The temptation is too great for a teenage toy shop assistant


Henry Farley ran a toy shop on Fleet Street. In fact it was more than toy shop; Farley sold toys but also operated as a Post Office and considerable money went through his business. Regardless s of this by his own admission Farley wasn’t as careful with his accounting as he should have been and so it took him a while to realise that one of his employees had been dipping into his till.

Farley had employed an errand some months previously. John Martin, ‘a lad of about eighteen’, had impressed the toy shop owner and he soon earned his promotion to the front of house. Martin now had access to the money in the till , ‘being money received for letters  and postage stamps’.

This temptation clearly proved too much for the teenager and by early October Farley began to realise that money was going missing at an alarming rate. About £330 was missing, a huge sum in 1849, and, perhaps reluctantly, the shopkeeper’s attention fell on Martin. Calling him into his office he asked his assistant to turn out his pockets.

‘He turned the contents out of one of them, but being desired to empty the other, he flung  some money into the fire, which turned out to be two half-sovereigns and half-a-crown’.

Appearing before the Guildhall Police Court an embarrassed Farley said he didn’t really wish to press charges. He thought the fault was largely his own for not running his business more carefully. Moreover he didn’t want ‘to ruin the boy’. The whole sorry episode had ‘taught him a severe lesson’.

The magistrate, Alderman Musgrove, asked him if anyone else had access to the till and was told yes, they did but didn’t elaborate. The alderman chastised the toy shop proprietor for the laxness of his systems but declared that he couldn’t let this one go. John Martin would have to stand trial at the Old Bailey for embezzling his master’s property as that was in the best interests of the wider public.

I’m not sure whose interests it actually served to have Martin tried before a jury, as he was on 25 October 1847. There it was revealed that John earned 6s 6d a week and was well cared for, even receiving presents from his master. He clearly hadn’t repaid his trust  and maybe didn’t deserve the good character he received in court. He was convicted and sent to prison for six months. We have no idea whether Farley took him back afterwards, but if not the justice system had probably created another habitual offender.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 10, 1847]

A magistrate’s decision is applauded in court


The Police Courts of Victorian London were open to the public (as magistrates courts are today) but it is rare that we get any sense of what those attending thought of the decision-making they saw there. Occasionally the members of the press recorded laughter – often in response to ignorant or ‘stupid’ comments made by a defendant to in reaction to a regional accent, in a rather dismissive (one might say) metropolitan way.

Presumably the audience (if we may call them that) did voice opinions on those being heard and one those presenting evidence for or against them. The courts were full of humour but also misery and despair; so we can except our ancestors to have reacted in very human ways to the stories that unfolded before them.

In March 1877 a young woman – a servant girl – was brought before the magistrate at Hammersmith charged with theft. Elizabeth Houghton was accused of stealing from her master Charles Levy, a merchant living in Linden Gardens, Bayswater.

Elizabeth was accused of taking several items but her ‘crime’ had come to light when a laundress, to whom she had taken her clothes to wash, found an apron that appeared to have been cut out of a sheet belong to the Levy household.

Elizabeth, when questioned by Mrs Levy, denied the apron was hers and insisted that if it had got into her belongings it could only be because someone had put it with the intention of ‘getting her into trouble’.

A few days later (perhaps on account of the apron) Elizabeth left the Levy’s service, although it is not made clear whether she went voluntarily or was dismissed. It was not uncommon for servants to be ‘let go’ without references if they were discovered to be stealing; after all, it was much easier than taking them to court.

As Elizabeth prepared to leave however, Mrs Levy searched her employee’s possessions (without asking and without her being in attendance). This was a mistake on the part of the merchant’s wife, as we shall see.

In a small box belonging to Elizabeth  were found ‘two black feathers, a fan holder and pieces of a sheet’. All of these, Mrs Levy said, belonged not to Elizabeth but to her. Mrs Levy was ‘examined at some length’ by the magistrate and she was adamant that she had purchased the feathers and the fan holder at a  shop in Westbourne Grove.

It seemed clear then, that either Elizabeth had indeed pinched the items or someone, perhaps a fellow servant, was attempting to frame her for the thefts.

In court Elizabeth had a legal representative, Mr Claydon, who spoke up for her. He said that in defence, Elizabeth was ‘a very young girl, and up to this time had borne an irreproachable character’. He added that it would have been much better for everyone if Mrs Levy had either searched the girl’s effects in Elizabeth’s presence or, better still, had waited for the police to deal with the accusation.

He went on to state that Elizabeth claimed that the feathers were of ‘a common kind’, and her own property. As for the fan holder, it was a present from her sister and he produced Elizabeth’s mother who swore that was the truth. There was, he finished, no proof that the apron had not been added to the girl’s clothes by mistake or misdirection.

Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate, agreed. He had listened to Mrs Levy’s evidence but was clearly unimpressed. He said he thought it ‘would be useless to send the prisoner for trail, and discharged her’; Elizabeth was free to go.

At this the court broke into spontaneous applause.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 22, 1877]

Sibling rivalry or simply a case of looking after number one?

In early February 1866 a ‘decent looking young man’ was presented at Mansion House Police Court on a charge of robbery.

Joseph Searle was accused of ‘being concerned in an extensive robbery’ of Mr Scott’s mantle* factory in Bishopsgate Street, in the City of London. There was no doubt, according to the evidence, that the business had been robbed, and quite of lot of items stolen by several persons, not all of them in custody.

What puzzled or concerned the Lord Mayor (who presided over the Mansion House courtroom) was that the evidence against Searle in particular had been provided by his younger brother Frederick.

Indeed this lad was employed by Scott’s and was also (by his own admission) involve din the crime himself, for it was he who had handed over the stolen property to his elder sibling.

The Lord mayor asked the prosecuting solicitor for some clarification:

Was he, he asked, to understand that ‘it was to be attempted to convict the prisoner upon the evidence of the actual thief, who was in the position of getting out of the scrape himself by convicting his own brother of the crime?’

The lawyer said that was exactly the situation although he added that others were undoubted involved in the robbery and he believed that the younger brother was keen to ‘make a clean breast of it’.

The Lord Mayor said that while he was prepared to accept the evidence he was bound to add that it was ‘an unusual course to to call a person who had actually committed a robbery to convict his own brother’.

Unusual and ‘very painful’ he concluded.

Mr Scott then appeared to testify that he had released Frederick Searle from his service some weeks ago and had lost around £40-50 worth of stock in the robbery. He suspected Searle and so he found and questioned him until he admitted his involvement, and named others. He then ‘dobbed in’ his elder brother who was quickly apprehended.

Under the circumstances the Lord Mayor had little choice but to remand both brothers in custody, despite his reservations. The case doesn’t appear to have reached the Old Bailey so perhaps the prosecution found it hard to present a case which relied (as the magistrate feared) on a brother’s word against his sibling. It may have been downgraded from robbery to embezzlement and heard at the sessions. Whatever the case, both Fred and Joe Searle disappear from the records at this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1866]

*a mantle, for those unaware, was ‘a mesh cover fixed round a gas jet to give an incandescent light when heated’.

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?


In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.



Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]

An embezzling gambler’s luck runs out


Leadenhall Market

Edward Bristow had a good  job in the eyes of Victorian society. He was a respectable middle-class clerk and bookkeeper  in the employ of a meat salesman at Leadenhall Market in the City of London. But he also had an addiction, an addiction all too well understood today to gambling.

Mr Lee, the meat salesman, was elderly and infirm and for the past four years had placed all his confidence in his 36 year-old assistant. Bristow received the payments for meat from butchers such as Charles Parrott (who had a stall at the market) and entered then into the ledger.

But he was also taking money out of the account and using it to place bets of his ‘favourite horse at Ascot, Epsom and other places of entertainment in that way’. Eventually he came unstuck because Henry Lee, the son of the salesman (and a butcher at Leadenhall in his own right) became suspicious. He looked into the books and found them ‘to be in a state of confusion’ and asked Bristow about it.

Henry Lee knew his fellow butcher Parrott who told him he had a receipt for two cheques recently, one for £374 and another for £100. Lee could find neither of these in the ledger. On enquiring at his father’s bank he discovered that the account had frequently been overdrawn and that had it not been for the fact that he was ‘a person of very large property’ the bank would have not have continued to give him credit. As it was they were already making arrangements to cease their connections with the salesman.

Henry Lee’s research revealed that Bristow had embezzled somewhere between £1000 and £2000 in money to feed his gambling habit. It had imperilled a well established business and at last brought the clerk to book at the Mansion House  Police court in December 1852.

The justice (the sitting Lord Mayory) committed Edward Bristow for trial at the Old Bailey and the clerk asked him not to remand him custody while he waited for that examination. But the Lord Mayor refused; ‘I would not accept bail of any amount, of the most unexceptional kind in a case like this’ he told Bristow before the sergeant took him away.

At Old Bailey in January of the following year Bristow pleaded guilty to embezzlement. The prosecution barrister asked for judgment (sentence) to be respited. This may mean that Bristow was sentenced at a later date (although he doesn’t appear in any of the records), or it could be that the case was referred up (the to 12 judges) because it might have issues of doubt attached (which is unlikely here). It may be that the Lees took pity on their family employer and wished to save him in some way.

We can’t say for certain what happened to Edward Bristow but it is safe to conclude that his gambling habit ruined him, robbed him of his livelihood, stripped him of his reputation and most probably rendered him destitute. Sadly we can say that this is still a very likely outcome for the compulsive and addicted gambler.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 11, 1852]

A teenager’s cunning plan falls apart

Regular visitors to this blog will now be well aware that the Police courts of London (the forerunners of today’s magistrate courts) dealt with a wide range of offending behaviour. I have written up (among others things) cases of assault, drunkenness, domestic abuse, fraudulent behaviour and theft. Some of the defendants were committed to trial at Old Bailey while others were dealt with summarily.

Today I have found the case of a young man who was stealing from his place of work, something that was particularly frowned upon in the 1800s. However, in this example the papers at least acknowledged the ingenuity of his pilferage.


David Dennis was just 17 years of age and for some months had been delivering boxes to a ribbon manufacturers in central London. His job was to take new boxes to the manufacturer’s warehouse in St Paul’s Churchyard (a road in case you wondered, not a graveyard – see the image above) However, the supervisor at Lyell & Co had begun to notice that some of his stock was missing – in fact this now amounted to over £300’s worth of missing ribbon and silk goods. His suspicions focused on the delivery boy and so he had him watched.

David deposited his boxes as usual but before he could leave with the old used ones he was stopped and taken to one side. When the first box was searched the supervisor found £15 of ribbon inside and the lad was arrested and taken to the nearest police office. A further search there revealed that the other boxes contained upwards of £30 worth of stock. Bear in mind that at today’s prices his haul (of £45 worth) would represent about £2000!

The system David was employing was beautifully simple and (he must have thought) pretty fool-proof. The court was told that he ‘substituted an empty box for every full one he took out of stock’; superficially all would have looked well in the warehouse until a closer inspection revealed the truth.

The newspaper appears to have had a grudging admiration for his cunning and bravado but this was not shared by the supervisor or the magistrate; he was remanded to face a full trial at Old Bailey at a  later date, with a possible  prison sentence to follow. As it turned out David was tried at Old Bailey where he pleaded guilty. For this reason perhaps and probably on account of his youth judgement was respited at that session and he drops out of history at this point.


[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, June 8, 1860]


A case of extreme poverty and embezzlement

In May 1888 the newspapers were dominated (in terms of crime news) with the shocking murder of a young man in the Regent’s Park. This is something I’ve written about previously and I may return to in this blog but for now I was keen to see what else made the news in reporting from the police courts.

Elizabeth Sarah Davies, a 28 year old boot machinist with 4 young children, was brought up at Dalston Police Court in North East London charged with embezzlement.

Elizabeth was accused of taking no less than 40 boot uppers (worth around £2 – or £120 in today’s money) belonging to her employer’s, Alexander Lion & Company of Phipps Street. The works manager appeared and said she had been given the uppers as piecework to be paid at 1s a dozen. There was some discussion of the actual amount she would have been paid and it is clear that this was ‘out work’ (meaning she took the items home with her as was quite common at the time).

The uppers were due back on the following Saturday but she and goods never appeared. On investigation it became clear that Elizabeth had sold them for 3s. The manager accepted there were ‘extenuating circumstances’: Elizabeth and her family were starving. She had sold the uppers because she and the children had ‘not eaten for three days’. Her brother appeared for her and promised to pay the firm the £2 owing if they would just bind Elizabeth over instead of imprisoning her.

The magistrate agreed that this was a ‘sad’ case and decided to remand her for one day only, after which she would be released. There is no record of what happened next; did Elizabeth lose for employment (that is likely), did she have to enterer the workhouse with her children or was her brother able to support them both? Where was the father, dead, in prison or had he deserted them? This is one of those cases which reveals the human misery of the late nineteenth century before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth began to improve the lives of the poorest.

[from Daily News , Tuesday, May 29, 1888]