A detective uncovers smuggling by Horsleydown, but a much worse discovery is made there in 1889

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Detective sergeant Howard was watching the comings and goings of ships and sailors by Horselydown Stairs on the River Thames. Situated near to what is now (but wasn’t then) Tower Bridge and opposite St Katherine’s Docks. In 1881 this was a busy stretch of the river with shipping bringing in goods from all over the world. Now, of course, it’s mostly a tourist area, but it is just as busy.

As DS Howard waited he saw a man he recognized go on board a steamship which had a Hamburg registration. He was sure the man was John Michael, someone he knew well as a smuggler, so he kept on watching.

Sure enough, about 30 minutes afterwards Michael reemerged and made his way on to the docks. The officer followed and then stopped him nearby. When he searched him the detective sergeant found seven pounds of tobacco and ¾ lb weight of cigars. The duty alone on these amounted to nearly £3 and so he arrested him.

When questioned Michael denied all knowledge that the goods might in any way be dodgy. He merely stated that a man on board had asked him to carry the goods ashore and was going to meet him in Tooley Street later. It was a weak defense and he probably knew it, but what else could he say?

When he was up before the Southwark magistrate he said very little at all expect to confirm his name, age (42)  and occupation (labourer). DS Howard was also there and told Mr Bridge that the man was well known as someone who earned money by carrying goods ashore to help seaman avoid the excise due on it. He got paid sixpence for every pound he smuggled, so he stood to make about 3-4s  for the haul that DS Howard confiscated.

He was ordered to pay £1 149d for his crime but since he didn’t have anything like that money he was sent to prison for two months instead.

On 4 June 1889 a human a parcel was found floating in the river just near St George’s stairs, Horsleydown. Some small boys had been lobbing stones at it but when it was recovered it was found to contain a decomposing lower torso of a woman. A leg and thigh turned up days later by the Albert Bridge and the upper torso was found soon afterwards by a gardener in Battersea Park. It was quickly linked to the Whitehall and Rainham torso mysteries that had been overshadowed in 1888 by the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel murders. Fig 2.1

For most of the last 130 plus years researchers have concluded that there were two serial murderers running amok in late Victorian London but was this really the case? A new book, penned by Drew with his fellow historian Andrew Wise, sheds new light on the torso and Whitechapel series and argues that one man might have been responsible for both.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper is published by Amberley Books and is available to order on Amazon here:

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 21, 1881]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

‘His whole time belongs to the public’: the lot of the Victorian policeman

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London Police (c.1891) – you can see their duty armlets on their left wrists.

A Victorian policeman was expected to wear his uniform at all times of the day, regardless of whether he was on duty or not. According to the Police Code book an officer can ‘never be strictly off duty, for his whole time belongs to the public’.* To indicate he was on duty a policeman wore the striped armlet, the removal of which – in duty hours – was considered a very serious offence.

PC Josiah Norton  (770 City) was a good example of a police officer who took his vows of service seriously. He lived in digs above a watchmaker’s shop at 11 Barking Alley on the wonderfully named Seething Lane. On the night of the 22/23 February 1869 Norton was asleep then, around one in the morning, he was woken by ‘a slight noise’. His police sense told hi something was wrong and he got up and, dressed only in his nightshirt, went to investigate. As he descended the stairs to Mr Miller’s watch shop he saw an intruder who, seeing the other man, ran off with the policeman in pursuit.

The burglar ran out of the house and towards nearby Barking Church, tripping on some steps as he fled. Unfortunately for him two policemen were nearby, Inspector Harrison and Sergeant Hartopp. The running man looked suspicious so they questioned him. As they did PC Norton came running up, still dressed only in his night wear, and told them the fugitive was wanted for attempted burglary. Norton said he would have been with them quicker but the escaping felon had the presence of mind to bar one of the exits behind him.

In the Mansion House Police court the following day the man gave his name as James Cottrell, labourer but the police described him as the member of a ‘gang of burglars, all of whom are now in custody’. The magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, granted their request for a remand so that Cottrell’s character and circumstances might be investigated further.

Cottrell came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 1 March 1869. He pleaded guilty but tried to argue that he’d only entered Miller’s watch shop by accident: ‘I was making a convenience of the place, and fell in,’ he said. In other words he was using the doorway as a toilet when it opened unexpectedly. The judge was no more convinced than I imagine you are and, since he had a previous conviction from 1865, he handed down a seven-year sentence of penal servitude.  Cottrell was just 21 years of age; he served six years being released on license in February 1875.

As for PC Norton his heroics had not passed unnoticed by the City magistracy and police. Sir Robert Corden made a point of commending his dedication to duty in pursuing a criminal despite being undressed and said ‘he hoped his conduct would be reported to the commissioner’. It already had been, Inspector Harrison confirmed.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 24 February, 1869]

*Neil A. Bell and Adam Wood, Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.24

A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

‘Gin Lane’ uncovered in the 1850s

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The Victorian’s love of gin, immortalised by Dickens in Sketches by Boz

When Benjamin Elmy, and offer of Her Majesty’s Excise, knocked at the door of number 20, New Compton Street it was opened, ‘after a short pause’, by a woman. Elmy asked her if she lived there.

‘No’, the woman replied, ‘I have nothing to do with the house’.

It was a strange response for someone answering the door, unless she was a visitor on her way out. Benjamin entered through the door and made his way downstairs. He was acting on information and presumably knew what he was expecting to find there. He wasn’t disappointed because he found ‘the lower rooms fitted out as a distillery’.

‘A still was at work on the fire, and there was a quantity of manufactured spirits in large bottles’. Elmy also found about ’60 gallons of wash, and all the apparatus of a private still’.

This was clearly an operation to make liquor and avoid the duty on it. Londoners had a huge appetite for cheap alcohol in the nineteenth century and especially for gin (which is what I suspect was being made at No. 20).

Benjamin had not gone on his own and one of his colleagues had decided to follow the woman that had let Elmy in. He caught up whether and brought her back to the illegal distillery. Her name was Eliza Nash and she denied all knowledge of the still or the people involved with it.

Unfortunately for her she was overheard by the landlady of the house who pushed into the room and set the proverbial cats amongst the pigeons.

‘How can you tell the officer that’, she exclaimed, ‘I have seen you constantly about here, and have you lately fetched a great deal of water for the house?”

Eliza was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of what she’d been doing so the excise men took her, and the contents of the room, into custody. The next day they brought her to the Marlborough Street Police Court where Mr Bingham found her guilty of running an illicit still. He was lenient on this occasion, fining her the lower amount of 30 but warning she would go to prison for three months if she failed to pay.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 15, 1855]