansom cab turned the corner fast, and knocked him to the ground.

A woman (the prisoner Mary) ran over to help him up but as she did so she took the opportunity to pick his pockets. Unfortunately for her he felt her dip into his pocket and seized hold of her. They struggled and a man ran over and got involved. Hunter thought she had passed something to this man, who then ran off.

It was plausible, palming stolen goods to an accomplice was a common practice then and remains so today. The woman was violent he said and several other ‘well-known thieves’ arrived on the scene to try and help her escape or, which seems as likely, steal his other effects including his hat and a handkerchief.

He held on to Mary and soon enough a policeman was on hand to take her into custody.

Mary’s defence was fairly straightforward; she denied everything and said that Hunter was drunk (which he probably was). Suggesting her victim was not in command of his senses was also a sensible tactic. It undermined the validity of his evidence (or at least introduced an element of doubt) and he gained him in a poor light.

Hunter retaliated by saying he was far from drunk and delighted in telling Mr Coombe that Driscoll (and the army of petty thieves that had joined in the assault on him) had failed to discover the £20 in gold and silver he had concealed on his person that night.

Mr Coombe offered Mary the opportunity (under legislation passed just a couple of years earlier) to have the case determined by him or to take her chances with a jury. Mary opted for the summary process and admitted the theft. Mr Coombe sentenced her to four months’ hard labour which she accepted gracefully, thanking the justice before she was led away.

For a practised thief like Mary Driscoll arrest and imprisonment was a calculated risk. She’d be out before long and in the meantime she got board and lodgings for free, at Her Majesty’s expense. Samuel Hunter had his day in court and a story to dine out on for year – how he’d thwarted a notorious ‘highway robber’ and protected his valuables.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 12, 1858]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

A Dartmoor prison warder has an expensive encounter with a ‘lady of the town’.

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Tothill Street, Westminster in the early 1800s (from http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/04/01/more-long-forgotten-london/)

London was a huge draw for visitors in the nineteenth century, especially after the nation’s railway network was built. London was also the country’s criminal justice hub and many of those sentenced to terms of penal servitude were processed in the capital before being sent to institutions as far away as Devon or the Isle of wight. So Daniel Mahoney, a principal warder (prison officer in today’s terminology) at Dartmoor may have been in the capital for work or pleasure. Regardless of which it was he soon fell victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book.

As he was walking in Tothill Street (not far from where St James’ Park station is today) he was ‘accosted’ (his words) by Mary Brown. Mary was a ‘woman of the town’, a prostitute, but Mahoney (who was wearing his uniform) later made out that he didn’t realise this at first. According to the warder Mary asked him if he was looking for somewhere to stay and when he said he was she ‘told him she would take him to a nice clean place’ and went with him to an address in Orchard Street (near Marble Arch).

Once at the house she asked him if ‘he would treat her with some gin’. This was part of the usual transaction of prostitution and for Mahoney to later pretend otherwise was risible. Gin was fetched and two other women joined the party. The warder relaxed and took off his neck-stock (an uncomfortable early version of the stiff collar) and placed it on the table along with his handkerchief, watch and a purse of money.

Without detailing what happened next it must have been pretty obvious to the readership of The Morning Chronicle that Mahoney was enjoying the company of these ‘ladies’ and not paying attention to the danger he was in. London’s prostitutes had been decoying men into low lodging houses, getting them tipsy and parting them from their valuables for hundreds of years and a prison officer must have offered a particularly tempting prospect.

Before he realised what was going on the women had seized his goods and ran off with them. The next day (after Mahoney had reported the theft to the police) one officer made his way undercover to Orchard Street to make some enquiries. He probably had a fair idea from the warder’s description of who he was looking for even if Mary had not revealed her real name.

As police constable John Toomer (221B) strolled along Orchard Street Mary Brown came out into the street from her lodging at number 57 and spoke to him. Seemingly not realising who he was she started to brag about her successful exploits the night before.

Clutching a glass of brandy, ‘She told him she’d had  “a good pull” on the previous night’, that her victim was  ‘one of the Penitentiary officers; and she had got £3 10s in money, a beautiful watch and gold guard, and other things’.

The policeman asked her what she had done with he things and she admitted passing them on to one of her ‘companions’, Emma and spending some of the cash.  She then invited the policeman to go and have a drink with her. He agreed so he could pump her for more information and they walked on for a while. However, as soon as they got within striking distance of the nearest police station PC Toomer revealed himself and took her into custody.

Charged with robbery before the Westminster magistrate (Mr Paynter) Mary denied everything. In her version of events she had summoned by the warder to a house in Almonry. He had apparently paid a lad a shilling to fetch her, for sex one presumes. He had left his handkerchief there she told the justice. Thereafter they had continued on to Tothill Street where they met up with some other women and the warder bought them all something to drink. The last time she had seen Mahoney he was enjoying the company of one these women in a room in Orchard Street but Mary had left and knew nothing of the robbery.

Whatever the truth was the weight of evidence was fairly damning for Mary; especially her supposed confession to the plain-clothes policeman. But Mahoney did not come out of this very well either. The magistrate said he ‘was sorry to see a person of the prosecutor’s official position capable of such conduct’. He remanded Mary for a week for further enquiries.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 24, 1857]