The ‘wise woman from Leicester’ who cheated the ‘credulous young women’ of Chelsea.

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I wonder how many of us have had our fortunes told? Perhaps you’ve had your palm read at a fair, or been to see a tarot reader, or have paid to have your astrological birth chart created? You may just read your horoscope in a daily paper. The reality is many people would like to know what the future holds even if they are a bit skeptical of authenticity or reliability of these sources of information.

Fortunetellers have always existed, from the ancients to the present but while today we tend to regard them as mostly purveyors of harmless fun, in the past they were sometimes seen as witches and/or charlatans. In 1736 the laws that allowed the hanging of people for witchcraft were repealed but it remained a crime to try and trick others into believing you had magical powers. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 remained on the statute until 1951 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which allowed for the prosecution of individuals who claimed to be psychic, replaced it. This law was repealed in 2008 under legislation that brought Britain in line with EU regulations regarding ‘unfair sales and marketing practices’. Perhaps after March 2019 we will need a new law to protect us from people who say they can predict the future.

The Witchcraft Act (1736) was rarely deployed but magistrates and the police had another weapon with which to act against gypsy fortunetellers and fairground charlatans. This was the catch-all Vagrancy Act of 1824 which allowed the police to hoover up and prosecute pretty much anyone they liked found in a public place asking for money without good cause. It was also possible that fraudulent fortune tellers could have been prosecuted under the laws that prohibited the selling of goods or the obtaining of money by false pretenses, and perhaps it was this that brought Charlotte Elizabeth Priscilla Veasey before Mr. D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court in late July 1883.

Charlotte Elizabeth was 68 years of age and was accused of ‘obtaining money by pretending to “tell fortunes”’. Several women had complained about her behaviour to the police and they had set up an investigation that involved the planting of two police witnesses. Detectives Scott and Wilson (B Division) set up a watch on Veasey’s house in White Lion Street, Chelsea.  They also employed an out of work serving girl named Reed and the widow of a policeman (Mrs Gregory) to act as planted clients.

As they staked out the house the detectives saw 13 women come and go during just two hours. On the same day a further five clients called at the house in the afternoon. When Mrs Gregory and Miss Reed had been in and out they quizzed them as to their experiences.

The servant told them she been told that:

she had five sweethearts, none of whom would marry her – that a dark young man had left her for a fair woman, but that a very “nice young gentleman” had honourable intentions, and would ask to go out on evening walks’.

Miss Reed had paid sixpence for this information and some of this, it seems, was true. But then again, it wasn’t unusual and was suitably vague (as many predictions like this are).

Mrs Gregory paid 8to be told that she would, at last, find a new husband. However Veasey was wrong about the number of children she had and told her that one of her sons was stepping out with a fair haired girl, which she was sure was false, but later turned out to be true. Again, Veasey had been pretty vague and her guesswork was combined with telling her clients what they wanted to believe.

In her defense Veasey insisted that she did no harm. As a ‘sixteenth child’ she claimed she could interpret dreams, always gave ‘good advice’ and never charged a fixed sum for her services. She’d charged Miss Reed less for example, because she was unemployed. She’d been doing this for almost 40 years and was know as the ‘wise woman from Leicester’.

She made the court laugh when she told Mr. D’Eyncourt that all Mrs Gregory was concerned about was whether she would get another husband.

She seems harmless enough and I imagine that is how she would be seen today. An old lady who mixed homespun advice with a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and charged a not unreasonable amount for reassuring people that everything would ‘be ok’. Not surprisingly Mr. D’Eyncourt didn’t see it that way. He ‘told her that she got her living by cheating credulous young women’ and sent her to prison for three weeks at hard labour, not even countenancing the alternative of a fine.

She hadn’t seen that coming.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1883]

‘Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’; a desperate attempt on a defenceless woman.

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Prisoners quarrying at Portland Prison c.1880s

Celia Harrison was having tea with her aunt and her grandmother, Emma Harrison, on 22 July 1895 when there was a knock at the door. It was 6 o’clock the 10 year old recalled and when her grandmother answered the door it was father who stood in the doorway. The visitor (William Harrison) demanded to know if his brother Jack was at home. He wasn’t and the elderly woman seemed nervous and wasn’t inclined to let her son in.

William seemed angry and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol. Celia heard him say: ‘I mean doing for him when he does come home’ and she saw that he was holding a knife. Celia, in fear, ran out into the garden.

Charles Rattison was a tram driver who lived upstairs from the Harrisons at 6 Salisbury Road, Highgate. Just after 6 o’clock he heard raised voices coming from below. When he heard a cry of ‘murder!’ he leapt up from his chair and rushed downstairs. To his horror he saw Emma Harrison flat on her back on the floor with her son William sitting cross-legged on top of her, slashing at her throat with a knife.

Rattison acted swiftly, wrestling the man off of her. In his rage William, who couldn’t see who his attacker was, growled at him: ‘Are you Jack?’ ‘No’, Rattison replied, ‘I am Charley’. William Harrison now said:

Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’.

Fortunately he didn’t get the opportunity because another neighbour arrived and managed to take the knife from him. Harrison fled before the police could get there but PC Thomas Russant (637Y) caught up with him as he tried to escape. The copper was threatened by the would-be assassin who told him:

Where is my bleeding knife; I wish I had a sharp-shooter, I would put some of your lights out’.

On the 23 July Harrison was in court before the North London Police magistrate. Detective Sergeant Godley testified that the victim was too ill to attend but that she was thankfully recovering well in the Great Northern Central Hospital. He added that Emma was the widow of a policeman who had been pensioned off in 1876 after ‘many years service’ to the force. I imagine Y Division viewed this attack as if it was perpetrated against ‘one of their own’.

William Harrison stood impassively as others, including his daughter, gave their evidence. The magistrate remanded him for a week so that his victim had more time to mend in hospital before giving her version of events. This took some time, she was, after all, 68 years of age and so the case didn’t come before a jury until September that year where William Harrison was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm. The jury rejected his plea that he was drunk at the time, not that it was an excuse anyway. Harrison had form as well, having previously been prosecuted for wounding his wife. On that occasion he’d gone down for 11 months. This time the judge sent him away for 7 years of penal servitude.

William Harrison, who was simply described as a labourer, served five years and three months of his sentence, much of it at Portand Prison. He was released on 1 December 1900 at the age of 44. Thereafter he seems to have escaped trouble with the law but whether his wife and family were happy to have him back is less clear.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 24, 1895]

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]