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]

Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

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]

No sign of the garrotting panic but a Victorian ‘Wonga’ scam is exposed

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Prompted by a facebook post from the Police historian Neil Bell I decided today to go back to 1862 to see if there was any hint of that year’s big crime story in the Police court reportage. 1862 was the year that Sir Hugh Pilkington MP was attacked by robbers on his way home from the Houses of Parliament. He was attacked from behind, throttled (‘garrotted’) and robbed. It was a form of highway robbery (‘mugging’ we would probably call it) but it sparked a moral panic about returning ‘ticket of leave’ criminals and the perceived ‘softness’ of the criminal justice system.

The panic died done fairly quickly and historians have shown that in reality street crime was no more prevalent in 1862 than it was in years either side of that; it was the reaction of the police, public and government to the press coverage that was the real story, not the incidents of ‘garrotting’ themselves.

Plus câ change.

Meanwhile over at Worship Street Police court things were a little more mundane. No garrotting or otherwise dangerous street crime here, just a case of unlicensed pawnbrokers. It’s still interesting however, as we learn much more about the everyday life of the Victorian city through these snippets of ‘real life’.

William Murray and James Spriggs were both brought up as offenders against the Excise Act. The prosecution – led by officers from the Inland Revenue – alleged that the men had been carrying out the business of pawnbrokers without have the required license to do so. The pair were trading as chandlers (sellers of all sorts of cheap goods) rather than pawnbrokers, but were proven to have extended loans to local people in the East End in exactly the same way as ‘brokers operated.

It was a well executed investigation and both men were duly convicted. The magistrate, Mr Leigh, handed down fines of £12 10plus costs to each man, the minimum he was obliged to levy. Each was warned that a failure to pay would result in them going to prison for a month.

The excisemen reported that they had been investigation many more instances of this sort of offence in recent months, and mostly in East London. These two shopkeepers were ‘ostensibly’ chandlers in Bethnal Green – hardly a well paid occupation – but both could afford to employ a lawyer to defend them. They were doing very well out of this sideline to the day job.

The court was told that there were plenty of ‘leaving shops’ in East London where the poorest could get short or medium term loans at very high interest by pledging their possessions as security. The magistracy were aware of it and two justices in particular, Mr Beard and Mr Abbott, condemned the practice and assured the public that they would be prepared to inflict the maximum penalty of £50 on offenders.

It strikes me that leaving shops were operating very much like the high interest pay day loan companies like Wonga, which today offer (or used to offer in Wonga’s case) much needed cash but at huge cost in terms of interest. These companies profit from the very poorest in society and the same practice, albeit a less sophisticated version, was taking place in the 1860s.

Plus câ change, eh?

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1862]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.

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Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.

Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]

A little bit of common sense as Easter concentrates the mind of the ‘beak’.

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The magistrates operating at London’s several Police Courts applied the law as they saw it but used their discretion when appropriate. It is not accurate to describe the courts as spaces to demonstrate the power of the state but nor were they arenas for the poor to negotiate their way to a better life. Moreover, we must not see the magistracy as a group of like-minded individuals who always presented a united front, or who invariable took the side of the police or indeed, the wealthier or middle classes.

They did tend towards a moral position in most things; drunks, wife beaters and prostitutes could expect short shrift, as could recidivist thieves or tradesmen that attempted to defraud or trick their customers. Some justices had particularly fearsome reputations as ‘no nonsense’ law givers (like Mr Lushington in the late 1800s) while others might have earned contrasting reputations as ‘kindly gentlemen’.

In popular culture it is the character of Mr Fang in Oliver Twist that represents one contemporary view of the uncaring Police Court magistrate. Mr Fang, on no evidence whatsoever, initially sentences Oliver (who has fainted clean away in the courtroom though illness and exhaustion) to ‘three months – hard labour of course’. Dickens had reported on the courts of the metropolis and was aware of the institutions he was critiquing and the men that served them. He used Mr Brownlow as the voice of reason and charity who ultimately saves Oliver from being caught up in the Victorian justice system.

Sometimes though we do get a sense of the humanity of the Victorian bench and perhaps at certain ties of the year this was more likely to be highlighted by the court reporters who attended these daily summary hearings. The reading public may well have needed to reminded that while justice was swift and harsh for those that deserved it, it could also be ‘just’.

Easter was certainly a time when charity and ‘good Christian’ values were uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, especially the upright moral middle classes of Victorian England.  Over at Westminster Police court in March 1865 Easter was just a fortnight away and Mr Arnold was in the high seat of the courtroom. He had several charges that day one of whom was James Davis. Davis cut a melancholy figure in court:

‘A poor, miserable-looking fellow, covered with rags, was brought up on remand’ the report described, ‘charged with hawking without a license’.

Davis had been held in the cells for a couple of days while enquiries had been made, and this experience had clearly not done him much good. This probably factored into the justice’s decision-making, but before we leap to the conclusion of the case let us door-to-door the circumstances of the charge.

PC Rowe (113 B) was on patrol in Chelsea when he noticed Davis wandering from door to door in King’s Place off the King’s Road. A ragged looking individual had no business being in such an elevated part of town and the policeman was immediately suspicious. There had been a series of burglaries and robberies recently, committed by people that pretended to sell things at the door (we are familiar with this sort of trick today).

As Davis left one house PC Rowe collared him and asked him what he was doing. Davis was indeed trying to sell stuff and had a card of shirt buttons  and the previous householder had bought some from him. Rowe asked him if he had a license to sell goods in the street and off course since he didn’t, he took him into custody.

On his first appearance before the magistrate Davis pleaded poverty, saying he was ‘half starved’ and was trying to ‘get an honest living’. Nevertheless, the law was the law and Mr Arnold reminded him so that he could seek advice from the relevant authorities. In this case that was the Inland Revenue and a few days later a gentleman from the Excise appeared.

The offence Davis had admitted to carried a maximum fine of £10 but the revenue man said this could be reduced ‘by a quarter’ under legislation passed in 1860 and 1861. This was still a huge sum for a man in Davis’ parlous state to find. £10 was the equivalent of almost £600 in today’s money and would have bought you a skilled tradesman’s labour for a nearly two months. Davis was selling his buttons for a few pennies, and trying to scrape a few shillings together to eat and put a roof over his head.

So taking all of this in account Mr Arnold acting with charity, compassion and no little common sense. This man, he declared:

‘could not pay £2 10s, and if he sent him to prison it was for trying to get an honest living. Nothing was known of him [meaning he was not ‘known to the police’ as a repeat offender or trouble maker] and he (Mr Arnold) should not put the law into force’.

He told him he ‘must not do it again’ but released him on his own recognizances with the warning that he might be required to attend his court again in the future, presumably if he was caught selling without a license once more. Another man was similarly convicted and released, so that Mr Arnold could award punishment at a later date. The inference was that as long as he behaved himself and obeyed the law, that ‘later date’ would not transpire.

Quite how James Davis managed to keep himself together and earn his ‘honest living’ without being able to afford to purchase a hawking license is not clear, but at least he was out of gaol and with no stain against his character.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 31, 1865]

‘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]