A detective shows ‘promptitude, ability, and discretion’ and wins high praise indeed

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The detective department were a belated addition to the Metropolitan Police. When Sir Robert Peel created his ‘bluebottles’ in 1829 he modeled them on the existing watch and parish constabulary, rather than the Bow Street ‘runners’ and other entrepreneurial thief-takers.  Peel was careful not to offend public sentiment, which eschewed the idea of a ‘system of espionage’. That sounded far too much like the Napoleonic state police that had been run by Fouché from Paris.

So detectives (if not detection) was not part of the remit of the first police force to pound the streets of London. However, it soon became apparent that just such a body was necessary, even if it still remained undesirable. A series of high profile incidents (notably the murder of Lord Russell in his home and the initial failure to catch a notorious criminal named Daniel Good) led to the creation of the Detective Department in 1842.

It took a while for the detectives to establish themselves but by the 1880s they had survived one or two scandals and changed their departmental name (to CID) and were beginning to win some grudging acceptance in the hearts and minds of the British public. This was helped by the rise of the fictional detective in the works of Victorian novelists like Dickens and Wilkie Collins and then the first appearance in print (in 1887) of Sherlock Holmes, the professor of detection.

There are moments where we can see the impact of detectives in cases before the Police courts. Mostly any police involved are ordinary beat bobbies, and they do a fair amount of detection themselves. But in November 1882 at the Mansion House Police court detectives appear in two cases, while another is commended publically for his efforts by the sitting alderman magistrate.

Detective Constable Wright of the City Police had been keeping an eye on Mary Ann Jordan and Mary Ann Bassett after he’d received a tip off that they were up to no good. On the 20 November he was called to a warehouse in Queen Victoria Street which had been broken into. Seven rolls of cloth with a value of over £100 had been taken and DC Wright suspect that Bassett and Jordan were responsible.

Acting on this hunch and the intelligence he had acquired he and DS Downs went south of the river to The Borough and visited the address he had for the pair. It was about 8 in the evening and both women – who shared a room – were in bed. He asked Jordan if she knew anything of the robbery but she refused even to get up, let alone answer him; Bassett admitted to pawning to material but claimed not to know it had been stolen. He arrested both of them and, on the following day, Alderman Owden committed them both to trial.

Next up William Gough was charged, on evidence provided by another City detective, of obtaining 40 yards of silk using a forged document. Despite his denials the magistrate fully committed him to Old Bailey, another success for the detectives.

At the end of the report from Mansion House it was noted that Sir T Owden, the alderman sitting in for the Lord Mayor, had taken the time to heap praise on Detective Wright for his efforts in catching some thieves who had raided the premises of Mappin & Webb, the jewelers, on Oxford Street.

The owners of the firm wanted to present the detective with ‘some testimonial in recognition of the promptitude, ability, and discretion [he had shown] in arresting the right men at the right time’.

The magistrate was delighted to hear it and added his own vote of thanks to DC Wright. So, 40 years after the first detectives started work here was proof of their acceptance and appreciation from both business and the magistracy. Detectives continue to enjoy a mixed reputation amongst the public and police – sometimes seen as outside of the police, often as mavericks when represented in fiction and TV, but also as a necessary part of fighting organized crime.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 21 November, 1882]

The case of the missing linen and the frustrations of historical research

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The reports of cases heard before the London Police Court magistrates can be frustrating. It isn’t always obvious what individuals roles are and important contextual details are often omitted. I understand that editors had limited space and that reporters were jotting things down quickly, and not always with the knowledge that the editor was going to choose that particular story to run. These courts dealt with dozens of cases in a morning or afternoon but rarely more than one was immortalized in newsprint.

Today I am left wondering who Henry Jepson was. He may have been a private detective or even a member of the Detective Department at the Met, or simply a friend of the victim.

See what you think.

On Thursday 2 July 1868 Jepson received a letter. It was from Elizabeth Milner, a dressmaker, living at 6 Hasker Street in Chelsea. In her letter Elizabeth complained that she had been robbed and asked for his help. On Sunday (5 July) Jepson traveled from his Great James Street residence to Chelsea, talked to Elizabeth about the theft and decided to set a trap for the thief.

Elizabeth had told him that she suspected one of her servants was responsible, the char Sophia Williams. Acting on Henry’s advice she locked up her rooms and told Sophia she was going out for the day and wouldn’t be home until much later. Meanwhile Henry hid under her bed and waited to see what happened.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after Elizabeth had left Sophia entered the bedroom. Although he couldn’t see her Henry could hear her and noted that she left the bedroom and went into the parlour. He could hear her ‘ransacking boxes’ before she returned to the bedroom.

Henry had carefully selected some linen before he’d concealed himself and had left it, temptingly, on a chair. Peering out from his hide he saw he rifle through the linen and select ‘two new pillow cases’. As she started to leave the room Henry snuck out from under the bed to go after her. She must have heard him though because she quickly dumped them back on the pile and rushed off. Henry called for a constable who took her into custody.

This is the action that makes me doubt that his role was official; if he had been a detective he would simply have arrested her himself. Of course he may have, and then have handed her over to a junior officer, but it seems unlikely. There are no references to a detective named Henry Jepson in the Old Bailey either (this case does not appear), which is a little odd if he was one.

Sophia Williams was brought before Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court charged with multiple thefts. The police had found no less than 41 pawn tickets in her room, many, but not all, of which, related to property belonging to Elizabeth Milner. The magistrate remanded her in custody for  four days so the police could pursue their investigations.

And here the frustration continues because the case, and Sophia Williams, disappears from history.  If the police found more evidence she may have stood trial (at the Middlesex Sessions or the Central Criminal court at the Old Bailey). The justice may have decided to deal with her summarily and given her a few months in prison. But as there is no record of her in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records linked by the Digital Panopticon site we cant be sure. Selfe may have decided there was insufficient evidence or Williams could have had a legitimate reason for having so many duplicates for items she’d pawned.

In the end it is a mystery, not one worthy of Sherlock Holmes I accept, but an unsolved one nevertheless.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 07, 1868]

A prisoner who failed to learn his lesson

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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]