‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

‘Sisters’ show solidarity as their bigamist husband is gaoled

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One of the more unusual crimes to reach the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey was bigamy. I say ‘unusual’ because amongst all the violence, theft and fraud it appears to represent a more ‘civil’ offence (legally speaking). Like divorce, or breach of promise, we might have expected it to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the criminal. But unusual also, because it was rare.

Bigamy was contained within the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (14 and 15 Vict. c.100) which stated:

Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.

 In 1878 Walter Horace Bartlet, a 22 year-old carpenter living in Friern Park, North London, appeared at Hampstead Police court charged with that offence. Both his wives were in court to witness the hearing but Emma Bartlett (his first and only legal spouse) was not permitted to give evidence under the terms of the legislation on bigamy.

Bartlet’s sister was also present, having been subpoenaed by the police, and she told the court that her brother had married Emma ( neé Hughes) at Handsworth Old Church in  Birmingham in May 1878. Walter had left the midlands and come to London for work and had found digs in Finchley where he met Emily Young. Emily was a domestic servant who lived with her mother in North Finchley.

The pair had courted ‘for three or four months’ before Walter popped the question. He never once told Emily he was already married and on the 7 December the couple were wed at St John the Baptist’s church, Hoxton. Poor Emily was informed on her wedding night that her husband was already married and it was her that got in touch with Emma in Birmingham.

In court the women stood side by side in solidarity, both having been wronged by a man that had deceived them. Mrs Emma Bartlett signed the charge sheet and the magistrate formally committed the young carpenter to take his trial at the Old Bailey. On the 13 January Walter pleaded guilty as charged and was sent to prison for twelve months.

The law has changed little since 1861: it is still an offence that carries a prison sentence (although there is now an allowable defence for the person that genuinely believed their former spouse was dead). In 2008 Roderick Sangster (a former Church if Scotland minister) was sent to prison for three years for marrying one woman while still being married to another. He probably didn’t help his case by skipping bail and going on the run, he also ran up large debts in his wife’s name, forging her name on a loan agreement.

As with the Victorian case it was Sangster’s wives that were the victims here, which perhaps help explain why this offence is dealt with alongside others which leave someone hurt, emotionally, physically or financially.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 29 December, 1878]

Bigamy was rare but for other articles in which it features see:

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

A defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

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The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

A child has a narrow escape as a disenchanted teenager poisons her lunch

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In December 1895 Edith Fenn appeared before Mr Lane at the West London Police court. Edith was just 15 years old and worked as a kitchen maid at 21 Courtfield Gardens, Earl’s Court. She had been asked to take food up to the youngest member of the household, Gwendolin Morris who was just 3 and a half years of age.

As she carried a tray with a bowl of cooked mincemeat along the landing Elizabeth Smart, a housemaid cleaning upstairs, stopped her. Elizabeth  could smell something bad, like ammonia, asked Edith what is was. The kitchen servant nodded to the jug of milk standing on a slate on the landing: ‘Perhaps it is in the milk’, she suggested, and carried on to the nursery.

The milk was there because Edith had brought it up earlier (as was her duty) and the little girl had rejected it. When the child tried it she spat it out complaining that it tasted ‘nasty’ and her nurse, Florence Powell agreed. Since the milk was slightly off the nurse decided to put it outside.

Now Edith had arrived in the nursery with Gwendolin’s meal of minced meat and potatoes. Immediately Powell recognized the smell of ammonia, just as Elizabeth Smart had. Edith set the tray down on a side table and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The nurse sniffed the meat and found it was certainly the source of the ammonia smell and handed it to the housemaid to take back to Mrs Longhurst, the cook.

What was going on? Had the cook inadvertently added ammonia to the baby’s dinner or was something more sinister at work?

Once the cook had seen what had happened she called for her mistress, and Mrs Louise Morris, the wife of an army officer, summoned a doctor. He examined both the milk and the minced meat and found that both were poisoned. The meat contained ammonia and the meat had traces of prussic acid, a cleaning agent used on gold lace. Dr Wyckham gave the little girl some ether as an antidote and she was later said to be recovering well in hospital.

A police investigation was soon underway and suspicion fell on Edith who had only been with the Morris family for six weeks. A bottle labeled ‘poison’ was found in the dustbin and in a subsequent trial at Old Bailey Edith admitted throwing it away after poisoning the girl’s milk and food.

Why had she done so, a nurse at the hospital wanted to know? All Edith would say was that she didn’t like taking the girl’s food up to her. At the police station she seemed much more anxious that her mother would find out what she had done. In the end she was charged with a form of wounding (‘Unlawfully administering a certain poison to Gwendolin Sutherland Morris with intent to injure and annoy her’) and, thankfully, no real harm was done to the child.

It was the end of Edith’s career as a domestic however. The jury recommended her to mercy on account of her age and the fact that two people stepped up to say that she had a previously unblemished good character. The judge sent her to prison for four months with hard labour. If she didn’t enjoy the tiresome trudge up and down stairs with a tray of food she was hardly going to prefer the treadmill and the crank and a diet of thin gruel.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, 18 December, 1895]

A scandal in Fitzrovia, or a simple case of under age drinking?

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At seven o’clock in the evening of Thursday 15 December 1887 police constable 432D was on duty in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia. As the officer walked his beat he noticed a young girl ‘reeling about’ and seemingly unwell. He approached her and caught her by the arm and soon ascertained that she was drunk. He asked her name and she told him it was Betsy.

Betsy Embery was just 14 years of age and worked as a servant in Bloomsbury High Street, not far away. The constable took her to the police station and her father was summoned. When Mr Embery arrived he was shocked to see his daughter in such a state and declared that someone must have drugged and assaulted her.

This was a serious allegation that the police were bound to investigate. Betsy was examined by the divisional surgeon, who quickly decided that there had been no assault; in his opinion the girl had just been drinking. The next day she was brought before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

‘Where did you get the drink, little girl?’ the magistrate enquired.

‘’My sister and a woman gave it to me in a public-house near to Drury Lane’, the girl replied.

Her sister was 23 years old but Betsy didn’t know much more about her than that, not whether she was married, or the name of her drinking companion. Betsy was released into the care of her father but it all seems a little fishy to me. How had she got from Drury lane to Cleveland Street and what was she doing there anyway?

Cleveland Street was about to become notorious in the late 1880s. In 1889 the chance arrest of a 15 year-old boy for a suspected theft uncovered a male brothel that catered to an elite clientele. The Cleveland Street scandal resulted in no prosecutions of anyone ‘in society’ (merely light sentences for some of the male prostitutes that worked there) but it sent shock waves through the establishment.

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It has been suggested, but never proven, that Prince Albert Victor (Queen Victoria’s grandson) was a customer. The scandal fuelled contemporary homophobia which culminated in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde two years later for having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

So I wonder if young Betsy was simply there by accident or whether she had been ‘drugged’ as her father claimed, and taken to Cleveland Street to be used as a child prostitute. This was only a couple of years after William Stead has exposed the extent of child prostitution in ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’; an article that had helped push through legislation to raise the age of consent.

Was Betsy set up by a predatory procuress or had she simply wandered into Cleveland Street after an afternoon of drinking with her big sister? Was her father’s claim correct or was he just trying to rescue his daughter’s (and his own) reputation?

[from The Standard, Saturday, 17 December, 1887]