A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

‘A pack of untruths’ in the case of the missing diamond

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When Mr Abrahams returned from a visit to the music hall on the 2nd of January he realised he’d lost a scarf pin. It was a valuable item, set with a diamond, and worth around £7 (or about £300 in today’s money). The Clapham jeweller reported the item missing, presumed stolen, and enquiries were made.

Some time later the pin turned up at a pawnbrokers, presented by Joseph Smith, an elderly cook who lived in Caversham Street, Chelsea. Unfortunately for Smith the ‘broker had seen notices warning that a stolen diamond pin was in circulation and he detained the jewel and alerted the police.

When the case eventually came before the magistrate at Westminster Smith denied stealing it and instead mounted a convoluted defence. He said that he’d received the pin in the post as a present, so had obtained it lawfully. Since such a valuable parcel would have been sent by registered post Richard Dyer, the local letter carrier was summoned to give evidence.

Dyer stated that ‘he knew the prisoner but did not recollect leaving a registered letter at his house about the time named’. Moreover, ‘there was no signature for a registered letter on the day in question’.

Smith’s story then, didn’t add up.

The 70 year-old cook now called his son in to back him up. The younger man confirmed that he had received the parcel but had burned the wrapper. I’ve no idea whether this was a normal thing to do but it didn’t convince the magistrate that Smith’s story was true. In fact it did quite the opposite and angered him in the process.

‘Mr Partridge said the prisoner had aggravated the case by calling his son to tell a pack of untruths, which he (the magistrate) did not believe’.

But he was minded to be lenient with someone who bore a previously good character and where there was ‘some doubt about the matter’. After all, it had not been proved that Smith had stolen the pin; he may have found it at the theatre. So Mr Partridge decided not to send him to prison as he might have done, but instead fined him 40s and let him go. Mr Abrahams had been reunited with his property and there was little to gain (in terms of deterrence) in sending an old man to gaol. However, if he failed to pay the fine that is where he would go for a month.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 21, 1885]

A fracas in a hospital over a lost diamond stud

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William Watts was either an exceedingly unpleasant individual or ‘not quite right in the head’ as contemporaries might have put it. I’m going with the former however, as he held down the job of a hotel manager, so presumably was a capable person.

In October 1885 he was arrested at a hospital in Leicester Square. St John’s specialised in diseases of the skin and Watts had been there on more than one occasion. Some weeks previously he had lost a gold topped walking cane and accused the staff at the hostel of stealing it. This time he claimed to have lost a diamond collar pin and angrily demanded its return.

‘As the pin could not be found, and as no one in the hospital knew anything about it, the accused became disorderly, and interrupted the business of the hospital for about half an hour’. 

He was asked to leave and then removed from the premises, only to return and start complaining again some time afterwards. The hospital’s secretary now had no choice but to call for the police, who arrived and took the disgruntled hotel manager away.

Back at the police station a police search quickly found the gentleman’s diamond pin, ‘fixed on the back of his shirt, where he himself admitted having placed it’.

Appearing at the Marlborough Street Police Court Watts, who gave his address as Thanet Place, Temple Bar, must have cut a sheepish figure. His previous altercation with the skin clinic was aired and the magistrate bound him over to the amount of £10 to keep the peace for three months. He advised the hospital not to receive him as patient in future.  The secretary probably made a note to do so, since he explained to the court that ‘such imputations were very unpleasant both to the staff and to the patients’.

One imagines this was the Victorian equivalent of the sign often seen in hospitals that reminds visitors that NHS staff should be the victims of abuse, violence or aggressive behaviour. They have a hard enough job to do without having to put up with idiots like William Watts or his modern incarnation.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 3, 1885]

ST John’s hospital no longer exists, according one ‘history’ it moved to 49 Leicester Square in 1887 but this article would suggest they had a presence there at least 2 years earlier. It is now a bar, the Slug and Lettuce. Perhaps Mr Watts would be happier there.