A fishy tale of dishonesty or an act of love?

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Fish Street Hill in the City

Parliamentary legislation in 1848 (collectively known as the Jervis Acts) and the 1850s had allowed for the fast processing of prisoners who had been arrested for relatively minor acts of property crime. Mostly these acts were aimed at the treatment of juvenile offenders and those accused of simple theft of small amounts or low value items.

So it is a little surprising to see the act being cited in the case of Mary Ann Gill, who was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House in May 1860.

Surprising because Mary was charged with stealing the not insignificant sum of eight sovereigns from her master. For context, £8 in 1860 equates to about £500 today. Then it would have been the equivalent of 40 days labour for a skilled tradesman, and worth much more to a shop girl like Mary. Mary could quite easily have ended up before a jury for this crime but, because she eventually pleaded guilty, she avoided that, perhaps hoping for a more lenient sentence.

The circumstances were fairly straightforward: Mr Rouse, a fish salesman, employed Mary at his premises on the appropriately named Fish Street Hill (close to the Monument which marks the outbreak of the 1666 fire). At some point in February 1860 Rouse suspected that Mary might have been responsible for stealing money missing from a bag he kept in a cupboard. She denied it however, and he had no proof.

Then, some months later he discovered a watch in her possession and demanded to know where it came from. She told him she’d bought and (presumably because he didn’t pay her enough to be able to afford such luxuries) he realized she’d used the money he’d lost to pay for it. Having grilled her closely he brought her before the Lord Mayor to be dealt with by law.

Under the pressure of the courtroom Mary confessed. She had stolen the sovereigns and used close to £5 to buy a gold watch. What had she done with the remainder she was asked? The rest she had spent on a ‘young man with who she rode about in a cab when she had a holiday’, she explained. Perhaps the gold timepiece was for him as well, a gift to seal their love, or maybe he’d induced her to steal in the first place?

I prefer the more romantic explanation.

Mary’s life now began to unravel quickly however. It was revealed that she had been dismissed on no fewer than two previous occasions for ‘dishonesty’, a precarious situation for anyone seeking work, even in a vast metropolis like London. Moreover, she had secured the job with Mr Rouse by providing him with a ‘specious, but utterly false statement, as to the reason for her being unable to produce a character.

The magistrate – the Lord Mayor – sent her to prison for six months. In the circumstances this was not that lenient an outcome; had she braved an Old Bailey jury she may even have got off scot-free; unlikely but not impossible. There are only a handful of cases of servants stealing from their masters in 1860 which suggest either that many preferred the summary option or that cases simply didn’t make it that far very often.

Of course, she wasn’t to know that.

[from Morning Chronicle, Saturday 12 May 1860]

‘Ringing the changes’ in a City pub, has nothing to do with campanology

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The Castle & Falcon Inn in Aldersgate Street, c.1827

What does ringing the changes mean to you? I’d always thought it was a phrase that suggested we might try something new, maybe originating from bell ringing, but it appears that in the 1870s it had another, less innocent, meaning.

In April 1879 Thomas James was brought before the alderman magistrate at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. James was a young man who lived with his mother in Hoxton and may well have been suffering with some sort of illness. He said he was a sailor but his mother, who came to court to speak up for him, said he was ‘subject to fits and not accountable for his actions’.

Thomas was in court because he had been arrested by a policeman at the Falcon Tavern in Aldersgate Street. According to a number of witnesses  he had approached the barman there and ordered a half pint of beer. The beer cost a penny and the youth handed over a shilling, receiving ‘6d. in silver and 5d. in copper’ in his change.

‘Young man’, James addressed the barman, ‘you have given me only 5 1/4d.’ The barman apologized and handed over another sixpence.

It was a scam, a trick known as ‘ringing the changes’. Thomas was well practiced at it and had conned Ada Slap, a barmaid at the Bell Tavern in Falcon Square out of 2s, and another (Ann Gale, barmaid at the Royal Mail in Noble Street) said he’d tried (and failed) to play her for a fool for a shilling.

Unbeknown to the conman however, a policeman had been alerted to his fraud by the staff at the Royal Mail and followed him to the Falcon. He watched him approach the bar and, as he began to walk away the officer asked the barman if he’d been tricked. When the man confirmed his suspicions PC Hickman (170 City) followed him out and nabbed him.

A search revealed that James was in possession of 8s 6d  in silver, 17in copper and a few farthings. At the Guildhall he was charged with obtaining money by false pretenses, with intent to defraud. He admitted the charge at the Falcon (he could hardly do otherwise) but denied the others. Alderman Hadley sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

According to Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) to ‘ring in’ or ‘ringing the changes’ was to exchange ‘bad’ currency (i.e. forgeries) for ‘good’. That expression dates back to at least 1811. ‘When a person receives silver in change, to shift some good shillings and put bad ones in their place’ says the dictionary. The term ‘ringing’ (for doing the same thing) can be traced to the middle of the previous century.

Ringing the changes,  as it was by Thomas James (to con people – generally tradesmen), is still a common enough fraud, as this warning from the Devon & Cornwall Policeshows.

The Falcon (or Castle and Falcon Inn) used to stand at 5 Aldersgate Street but was demolished many years ago. The Royal Mail (originally the Coachmakers Arms then the Royal Mail Coach) stood at 17 Noble Street. It was rebuilt in 1898 but I think it too has vanished.  After this current health crisis I wonder how many other London pubs will finally fall victim to the wrecking ball?

[from Morning Post, Monday 14 April, 1879]

 

A dangerous hound on Houndsditch

 

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Captain Joseph Wiggins

This one is curious, not for the offence – keeping an unmuzzled dog – but for the circumstances and position of the person being prosecuted. It is a reminder, perhaps, that no one was above the law in the late nineteenth century.

Police constable Harker (918 City) spotted a gentleman walking a large dog on Houndsditch (no pun intended!). The dog was unmuzzled and, in 1889, this represented a breach of the Rabies Order. Since the man was a gentleman the officer merely took his name and told him he would have to appear by summons to answer for the breach.

On 10 December 1889   the man presented himself at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London to answer his summons. He gave his name as Captain Wiggins, and said he no idea that the Privy Council had passed order stating that all animals like his should be muzzled, as he’d been out of the country at the time.

Moreover, the dog wasn’t his, it belonged to the Prince of Wales (pic. left). Royal CollectionThe captain had purchased it in Siberia and when the policeman had stopped him he was on his way to Sandringham to deliver it to his highness. So what sort of dog was it? untitledQuite possibly a Siberian Mastiff (see image), these were large dogs indeed and probably quite an outlandish sight on the streets of the capital in 1889. It could have been a Husky of course, more popular today and perhaps more familiar, but not particularly large.

The Prince of Wales was the future Edward VII and he was passionate about animals. Well, passionate about shooting them at least! He reportedly insisted that all clocks at Sandringham ran half an hour ahead so that there was more daylight time for hunting. He was also very fond of dogs, keeping a large number both as Prince of Wales and then as king.

As for the man in the dock this was probably Captain Joseph Wiggins (1832-1905) a Norfolk born sailor and trader who developed new trade routes with the Russian Empire in Siberia. He is credited with helping establish the Trans-Siberian Railway by transporting rails and he was honoured by the Tsar. He must have cut almost as much as a dash in London as the dog he brought back with him.

Sadly for him it didn’t immunise him from the law. Sir Polydore de Keyser was the first Catholic Lord Mayor of London since the Reformation, a Belgian by birth, and a hotelier. In 1889, having ceased to be Lord Mayor, he was serving as an alderman and presiding as magistrate at Guildhall. He reminded the captain that ignorance of the law was no excuse for not obeying it, and he fined him 5s plus costs.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, December 11, 1889]

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’: a gentle nudge out of the door

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It can’t have been much fun being a solicitor’s clerk in the Victorian period. In fact I doubt its that much fun now but at least you probably aren’t as exposed to causal violence as Albert Jones was in 1886.

He was sent out to serve a writ and demand for money on a publisher and arrived at Messrs Eyre Bros at 4 in the afternoon of the 18 October. The writ was made out against a Mr G Butcher and Albert duly served it at his office in Paternoster Square, close by St Paul’s Cathedral.

Mr Butcher was not amused. Having asked a series of questions about the writ (which seems to have been part of a long running legal dispute) he said:

‘Can you convey a message to Mr. Kelly?’

Albert replied that he could but said he had been instructed by his superior to tell Butcher that ‘if he had anything to say he had better see him in person’.

‘Does Mr. Kelly expect me to pay this?’ Butcher asked.

Having been told that he did the publisher went on to say:

‘’He wont get a halfpenny of it, and tell him from me that if ever there was a liar in the world he is one’.

As Albert turned to leave, placing his hat back on his head, Butcher kicked him sharply in the rear, propelling him forwards and out of the door. This prompted the clerk (or perhaps his employer) to press charges for assault, and so Butcher found himself up before an alderman at the Guildhall Police court.

‘Did the kick hurt you?’ Jones was asked.

‘It did hurt for a few moments’, the clerk replied.

‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’, came the response from the dock. ‘I simply put my foot up to assist you getting out of the office a little faster’.

With laughter ringing out in court Butcher might have enjoyed this small victory had the magistrate not then handed him a fine of 40s.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 17, 1886]

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]