‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

A woman is found guilty of something, despite the lack of evidence

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On Monday 16 March 1874 Miss Caroline Greene arrived at Paddington Station on a train from Bath; she was on route to Essex, where she lived. She left the train and was waiting for her mother to join her when a well-dressed woman in her thirties approached her. The stranger engaged her briefly in conversation and then went to move off.

At that moment William Clarke appeared and took hold of the woman, accusing her of attempting to pick Miss Greene’s pocket. The would-be thief, who gave her name as Catherine Morris, was arrested and taken before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

In court Clarke, a sergeant in Great Western Railway’s private police force, said he had been watching Morris carefully as she worked the crowds on the platform. He’d clearly seen her dip her hand in Miss Greene’s pocket and then walk away. Caroline Greene then testified that she had felt the prisoner’s hand go into her pocket but fortunately she didn’t keep her purse there so hadn’t lost anything.

Catherine Morris vehemently denied the charge and said she’d been set up. Clarke had told the young woman what to say she added, and said she too was only waiting for a friend. Unfortunately for her  the address she’d given to the sergeant implicated her further. Detective Smith of X Division said he’d visited the house she claimed as home to discover that she’d only stayed there for 10 days. He also found out that on the previous Sunday she’d been consorting with a man who’d just been released from prison.

In court Morris refused to say where she had been staying recently and that must have helped the magistrate make up his mind that she was guilty of something, even if direct evidence of pickpocketing was circumstantial at best. He sent her to the house of correction for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 18, 1874]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

‘Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’: one girl’s descent into prostitution

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This is quite a disturbing case and as yet I’m not sure what the ending would have been. It concerns the trade in virgin girls that had been exposed by William Stead’s sensational piece of journalism, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Stead’s exposé help force Parliament to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act that year, which raised the age of consent for 13 to 16. The underlying intention was the save ‘the unmarried daughters of the poor’ from exploitation for the pleasure of the ‘dissolute rich’.

The act gave the police the weight to investigate cases of child abduction (for the purposes of prostitution) and one of the results of this can be seen in this case from February 1886.

Louisa Hart, a 21 year-old married woman residing at 32 Fulham Place, Paddington, was brought before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court on a warrant issued to detective inspector Morgan of CID. DI Morgan had arrested Hart after an investigation which had led him to Finsbury Park and back to Chelsea and a house which may well have served as some sort of brothel.

The detective wanted a remand for Hart and was able to produce both a witness and a copy of the ‘information’ (or statement) she had given him. The witness was Florence Richardson, a ‘good-looking girl, wearing a large hat’. Her statement was read by the clerk of the court, probably because some of what it contained was deemed unsuitable for her to read aloud in person.

The court was told that Florence (who was nearly 14) was friendly with a another girl called Rosie Shires. Both girls lived in St Thomas’ Road, Finsbury Park and about six months previously Rosie had shown her a calling card with the name ‘Louisa Hart’ inscribed on it. The card also had an address – 43, Markham Square, Chelsea – and Rosie asked her friend if she would accompany her there to visit Mrs Hart for ‘tea’.

Florence agreed and the pair set off together. When the got to the house Florence noticed a lady in riding habit get off a horse and enter the house. A few minutes later the pair were invited into the drawing room where the lady in riding clothes introduced herself as Louisa Hart. She welcomed Rosie and said: ‘’Oh, I am glad you have brought some one with you’.

Florence waited while Hart and Rosie left briefly, apparently going downstairs to the parlour. They then had tea together before the door opened and an elderly man entered the room. What happened next was ‘unfit for publication’ so I think we can safely assume that Florence (and possibly Rosie) was subjected to some sort of sexual assault. Both, we should remember, were under the age of 16 and therefore under the age of legal consent.

That money changed hands  was not in question and Florence went back to the house a few weeks later and saw the same man again. She never told her parents what had happened but spent the money on ‘sweets and cake’. She later discovered that Rosie had also been ‘ruined’ by the old man and clearly her mother (Mrs Shires) had found out and was angry. Perhaps this was the point at which the police became involved.

Mrs Hart’s solicitor lamely applied for bail for his client but recognized that the case was far too serious for the magistrate to allow it. Mr. De Rutzen allowed him to try but refused bail. Decretive inspector Morgan’s request for a remand was granted and the investigation continued.  If I can find out some more you’ll be the first to know.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 09, 1886]

‘Two fine candidates for the Reformatory’: a pair of ‘street arabs’ are sent to sea

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HMS Cornwall, a floating juvenile reformatory

As you may know if you are a regular visitor to this blog space, I teach a module on the history of crime at the University of Northampton. It covers the period 1700-1900 and looks at a variety of topics including different types of offending (from petty theft to murder), the evolution of the court system, development of policing, and the changing nature of punishment (from hanging to the prison). We also explore a number of themes – such as gender, class, continuity and change, and youth.

This week’s topic is youth crime and the suggestion that in some respects the Victorian’s ‘invented’ juvenile delinquency. Arguably ‘Victorian’ is incorrect but there is a persuasive argument that it was in the nineteenth century that commentators really focused their attention on youth crime and that it was then that the word ‘delinquent’ emerged.  The 1815 report of the ‘committee for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency in the metropolis’ followed its research into the state of youth crime in London.

In the post war period the fear of crime had risen, as it is always had at the end of Britain’s major European conflicts. Returning soldiers always occasioned a heightened tension around criminality and the tense political period after Waterloo lasted for several years. The creation of the Metropolitan Police (which some early historians attributed, in part, to this tension) meant that there was a more regularized police presence on the capital’s streets, and this directly impacted juveniles.

The Committee had focused on youth because many – believing in the reality of a ‘criminal class’ – felt the obvious thing to do was to nip offending in the bud by making efforts to reform young criminals to prevent them becoming older, more dangerous ones. The police, under pressure to justify the rates spent on them, focused on easy targets to boost arrest figures, and these were often the ‘urchins’ that ‘infested’ the city’s streets.

Charles Nye (14) and William Pincombe (13) were just such a pair of delinquents and in January 1878 they were set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court charged with theft. They were accused of stealing sixpence from a five-year-old boy, simply named as ‘Hunt’.

The thieves were already known offenders and were under police surveillance. Tow detectives from N Division (Vincent and Armstrong) had been following them at a distance for an hour and a half, watching carefully as they approached, stopped, and chatted to several children. They stopped to chat in a friendly way to the little boy called Hunt then suddenly snatched the bag he was holding and ran away. The police set off after them.

The pair were soon caught but detective Armstrong saw Pincombe discard a sixpence as he fled, trying not to be caught with any evidence. In court the police told Mr Hosack that the lads were suspected of committing a string of robberies and had previously been birched and sent to prison for six weeks for other crimes they’d been convicted of. On this occasion the magistrate was loath to send them to gaol, saying they ‘were too young to undergo a long term of imprisonment’.

Instead he was determined that they should go to a reformatory where they might stand some small chance of being rehabilitated. The Reformatory Movement, led by Mary Carpenter, had flourished from mid century and was founded on the principle that juveniles like Charles and William were better suited to an environment where they could learn some useful skills, alongside discipline and a sense of religious morality, to keep them out of trouble in the future, rather than being dumped into an adult prison where they would simply learn to be ‘better’ thieves.

The court clerk made some enquires and later that day Mr Wills, an Industrial Schools officer appeared in court to say that there were some vacancies on the Cornwall Reformatory Training ship. Happy with this option, Mr Hosack sentenced each lad to 14 days hard labour in prison; thereafter they were to be sent to the Cornwall for two years. Magistrates handing down a reformatory sentence had to include a period of hard labour, to soften up defendants and remind them that they were being given a chance at reform. Carpenter had argued against sending children to prison but society demanded that  they were punished, and so punished they would be.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 24, 1878]

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]