A ‘good citizen’ or a man ‘with felonious intent’? Unpicking the truth on the late Victorian Strand


This is one of those cases where the truth is very hard to get at. On the surface it involves a deception but one in which the motive is far from crystal clear. It also turns on perceptions and appearances, and contemporary assumptions of what one sort of behaviour and circumstances implied.

Let us start with John Tattershall. He was walking on the Strand late at night when he saw a crowd of people surrounding a young woman in her twenties. The woman was sobbing and being held by a man (also in his twenties) who explained that  he was a detective and had just seen her take money from someone. The woman was denying it and Tattershall was suspicious and challenged the officer. At this the detective said he had to go after the victim, and ran away.

The young woman was Amelia Willis and she had been walking on the Strand at 12.30 on the  2 July 1875. It was a Friday night and it would seem odd that an unmarried woman was walking out so late at night on her own. Quite by chance she met someone she knew, or rather someone she had known from her childhood. The two fell in together and chatted for a while. Her old friend gallantly gave her enough money to get her bus home. She was walking away to find one when a man grabbed her arm and told her he was a detective and was arresting her for robbery.

Henry Williams (25) was on the Strand when he saw a woman and a man close together. He said something to her and gave her some money. It was very late and the Strand was a notorious spot for prostitution and street robbery. Williams suspected that a crime had taken place and decided to intervene. Pretending to be a detective officer he ‘hoped to prevent ‘a drunken man from being robbed’ by a prostitute.

Police constable 363 E saw the crowd of people on The Strand and a man run away from them. There were several shouts and the copper went after the suspect, catching him within yards. The man he arrested refused to give his address and a satisfactory explanation so the officer took him back to the station and left him to cool off in the cells over night. In the morning the man, Williams, was taken before the sitting justice at Bow Street Police court.

Sir T. Henry was as confused by the case as we might be. He suspected that the ‘evidence rather pointed to some felonious intent’ but what it was if couldn’t pinpoint. However, Williams’ continued refusal to give his address was an offence and he warned him that he could either oblige the police and the court or he would pay a fine of £10. Williams still objected to telling the court where he lived and so the magistrate said he would pay the money or go to prison for a month.

So, was Williams a citizen with a sense of duty, or a charlatan who had some ulterior motive? Perhaps he was suffering from a mental illness and was  deluded? Was Amelia telling the truth? And if so, what was she doing all alone on the Strand at midnight on a Friday? This case presents more questions than answers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 03, 1875]

A prisoner who failed to learn his lesson


When a young woman turned up at Mr Gilson’s fishmongers on New Bond Street asking if he would cash a cheque for her master, the Earl of Bective, he readily agreed. Despite the cheque being for the princely sum of £79 (about £5,000 in today’s money) the earl was a regular customer, and Gilson didn’t want to offend him. He handed over the money and his accountant presented the cheque at the Hanover Square branch of the London and County bank, where his account was.

Unfortunately, the cheque (which was from the National Provident Bank of England, St. Marylebone Branch) bounced, there was no such account he was told. Gilson soon discovered that the signature was a forgery and contacted the police. The case was given to Inspector Peel of the Detective Department (G Division) to investigate and within a few days he had arrested two suspects and was looking for a third.

The two men were presented at the Clerkenwell Police court on the penultimate day of June 1878 and some of the details of the case were disclosed. The court heard that George Farrell, a financial agent living in Leatherhead, and George Hopper, who had been working in Hatton Garden, had met in prison. Both had received a ‘ticket-of-leave’ (early release or parole) and had continued their friendship on the outside.

Prison was (and is) a well-established hatchery for criminal activity; thieves learn from each other and plots and dodges are designed behind bars if men are allowed to associate with one another. This was one of the reasons that the Victorian prison system favoured the silent regime since it was supposed to prevent all communication between convicts.

Hopfer had stolen a blank cheque from his employers, Mendlestam & Co. button manufacturers, of Ely Place, Hatton Garden and it was he who had forged the earl’s signature and had written out the cheque. He was picked up first and detectives were sent to track down Farrell. Detective Wakefield’s enquiries led him to a pub in Leatherhead where he found the fugitive. Farrell turned violent and attempted to escape him but with the help of the local police he was secured and brought back to London.

Farrell’s lodgings were searched and the police found a number of pawn tickets ‘relating to valuable gold articles, diamond rings’ and clothes. They also found two bills of exchange, one for £115, the other for £50, both drawn by Farrell and ‘made payable and accepted by Mr Hatfield Thomas, of 36 Royal Exchange’.

Both men were remanded for further enquiries and the case came to the Old Bailey in August 1878. The duo’s names were given as Hopper and Farrow, not Hopfer and Farrell and there were few other minor differences, but it is the same case. A number of other frauds were cited but the evidence against both men was weak and the jury acquitted them. The police weren’t able to catch the mysterious servant woman who presented the cheque to the fishmonger, and seems to have done a similar task for the gang in other frauds.

Unable to get Farrow for the deception the police were able to bring up his previous conviction. He admitted being convicted of forgery and uttering  in 1871 and so the judge sent him back to prison, this time for 10 years of penal servitude for the offence of receiving the blank cheques (found at his lodgings) from Hopper.

Farrow was born in 1846 and first came up at the Old Bailey in 1871 when he was 25. When he was given a ticket of leave he had served 6 years of a 7 year stretch. He came out of prison on the 30 April 1877 and was back inside by August 1878. He next touches the records in 1901 when he is recorded as having died, in Ipswich at the age of just 55. The prison system was unforgiving, both in its capacity to render convicts unable to find legitimate work on release, and in physically breaking the men and women who were incarcerated.

[from The Morning Post – Monday 1 July 1878]

‘My God, what I say is true’; how should a ‘Hindoo’ swear an oath in court?

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In the 1800s those giving evidence in the Police courts were sworn on the Bible. This worked fine for most prosecutors and witnesses but occasionally someone stepped into the box who was clearly not a Christian, so what happened then?

Nowadays those swearing can do so on a religious text of their choice if the Bible is not appropriate, and those without a religion can affirm. In 2013 the courts rejected a move to abandon the oath in favour of a promise to tell the truth and it remains core to all trials and summary hearings in England.

In 1879 two men were charged at Marylebone Police court with stealing 100 rabbit skins, and with conspiring with another (not in custody) to sell them. The skins weren’t of particularly high value (just 8s) but the novelty of the case was that the chief witness was Indian.

Ballee Bhatter was described as a ‘Hindoo cook’ working at the home of ‘his Highness Suchait Singh of Chumla’. The Chumla valley is in the Punjab and British troops passed through here in 1863 what one officer described as a ‘frontier war’. By the 1870s the Imperial project in India was complete; the British had survived the 1857 Indian revolution, the Sikhs had been defeated and turned into allies, but some pockets of resistance continued from hill tribes in the far north. Afghanistan had never been successfully subdued and after the debacle of 1842 and loss of so many British and Indian troops the empire chose to avoid any major campaigns north of the Punjab until the late 1870s.

The question for Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone, was whether it was appropriate for Ballee Bhatter to swear on the Bible before giving his evidence. Although described in court as a ‘Hindoo’ Mr Cooke thought he ought to swear on the Koran. The Rajah’s secretary confirmed that the cook wasn’t a Christian, but did that make him a Muslim? Was this a case of contemporary English ignorance or was the prince’s servant a Muslim working in the kitchens of a Sikh household? While today we would normally associate the word with the Hindu religion (for which the Koran would be an inappropriate text) in 1879 it may simply have been (mis)used to mean any native of the Indian sub-continent.

A police detective suggested that it was proper for the man to be able to swear the following oath: ‘My God, what I say is true’, but the justice wanted to be clear that Bhatter understood what was being asked of it. He decoded to adjourn the case so that a translator could be called for; someone that spoke ‘Hindostanee’.

Later that day the cook returned and the situation was explained in his native language. He swore an oath (on which text it is not stated) and explained that on the 7 April one of the prisoners and another man came to the Rajah’s house in Richmond Road, Paddington, and ‘asked him if he had any rabbit skins to sell’. Bhatter told him he had 100 and he was offered 2deach for them. Well, that is what he understood they’d offered, he added, his English wasn’t that good.

Since he wanted to be sure he went next door to find someone to translate for him but when he got back the men and the skins were gone. Two other local servants testified to seeing the two men and a barrow that day and Mr Cooke remanded the prisoners for a week.

This shows us that there were Indians living in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The British Empire involved a migration in both direction then, not simply a movement of British troops and administrators to India but families and their servants in the other direction. They would have added to the cultural melting pot that was London in the late 1800s and act as a reminder that this country (and particularly our capital) has been a multi-racial community for a very long time.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 14, 1879]

Extortion and an accusation of rape in 1830s Shoreditch


“Even if I keep on runnin’, I’ll never get to Orange street”, (The Prince, Madness)*

Mrs Thomas was the wife of a respectable surgeon living and working at 225 Shoreditch in East London. When the door was knocked on 8th December 1833 she much have assumed the caller had come to inquire after her husband for a medical matter.

She was half right.

Samuel Hewson, a bricklayer from Orange Street in Bethnal Green, presented himself at her door and declared that her husband had sexually assaulted his wife.

‘This is a bad job between my wife and Mr Thomas’ Hewson explained, ‘he has violated my wife; I must have means to leave London’.

Mrs Thomas was horrified and refused to believe it. Hewson was undeterred and insisted it was true. He added darkly that ‘unless he had money to take himself and wife from town , he go and make a charge before Mr Broughton [the sitting magistrate] at Worship Street’. Until 1842 rape was a capital offence and so Hewson was correct in warning Mrs Thomas that her husband ‘could be tried for his life’.

Faced with this threat (regardless of whether she believed what her husband was alleged to have done) Mrs Thomas broke down and asked what amount Hewson required.

He said it was up to her, effectively inviting her to make him and offer for his silence. She offered him £20 (close to £1000 in today’s money) but he angrily rejected that.

‘That’s not enough’ Hewson complained,, ‘If you wish to see your husband where I said he should go [i.e. in court] you may do so. If you like to make it £20 more, that will do. I will take £40 but not less’.

She handed over the money and he went away. Mrs Thomas said nothing of this to her husband but at the end of January she again heard from the bricklayer. As is common with blackmailers they don’t stop when you pay up. He now demanded an extra £5 for his continued silence about her husband’s supposed crime.

Eventually she told her husband what had happened and he immediately declared that he would prosecute Hewson for extortion. The bricklayer was tracked down (having left his address for Mrs Thomas to send money to) and he and Mr Thomas met. The surgeon denied any indiscretion with Mrs Hewson whom he had treated for a four month period in 1833. Hewson apologised but having conned the Thomas’ out of at least £45 the surgeon was in no mood to let it rest.

On the 16 February 1834 Hewson was formally charged at Worship Street – the very police court he had threatened to bring the medical man before – and whilst he said he was sorry and begged forgiveness the magistrate remanded him in custody to face a later trial.

There are no trials recorded at Old Bailey involving a surgeon named Thomas or a Samuel Hewson (for rape or deception or extortion) so perhaps the case was not written up (not all of them were published) or , more likely, it was settled by Hewson apologising and agreeing to repay what he had extorted. It is a reminder that those that place themselves in one-to-one private situations with others risk being the victim of false accusations.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 17, 1834]

*Madness’ homage to Prince Buster in their first single on 2-Tone (in 1979) name checked the legendary singer-songwriter and producer’s home in Jamaica. The B-side of that early release was a cover of Buster’s (real name Cecil Bustamante Campbell) 1960s hit ‘Madness’. Madness, along with the Specials, Beat and a number of other UK bands helped bring Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady to a new audience and developed in the wake of a political movement opposed to racism in society.


A cheerful drunk and his ‘pal’ at Bow Street


Gatti’s Music Hall, Charing Cross 

This story falls into the category of ‘amusing’ or ‘unusual’ tales of the capital that must have entertained the readership of the late Victorian and Edwardian newspapers.

Henry Burward was one of life’s ‘helpers’. In November 1894 he latched on to a drunken gentleman and proceeded to ‘help’ him for most of an evening. Burward was seen by two of the Met’s police detectives (Detectives Callaghan and  Oxley) while they patrolled around Charing Cross Station.

At about 8 in the evening Oxley noticed Burward come to the assistance of an elderly gentleman who was clearly very much the worse for drink. Our ‘good Samaritan’ took the gent by the arm and ‘piloted him down the stairs’ to Villiers Street. The pair then entered Gatti’s Musical Hall and its ‘grand café’ for some refreshment.

Burward was here observed to be paying close attention to his new found friend, ‘putting his necktie straight, pulling his coat straight, and tapping his pockets’. Soon after they left  and walked up Villier’s Street where a passer-by told Burward to leave the old man alone. “He’s a pal of mine”, replied Burward, “I’ve been with him all day” and with a “come long Fred” the pair continued their perambulation.

At the corner of John Street they entered a cigar street where Burward called for cigars. He dipped his hands into the gentleman’s pockets to pay for the cigars, dropping some money as he did so. They left and the detectives heard Burward say, “Come along Fred, we’ll take a cab”.

At the Strand the old man began to harrass passing ladies and this drew the attention of the nearest beat bobby, who intervened. When PC 141E arrested the gentleman Burward was outraged. “You scoundrel”, he cried, “I am a respectable tradesman and a ratepayer. I have your number and I will have the  coat off your back. This is my friend and I am looking after him to make sure he does not lose anything.”

The policeman responded by telling Burward that if he was his friend (which he clearly doubted) he had better come along with him to the station, if he wasn’t then he would arrest him there and then.

When they got to the police station and the the old gentleman had recovered his senses (or rather, sobered up enough) he was asked whether Burward was known to him. He replied that he had never seen him before in his life.

When it came before the magistrate at Bow Street the gentleman was now asked if he had any recollection of befriending Mr Burward. He hadn’t, and the justice added: “in fact, you got very drunk”, “in fact sir, I did” replied the unnamed witness. Burward for his pains, was remanded on a charge of attempting to steal.

The police today will tell you that you are never more vulnerable to crime than when you are drunk or otherwise incapable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 09, 1894]

The butler did it (and more than once)

A frenchman, with the colourful name of Emile Delessert, was a butler, but a disgraced one. In 1884 (two years before he appeared on a charge of theft and fraud at the Westminster Police Court) Delessert had been sacked by his then employer the Marquis of Clanricarde, for being drunk.

Being dismissed without a reference was serious because it was unlikely that anyone would employ him as a servant after that, but this did not stop Emile. He wrote his own letter of introduction and forged the Marquis’ signature. This he used to gain employment with an  officer in the British Army.

Major Sangster was taken in by Delessert’s ruse and he became a butler in his London home at 66 St George’s Road. However, he didn’t last long being dismissed a few days later  ‘for stealing liquor’. Delessert clearly had a drink problem.

He also had an issue with other people’s property because when his luggage was examined before he left the major’s house several items were found that did not belong to him, but instead to Sangster’s stepson, Captain Goldfrap of the 10th regiment of foot.

The police were called and a detective searched Delessert’s last known lodgings. Here he found pawn tickets that led him to a pawnshop where he discovered two gold rings (that were identified by the Marquis of Clanricarde as items he’d lost soon after he dismissed his butler) as well as a ‘yachting cap, a flannel jacket’ and other things believed stolen from persons unknown.

Emile Delessert was exposed as a serial thief and fraudster and now he confessed to the charges and Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to nine months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1886]

NB The 2nd Marquis of Clanricarde was Hubert George de Burgh-Canning, an anglo-irish politician who had a dreadful reputation in Ireland as an absentee landlord. The Chicago Tribune reported (in  1906) that: ‘Never had Clanicarde visited his estates, despite the many thousands of families that had been evicted from them during that time, resulting in mass destitution. “So universal is the execration in which this particular nobleman is held by people of every political party that when the question of this bill was put to the vote by the speaker, liberals, liberal unionists and conservatives all voted with the Irish party, only three of the nearly 700 members of the house of Commons opposing the vote, which would otherwise have been unanimous.”

An Irish ‘cook’ tries her luck (and fails to impress)

Ellen Riley (or Lucy Collins as she sometimes called herself) was an accomplished liar. She had once ‘escaped’ from a Chelmsford convent  taking with her some of the house’s property. She swore she was owed nine month’s wages and had stolen nothing.

In June 1865 she turned up at the house of a Mr Pereira in Finsbury Circus asking for work. She sought a position as a ‘plain cook’. The merchant asked to see her references and she promised to obtain some and return.


Finsbury Circus in 1872

A reference was an important document for a servant in the 1800s, it was very unlikely anyone would employ you without one. So it seems puzzling (to me at least) that Ellen didn’t have them with her when she knocked at the Pereira’s house. The next day she tried Mrs Pereira and again said she could produce a character dating back for the last five years. Mrs P asked her to do so and sent her away.

A few days later she was back, this time saying that a local priest, the Rev. Pycke, had agreed to write a certificate for her. This she brought to Mr P a day alter but he soon saw that it was a fake and had her arrested.

The name of the certificate was Mrs Kesiah Swan who denied all knowledge of Ellen Riley (or Lucy Collins for that matter). Now another clergyman appeared in court to state that he knew of her but had not authorized anyone to write her a reference.

The Rev. Leo Fucke had helped her after she had told him she had recently left a  convent in the area and was looking for a position. Unfortunately the position he found her (with a Father Donovan) she abused by absconding with a pair of boots!

Ellen  complained that she couldn’t find or keep any work because the ‘influence of the nuns and priests was always brought to bear against her’. The Alderman who sat as the magistrate at Guildhall was unimpressed. She had, he told, committed an offence (forging a character) that allowed him to fine her £20. He showed some mercy by offering her the chance to pay a fine of £5 or go to prison for one calendar month. I doubt Ellen had the £5 so suspect she ended up inside.

There are several convents in and around Finsbury Park today and the convent of the Tyburn Martyrs near Hyde Park. Did any of these offer temporary shelter to Ellen Riley who had come to the capital like so many Irish migrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. She may have started life in Essex (hence the Chelmsford link) or perhaps had traveled there for work. The Irish were amongst the poorest and least appreciated of London’s immigrants, something I explore in more detail in my study of the late nineteenth-century capital.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 18, 1865]