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]

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

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]