‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

Police break up a prize fight in the East End

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The East End of London is synonymous with boxing. I was fortunate enough to be invited to watch a series of bouts at York Hall a few years ago and the place was packed with locals, all knowledgeable about this sport. I’m aware that boxing isn’t everybody’s idea of a sport but when its fair, properly regulated, and boxers are protected, I think it is captivating.

There has been boxing in the East End for centuries, with pugilists drawn from all communities. In the late 1700s for example Daniel Mendoza (or ‘Mendoza the Jew’) held the English heavyweight title. He lived in Bethnal Green for over 30 years. Another son of Bethnal Green was Joe Anderson who rose to be ‘All England’ champion in 1897.

However, while boxing had emerged from bare-knuckle fights there was increasing concern to minimize the violence and reduce the risk to fighters. in 1866 bare-knuckle prize fights were made illegal and the police tasked with closing them down.

In October 1888, when you might have thought the police would have other, more important things, to concern themselves with, Inspector Joseph Capp was on watch outside number 30 East Road (on the City Road) with a number of uniformed constables. He was acting on information that the address, home to a German club called ‘The Morning Star’ was hosting an illegal prize fight.

Capp and his men knocked on the door of the club but no one answered. He tried again, with no more success and so decided to try and gain access to the roof. Inspector Capp managed to climb up onto the roof of the club, via an adjoining house, and tried to peer into the club through a skylight. The glass was cloudy however, and he couldn’t see what was going on below.

He could hear however and he heard the sounds of a crowd, of someone shouting ‘time!’ and then the sounds of blows. These were hard blows, not he thought, ones muffled by the use of gloves. This then was a bare-knuckle prizefight and he instructed his men to surround the club and move in to arrest those involved.

As his officers clambered over walls and forced their way inside there was a rush of people as the audience tried to escape. The police managed to get in however, and found 200-300 people inside. There was a ‘ring made of ropes and stakes in the centre of the hall’, and two boxers squaring up to each other. They were quickly arrested and carted off to the local nick.

At Worship Street Police court Mr Monatgu Williams (the presiding magistrate) was told that the police had found lots of tickets on the floor of the hall. These were for a dancing ball, the ruse that the organizers had chosen to cover their illegal event. A poster outside promised that dancing would start at 8.30 but the only dancing would be around the ring.

The police also seized ‘gloves, towels, ropes, etc’, all evidence that a fight was underway there. Both the men in the dock were bruised and bloodied so by the time the raid had stopped the fight it was clear it had been going on for some time.

One of the pair they’d arrested – Charles Smith, a 20 year-old bookmaker from Whitechapel – was bleeding from his ear and vomiting when he’d been arrested. He had been treated by the divisional surgeon so that he was fit to attend court. Both he and the other fighter, Arthur Wilkinson (a fish fryer from King’s Cross, also 20) were bailed to appear at a later date. A week later both were fully committed for trial.

On 22 November Smith and Wilkinson appeared before a jury at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, charged with ‘inflicting grievous bodily harm and conspiring together to commit a breach of the peace by engaging in a prize fight’. The defence was that this was ‘nothing but a glove fight’ but Inspector Capp was sure the noise of blows he’d heard (he had not been able to see the fight of course) were not, he thought, muffled by gloves. Gloves were found but they were still tied to the ring posts, perhaps to be quickly put on had the police not been able to gain access so quickly. A man named Marks, who was described as a ‘commission agent’ claimed he had tied the gloves on the hands of the fighters, so the men’s defense rested on whom the jury believed.

The pair were convicted and initially fined £10 each plus costs but the case was also adjourned for a month while the organization of the fight was investigated. It was estimated that the event had generated taxable profits, which also required an additional fine to be paid. However, there was a desire that neither of the men should be sent to gaol and that the persons responsible for organising the fight (and probably those who profited most from it) should be forced to pay the bulk of the £36 17that was deemed to be owed in tax.

As a result the enquiries continued, Smith and Wilkinson’s fines were reduced to just £2 each and they were given more time to pay. Wilkinson was still in prison in early January 1889 which suggests he was unable to pay his reduced fine and costs. He was also instructed to keep the peace for six months, which presumably entailed refraining from bare knuckle fighting in the near future.

In 1897 the Queensbury Rules were instigated in an attempt to clean up the sport and bring it respectability. There are still issues with boxing today and boxers are still injured and die, but medical support is much better than it has ever been. Do go to York hall and take in a bout or two, it is a very friendly place and a connection to a long standing local heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 22, 1888; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 28, 1888; The Standard, Friday, November 23, 1888]

A cowardly attack on the wrong victim

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Elizabeth Couldry was standing at her door in Sugarloaf Court in the City of London (which led into Leadenhall Street, above) watching a group of boys play. They were up to mischief – as small boys often are – and the object of their attention was another resident of the court, Catherine Branman.

Catherine was drunk and crying out that she’d lost a shilling, claiming someone had stolen it. She’d worked herself up into a rage and was carrying a large stick. One of the boys picked up a farthing from the dirt and gave it to her, telling her that was what she’d dropped. This only enraged her further and she started hitting out at the boys who scattered.

Another door had opened by now, and a woman on crutches appeared with an elderly man behind her.  He called to her to go home and be quiet but this only provoked Catherine to confront the pair. The invalid was Jane Barham and the old man was her father. Catherine told Mr Barham that if she had been a man she would have knocked his lights out. Jane told her to calm down and come inside for a moment.

Catherine did neither. Instead she lifted her stick and smashed it down on the poor woman’s head.

Jane was rushed to the infirmary at Bow workhouse where she was treated for serious wounds to her head. It was serious enough to keep her in hospital for six days. In the meantime Catherine was arrested and the stick she’d used confiscated to be used in evidence. There must have been real concern that Jane might not recover.

Fortunately she did and on the 25 August she gave evidence before the Lord Mayor at mansion House, although she did so sitting down and with her head swathed in plaster and bandages. Catherine denied intent and said she was drunk at the time. She had been wound up by the little boys and had only struck Jane by accident. It was a risible excuse but the Lord Mayor was prepared to let her settle the matter with her victim. He gave leave for the two women to use the affidavit room to come to a financial settlement; if Catherine paid some compensation and the cost of the court case then the law need take no further action.

The women were soon back in court and Catherine was back in the dock. She’d pleaded poverty and so refused to pay anything (or anything of substance at least). As a result the Lord Mayor said he had no choice but to fine her 20which of course she couldn’t pay. The gaoler led her away to start a month’s prison sentence and Jane went home to complete her recovery in peace.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 26, 1859]

‘Such a state of things is not permitted in any town in Europe. The sooner a stop was put to such places the better’: Soho in 1888

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Berwick Street market in the 1950s or 60s.

Much of the housing would’ve been there in the late 1800s

Madame Akker Huber ran a lively club in Soho, ostensibly for members only. Le Cercle des Etrangers (or Circle of Strangers) was situated in Berwick Street and seems to have attracted a mixed clientele, especially from London’s multinational immigrant community.

One such person was Nestor Lacrois who enjoyed the hospitality of the club but didn’t always have the funds to pay for it. On the evening of 19 May 1888 Nestor was at the bar of the club pleading with Madame Huber to lend him some money so he could carry on enjoying himself.

Madame Huber was disinclined to help however. Lacrois already owed her money and wasn’t at all forthcoming about when that debt would be settled. Her refusal only enraged him; he picked up a glass and threw it at her. As she evaded the missile he tried again, then swept several glasses from the bar, smashing on the floor before storming out.

It took a while (and possibly some failed attempts at reconciliation or recompense) but in June Madame Huber obtained a summons against Lacrois and she and him appeared together at Marlborough Street Police court. Lacrois was accused of the criminal damage, assault and challenging her to a fight when drunk. Lacrois counter-sued, claiming that the landlady had smashed a glass in his face, drawing blood.

Apparently ‘five or six fights occurred in the club’ that night and Mr Newton listened with mounting alarm to the description of the club as a chaotic, drunken and disorderly venue. Several women were produced who claimed they could come and go as they pleased without being members and it was alleged that drinking continued late into the small hours.  In the end he declared that he didn’t believe any of the witnesses before him in the case between Huber and Lacrois and dismissed the summonses.

As for the club itself: ‘such a state of things is not permitted in any town in Europe. The sooner a stop was put to such places the better’.

One imagines the local police and licensing officers took note.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 10, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here