A real life Dickensian story of one girl’s descent from respectability to ruin.

 

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Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street and then going on a walking tour of the area led by Lee Jackson, an expert in all things Victorian. The tour was inspired by Dickens love of walking – he walked several miles every day and his observations gave him inspiration for his writing. Lee stopped frequently and referred extensively to Sketches by Boz, the collected writings that Dickens produced between 1833 and 1836 and which helped secure his contract to write The Pickwick Papersand then Nicholas Nickleby(and thus his breakthrough as an author). His pen portraits of people and places have helped fix the idea of early Victorian London in our heads with a host of characters from everyday life.

Many of these appear in the various Police Courts of the metropolis throughout the 1800s and the way in which certain characters or situations are described probably owes something to Dickens and his journalistic style. The reporters that attended the police courts were quick to choose cases that had drama, humor or a level of pathos – as well as those of course that offered a moral message or warning to the readership.

Dickens must have been familiar with the courts (he was after all, a legal clerk in his early years) and may have been inspired by some of the stories he heard there. I think the following case is a good example of the sort of tale that might lend itself to a short story or a scene in a Dickensian novel.

On the 31 May 1836 an ‘elderly, respectable looking’ man attended the Union Hall Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help.  He explained to Mr Wedgewood (who was the sitting justice that day) that he had an eighteen year-old daughter who had eloped with her lover three weeks previously.

She left without saying a word, taking her possessions in two packed suitcases. He’d sent out messages to find her and bring her home but without success. And then, as if this could not get any worse for the man, he went on to describe how the ‘seducer’ of his child had then abandoned her and left her disgraced and ruined at the mercy of a landlady of a house of ‘ill-fame’ in Anne Street, off the Waterloo Road.

The poor father had made enquiries at the house and was told that his ‘unfortunate and misguided’ had turned up there with a story that she had recently arrived from the Continent, and took rooms at £1 14sa week. Presumably unable to pay her rent the girl had fled leaving her luggage in lieu of her debt. He asked the magistrate if he could compel the landlady to hand over his daughter’s possessions.

Mr Wedgewood said he had no such powers under law; the woman was within her rights to keep the clothes and other goods since his daughter owed her money. However, if the gentleman could track down his missing girl she may well be able to testify to being abducted which could help bring a prosecution against the house (which clearly seems to have been some sort of brothel) and those that ran it. In response to this the old man said he’d asked the landlady where she was likely to have gone and was told:

I suppose if you look after her you will find her of an evening in the Strand or Fleet-street’ and ‘evinced the utmost unconcern in the course of the questions put to her respecting the unfortunate girl’.

She didn’t care what had happened her to. She’d lost a potential money earner but had her clothes; she must have hoped or excepted that the girl would return to her when she’d had enough of walking the streets. If the man didn’t find her soon however her ruin would be complete and a (short) life of exploitation, violence poverty, disease and death probably awaited her.

Mr Wedgewood could only sympathize with the unnamed father, she could do nothing for him except advise him to keep looking and hope to eventually bring her abusers to justice.  The man left court ‘evidently much depressed in spirits’.

A desperate and elderly father, a callous brothel madam, a young girl seduced by the charms of a duplicitous young man and the ultimate descent from respectability to poverty and public disgrace: this story has it all, it just needs a Dickensian quill to bring it to life.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 01, 1836]

 

‘The road is as much mine as yours to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’: A cabbie who won’t go south of the river without a hefty tip

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In 1875 the Adelphi theatre in the Strand was staging a production of Nicholas Nickelby. Dickens’ third novel had been turned into a play almost as soon as it had appeared in print and the author didn’t profit from the misappropriation of his work. By 1875 Dickens was dead anyway and the story of Nickelby, the impoverished schoolmaster and the quite awful Wackford Squeers, was a popular standard for Victorian audiences and the Adelphi had been amongst the first theatres to put it on.

Once the show was over the Aldelphi’s manger, a Mr Chatterton, went on to enjoy an evening of the opera at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane before meeting up with a friend for drinks. Chatterton finally left the Albion Tavern at just after midnight and he and his chum, Mr Webster, asked a linkman to fetch them a cab.

It was a dreadful night, pouring with rain and it took the man about a quarter of an hour to secure a hansom cab for the friends as he’d had to go all the way to the Haymarket to find one. Chatterton helped the other man into the cab (which suggests to me at least that he was a little the worse for drink) before clambering in himself. The driver (John Dredge) got down from his seat to ask them where they wanted to go.

‘Clapham Road, near the Kennington Church’ Chatterton told him.

While this was only a journey of about 3 miles it did involve going south of the river and would probably have taken half an hour (and of course another 30 minutes for Dredge to get back into town and home). Under the bylaws governing licensed cabs he had to be home by 1 in the morning (or a pay a fine at the rate of 16an hour), so given how late it was he was reluctant to ‘go south of the river’ at that hour. However, if the money was right he was prepared to carry the gentlemen.

‘I am not obliged to go that way, and shall not go unless you pay be liberally’, Dredge told them, ‘what are you going to give me?’

Chatterton didn’t want to get into an auction with a cabbie so decided to find an alternative way home. ‘If you won’t go there’ he insisted, ‘drive me to the station in Bow Street’.

This infuriated the cab driver. Bow Street was literally just around the corner from the pub. ‘Oh that’s your game is it?’ he told them, ‘The road is as much mine as your to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’. Webster tried to reason with him but Dredge was having nothing of it; he clearly felt the gentlemen were taking the mickey because they were tipsy. Chatterton was not at all amused however, and called a policeman who took the cab driver’s number.

Ten days later Dredge was summoned to appear at Bow Street Police court before Mr Vaughan. Cab drivers had a poor reputation for insolence and magistrates rarely missed a chance to punish them for it. Despite Dredge insisting that he thought the two men were drunk but now apologising for being mistaken and for ‘having cast such an imputation’ the justice decided to throw the book at him.

He said it was evident that Dredge’s intention was to ‘extort more than his legal fare’ and the ‘public were not to be exposed to such a system’. So, as a ‘warning to other cabmen’ he fined him 40(or a month in prison) and suspended his license for a month.

Dredge was stunned, and so was the theatre manager. Surely Mr Vaughan didn’t mean to deprive the man of his livelihood as well as fining him the equivalent of £120 today (about two week’s wages at the time). The Bow Street magistrate was unmoved by either man however, and insisted his mind was made up and the penalty would stand.

I suspect this decision would have filtered down to Dredge’s fellow drivers but not necessarily with the effect that the justice wanted. London cab drivers are unlikely to have reacted well to being told what to do, or to one of their own being treated quite so harshly.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, May 12, 1875]

for other stories featuring London hansom cab drivers see:

Cabbies get a raw deal at Westminster

A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

The cabbie and the lady who knew too much

 

 

 

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

Two ‘ungovernable’ girls smash up the workhouse to get a change of scenery.

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Over Easter I’ve been enjoying bingeing on the BBC’s Dickensian series (via Netflix). While Inspector Bucket hunts for the killer of Jacob Marley, a variety of characters created by Dickens interact with act other in a  number of subplots. 1842 was the year the Detective Department was created (and Bucket presumably is meant to represent them when he refers to himself as ‘the detective’).

One of the subplots in Dickensian is the attempt by Mrs Bumble (the workhouse keeper’s wife) to ingratiate herself and her husband with the Board of Guardians of the Poor so they can secure a better paid position running a workhouse in ‘the Midlands’. She forces the inept and overweight Bumble to apply with a mixture of threats and false promises and we know, of course, they’ll eventually succeed because that is how Bumble comes to feature in Oliver Twist’s early life.

The Bumbles run the local workhouse (which we rarely see) with little care for the young charges trapped within. At his interview before the Guardians Bumble promises to thrash each and every one of them to instil the ‘Christian discipline’ they so badly require.

Dickens drew on real life. As a journalist his attention to detail gives his characters – even the gross parodies like Mr and Mrs Bumble – genuine authority. Life in the workhouse was very hard for all inmates, no less so for the children of the poor, orphans like young Oliver. There was little food, a basic education and the only family they had was each other. So it would be surprising if the children of the workhouse didn’t rebel from time to time.

Sarah Shaddock and Mary Tighe were two young women on a mission. The mission  they had, it seems, was to infuriate the keeper and matron of the Bishopsgate workhouse in the City of London. The girls (now 18 years old) had been born in the workhouse – they had known no other home outside. Growing up in the institution they had not only rebelled, they had tried to make it impossible for the matron and keeper to control them.

This was the only freedom they had of course; the only ‘agency’ available to them was to refuse to do as they were told. This choice however, had consequences, and in early April 1842 they found themselves standing in the dock at Mansion House Police Court facing Alderman Gibbs, the sitting magistrate, charged with theft.

The assistant matron explained that the pair had only just returned to the workhouse, having been previously confined in the bridewell for damaging property and being disorderly. On their return they’d robbed an elderly pauper of her entire savings (which amounted to just a few pennies).

The alderman was told that the girls, who stood at the bar ‘as quiet as mice’ had ‘frequently distinguished themselves by breaking windows and pelting the elderly residents with bread’. Mr Booker, one of the parish officers, added that when the pair were bored of the workhouse they:

‘committed violence of some kind, and the contrived to have a little variety to their taste’, adding that ‘they had been for a length of time ungovernable’.

What was the alderman to do with these two ‘ungovernable’ girls? Sanctions were clearly having little effect on them. He decided to give them two months in prison at hard labour but with the following stipulations as to their regime.

The pair were ‘to be locked up locked up every alternate week during that period in a solitary cell’. In addition, he said, care should be taken that ‘the diet of the prisoners should be as low as could be consistent with the preservation of their health’.

In other words, he was putting them on a starvation/subsistence diet which would serve both to break their spirit and weaken any attempt at resistance, and remind them that life in the workhouse – however awful – was much preferable to gaol.

This is unusual, I’ve not encountered such detailed sentencing from the court reports but it reveals the limits of the system to really effect change in the persons brought before them. As they had reached 18 both Mary and Sarah could presumably also expect to be able to leave the workhouse at some point soon and make their own way in the world. Given that they had been institutionalised since birth I doubt that transition was going to be easy and we may find both women appearing before the London Police Courts in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 2, 1842]

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]

‘Gin Lane’ uncovered in the 1850s

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The Victorian’s love of gin, immortalised by Dickens in Sketches by Boz

When Benjamin Elmy, and offer of Her Majesty’s Excise, knocked at the door of number 20, New Compton Street it was opened, ‘after a short pause’, by a woman. Elmy asked her if she lived there.

‘No’, the woman replied, ‘I have nothing to do with the house’.

It was a strange response for someone answering the door, unless she was a visitor on her way out. Benjamin entered through the door and made his way downstairs. He was acting on information and presumably knew what he was expecting to find there. He wasn’t disappointed because he found ‘the lower rooms fitted out as a distillery’.

‘A still was at work on the fire, and there was a quantity of manufactured spirits in large bottles’. Elmy also found about ’60 gallons of wash, and all the apparatus of a private still’.

This was clearly an operation to make liquor and avoid the duty on it. Londoners had a huge appetite for cheap alcohol in the nineteenth century and especially for gin (which is what I suspect was being made at No. 20).

Benjamin had not gone on his own and one of his colleagues had decided to follow the woman that had let Elmy in. He caught up whether and brought her back to the illegal distillery. Her name was Eliza Nash and she denied all knowledge of the still or the people involved with it.

Unfortunately for her she was overheard by the landlady of the house who pushed into the room and set the proverbial cats amongst the pigeons.

‘How can you tell the officer that’, she exclaimed, ‘I have seen you constantly about here, and have you lately fetched a great deal of water for the house?”

Eliza was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of what she’d been doing so the excise men took her, and the contents of the room, into custody. The next day they brought her to the Marlborough Street Police Court where Mr Bingham found her guilty of running an illicit still. He was lenient on this occasion, fining her the lower amount of 30 but warning she would go to prison for three months if she failed to pay.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 15, 1855]

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]