One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

A specialist thief on the Great Northern Railway

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King’s Cross station, c.1862

When, in October 1868, a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take the private detective long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross. The man was sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’, all matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveler that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective quickly moved to fall in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’, not obviously then, a thief,  and he gave  name as Robert Johnson. When challenged he emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]

Chaos at Battersea nick as a young chef attempts to shoot himself

Bank cheques issued in Trowbridge

Augustus Guerrier was a troubled soul. In October 1883 the cook was charged with stealing and set in the dock at Wandsworth Police court where it was revealed he had taken drastic action to avoid this disgrace.

Guerrier had followed his father into catering but perhaps it wasn’t his desire to do so. Like so many sons he may have felt pressured into walking in his father’s footsteps, despite having little appetite for the trade. In October 1883 M. Guerrier senior was abroad and at some point young Augustus finally went of the rails.

Mrs Janet Guerrier held an account with the Capital and Counties Bank in Aldershot and, needing funds while her husband was working away, wrote a cheque for £99 and gave it to Augustus to get cashed. On the first October he left for Aldershot but he didn’t return.

It took several days to find him and when he was finally caught by a detective he was carrying a bag containing £71 in notes and £3 10sin coin. The police took him to Battersea Park station house to charge him but he suddenly reached into his jacket and produced a revolver, which he pointed at his head.

Pandemonium broke out in the station and it took five police officers to subdue Guerrier and restore order. In the chaos Augustis managed to pull the trigger but the gun misfired and the ball dripped harmlessly to the station floor. On examination the gun barrel was found to have seven chambers, and each one loaded had been with a bullet. This was no cry for help, Augustus really did want to end his own life.

Mrs Guerrier must have been distraught and angry with her son, who must also have feared his father’s reaction when he returned to London. But Janet Guerrier did not want to heap further shame on Augustus or her family so she told Mr Paget that she declined to press charges.

There was, however, the issue of the missing money, the details of the cheque and its validity, and the young man’s mental state, so the magistrate remanded him for a few days so further enquiries could be made with the bank. It was also reported that Janet was ‘penniless’ and so £5 was given to her from the cash that had been seized from her son. I don’t see him facing a court trial at any point so I think we can assume that the Guerriers resolved up their family difficulties, at least in the short term.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 11, 1883; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, October 20, 1883]

Outrage at the Houses of Parliament as a lunatic is let loose

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It was just before 5 o’clock on the 16 July 1894 when Mr John Sandys, the public orator (literally the voice) of the University of Cambridge, arrived at the Houses of Parliament with his wife.  He and his wife Mary were supposed to be meeting Sir Richard Temple, the Conservative MP for Kingston a privy councilor.

Mary stepped out of the cab and as her husband settled the fare a ‘rough looking man’ rushed up to her shouting incoherently. Some witnesses claimed to have heard him shout ‘I’ll do for you’, or ‘Now I’ve got you’, but none were clear. What was certain was that he was brandishing a clasp knife and seemed intent on doing her some harm.

He lunged forward and slashed at her, slightly damaging her dress but thankfully not Mrs Sandys’ person. A quick thinking passer-by came to her assistance and two police officers helped wrestle him to the ground before taking him into custody. He was marched to King Street Police station where Mrs Sandys officially identified him as her attacker and signed the charge sheet. The man refused to give his name and nothing was found on his person that might explain who he was or why he had attempted to stab Mary.

At his first hearing at Westminster Police court his name emerged. He was Watson Hope Scott, also known as Samuel Strange – which seems an appropriate nom de plume. The magistrate expected that Strange or Scott was quite mad and could discern no connection between him and Mrs Sandys. He remanded the prisoner for further enquiries.

On 24 July he was again brought before the Westminster magistrate and a certificate was handed over (by Detective Inspector Waldock) that established that Scott was indeed insane.  He had discovered that Scott had served in the army in China but had been discharged in 1884 after suffering a severe bout of sunstroke. This had left him mentally damaged and unfit to serve. On his return to England he had found work with a medical herbalist but that only lasted three years before his employer dismissed him, because of his mental health problems.

Scott then worked at a cement factory but they couldn’t cope with hi either and let him go. Just recently he had found work in a City factory (doing what isn’t clear) but he suffered from fits and so the manager sacked him, fearing he might fall into the one of the machines and injure himself.

Throughout his hearing Scott sat in the dock looking dejected, ‘his face buried in his hands’. The magistrate declared him to be a lunatic and sent him to the workhouse asylum in Poland Street.  It is a desperately sad story. I doubt the sunstroke (more properly heatstroke) caused Scott’s mental health problems but it may well have exacerbated them. Once he lost his military career he was on a downwards spiral and the state would have done little to support him. He clearly did try to support himself, this was someone who wanted to work, wanted to contribute to society. But no one it seems was prepared to do anything for him.

Perhaps that’s why he ended up at Parliament – the place where British citizens might hope to get their problems heard and dealt with. After all, as Mr Johnson said yesterday, politicians are there to serve us, not themselves. This is not to excuse his attack on an entirely innocent woman but more to understand that it was probably born of a deep frustration and therefore represented a cry for help not a serious desire to do anyone harm. Sadly he didn’t really get any help, just a bed in an workhouse asylum, a slow death sentence if ever there was one.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1894; The Standard  Tuesday, July 17, 1894]

Think you’ve got what it takes to be a lady detective? Send 10s 6s now!

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John George Binet had set up the grand sounding ‘National Detective Agency’ (perhaps modeled on America’s infamous Pinketon’s) which was, in effect, himself and one or two other persons acting as private investigators. In the early 1890s they investigated a range of private matters including unpaid bills, unfaithful spouses, and missing persons. In short the usual fare of the private ‘dick’.

On the 8 July 1893 Binet found himself on the wrong side of the Bow Street dock however, accused of obtaining money by false pretences. The accusation was that he had placed adverts in the papers calling for more men and women to join his agency as detectives. If you were interested all you had to do was send a postal order for 10s 6d (about £45 today) and he promised to send a certificate by return (showing you were now attached to the NDA) and then details of cases you could investigate. In effect he was franchising private detection across the country.

Binet was quite successful in this enterprise as several people sent him money and waited for the work to roll in. Sadly, very few, if any of them, got any more than a certificate, and some didn’t even get that. The supposed fraud made the pages of Tit Bits and the Truth, two of the better selling periodicals of the day and hopefully some people were deterred from parting with their cash so easily.

In the end enough people complained and the police investigated, hence Binet’s appearance at London’s senior police magistrate court. He didn’t speak himself, leaving his defense to his lawyer, a Mr Cranshaw. The legal man told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan) that he intended to bring several witnesses that would speak to his client’s reliability as a detective and to his good character. Mr Vaughan listened to them, and heard Cranshaw’s attempt to argue that the case did not constitute one of ‘false pretences’ and then fully committed Binet to take his trial at the Central Criminal Court later that month.

On the 24 July John George Binet was tried at Old Bailey and found guilty. The court heard from a number of witnesses on both sides but mostly the defense was that Binet was good at being a private detective and that his clients were happy with the work they had commissioned. That Binet and his star employee – Mrs J Gray, ‘the celebrated lady detective’ – were competent investigators was somewhat beside the point. The court heard that they were also in debt and behind with their rent. Perhaps that pushed Binet to try and raise some quick money by the means of his postal fraud scheme.

It didn’t wash with the jury or the judge, who sent him to prison for a year with hard labour. Binet had tried or evade the law once he knew that summonses had been issued to bring him in. He was arrested on the platform of Victoria railway station where he was attempting to catch a train out of the capital disguised as a sea captain. Mrs Gray and another of Binet’s team of detectives, ‘Chief Inspector’ Godfrey (formally of the Jersey Militia) were more successful in escaping justice having vanished before the police could catch up with them.

I am now intrigued to find out if ‘Mrs Gray’ is one of my distant relations…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 9, 1893]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here