An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A close encounter at the theatre sends one ‘very old thief’ back to prison.

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As Daniel Vincer was pushing his way up the crowded stairs of the Victoria Theatre (the ‘Old Vic’ as we know it) he thought he felt his watch move. Reaching to his fob pocket he discovered it was half out and he pressed it firmly in again. Looking around him he noticed a man directly behind him but presumed the timepiece had just come loose in the press of people.

Just second later though he felt the watch leave his pocket. Turning on his heels he saw it in the hand of the same man who was in the process of trying to break it away from its guard. As soon as the thief realized he’d been noticed he fled, with Vincer in pursuit.

The odds favoured the pickpocket but Vincer managed to keep him in sight as they moved through the theatre goers and with the help of one of the venue’s staff, Vincer caught his man.  On Saturday morning, the 13 August 1864, Vincer gave his account of the theft to the sitting magistrate at Southwark Police court.

The thief gave his name as Charles Hartley but Mr Woolrych was told that the felon was an old offender who also used the name Giles. He was, the paper reported, a ‘morose-looking man’ but then again he had just spent a night in the cells and was facing a potential spell in prison, so he’d hardly have been looking chipper.

Had Vincer seen the man actually take his watch, did he have it in his hands? Vincer said he had. ‘He put his hand along the chain’, Vincer explained, ‘and [he] saw the prisoner break it off’. There were so many people on the staircase that Vincer hadn’t be able to stop him doing so, he added.

Hartley denied everything. He’d ditched the watch as he ran and so was prepared to brazen out a story that he was nowhere near the incident.

However, this is where his past indiscretions caught up with him. Stepping forward a police sergeant told the magistrate that Hartly was believed to be a ‘returned transport’. In other words he’d previously been sentenced to transportation to Australia and had either escaped or, much more likely, had served his time and earned a ticket of leave to come home.

‘That’s a lie’, declared Hartley, ‘I never was in trouble before in my life’.

This prompted the Southwark court’s gaoler to step forward and ‘to the prisoner’s mortification’ identify him as a ‘very old thief’. If his worship would just remand him, Downe (the gaoler) insisted he could prove at least 20 previous convictions against him. Not surprisingly then, that is exactly what Mr Woolrych did.

So, did Hartley (or Giles) have a criminal past?

Well the digital panopticon lists a Charles Giles who was born in 1825 who was frst convicted of an offence in 1846 (aged 21). He was accused of forgery at the Old Bailey and sent to Van Diemens Land for 7 years.  He earned a ticket of leave in September 1851 but this was revoked just one year later, on the 13 September.

Could this be the same man? By 1864 he would have been 39 but could have looked older after a life spent in and out of the justice system, and at least two long sea voyages in poor conditions. The gaoler had described him as ‘a very old thief’ but it might have meant he was an experienced offender not an aged one. There are various other Giles’ but none that fit well, and several Charles Hartleys but again none that dovetail with this offence.

When Hartley came back up before Mr Woolrych on the following Friday PC Harrington (32L) gave the results of his investigation into the man’s past. He told the court that the prisoner had indeed been transported and had been in prison several times. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the criminal justice system’s ability to track a criminal’s life history had improved significantly even if it hadn’t developed the forensic tools that modern police investigations depend upon (such as fingerprints and DnA tests).

Sergeant William Coomber (retired) said he recognized Hartley as a man he had helped put away several years ago. According to him the prisoner had been sentenced (at Surrey Assizes) to four months imprisonment in 1851 for a street robbery, before being transported for 7 years in July 1853. He had earned his ticket of leave in January 1857 but attempted to steal a watch and got another 12 months instead.

Mr Woolrych committed him for trial. By 1864 he wouldn’t be transported again so the unfortunate, if serial, offender was looking at a long term in a convict prison.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 15, 1864]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]

Thieves use chloroform to overpower their victim

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This summer London has been subject to a number of acid attacks. Teenagers (some as young as 12 or 13) riding mopeds have swooped on victims to steal mobile phone or overpower other scooter riders to steal their vehicles. What has made these attacks even more heinous is the use of acid (or liquid victims believe to be acid) sprayed in the faces of those attacked.

The main crime here is robbery, ‘highway robbery’ in eighteenth-century terminology in fact. Thieves that stole money or property using force or the threat of force, and robberies that took place on the street (or ‘highway’) were deemed highway robbery. We might call them muggings of course.

Judges and juries tended to view any theft that was accompanied by violence or the threat of it more seriously than simple larceny, and so those convicted could expect the full force of the law. The same is still pretty much true today; violent theft is dealt with more severely than indirect non-violent theft (such as picking pockets or shoplifting).

In the 1700s this meant death by hanging but by the mid Victorian period imprisonment  had largely replaced all other forms of punishment. Highway robbers could expect to be transported to Australia in the 1830s and 40s but by the late 50 transportation was effectively at an end. English prisons now filled with thieves, robbers and burglars.

When he was brought before the Marylebone magistrate in August 1858 John Jones was accused of perpetrating a robbery with a difference; a  difference which singled it out as worthy of press attention and (potentially at least) the full severity of the law.

Francis Stretch was walking along Munster Street near Regent’s Park between 10 and 11 in the evening of the 25 August when he was attacked from behind. As he stooped to tie his shoelaces three men rushed up and one thrust a handkerchief over his mouth and nose. Stretch noticed that the hankie was wet but wasn’t able to react quick enough.

He did notice a man he later identified as Jones take his watch from his pocket but before he could attempt to stop him or take hold of the thief he ‘became insensible’ and collapsed. The men ran off and Stretch later realised that he had been knocked out with chloroform.

Meanwhile the attack had been witnessed by a woman who was nearby. Shouting ‘stop their’ she ran after the fleeing thieves and a policeman, PC Whinkler (191S) joined the chase. The three men split up, the two others calling out ‘There’s no Peeler here, change your coat’, to Jones. PC Whinkler caught up with his prey soon afterwards in Charles Street and arrested him.

No watch was found on Jones and in court he denied any knowledge of it. Unfortunately for the victim and the policeman the female witness was not in court to confirm their testimony. As a result Mr Long, presiding, remanded the defendant for a few days to see if she could be produced. I expect that if PC Whinkler was able (as he insisted he was) to produce his witness then the magistrate would have committed Jones for a jury trial. It is likely this went to Clerkenwell and the Middlesex sessions because I can’t find it at Old Bailey. There, if the jury were convinced, Jones could expect a lengthy spell behind bars. Other Londoners would now be on the alert for the chloroform thieves just as modern city dwellers are (hopefully) keeping their wits about them when using their phones in public.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 26, 1858]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]

Burglary tops the bill in the early records of the London Police Courts

The newspapers did report the comings and goings at the Police Court almost from their inception in 1792 but the early reports are fewer, less detailed, and harder to find with a simple keyword search. Gradually the papers seem to have settled on a heading of ‘police intelligence’ by the later 1820s but before that its use is somewhat sporadic.

The press also appear to have been working out exactly what to record (the London Police Courts heard hundreds of cases each week between them, so the reporters couldn’t include everything). By mid century this had settled into a pattern where the usual types of hearing (assault and petty theft, fraud and embezzlement, drunkenness and disorderly behavior) were augmented by ‘human interest’ stories (pleas for protection, abject poverty, attempted suicides), or the humorous, funny, or just plain bizarre.

On 11 January 1817 the Morning Post (which was, by the early 1800s, a ‘conservative’ daily which had started life in 1772) published a short summary of ‘police intelligence’ which included the following cases:

At Hatton Garden William Grant was brought up accused of burgling the home of Joseph Fisher, a tobacconist. Fisher prosecuted the thief himself and alleged that he, and other not yet in custody, had stolen ‘upwards of £100 in bank notes and cash’ from his ‘counting-house’. The justice remanded Grant for further examination.

John Davies was charged at Queen’s Square Police court with robbing the premises of Robert Smith who ran the Nag’s Head public house in Knightsbridge (which is still trading 200 years later ). The accused supposedly stole a ‘looking glass’ (a mirror) and was committed for trial. Neither Davies nor Grant are recorded as having trials at the Old Bailey so the prosecutions may have collapsed or perhaps they were acquitted and the cases not written up for the Proceedings.

Mary Johnston was not as lucky as these two however. She also appeared at Queen’s Square on a charge of burglary. She had entered the property of a blind woman named Eliza Bond, at 10 at night. This was quite unusual; female thieves rarely committed burglary, preferring to act with others as conspirators or to steal from homes or shops during the day, when they might pass as servants on errands.

Mary was tried at the Old Bailey on the 15 January and convicted by the jury. She was sentenced to death but recommended to mercy. She was 25 years old and pleaded ‘distress’. I can’t find Mary amongst those convicts transported to Australia in 1817 and she certainly wasn’t executed either so she, like so many ‘ordinary’ working-class people, disappears from the public record after her brief appearances in 1817.

Over at Bow Street one man (William Brennau) was committed for trial for stealing lead from the roof of a house belong to a law stationer in Chancery Lane (but this led to no trial at Old Bailey).

Finally, William Crowder was set before the magistrate accused of conspiring with others to burgle a warehouse in Bucklesbury (in the City of London). Crowder was clearly a man of means and the magistrate must have believed his claims of innocence because despite the man having only recently returned from a trip to France, he set him at liberty on his solicitor promising to appear for him if charges were presented at a later date.

Given that only one of these London hearings resulted in a trial at the Old Bailey it helps demonstrate that previous (and future) studies of crime and punishment which rely overmuch on the records of the Central Criminal Court should be treated with some caution at least. Much more ‘crime’ came before the summary courts in London and elsewhere (as I argue in my first book).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 11, 1817]