‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

NB this post first appeared in August 2018

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: 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:

A young mind is turned by the dream of emulating Buffalo Bill’s wild Wild West

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In 1887 ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody brought his travelling Wild West Show to Europe. The show featured wild animals, reenactments of historical events from American history (such as the Civil War and the Indian wars), feats of horsemanship and skills such as sharpshooting and rodeo. It was a form of  circus with a peculiarly American frontier theme. Cody (below right, with Sitting Bull) was a master showman and thousands flocked to see performances in London, Manchester and Birmingham and even Queen Victoria took in a show as part of an American Exhibition in West London in what was her golden jubilee year.

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The touring show made a big impression on one young boy, 14 year-old Cecil James Eugene Harvey, who saw it in London. His head filled with cowboys and Indians (which were also the stuff of many of the cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ that youngers consumed) Cecil struggled to concentrate on his work as a City office errand boy. His fantasy world overtook reality and soon he settled on a plan that would allow him to follow his dreams.

As an errand boy he was trusted to run money around the City as part of his duties and young Cecil realized it would be fairly easy to top up his rather poor weekly wages with some ‘extras’ from under his employer’s noses. On the 6 April he was sent out by Mr C. R. Bonne of Eastcheap to cash a cheque for £5 but he never returned.

His absence was noted however, and the police were informed. They sent out telegrams to alert other forces and Cecil was arrested in Salford by the local police. They sent him back to London in the custody of an officer from the met and on 21 April 1888 he was set in the dock at Mansion House Police to be quizzed by the Lord Mayor.

In keeping with his romantic ideas of the Wild West Cecil played the part of an outlaw in court. He told the magistrate that he had intended to go to America to start a new life but when he realized that he didn’t have the money for the passage he went up to Manchester, where Cody’s show was playing, so he could take it in daily instead. He was still determined to get to the States and even the Lord mayor sent him to prison for 10 years for this crime, ‘he would go afterwards’.

Young Cecil was unlikely to get 10 years penal servitude for embezzling £5 but he would have lost his employment. The Lord Mayor remanded hi in custody as is so many of the reports of the newspapers we don’t get to find out what happened to him. I suspect that he spent an uncomfortable few nights in a cell before being formally reprimanded by the Lord Mayor and sent home to a thrashing from his father (if he had one).

I like to think that one day he made it to America, although once there who knows if it would have lived up to his expectations. The world looks very different when you are 14, especially if that world is reflected through the pages of comic books or in the fantasy world of the circus or theatre.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 22, 1888]

In June this year my new book – which offers up a new suspect for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 – is published by Amberley Books. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy you can find the details here.

The temptation is too great for a teenage toy shop assistant

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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]

Ice cream, pears and a tram ride: stealing from the church ears five lads a trip to a Reformatory

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Highgate United Reformed Church

In early October 1873 five young lads appeared before Colonel Jeakes,  the magistrate at Highgate Police Court in North London, accused of stealing from the church. Specifically the five were charged with stealing the contents of missionary boxes (collecting boxes we’d call them today) from the Congregational Chapel on Southgrove, Highgate*.

Benjamin Woodward had discovered the loss about a week before the case came to court. He found that 12 missionary boxes had been been taken from a drawer in the school room of the chapel. The bottom of the drawer had been cut out in order to remove the boxes, so this suggested that the thieves knew exactly where to look. It took the police  a little time to track down the culprits but after one of the ‘gang’ turned informer the five were eventually dragged into custody.

William Alcock told the magistrate that he had been out with Frederick Taylor (13) on the previous Sunday and saw him take some money out ‘of a heap of dirt on Holloway-hill’. When he asked him where it had come from and who had hid it, Taylor told him it ‘was his week’s wages’.

A little further on down the hill Taylor unearthed some more and when pressed by Alcock admitted he’d got it from the Congregational Church. Later that day Alcock and Taylor were joined by John White and Alfred (both 13 and described as labourers), an errand boy of 10 named Herbert Warr, and Herbert Tuck who was just 9 years old. The little group of lads took their ill-gotten gains and hopped on a tram towards Moorgate Street. When they got into town they blew some of the money on ice cream and pears.

The police, in the person of Henry Webb (a detective with Y Division) investigated the case and apprehended the lads, with Alcock’s help. In court the youngest boy (Tuck) confessed to having entered the chapel via a window while the others stood watch outside. They had made the thefts over two nights it seems, their fear at being caught being overcome by the thrill of doing something illegal and the delight of finding such a bounty of ‘treasure’. Mr Woodward told the court that each boxes has contained upwards of £5 so in total the lads might have got away with nearly £60.

All five lads were remanded in custody so that places could be found for them in Reformatory schools, their criminal escapades (as adolescents at least) were at an end.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 09, 1873]

*now the Highgate United Reformed Church

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]