Teenagers in church, but not for the sake of their souls

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Police constable William Gearing (86B) was on his beat in Horseferry Road when he noticed two things that were suspicious. First, a lamp in the street had been extinguished, something he associated with criminals operating under cover of darkness.

The second was that there was a light flickering in the nearby Roman Catholic chapel. Given that it was 11.45 at night he assumed that the priest was not taking a late service or communion and decided to investigate.

The gate of the chapel was open but when he tried the door itself it was locked. He somehow found the keys and entered the building. Two men were in the chapel and they panicked, rushing up into the gallery to hide. PC Gearing went outside to call for help and as soon as another officer arrived they managed to secure the two intruders.

Once the pair –Joseph Isaacs and John Mason – had been locked up back at the nearest police station house, PC Gearing returned to the chapel to investigate. There he found evidence that the men had been trying to rob the place: several drawers were opened and a cupboard in the sacristy had been forced. He also found some of the church’s silver placed wrapped up in a large handkerchief ready to be taken away. The final clue was a portion of recently lighted candle and some false keys, both essential ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth-century burglar.

He carried on his enquires and discovered that the chapel had been securely locked the evening before so the men had to have picked the lock (or used their false keys) to enter. In court at Westminster one of the duo, Isaacs, said they’d found the keys in the sacristy cupboard but couldn’t account for why they were in the chapel in the first place. Mason, probably wisely, said nothing at all.

Mr Paynter wanted to know if the men had previous form for burglary. The police told him that Isaacs had served time for highway robbery while Mason had been imprisoned for three months under a different name, for theft. The magistrate duly committed them to take their chances with an Old Bailey jury.

On the 24 November 1856, less than a week after the Westminster hearing, the pair appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to simple larceny, a lesser offence than breaking and entering. They were only youngsters, both just 17 years of age. Isaacs got four years, his companion 12 months.

According to the Digital Panopticon neither lad repeated their offences (or at least were not recorded as being caught for anything after 1856). Joseph lived until he was 63, dying in 1902. John Mason was not so fortunate, he died in 1870, at the young age of 31. He was buried in St Pancras.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 19, 1856]

‘What a ruffian you must be’ to punch a defenceless woman

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Lydia Morgan was drinking with her husband in a pub in Chelsea when an argument broke out. Her husband was quarrelling with another, younger, drinker when a friend of the teenager tried to intervene.

Mrs Morgan told the intruder to mind his own business and sit down. With that the lad, Patrick Cook (19), punched her in the face knocking her off her stool. The assault broke Lydia’s nose and she was taken to hospital to be treated for the injury.

The next day Cook was in court at Westminster Police court to answer for his actions.  He claimed that Lydia’s husband had been preparing to fight him (he ‘had his coat off’) and was drunk. Mr Morgan and his wife flatly denied this and their version of events was corroborated by Thomas Cook, the landlord of the Royal Oak in Keppel Street (who was no relation to the defendant).

Mrs Morgan had appeared in court with her face half covered in bandages and the policeman that brought the charge presented a certificate certifying that her nose was broken. Mr Selfe, the magistrate, thought he recognized Patrick Cook and asked the officer. The constable said that Cook was a violent lad who had been in court in September that year for stabbing a man with a fork. He’d served six weeks for that assault.

That certainly counted against him and cemented the justice’s view that he was guilty of this offence.

‘What a ruffian you must be’, he told him.

‘The instant you get out of prison here you are indulging in your naturally savage propensities. You have committed a serious and perhaps permanent injury upon this poor woman, who it is clearly shown offered you no provocation whatever’.

He then proceeded to sentence the lad.

‘If you had struck her more than once I should have given you the utmost punishment the law allows, and as it is I’ll stop your brutal habits for a little time, by imprisoning you for three months, with hard labour’.

With that Cook was led away to start his second term of incarceration that year. I doubt it was to be his last.

In 1872 a Patrick Cook was sentenced to a year in gaol for assaulting three policemen. He was aged 25 and gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (which probably meant he had no actual trade, ‘labourer’ was a common default ). His criminal record notes two previous convictions: three months in November 1865 and six weeks in September, both at Westminster Police court. He served each sentence in Cold Bath Fields house of correction.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 14, 1865]

A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ in court once again.

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Clerkenwell Prison , c.1862

PC William Warren (208N) was perambulating his beat when he saw a man and a woman leant up against the railings at the corner of Nelson Place on the City Road. The pair were arguing and when the man saw the officer he called out to him. He gave his name as John Stourton and claimed the woman had picked his pocket, stealing his purse and half a sovereign. Warren arrested the woman and took her back to the station.

Since a search there revealed nothing PC Warren retracted his steps and searched the areas around the railings. There he found the purse close to where the pair had been standing. It had clearly been dropped by the thief as soon as she’d seen the officer appear.

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Lewis but she was more commonly known as ‘broken-nosed Liz’, and was a notorious thief. A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ as Reynolds’s Newspaper described her, Liz had a string of previous convictions. PC Barker (124N) told the magistrate that she had served six months for stealing a watch in 1859, three years for a similar offence in in May 1860 and had committed two like offences since she’d got out of goal.

Whilst the case showed up Liz as an old offender it didn’t too much for Stourton’s reputation either. The court heard that the stonemason, a married man with children, had picked up Liz in the street after she had asked him to buy her a drink.  It was a common enough ploy for women soliciting prostitution and having had a drink she told the justice that Stourton then went with her to a nearby house ‘for an immoral purpose’. She denied stealing anything and was trying to undermine her accuser by pointing out his own, less than respectable, character.

It didn’t work in front of Mr Barker who committed her to take her trial at the in due course. She was brought to the Middlesex quarter sessions on the 17 October where the jury convicted her and she was given yet another sentence of penal servitude, this time for seven years. Her previous convictions really counted against her here, as the system punished her severely for not learning her lesson.

In reality of course there was little hope for someone like Liz. At 35, with a history of prostitution and crime and little hope of finding work she was condemned to repeating her actions and lifestyle until poverty, the cold or an angry punter ended her miserable existence.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]

An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’: self-defence, vitriol, and exile to Australia

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George Day was passing along Lucas Place, Coram Street in the parish of St. Pancras, at about 2 in the morning when a woman hailed him from a house there. Day was in his cab and assumed the woman required a cab. It was pretty clear the house was one of ‘ill-repute’ (in other words a brothel) but George went inside anyway.

Once there the woman demanded that he stand her a drink and have one himself. There was no fare and Day soon realized that he’d been tricked, and started to leave. But the young woman kicked up a fuss and a heated exchange ensued, which was loud enough to be heard Mary Ann Murphy who lived nearby.  She described it as ‘a little bit of a bother’ and heard a woman’s voice say:

‘Don’t let him go, he wants to bilk her’.

‘Bilk’ was underworld slang for cheat, and as Murphy looked in through the open door she saw another woman run towards Day and throw something at him.

This woman was Elizabeth Cleveland she had thrown vitriol (sulphuric acid) in the cabbie’s face. The police arrived and Cleveland was arrested while Day was taken away for treatment.  The case came about before the magistrate at Hatton Garden but it was far too serious to be dealt with there. Cleveland was committed to Newgate and took her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 August 1840.

It may be that Day was economical with the truth that morning. Perhaps he knew it was a brothel and he’d gone in deliberately but then changed his mind. However, having crossed the threshold he was expected to pay something, if only for gawping at the girls that worked there. When he refused a fight broke out and that resulted in Elizabeth choosing the first weapon she could find. She didn’t deny throwing acid but claimed she did not know it was so concentrated; it was used for cleaning brass and was usually diluted. There was also some confusion as to whether it was a liquid or a powder (like lime) that was thrown.

It didn’t affect the outcome:  George Day had lost the sight of one eye completely and the surgeon that testified in court said there was little chance he’d ever regain the use of it. The jury convicted Elizabeth and the judge sentenced her to be transported to Australia for 15 years.

Elizabeth Cleveland had been born in Peterborough in 1787 and so, like many Londoners then and now, was a migrant to the capital. In 1840 she was 53 years of age (considered ‘old’ by one witness). She was finally put on board a ship (the Rajah) and sent to Van Dieman’s Land on 1 April 1841, landing on 19 July that year. Her record reveals that she claimed to have acted in self-defense (‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’).

It also noted that she was a widow with one living child. Elizabeth could read but not write, she was 5’ 2” high, had brown eyes, greying dark brown hair, and was fresh faced with freckles. She gave her occupation as a cook and laundress, which is probably the role she had played in the brothel, looking after the prostitutes there.

Her instincts were to protect the young women worked with but in this case it had gone terribly wrong with awful consequences for George day and for her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 20, 1840]

A daring escape from police cells by three desperate robbers

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On Saturday 5 May 1866 three men were fully committed to trial by the sitting magistrate at Worship Police court in the East End of London. George Hensey, Patrick Madden, and William Thomas Morgan had been charged with robbing the house of Edmund Fox, at Albert Terrace, Hackney, and had got away with upwards of £9 in silver plate (about £500 today).

The magistrate had them taken back to the cells in the court while the police van (the ‘Black Maria’) was sent for to take them off to a more secure location. The men never made it to prison however, because on Sunday morning the gaoler found the ventilators in the cell had been forced apart with one of the 2 inch oak seats and all three felons had escaped!

The Morning Post reported that the men must have escaped into the courtyard adjoining the cells and then got out through one of the doors. ‘The work must have been not only rapidly, but silently and skillfully effected’ and while it was an embarrassment to the authorities no one at Worship Street should be held accountable it declared.

The escape was not made public until Tuesday as the police searched for the missing men. As all three were ‘well known to the police’ it was assumed they would be found quickly and returned to custody but as yet, there was no sign of this happening.  No men with those names appear in the Old Bailey in 1866 nor is there a victim listed by the name of Edmond Fox so this might have meant that all three got away with it on this occasion.

However, a Patrick Madden was found guilty – at Middlesex Quarter Sessions – of stealing plate worth £9 from the home of a Mr ‘Windover Edmunds Fry’ in May 1866, having previously escaped. He was convicted and sent to prison (the term itself is not listed). Men named William Morgan and George Henley (not Hensey) do feature in hulk and prison records in the 1860s but I can’t tie any of them to this case.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 09, 1866]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Picking pockets under the eyes of God

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The interior of St Stephen’s Church, Westminster in the nineteenth century 

I think we imagine Victorian Britain as a much more religious place than our current society. That may be true, but as with many of our assumptions or impressions of the past it doesn’t always stand up to examination. In 1851 a religious census was taken which included Jewish and Christian non-conformist and Catholic chapels alongside the established Church of England churches.

It showed that on average that year 10.8m people attended some sort of religious service, about 69% of the population (of nearly 18,000,000). The census itself has been criticized as being inaccurate and therefore worthless as a statistical exercise but we can read in a number of ways. About half of the number attended CoE services, but there were nearly 400,000 Catholics in a country where Catholicism had been under extreme pressure for centuries. There were also very many more non-conformists (Methodists for example) despite the Anglican Church being the official church of the crown and state.

Yet even in such a supposedly religious country almost a third of Britons did not attend church at all, which should cause us to question its supposedly dominant role in shaping Victorian society and morality. And some of those attending church were not there for their spiritual enlightenment either, as this report from April 1853 (just two years after the census) shows.

James McMachlin and George Wilson were practiced pickpockets. They infested the crowds that gathered at any event in mid Victorian London and a church service, especially a prominent one, was as good a place as any for them. In April the Bishop of London was presiding over a large conformation ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in Rochester Row, and the locals filled the venue. It gave the two thieves ample opportunity to mingle with the congregation and ‘dip’ the pockets of the unwary.

Among those targeted were Jane Elizabeth West and the Honorable Miss Georgina Colville, but they were not alone. Mr Childerson the churchwarden was robbed, as was an unnamed lady who lost the huge sum of £25 from her purse. Miss Burdetts Coutts was not so naive however and managed to keep an eye on her valuables as she attended another service (this time conducted by the Archbishop of York at St John’s, Smith’s Square, Westminster)  where the same pair of crooks were operating. smith-square-18282

Unfortunately for McMachlin and Wilson Sergeant Loom of B Division, Metropolitan Police, was on duty in the church in plain clothes. He was on the look out for thieves (which suggests a church service was a not uncommon place for crime) and he noticed the pair. Wilson had a coat draped loosely over his arm, to cover his actions. He watched as the other thief (McMachlin) got close to Miss West and placed his hand near her pocket. He rushed over and grabbed him and the young woman soon realized she’d been robbed (although she’d not felt her purse get lifted).  He removed McMachlin with some difficulty and then went back into the throng to search for Wilson, who was in the process of robbing Miss Colville. When cornered he dropped her purse and protested his innocence.

Both men were brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court and a crowd of churchgoers, including Rev. Tennant from St Stephens and two of his curates, were present to witness the hearing. McMachlin and Wilson denied the crimes they were accused of and denied knowing each other but they were still fully committed for trial by a jury. I doubt that they were ever tried though, gaining convictions against such operators was notoriously difficult unless the victims could swear that they had seen the theft happen. Not surprisingly then neither man appears in the published records of the Old Bailey or in the Digital Panopticon.

Today less than half of the UK’s population describe themselves as ‘belonging’ to a religion. This number has been rising as well. In 1983 65.2% people identified themselves as Christian, by 2014 this had fallen to just 41.7%. Moreover, only 16.3% of the population were declared as members of the CoE in 2014. Where worship is up is in the Catholic Church and in other churches where immigrant communities gather.

I am an atheist but I attend a Greek Orthodox church at important points in the year out of love and respect  for my wife’s family. Every time I go – regardless of whether this is Easter or ‘just a Sunday’ – it is packed, with standing room only. Strangely then it is the immigrants to this country that are upholding its Christian ‘tradition’, despite ‘Christianity’ being waved as a symbol of Britishness by some of the discordant voices of the Far (and not so far) Right.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 25, 1853]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here: