A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

‘Long Bob’ is nabbed as the American Civil War causes ripples in Blackfriars

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In early March 1865 Mr John Crane’s (a gunmaker’s agent) warehouse in Birchin Lane, in the City of London, was raided. Thieves broke in and stole a number pistols over the weekend of the 4th to 6th March. Three men were arrested as they attempted to sell on the guns on the day the burglary was discovered. However, it was believed at least one other man was involved and, by April 1865, the police had been looking for him for nearly a month.

Robert White, who went by the nickname of ‘Long Bob’ was presented at the Mansion House Police Court on the 4th April charged with being involved in the burglary. The middle-aged ‘commercial traveller’ had been brought in by City detectives Hancock and Harris after being found trying to sell a pair of revolvers to a pawnbroker in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.

The case was prosecuted by Mr Davis, a Cheapside lawyer. He produced the pawnbroker’s assistant to give evidence. The assistant told Alderman Carter (who was sitting in for the Lord Mayor) that a man fitting White’s description but giving the name ‘Martin’ had pledged two ‘six barrelled revolvers’ on the evening of the 4th March. The man was loaned £2 5s against the security of the weapons.

Later that evening ‘Martin’ (White) was back, this time with five more guns which he offered for sale. Asked for their provenance White told the pawnbroker’s man  that they belonged to a ‘friend of his’ who had asked him to sell them. They were part of a large order for the Federal Army, he added, and were surplus to requirements.

In early April 1865 the American Civil War was almost at an end. The Union blockade of the South which had been increasingly effective in choking the Confederacy’s economy was strengthened by the capture of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Only a few days later (on the 9 April 1865) General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union troops at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending four years of bitter conflict.

The Blackfriars pawnbrokers was run by a Mr Folkard and the police (in the person of Detective Edward Hancock) visited as part of their inquiries into the theft. They notified the ‘broker that stolen guns were in circulation but what happened next is far from clear.

The pawnbroker’s assistant – a Mr Parker – had given ‘Long Bob’ £5 for the revolvers he wanted to sell. White wanted £7 10s which Parker had said he would have if his master was convinced they were worth that. White agreed to return later. In the meantime of course, the police had been.

When White returned Parker told him that the guns were stolen and that if he gave back the money he’d given him he could have back the guns. This seems bad practice at the very least; if he knew they were stolen he should have detained the thief and called for a constable. However, White denied knowing anything about any robbery and said he would get the money back. Shortly afterwards he returned, with money and the pistols. Parker now kept both.

Amongst all this the revolvers produced in court were identified as belonging to the gunmaker’s agent, Mr Crane.

There was some confusion and dispute about the facts presented in the Mansion House Court and it can’t have been easy for the Alderman to work out who was telling the truth. The police suggested that when he visited Mr Parker he’d shown him the two pistols that White had pledged but hadn’t mentioned the other five he’d tried to sell. He added that under questioning the prisoner (White) said that Parker had agreed he could have the guns back if he retuned the £5 he’d been advanced for them. When he’d returned however the ‘broker had kept both the guns and the money, something Parker now denied.

The magistrate decided that all this argument about who did what and when needed to be picked over by a jury and so he sent Robert White to join the others accused of stealing Mr Crane’s pistols. He would face a trial at the Old Bailey.

On the 10 April four men appeared in the dock at the ‘Bailey: John Campbell, James Roberts, Edmund Collins and Robert White. They were charged with stealing 50 revolvers from the warehouse of John Crane. The weapons had a collected value of £130.

In front of the jury and Old Bailey court Henry Parker explained that while he was aware of the robbery he hadn’t associated Roberts with the theft because he was a regular visitor, often trading items under the name of Martin. This fitted with White’s image as a commercial traveller and suggests that he was part of a shady underground in Victorian London where thieves worked together to shift stolen goods through the second-hand market.

Should Parker have been more careful? Probably. Was he attempting to make some money for himself or Mr Folkard’s business on the back of this crime? Possibly, but that is hard to prove. In the end all four men were convicted of the burglary. Collins received a good character and got away with six months’ imprisonment. Campbell went down for 10 years of penal servitude while White and Roberts got seven years.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 05, 1865]

Two ‘ungovernable’ girls smash up the workhouse to get a change of scenery.

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Over Easter I’ve been enjoying bingeing on the BBC’s Dickensian series (via Netflix). While Inspector Bucket hunts for the killer of Jacob Marley, a variety of characters created by Dickens interact with act other in a  number of subplots. 1842 was the year the Detective Department was created (and Bucket presumably is meant to represent them when he refers to himself as ‘the detective’).

One of the subplots in Dickensian is the attempt by Mrs Bumble (the workhouse keeper’s wife) to ingratiate herself and her husband with the Board of Guardians of the Poor so they can secure a better paid position running a workhouse in ‘the Midlands’. She forces the inept and overweight Bumble to apply with a mixture of threats and false promises and we know, of course, they’ll eventually succeed because that is how Bumble comes to feature in Oliver Twist’s early life.

The Bumbles run the local workhouse (which we rarely see) with little care for the young charges trapped within. At his interview before the Guardians Bumble promises to thrash each and every one of them to instil the ‘Christian discipline’ they so badly require.

Dickens drew on real life. As a journalist his attention to detail gives his characters – even the gross parodies like Mr and Mrs Bumble – genuine authority. Life in the workhouse was very hard for all inmates, no less so for the children of the poor, orphans like young Oliver. There was little food, a basic education and the only family they had was each other. So it would be surprising if the children of the workhouse didn’t rebel from time to time.

Sarah Shaddock and Mary Tighe were two young women on a mission. The mission  they had, it seems, was to infuriate the keeper and matron of the Bishopsgate workhouse in the City of London. The girls (now 18 years old) had been born in the workhouse – they had known no other home outside. Growing up in the institution they had not only rebelled, they had tried to make it impossible for the matron and keeper to control them.

This was the only freedom they had of course; the only ‘agency’ available to them was to refuse to do as they were told. This choice however, had consequences, and in early April 1842 they found themselves standing in the dock at Mansion House Police Court facing Alderman Gibbs, the sitting magistrate, charged with theft.

The assistant matron explained that the pair had only just returned to the workhouse, having been previously confined in the bridewell for damaging property and being disorderly. On their return they’d robbed an elderly pauper of her entire savings (which amounted to just a few pennies).

The alderman was told that the girls, who stood at the bar ‘as quiet as mice’ had ‘frequently distinguished themselves by breaking windows and pelting the elderly residents with bread’. Mr Booker, one of the parish officers, added that when the pair were bored of the workhouse they:

‘committed violence of some kind, and the contrived to have a little variety to their taste’, adding that ‘they had been for a length of time ungovernable’.

What was the alderman to do with these two ‘ungovernable’ girls? Sanctions were clearly having little effect on them. He decided to give them two months in prison at hard labour but with the following stipulations as to their regime.

The pair were ‘to be locked up locked up every alternate week during that period in a solitary cell’. In addition, he said, care should be taken that ‘the diet of the prisoners should be as low as could be consistent with the preservation of their health’.

In other words, he was putting them on a starvation/subsistence diet which would serve both to break their spirit and weaken any attempt at resistance, and remind them that life in the workhouse – however awful – was much preferable to gaol.

This is unusual, I’ve not encountered such detailed sentencing from the court reports but it reveals the limits of the system to really effect change in the persons brought before them. As they had reached 18 both Mary and Sarah could presumably also expect to be able to leave the workhouse at some point soon and make their own way in the world. Given that they had been institutionalised since birth I doubt that transition was going to be easy and we may find both women appearing before the London Police Courts in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 2, 1842]

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’. The great cake controversy of 1883

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I am going back to 1883 for the next few days. Regular readers will recall that I sampled a week’s news from the Police Courts of the metropolis earlier this year and traced a number of cases that came up more than once. Today’s story may be another of those as it ended with the defendants being required to reappear, bound over on their own recognizances. This case is also interesting because it hints at contemporary concerns about police corruption or, at best, favouritism, and at how this affected those that plied their trade in the local streets and markets – a regular battleground between costermongers and ‘the boys in blue’.

In March 1883 James Williams and Samuel Stephenson were charged before Mr Shiel at Wandsworth Police court with ‘playing at a game of chance and causing an obstruction’ in Battersea Park Road. They had been brought in by Detective Gilby who said he’d been alerted to the crowd that had gathered around the pair’s barrow as it stood on the road on Saturday evening. He and his fellow detective, DS Vagg, watched the men operate what they believed to be a swindle.

The men appeared to be auctioning cakes using a ticket system. Detective Gilby described what he saw:

‘The prisoner Williams took eight tickets from a box, pretended to shuffle them, and sold them at  penny each. After the tickets were collected he called out a number, and pointed to a person as having won a cake’.

The police officers explained that Williams then called out to the crowd that they could swap the cakes for sixpence if they preferred, making this possibility now to win money rather than cake by gambling on your ticket coming up. A boy working for the men handed out several cakes, three of whom were returned to him, presumably in the hope of turning their pennies into sixpences.

Detective Sergeant Vagg bought three tickets to test the system and catch the men red handed. When he had handed the tickets over to Stephenson he had effectively proved they were operating a ‘game of chance’ (rather than simply selling cakes) and he arrested them and took them back to the station. He accused them of swindling the public by placing stooges in the crowd to make it seem as if it was a fair raffle, when in reality the whole thing was staged (as so many street swindles were – or are).

The men denied it and Williams went further, alleging police corruption.

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’ he said, although it is unclear who he meant to be the target of that remark. Quite possibly it was the informant that had told the detective Gilby about the illegal game in the first place. Perhaps this was a rival coster who wanted to reduce the competition or even a trader that paid a premium to ensure that he wasn’t the subject of unwanted police attention.

Mr Shiel was not keen to have this kind of talk in his court and tried to close down that particular line of enquiry. Williams was glad to have the case taken before the magistrate he claimed, as he had long ‘been persecuted by the police’.

The pair claimed merely to be selling cakes at sixpence a go and said they’d not used a ticket system since they’d been arrested and charged with doing so by the same officers some time ago. The suggestion was that the police were either making the whole thing up or prosecuting them for misdemeanours in the past, in order to persecute them. It sounded pretty far fetched but they were able to produce a witness of sorts who backed them up.

Charles Lloyd was described as a comedian, living in Bermondsey. He told the court that he’d been standing at the corner of the street near to where the men’s barrow was when he overheard “two gentlemen” (indicating the two detectives in court) say ‘they meant to have a cakeman, whether he had any tickets or not’. Lloyd said he watched for 15 minutes and saw Williams and Stephenson selling cakes by auction but saw no tickets. When the men were arrested the crowd rushed forward to take their cakes.

Mr Shiel said he would like to speak to the boy that had supposedly been collecting the tickets and Williams told him he was sure he could produce him. At that point the pair of ‘cakemen’ were released to appear at a later date. We shall see if they make the pages of the newspapers before the end of this week.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 27, 1883]

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]

Outrageous behaviour by “welshers” and “roughs”

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The steam train had opened up Britain and given the Victorians opportunities to visit the seaside and enjoy other leisure pursuits, such as a day at the races. However, this came at a price because the train was a great social leveller, and so long as one had the funds the normal barriers to the mixing of the classes were weakened. Single female travellers were particularly at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of other passengers but, as this case (from the Southwark Police Court) shows, it was hard for anyone to escape bad or boorish behaviour on the railways.

On the 6 February 1879 two publicans  and brothers – Edwin and Walter Cole – had taken the Brighton Railway Company train to  Plumpton to watch the horse racing. When they got back to the station at Plumpton there was a crowd on the platform. Walter (who ran the Latimer Arms in Notting Hill Gate) explained what happened as he and his brother waited for the train:

They ‘were surrounded by a numbers of “welshers” and roughs, who attacked them, and attempted to rob them of their railway tickets and money’.

As they boarded the train the attack continued, and Walter was punched by one man and   had to get help from the guard to restrain him. The guard called Charles Jones, an inspector working for the railway company, who collared the attackers and shepherded them to a carriage at the opposite end of the train where he locked them in.

When the train reached London Bridge Edwin and Walter alighted and were walking towards the exit when two of the men that surrounded them at Plumpton rushed them . One aimed a kick at Walter before he was seized by the station master, a Mr Pierpoint, and Inspector Jones. The assailant, a man named William Butler, was then handed over to the police.

The police seemed reluctant to prosecute at first because there was no obvious injury to either of the Cole brothers. Butler was released and no other members of the group that had caused the trouble in East Sussex were arrested. Walter was determined to press charges however, and applied for a summons to bring Butler to court.

So, a few weeks later, on the 22 February, Butler found himself before Mr Partridge at Southwark having to deny he had anything to do with this ‘outrageous’ behaviour. He said he didn’t go to horse races, didn’t bet on the horses and hadn’t done anything wrong.  The evidence against them was pretty damning and the prosecution witnesses were respectable men and their stories were consistent.

Moreover an ex-detective from P Division appeared in court to inform his worship that the prisoner was a member of a notorious ‘gang of welshers and thieves’ who hung around race courses. They were were know as ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’. ‘Hooligans’ were to become closely associated with the Southwark and Lambeth area in the 1890s and in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature about the various ‘gangs of London’ all of whom had colourful monickers like ‘Dutch Sam’.

There was laughter in the court as Butler’s affiliation was announced. Whether this came from his ‘chums’ or was a derisory reaction from the general public isn’t clear but Mr Partridge wasn’t in a mood to be amused. Despite the violence being petty and no real damage being done he handed the young man a two month prison sentence at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 24, 1879]

p.s the term ‘welsher’ has, it seems, nothing to do with Wales and the Welsh people. According to the OED a ‘welsher’ is a ‘bookmaker who takes bets at horse races but who absconds, or refuses to pay if he loses’. It seems to have come into regular usage in the early 1860s. ‘Roughs’ was commonly used in the early Victorian period for groups of men at political demonstrations that acted aggressively; by the 1870s onwards it seems mostly to have applied to gangs of young men that were increasing seen as a social problem in British cities. Organised crime around British race courses is the subject of the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, which takes the real-life story of the Birmingham gang as its inspiration, weaving in other race course gangsters such as Darby Sabini and Billy Kimber. ‘The inspiration for ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’ may have been an early professional boxer of the same name who was popular in the 1820s.

A ‘not so old’ septuagenarian defends his property

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Charles Wehrfritz was on his way back home from the pub after enjoying his ‘supper beer’ following a day’s work when he ran into his son and daughter in law. The pair lodged with him at his house at 109 New North Road,  Islington. Wehrfritz was an German immigrant who spoke passable English. He was also 73 years old, but ‘still vigorous’.

As he neared his home he saw two men trying to get in. He assumed they were after his other lodgers upstairs, so indicated they should go up and see if anyone was at home. Moments later the men came down and said no one was in, so he showed them to the door and let them out.

Charles was sitting down to take his supper when he heard a noise in the passage way. When his cry of ‘who’s there?’ went unanswered he opened his door and found the two men back in his house.

‘What do you want here?’ he demanded, and ‘how did you get back in?

‘We want your money, old man’, said the younger of the two men.

At this Charles lunged toward and tried to stab the robber with the knife he’d been using to eat his supper. He connected with the man’s chest but to no avail, the knife was totally blunt and didn’t penetrate the thief’s jacket. Instead Charles now suffered a fearsome attack, being thrown backwards by the man and hit on the head by the other one.

He was knocked senseless for a moment to two and came to in time to see the men ‘splitting open a door’ to gain entry. Now the younger man picked up a door mat and tried to stop the German’s mouth with it to prevent him raising the alarm. In the struggle that followed Charles was once again hit on the head, this time with something heavy, made of metal he thought.

He fell in and out of consciousness before he was finally able to cry ‘murder!’ and see the men run out of the property as fast as they could. The police were called and later picked up the men and took them to Clerkenwell police station. Having been patched up at hospital (his life being feared for) Charles was later able to identify the two robbers in a parade at the station.

William Smith (24 and a box maker), and Arthur Leslie (a 22 year-old clerk from Pentonville) denied all the charges against them when they were set in the dock at Worship Street Police Court a few days later. Nothing was missing from the house as Charles had effectively scared them off. His brave display could have ended his life the court was told, he had been lucky. Charles’ main objection however, was that he had been called old; at 73 he didn’t think he was ‘that old’. This must have amused the watching audience and the paper’s readers.

Detective inspector Morgan of G Division said Smith was well known at the station as a ‘suspicious person’ and they had bene watching him for some time. He was also on the radar of N Division, as Inspector Smith testified in court. The magistrate granted a request from the police to remand the men for further enquiries and they were taken away.

On the 23 February the robbers were back in court and fully committed for trial. Smith turned out to be the brother of one of Wehrfritz’s lodgers. At the County of London Sessions held at Clerkenwell on 7 March 1899, Smith and Leslie were convicted of breaking and entering the property and of ‘severely wounding’ Mr Wehrfritz. Leslie got 21 months in prison, Smith 18, and their victim was described as ‘making a plucky stand against his assailants’. I hope he pinned the cutting to his wall to remind him that he wasn’t ‘so old’ after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 20, 1899; Daily News , Wednesday, March 8, 1899]