The ‘wise woman from Leicester’ who cheated the ‘credulous young women’ of Chelsea.

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I wonder how many of us have had our fortunes told? Perhaps you’ve had your palm read at a fair, or been to see a tarot reader, or have paid to have your astrological birth chart created? You may just read your horoscope in a daily paper. The reality is many people would like to know what the future holds even if they are a bit skeptical of authenticity or reliability of these sources of information.

Fortunetellers have always existed, from the ancients to the present but while today we tend to regard them as mostly purveyors of harmless fun, in the past they were sometimes seen as witches and/or charlatans. In 1736 the laws that allowed the hanging of people for witchcraft were repealed but it remained a crime to try and trick others into believing you had magical powers. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 remained on the statute until 1951 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which allowed for the prosecution of individuals who claimed to be psychic, replaced it. This law was repealed in 2008 under legislation that brought Britain in line with EU regulations regarding ‘unfair sales and marketing practices’. Perhaps after March 2019 we will need a new law to protect us from people who say they can predict the future.

The Witchcraft Act (1736) was rarely deployed but magistrates and the police had another weapon with which to act against gypsy fortunetellers and fairground charlatans. This was the catch-all Vagrancy Act of 1824 which allowed the police to hoover up and prosecute pretty much anyone they liked found in a public place asking for money without good cause. It was also possible that fraudulent fortune tellers could have been prosecuted under the laws that prohibited the selling of goods or the obtaining of money by false pretenses, and perhaps it was this that brought Charlotte Elizabeth Priscilla Veasey before Mr. D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court in late July 1883.

Charlotte Elizabeth was 68 years of age and was accused of ‘obtaining money by pretending to “tell fortunes”’. Several women had complained about her behaviour to the police and they had set up an investigation that involved the planting of two police witnesses. Detectives Scott and Wilson (B Division) set up a watch on Veasey’s house in White Lion Street, Chelsea.  They also employed an out of work serving girl named Reed and the widow of a policeman (Mrs Gregory) to act as planted clients.

As they staked out the house the detectives saw 13 women come and go during just two hours. On the same day a further five clients called at the house in the afternoon. When Mrs Gregory and Miss Reed had been in and out they quizzed them as to their experiences.

The servant told them she been told that:

she had five sweethearts, none of whom would marry her – that a dark young man had left her for a fair woman, but that a very “nice young gentleman” had honourable intentions, and would ask to go out on evening walks’.

Miss Reed had paid sixpence for this information and some of this, it seems, was true. But then again, it wasn’t unusual and was suitably vague (as many predictions like this are).

Mrs Gregory paid 8to be told that she would, at last, find a new husband. However Veasey was wrong about the number of children she had and told her that one of her sons was stepping out with a fair haired girl, which she was sure was false, but later turned out to be true. Again, Veasey had been pretty vague and her guesswork was combined with telling her clients what they wanted to believe.

In her defense Veasey insisted that she did no harm. As a ‘sixteenth child’ she claimed she could interpret dreams, always gave ‘good advice’ and never charged a fixed sum for her services. She’d charged Miss Reed less for example, because she was unemployed. She’d been doing this for almost 40 years and was know as the ‘wise woman from Leicester’.

She made the court laugh when she told Mr. D’Eyncourt that all Mrs Gregory was concerned about was whether she would get another husband.

She seems harmless enough and I imagine that is how she would be seen today. An old lady who mixed homespun advice with a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and charged a not unreasonable amount for reassuring people that everything would ‘be ok’. Not surprisingly Mr. D’Eyncourt didn’t see it that way. He ‘told her that she got her living by cheating credulous young women’ and sent her to prison for three weeks at hard labour, not even countenancing the alternative of a fine.

She hadn’t seen that coming.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1883]

The case of the missing linen and the frustrations of historical research

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The reports of cases heard before the London Police Court magistrates can be frustrating. It isn’t always obvious what individuals roles are and important contextual details are often omitted. I understand that editors had limited space and that reporters were jotting things down quickly, and not always with the knowledge that the editor was going to choose that particular story to run. These courts dealt with dozens of cases in a morning or afternoon but rarely more than one was immortalized in newsprint.

Today I am left wondering who Henry Jepson was. He may have been a private detective or even a member of the Detective Department at the Met, or simply a friend of the victim.

See what you think.

On Thursday 2 July 1868 Jepson received a letter. It was from Elizabeth Milner, a dressmaker, living at 6 Hasker Street in Chelsea. In her letter Elizabeth complained that she had been robbed and asked for his help. On Sunday (5 July) Jepson traveled from his Great James Street residence to Chelsea, talked to Elizabeth about the theft and decided to set a trap for the thief.

Elizabeth had told him that she suspected one of her servants was responsible, the char Sophia Williams. Acting on Henry’s advice she locked up her rooms and told Sophia she was going out for the day and wouldn’t be home until much later. Meanwhile Henry hid under her bed and waited to see what happened.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after Elizabeth had left Sophia entered the bedroom. Although he couldn’t see her Henry could hear her and noted that she left the bedroom and went into the parlour. He could hear her ‘ransacking boxes’ before she returned to the bedroom.

Henry had carefully selected some linen before he’d concealed himself and had left it, temptingly, on a chair. Peering out from his hide he saw he rifle through the linen and select ‘two new pillow cases’. As she started to leave the room Henry snuck out from under the bed to go after her. She must have heard him though because she quickly dumped them back on the pile and rushed off. Henry called for a constable who took her into custody.

This is the action that makes me doubt that his role was official; if he had been a detective he would simply have arrested her himself. Of course he may have, and then have handed her over to a junior officer, but it seems unlikely. There are no references to a detective named Henry Jepson in the Old Bailey either (this case does not appear), which is a little odd if he was one.

Sophia Williams was brought before Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court charged with multiple thefts. The police had found no less than 41 pawn tickets in her room, many, but not all, of which, related to property belonging to Elizabeth Milner. The magistrate remanded her in custody for  four days so the police could pursue their investigations.

And here the frustration continues because the case, and Sophia Williams, disappears from history.  If the police found more evidence she may have stood trial (at the Middlesex Sessions or the Central Criminal court at the Old Bailey). The justice may have decided to deal with her summarily and given her a few months in prison. But as there is no record of her in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records linked by the Digital Panopticon site we cant be sure. Selfe may have decided there was insufficient evidence or Williams could have had a legitimate reason for having so many duplicates for items she’d pawned.

In the end it is a mystery, not one worthy of Sherlock Holmes I accept, but an unsolved one nevertheless.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 07, 1868]

A lovers tryst in Chelsea, or a cunning deceit?

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With the memory of the royal wedding fading away but leaving, by all accounts, a warm romantic glow behind it, I thought I’d continue the theme a few days later.

In April 1887 Emma Banks took a room in a house in Smith Street, Chelsea. She had arrived with a man who purported to be her brother, but certainly wasn’t. The landlady, Mrs Jessie Gantlett, believed him however and his story that Emma only needed the lodgings temporarily while she found a position (in service).

All was well until the day that Emma left. Mrs Gantlett was shocked to find that another of her residents, Miss Price, had lost some items from her room. For whatever reason she suspected Emma and she searched the 22 year-old’s room.

There she discovered clothes belonging to Miss Price and some items of hosiery (stockings most probably) that were later identified as belonging to a hosier in Hammersmith. The police soon ascertained that Emma Banks had left the employment of Frederick Payne, a hosier, in March of that year, and he’d missed stock and £10 in cash from a locked desk in his shop.

When she was questioned by the police Emma broke down and admitted she’d been planning to abscond to Western Australia with the young man that had been visiting her. They’d bought the tickets for the journey she said and named him as James Tucker. So, he wasn’t her brother, but her lover.

Moreover, and perhaps Emma wasn’t aware of this, James wasn’t exactly free to elope to the other side of the world with his paramour. James Tucker was already married.

When the pair were brought before the Police Magistrate at Westminster Emma was initially charged with the theft, but it soon became clear that Tucker was also involved. He testified to knowing Emma for about two months and to ‘paying her attentions’. But he denied ever promising to marry her.

He had thought of leaving his wife, he admitted, and going to Australia. The clerk was outraged at his brazen admission of infidelity and his rejection of his responsibilities. He supposed ‘his wife was not a consenting party to this arrangement’ he inquired of the young man in the dock. ‘She was not’ he replied.

He’d bought the tickets with the money Emma had given him so he was guilty by association of the theft. Mr D’Eyncourt, the justice, told him he’d behaved terribly.

He ‘had deceived and led the young woman into trouble. As two felonies were proved he could not sentence him to less than six months’ hard labour’. In an odd  example of the changing nature of punishment in the 1800s Emma and James’ criminality meant that they would not be going to Australia after all, when 40 or so years earlier they would almost certainly have been sent there for doing exactly that.

So, was this a love tryst that ended badly or was Emma deceived as the magistrate suggested? I wonder how Mrs Gantlett felt knowing that she had effectively allowed a young unmarried couple to spend several nights alone together under her ‘respectable’ roof. Oh, the shame of it!

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 22, 1887]

The butler did it, but which butler?

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There must always have been some semblance of doubt when households employed a new member of the domestic staff, especially one as critical for the running of the house as a butler. The butler was the most senior male servant in the Victorian period and would be responsible for the conduct of all of those below him. It was imperative, therefore, that the butler had the confidence of his master and mistress and was above suspicion in terms of his honesty.

For whatever reason William Clarke no longer enjoyed his employer’s confidence or affection yet there was no suggestion that he was anything other than completely honest. The reality was though, that in late April 1881 he found himself surplus to requirements and as he worked out his notice he had the task of showing the new butler around his home.

Charles Reeve had, by his own admission, been out of position for a period of several moths. Presumably however, he came with a set of verifiable references because his master lived at a prestigious address, 35 Hans Place, Sloane Street, Chelsea and was a commander in the Royal Navy.

On the day Reeve joined the household (and Clarke showed him his duties) a tradesman called to deliver an envelope containing a £5 note and two sovereigns. This was the balanced (the ‘change’) from an invoice Captain (Commander*) Francis Lowther had paid by cheque. Clarke placed the envelope, unopened, on a marble slab in the hallway and thought no more of it. He left in the evening leaving the new man in charge.

Sadly though Reeve, perhaps thinking his new employers would be late back and not needing him, chose to celebrate his new position with a few glasses of alcohol. When the commander and his wife returned not only had the envelope mysteriously disappeared, the new butler was also dead drunk.

At first it was thought that Clarke must have run off with the missing money but then the finger was pointed at Reeve, since he had protested his lack of money when he arrived. How had he suddenly been able to afford to drink himself into an inebriated state?

In court at Westminster Reeve’s lawyer posted his client’s innocence. He’d come by his own money honestly and would hardly have jeopardised his position on the very first day. He had previously served the Duke of Argyll and another ‘noble lord’ and his credentials as an honest man were unquestionable.

Captain Lowther said he had no real suspicions over any of his established staff, believing them all to be honest. Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, had nothing which justified indicting Reeve as a thief however, so he simply required him to enter into his own recognizances in case he was obliged to return to court in the future should more evidence arise. Did he remain in position at Hans Place? That would seem awkward for all concerned since if he hadn’t stolen the money, who had?

[from The Morning Post , Monday, May 02, 1881]

*as a Commander in the Royal Navy Lowther was either shore bound waiting for a commission (either as a captain of a smaller vessel, or second in command on a larger one) or was part of the Admiralty staff in the capital. He may also have been retired from the Navy and living on his pension. If there is another alternative explanation I’m sure someone will tell me!

‘What every brave Englishman should do’? Risk their life to help stop crime?

Today we are constantly urged to avoid becoming embroiled in street crime for fear that we might be injured or worse if we attempt to help others. This hasn’t stopped individual acts of bravery but perhaps we’ve lost the general sense of duty towards our fellow citizens.

In the past this was certainly much more clearly ingrained in the British psyche. Until the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 it was incumbent upon ordinary people to respond to the ‘hue and cry’ and chase after thieves. Even after the ‘Peelers’ became an established presence on the capital’s streets individuals like William Kay were prepared to ‘do their bit’ to stop crime as it occurred.

Kay, a ‘medical rubber’, was walking on Margaret Street ‘soon after eight’ on Friday 20 April 1888 when he heard shouts of ‘stop thief’. As he looked up a young man came rushing towards him. Kay grappled with him for a few seconds while the youth kicked out at him, before he finally got him under control and waited for a policeman to arrive so that he could be taken into custody.

On Saturday morning Kay, the youth, and his victim – a woman named Eliza Redenton – all attended at Marlborough Street Police court where Richard Cooper was charged with ‘a daring robbery’.

Mr Mansfield, presiding, was told that Cooper had brazenly walked up to Ms Redenton, snatched her handbag and ran away. If he had got away without running into William Kay he would have been disappointed because the prosecutor testified that there was nothing of value in her bag anyway.

That was not the point of course, and Mr Mansfield sentenced the youth to three months’ at hard labour. He added an extra month for the assault on Mr Kay who he then proceeded to praise for his ‘have a go attitude’.

Kay had done, the magistrate declared, ‘what every brave Englishman should do’ and he was ‘very sorry to hear that he had been injured’ in the process. He hoped he would not be insulted by the award, from his own pocket, of half a sovereign for his pains.

It was St George’s Day after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1888]

A gang of notorious bike thieves in the dock at Southwark

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Every small boy used to want a bike for Christmas, maybe they still do (but I suspect its the latest iPhone, video game, or tablet that top the lists in modern homes). I was an avid bike rider as a child and well into by teens and beyond. I covered hundreds of miles across London in the 1970s and early 80s, thinking nothing of cycling from Finchley to Chelsea and back (to visit the National Army Museum). Even braving the traffic at Hyde Park Corner or on the Finchley Road held no fears for me – but then, some teenagers don’t seem to experience that sort of fear, and I didn’t.

Frederick Redding (17), Thomas Colman (15), William Fudge (15), John Haslop (15) and George Pearce (14) also appear to have enjoyed cycling. Unfortunately they didn’t have bikes of their own, probably because as working-class lads growing up in Southwark they simply couldn’t afford one.

They didn’t let this stop them though.

William Grimes was another local lad and he had hired a tricycle for the day from George Raymond. Raymond operated a cycle loan outlet in Rodney Road, off the New Kent Road and Grimes borrowed the bike from him in April 1883. As he was cycling (or ‘working the machine’ as the paper described it) on London Road he was suddenly mobbed by a group of lads. They pushed him off roughly, seized the bike and ran away. Grimes tried to chase after them but some of the boys threatened him and he retreated home to tell his father what had happened.

Mr Grimes reported the theft to the police and an investigation was launched. Using the descriptions the lad had given police constable Henry Allen (88M) was able to track down the culprits and on Thursday 12 April they were crowded into the Southwark Police Court to hear the case brought against them.

Redding and Colman admitted ‘having a ride on the machine’ but not stealing it; the other lads said much the same. All of them said that they had found the bike and had then had it taken off of them by other, more aggressive lads.

The magistrates asked where the tricycle was now and the PC told him that he had so far been unable to trace it. If the police was as effective at finding stolen bikes in the 1880s as they are now then poor Mr Raymond could kiss his machine goodbye. The police asked for a week’s adjournment so they could pursue their inquiries but were happy for the boys to be released on the promise they would return to hear the outcome of the investigations. Their mothers then took them away, presumably to face the wrath (and the belts or slippers) of their fathers.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 13, 1883]

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]