A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms


I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.


Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

A sorry pond dipper is saved by the local bobby


Dulwich College in the mid-nineteenth century

Police constable Milne (163P) was walking his beat close to Dulwich College, south of the River Thames when he heard a noise. It was about 10.30 at night and so he clearly wasn’t expecting to here sound near the school and set off to investigate. The sound seemed to have come from close to a pond near the college and to his horror PC Milne now saw a pair of feet and ankles sticking up from the water.

Removing his helmet and stripping to the waist the policeman dived into the pond and made his way towards the feet. ‘With difficulty he managed to reach the place where he had noticed the feet’ [they had since disappeared beneath the water], and was then able to drag the person out and on to the bank. The pond, he observed, was about nine feet deep.

Using the first aid he had been taught as a police trainee he revived the man he had rescued but he was far from grateful. As soon as he came to the bedraggled pond dipper ‘made a rush for the water’. Constable Milne secured him and conveyed him back to the nearest police station.

At the station the prisoner revealed that he was ‘a hackney carriage proprietor’ named Mitchell who lived in Lower Norwood. He admitted that he had been trying to kill himself and was promptly charged with the same. At Lambeth Police Court he again confessed his fault and said that he hoped the magistrate, Me Ellison, would send him to prison for a year as it was all he deserved. Instead Ellison remanded him in custody so that enquiries could be made as to his mental health.

He commented PC Milne for his quick thinking and his bravery and said he deserved a reward. Hopefully Mr Mitchell recovered and perhaps recognised that the copper had saved his life, and maybe even rewarded him himself. At least for PC Milne he had a story to dine out on for the rest of his career.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 25, 1880]

The (literal) suspension of a worker by his colleagues


Dulwich College c.1869

A large group of workmen were engaged, in October 1867, in work at Dulwich School (also know as Dulwich college). The college had been in existence since the early 17th century and in the late 1860s it moved to its present site in south east London and a purpose built school, designed by Charles Barry (jnr) was  constructed.

This was a large project and today’s case (from the Lambeth Police Court) reveals that somewhere around 30-40 carpenters and plasterers alone worked on it the buildings. In any large group of men it is likely that tensions will arise for time to time and this is exactly what happened here.

A ‘slater’s boy’ was climbing a long ladder carrying his slates on his head when he met George Saffell, another worker, wanting to come down. The older man insisted that the boy descend the ladder to make way for him.

This was ‘considered unfair conduct’ by Saffell’s workmates and they applied their own rules to ‘punish’ him. He was charged ‘half a gallon’ as a fine. The court reporter did not specify what that meant but it probably referred to his daily or weekly allowance of alcohol in some way or another. They thought he was out of order and they inflicted a small fine to show their collective displeasure.

Saffell was in no mood to accept his punishment however, but this was a mistake on his part.

One evening soon afterwards he was sent for by his ‘mates’ and taken to the ‘shop’ where he was seized and his legs tied together. The men then hauled him up on a beam and suspended him 15 feet above the shop floor for 25 minutes. Saffell complained that this had caused him to have a rupture and that he was now in pain and incapacitated.

The magistrate quizzed several fellow workmen who admitted (much to the shock of the justice) that this was ‘common practice’ for those that broke their rules or refused to pay the fines. When pressed Saffell admitted that he had already been carrying an injury so his vociferous complaints about his inability to work were somewhat diluted. Nevertheless, the magistrate agreed that (despite the ‘rules’ of the shop floor) he had clearly been ‘assaulted’ in some respects.

The problem was in formally identifying those responsible from out of a large group of work mates. For the time being the court had two men ( William Steer and Frederick Coffey) in custody and so these two were fully committed for trial.

No case seems to have reached the Old Bailey so I suspect it was heard at Southwark or at the Surrey Assizes, or perhaps dropped for lack of evidence. Whether Saffell ever returned to work – let alone to that workforce – is equally unclear, but had he done so I rather suspect he might have avoided ladders in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 23, 1867]