The Stoke Newington murder mystery

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Just after nine o’clock on Wednesday  morning, 8 January 1884, a man’s dead body was recovered from a reservoir at Stoke Newington. George Jaggers, employed by the New River Company, had dredged the reservoir after several personal items had been found nearby by a group of boys and two men walking to work. The objects, which included a hat, coat, ‘a pearl pin, an earring, a watch key, a bar of gold, a watch chain’ plus some money, were formally identified as belonging to a Mr John Broome Tower.

At a coroner’s inquest held at the vestry hall in Stoke Newington several witnesses testified to finding the possessions of Broome Tower in the vicinity of the reservoir, which was situated (as it is now) north of Lordship Park, in the space between Green Lanes and the Seven Sisters Road.

The hat and coat had been seen first by William Palmer, an engineer’s assistant, who saw them as he went to work for the New River Company on the Tuesday. At 8 o’clock, as he came back for his breakfast he saw two policeman carrying them and went over to tell them he’d seen them earlier that morning. Palmer lived in Queen Elizabeth’s Walk which ran down from the reservoir at Lordship Road, then along the edge of Clissold Park to the rear of St Mary’s old church on Church Street.

In Booth’s late 1890s map of the area the top end of the Walk is not mapped or categorized at all, the project not covering the very north of the capital. Around the old church, where there was a mortuary near Edwards Lane and Meadow Street, the housing was poor and coloured blue, but the properties along Queen Elizabeth’s Walk were comfortably red. There were pockets of pink on the map above Clissold Park but Lordship Park and the other streets bordering the pumping station on Green Lanes were solid red in colour.

Detective Inspector Glass of CID told the inquiry that his men had found footprints and other marks close to the reservoir and had made casts of them. George Jaggers explained that the water was about 6 foot deep where he found the body and that the edge sloped down from the top. He did not think someone could have thrown a dead body in from the top, he would have had to enter the water as well if the intention was to cover it sufficiently so it was hidden.

The coroner said that on the information they had heard thus far ‘there was no doubt that the young man had been murdered’. He said the likeliest theory was that Broome Tower had been attacked, dragged into the eater, strangled and drowned. The jury recorded a verdict of ‘willful murder against some person or person unknown’.

John Broome Tower had not been seen since New Year’s Eve and his disappearance was followed by that an unnamed young woman, the press reported.  The police were trying to trace her whereabouts as they wanted to question her in relation to the man’s death. As of the 12 January 1884 however, they were clueless and the papers were describing the discovery of a body in the reservoir as the ‘Stoke Newington Murder’.

Broome Tower was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in a service that was attended by a small number of people, including Miss Alice Drage, who had identified most of the items found as belonging to the deceased, his mother and father, and his old school master. In the late 1890s the cemetery, which still lies behind Church Street had a small female prison at its southeast corner.  This was the London Female Penitentiary which later became the London Female Guardian society, and housed ‘fallen women’ (Victorian and Edwardian code for prostitutes).

Was John Broome Tower murdered, or did he take his own life? I’ll continue my investigations and let you know.

[from The Herald, Saturday, January 12 1884)

‘A Mysterious tragedy in London’, as Martha Tabram’s murder sets off the hunt for ‘Jack the Ripper’.

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“Mysterious tragedy in London”.

This is how one regional English paper reported the death of a woman in East London in early August 1888.  At that point they didn’t know that this was about to become the story of 1888 and one of the most notorious crime stories of this or any other age.

The Sheffield paper described how John Reeves was on his way to work, descending the stairs from his room in George Yard Buildings in what is now Gunthorpe Street, Whitechapel, when he came across the body of a woman. She was lying in a pool of blood and Reeves rushed off in search of a policeman. PC Barrett (26H) quickly found a doctor who examined the woman in situe.

Dr Keeling ‘pronounced life extinct, and gave it as his opinion that she had been brutally murdered, there being knife wounds on her breast, stomach and abdomen’. It was hardly a contentious conclusion to draw, the poor woman had been stabbed 49 times and only one of those blows (to the area close to her heart would have been needed to kill her.

The paper reported that the victim was ‘unknown to any of the occupants of the tenements on the landing of which’ she was found, and no one had heard ‘any disturbance’ that night. A killer had apparently struck and killed with extreme violence without anyone seeing or hearing anything.

The murder had, the paper continued, been placed in the capable hands of Inspector Reid of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), who was now ‘conducting inquiries’.  So far these inquiries had not resulted in any clues being found but that didn’t stop the press from speculating. There were dark muttering about the type of wounds that the unknown woman had suffered, some of which were described as ‘frightful’, one described as being of ‘ almost revolting nature’.

While the identity of the victim was just as much as a mystery as her assailant the papers did agree that she was ‘undoubtedly an abandoned female’. By this they meant that she was a prostitute and so speculated that her client might have killed her. Moreover it was stated that her wounds were ‘probably inflicted by a bayonet’ and so the search was soon on for one of the several soldiers seen drinking near the scene of the crime earlier that night.

The woman was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and although DI Reid followed up the soldier angle it was soon clear that no squaddie was responsible for Martha’s murder. While her death has previously been only loosely linked to the series of killings history has called the Whitechapel Murders I think we can now be fairly sure was among the first of ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims. Killers MOs develop over time and adapt to circumstance (the Zodiac killer in California in the 1960s is a good example of this) and so while Martha’s throat was not cut they are similarities in respect of the other murders in 1888-91.

I believe Martha Tabram was actually the third person that the serial killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered, the first being over a year earlier in May 1887. Along with my co-research Andrew Wise we have set out our arguments for drawing link between the Whitechapel murders and another set of unsolved homicide (the Thames Torso mystery) which occurred at the same time. While London might have had two serial killers operating at exactly the same time we think it is unlikely and we believe we might have uncovered a possible suspect to hold responsible. Obviously proving someone is guilty after 130 plus years has passed is all but impossible and so we offer our suspect as a possible killer, not the killer.

The pursuit of Jack the Ripper has become a parlour game which anyone can play and we are not so arrogant as to believe that solving it is easy or straightforward. We’ve presented our case in our new book – Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper? (published by Amberley this summer) – give it a look if you are interested in finding out more about the case, our suspect, and late Victorian London. It is available in all good bookshops and online.

[from Evening Telegraph and Star and Sheffield Daily Times, Wednesday, August 8, 1888]

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

A victory for William Stead or just another victim of male lust?

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On Saturday I left you with the unfinished case of Louisa Hart who was accused at Marylebone Police court, of the abduction of a young girl for the purposes of child prostitution. The hearing was one of the first to result from the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 after a sensational campaign by the leading journalist of the day, William Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette.

On the 8 February 1886 Louisa Hart was remanded in custody so that an investigation by CID could be further pursued. On the following Tuesday (16 February) Hart was back before the magistrate flanked by her solicitor (a Mr T. Duerdin Dutton) to hear a prosecution brought this time by the Treasury. She was described as being 21 years of age and residing at 32 Fulham Palace Road. The charge was that she had ‘unlawfully procured two young girls of reputable character, aged twelve and thirteen respectively, for immoral purposes’.

Florence Richardson was again called to give evidence, this time in person, and she recounted her experience of visiting Mrs Hart with her friend Rosie Shires in the summer of 1885. This account had a little more detail than the one I reported on Saturday as Florence described some of the events that had occurred:

Having had tea with Mrs Hart Rosie and Florence ‘went downstairs to a back room furnished as a bedroom. They washed their hands and presently an old gentleman came in’.

He spoke to the girls but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Soon afterwards though both girls undressed and then things happened which were said in court but not written up or published by the Daily News’ reporter. Mrs Hart gave Florence a half-sovereign and Rosie 10s, adding 3s 6for their cab fare home to Holloway. Florence returned on the next Saturday and the same man was there and the same thing happened again.

It was an awful experience for Florence who cried bitterly in the witness box, especially when she was being cross-examined by Mr Dutton. She was being asked about her family, her withdrawal from school, and her sister, but she pleaded with the bench that she had nothing more say having already  ‘brought sufficient disgrace on her family’.

The next witness was Sophia Shires (22) of Spencer Road in Holloway. Rosie was her daughter and was not yet 13 years old. She’d found a letter (form Mrs Hart) in her daughter’s pocket and had contacted the police. Again she was cross-examined with doubt being thrown on her morality with regards to her daughter. Had she been aware of what Rosie was involved with? Had she been complicit?

This chimed with the case of Eliza Armstrong, the 13 year-old girl that William Stead had bought for £5 as the centerpiece of his ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé. It was Mrs Armstrong’s strong reaction to the idea that she had ‘sold’ her daughter into prostitution that helped bring Stead and his accomplice Rebecca Jarrett before an Old Bailey judge and jury in the previous year.

Rosie was not in court and her mother clearly wanted to spare her the trauma that Florence was going through but Mr De Rutzen, the magistrate, insisted. The case was adjourned for a few days and Louisa Hart again remanded in custody. Meanwhile Mr Mead, the Treasury solicitor, muttered darkly that there had already been attempts to interfere with some of his witnesses. Powerful forces supported brothels and child prostitution just as they had opposed the attempted to pass the legislation that was at the heart of this prosecution. Some members of the elite strongly believed they had a right to prey on the children of the poor to satisfy their carnal desires.

During the course of the following week it emerged that Louisa Hart’s husband, Ben, was possibly the real power behind the relationship. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that when Louisa had been searched at Paddington police station she had told her female searcher that Ben Hart had married her when she was just 15 years old. It was against her will, she said, and it was him that had been the driving force in setting up what was described as ‘a child’s brothel’ in Markham Square.

Louisa Hart was back before Mr De Rutzen on 2 March. The same evidence was repeated but with some clarifications. Rosie was there this time and gave her version of the events in the house. She described the gentleman there as ‘middle aged’ and was clear that she had been asked her age, and ‘Florry’ asked hers. The prosecution was trying to establish that the girls were underage and that Mrs Hart (and the mysterious unmanned pedophile) knewthey were underage. She later added that on another occasion at the house she clearly remembered Mrs Hart insisting she tell the old gentleman that she was over 16, despite her knowing that she wasn’t.

This last point seemed to knock the defense solicitor somewhat and he asked for an adjournment for a week. The magistrate allowed this and again remanded the prisoner. A week later a much shorter hearing ended with Louisa being fully committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

That trial took place on 3 May 1886 and Louisa Hart was accused and convicted of ‘feloniously aiding and assisting a man unknown in carnally knowing Rosie Shires, a girl under the age of 13’. That was all the details the Old Bailey Proceedings recorded apart from Hart’s sentence, which was five year’s penal servitude. She served just over three years, being released on license in August 1889 and listed on the habitual criminals register. She died ten years later at the age of just 34. What happened to Rosie and Florence is unknown. The man that abused them seems to have got away scot-free as did Louisa’s husband Ben.

[from The Daily News, Wednesday 17 February, 1886; Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 24 February 1886; The Standard, Wednesday, 3 March, 1886]

‘Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’: one girl’s descent into prostitution

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This is quite a disturbing case and as yet I’m not sure what the ending would have been. It concerns the trade in virgin girls that had been exposed by William Stead’s sensational piece of journalism, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Stead’s exposé help force Parliament to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act that year, which raised the age of consent for 13 to 16. The underlying intention was the save ‘the unmarried daughters of the poor’ from exploitation for the pleasure of the ‘dissolute rich’.

The act gave the police the weight to investigate cases of child abduction (for the purposes of prostitution) and one of the results of this can be seen in this case from February 1886.

Louisa Hart, a 21 year-old married woman residing at 32 Fulham Place, Paddington, was brought before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court on a warrant issued to detective inspector Morgan of CID. DI Morgan had arrested Hart after an investigation which had led him to Finsbury Park and back to Chelsea and a house which may well have served as some sort of brothel.

The detective wanted a remand for Hart and was able to produce both a witness and a copy of the ‘information’ (or statement) she had given him. The witness was Florence Richardson, a ‘good-looking girl, wearing a large hat’. Her statement was read by the clerk of the court, probably because some of what it contained was deemed unsuitable for her to read aloud in person.

The court was told that Florence (who was nearly 14) was friendly with a another girl called Rosie Shires. Both girls lived in St Thomas’ Road, Finsbury Park and about six months previously Rosie had shown her a calling card with the name ‘Louisa Hart’ inscribed on it. The card also had an address – 43, Markham Square, Chelsea – and Rosie asked her friend if she would accompany her there to visit Mrs Hart for ‘tea’.

Florence agreed and the pair set off together. When the got to the house Florence noticed a lady in riding habit get off a horse and enter the house. A few minutes later the pair were invited into the drawing room where the lady in riding clothes introduced herself as Louisa Hart. She welcomed Rosie and said: ‘’Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’.

Florence waited while Hart and Rosie left briefly, apparently going downstairs to the parlour. They then had tea together before the door opened and an elderly man entered the room. What happened next was ‘unfit for publication’ so I think we can safely assume that Florence (and possibly Rosie) was subjected to some sort of sexual assault. Both, we should remember, were under the age of 16 and therefore under the age of legal consent.

That money changed hands  was not in question and Florence went back to the house a few weeks later and saw the same man again. She never told her parents what had happened but spent the money on ‘sweets and cake’. She later discovered that Rosie had also been ‘ruined’ by the old man and clearly her mother (Mrs Shires) had found out and was angry. Perhaps this was the point at which the police became involved.

Mrs Hart’s solicitor lamely applied for bail for his client but recognized that the case was far too serious for the magistrate to allow it. Mr. De Rutzen allowed him to try but refused bail. Decretive inspector Morgan’s request for a remand was granted and the investigation continued.  If I can find out some more you’ll be the first to know.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 09, 1886]

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]

The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]

An opportunistic ‘white van’ theft

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It is sometimes hard for us to imagine  a London without cars, vans and buses. The internal combustion engine has become ubiquitous in all modern cities but in the last decade of the nineteenth century it remained  a novelty. While the steam locomotive represented a massive leap forward for the most part  Victorians literally relied on  horse-power  for their everyday transport needs.

London was served by a staggering 300,000 horses in the 1890s and so, in the absence of motorised transport until the late 1890s (the first horseless carriage took to London’s streets in 1896), the horse was a valuable commodity.  So just as people steal cars cars today, the theft of horses (and horse drawn vehicles) was a problem for the Metropolitan Police.

George Davelians was a car-man – a white van man in today’s terminology – and in May 1894 he found himself in court charged with stealing a van, its horses and the goods that were in it. Alfred Fillingback had ‘parked’ his van outside the South Devon Wharf, on Lower East Smithfield, while he popped into the offices to pick up some paperwork. When he came out the van was nowhere to be seen.

It was next sighted by John Reeve, the gatekeeper at the nearby British and Foreign Wharf. He was alerted to it because it was moving so fast. He recognized the driver as Davelians, as he’d known him for several years as a regular around the wharves but was surprised to see him ‘thrashing the horses, and urging them on as fast as they could go’.

When the van reached Tower Hill it was flagged down and stopped by PC Thomas Bristow who told Davelians he was arresting him on suspicion of stealing ‘a pair-horse van and ten sacks of flour’ from Perry & Cozens of Brick Lane, Spitalfields.

‘Doing what?” demanded Davelians, ‘I know nothing about that’ and he tried, unsuccessfully, to escape. In court a sergeant from CID appeared and asked that the car-man be remanded as he might be able to help the detective branch with their inquiries into a number of similar robberies. Davalians was remanded for a week.

P.S I can’t find this case in the Old Bailey website so it may not have got as far as a trial..

[from The Standard , Saturday, May 19, 1894]