The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

The polite thief and her ‘have-a-go’ victim

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Female prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction 

Mary Driscoll was well known to the establishment at Southwark Police Court. A ‘powerful -looking female’, she was in the dock for ‘highway robbery’ before the sitting magistrate, Mr Coombe.

Her victim was a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Samuel Hunter and he gave his evidence without the need for a lawyer. Hunter alleged that at about midnight on Friday 9 April 1858 he was crossing from London Road to Borough Road when a hansom cab turned the corner fast, and knocked him to the ground.

A woman (the prisoner Mary) ran over to help him up but as she did so she took the opportunity to pick his pockets. Unfortunately for her he felt her dip into his pocket and seized hold of her. They struggled and a man ran over and got involved. Hunter thought she had passed something to this man, who then ran off.

It was plausible, palming stolen goods to an accomplice was a common practice then and remains so today. The woman was violent he said and several other ‘well-known thieves’ arrived on the scene to try and help her escape or, which seems as likely, steal his other effects including his hat and a handkerchief.

He held on to Mary and soon enough a policeman was on hand to take her into custody.

Mary’s defence was fairly straightforward; she denied everything and said that Hunter was drunk (which he probably was). Suggesting her victim was not in command of his senses was also a sensible tactic. It undermined the validity of his evidence (or at least introduced an element of doubt) and he gained him in a poor light.

Hunter retaliated by saying he was far from drunk and delighted in telling Mr Coombe that Driscoll (and the army of petty thieves that had joined in the assault on him) had failed to discover the £20 in gold and silver he had concealed on his person that night.

Mr Coombe offered Mary the opportunity (under legislation passed just a couple of years earlier) to have the case determined by him or to take her chances with a jury. Mary opted for the summary process and admitted the theft. Mr Coombe sentenced her to four months’ hard labour which she accepted gracefully, thanking the justice before she was led away.

For a practised thief like Mary Driscoll arrest and imprisonment was a calculated risk. She’d be out before long and in the meantime she got board and lodgings for free, at Her Majesty’s expense. Samuel Hunter had his day in court and a story to dine out on for year – how he’d thwarted a notorious ‘highway robber’ and protected his valuables.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 12, 1858]

A career in crime looks inevitable for a young servant that could not resit temptation

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William Luker, The Mansion House Police Court, (c.1891)

Sometimes, in order to understand exactly what is going on in a historical courtroom (like the Mansion House Police Court in 1866) we need to have some clarity about which laws were in operation and being utilised. That isn’t always easy because laws were amended and new rules superseded them. It is also often the case with the history of crime that the practice of those applying the law (in this case the Police Court magistrates of London) preceded that of lawmakers rather than following it.

In September 1866 Mary Ann Goodchild, ‘a young girl’ of 18 and a domestic servant, was brought before the Lord Mayor and Alderman Abbis in the City of London to answer a charge of theft. Mary Ann was accused of stealing face sovereigns from her master, Noah Aaron.

This was a serious offence, one worthy of a criminal trial before a jury and the possibility (if convicted) of a long prison sentence. However, the defendant was young, female and, crucially, prepared to admit to her crime.

The court was told that Noah Aaron, a general dealer who worked out of a property named Roper’s Buildings, had placed 44 sovereigns in a drawer in his bedroom. Sometime later he counted them and found that the money was short by £5. His suspicions immediately fell on Mary Ann because only she and his wife had access to the room.

The servants were the business of Mrs Aaron so when her husband told her what had happened she confronted Mary Ann with it. Having tried and failed to deny the charge Mary Ann admitted it but pleaded with Mrs Aaron not to ‘do anything with her’. Whether she hoped that this would not lead to a court case or was simply desperate to keep her position is not made clear, but having confessed she clearly hoped for some leniency from her employers.

Mrs Aaron would give her no such assurance and so Mary Ann was forced to give more information about the missing money. She said she had given it to another woman, Alice Alexander, ‘who she said had out her up to it’. In court at Mansion House Alexander was produced but denied all knowledge of the crime (as well she might). Mary Ann was left high and dry.

Since she had confessed to the theft Mary Ann was able to opt to be dealt with summarily. Under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (1855) magistrates were able to deal with cases of theft up to the value of 5 shillings without sending it on to a jury so long as the accused consented. If the defendant pleaded guilty then the theft of goods over 5s came under the power of the magistracy. In 1879 the basic requirement was raided from 5s to £2 as the summary courts began the main tribunal for hearing nearly all small-scale property crime in the capital.

Mary Ann was dealt with under legislation that was initially intended to speed up the process of justice in London and to  keep the higher court clear of petty offenders. She was young and the summary jurisdiction acts were aimed at young offenders (albeit a little younger than she was).

The Lord Mayor sent Mary Ann to prison for four months, a fairly lenient sentence in the context of Victorian punishments but she was probably a first offender, again a factor that was at the heart of legislation that extended the summary jurisdiction of magistrates in the 1800s.

It hardly mattered to Mary Ann however. Having lost her job and without references, with her character therefore ruined and a criminal record added to her CV she was unlikely to find legitimate work in the future. When it launches later this week the Digital Panopticon project may allow us to find out whether Mary Ann managed to make it back to the straight and narrow or descended into a ‘career’ in criminality.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 11, 1865]

A thief opts for the lesser of two evils

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The Criminal Justice Act (1855) allowed defendants in court to have their cases heard by a justice of the peace in a summary court, or elect to go before a judge and jury. This act was intended to speed up the prosecution system by enabling more smaller property crimes (larcenies) to be dealt with by the magistracy. Many of those brought before the ‘beak’ may well have thought it beneficial to give up their ‘right’ to a jury in return for escaping the longer sentence that judges could hand down.

In March 1872 there were a couple of cases before the Guildhall Police Court where defendants chose this option. One of them concerned the theft of a silver watch – a fairly serious crime which in previous years might have attracted a sentence  of death (before the 1820s) or transportation.

Charles Cordell gave a false address in court when he was accused of stealing Joseph Cook’s silver watch on Ludgate Hill on Thanksgiving Day*. Cook and his wife were walking on Ludgate Hill at about 4 o’clock when he saw Cordell  next to him and felt him try to take something from his waistcoat pocket. As he looked he claimed he saw the man steal is pocket watch, and immediately  grabbed hold of  him.

‘You have stolen my watch’, he cried, ‘You are mistaken’ replied Cordell, struggling to get free but the prosecutor and his wife held him tight by the hands. Cook called out for help and a policeman soon arrived on the scene. As Cordell protested his innocence the watch fell from his trousers onto the street.

Mr Cook bent down and retrieved his property and the policeman took Cordell prisoner and marched him to the station house. There he was searched and found to have ‘six handkerchiefs, a breast pin and a knife’ on him.

In court he gave an address in Spitalfields, an area synonymous with crime, and admitted having been charged with felony in the past. He pleaded guilty and waived his rights to a jury trial. The magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 05, 1872]

*If this is the traditional feast day  celebrated by the Americans then this means early November, or it may be what we tend to call the Harvest Festival, but perhaps readers may know of another festival more applicable to late February/early March.