An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

An avoidable tragedy at Christmas

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James Arthur and Timothy Howard worked together at a charcoal factory in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. They were workmates and drinking buddies but not close friends. That said, they rarely quarreled and both were hard workers who were well spoken of by their employer.

They were employed to work on a platform which stood 18 feet above the factory floor and on Christmas Eve 1868 both were working there even though it was late in the evening. Perhaps with their minds on how they would celebrate Christmas and the Boxing Day holiday they started to talk about beer and how much they might drink. A ‘chaffing match’ ensued as each man boasted about the amount of drink he could get on credit (a measure of their financial worth of sorts) and this escalated into a row.

Howard taunted Arthur, suggesting that in the past he’d used a woman poorly and run up a debt on her behalf before leaving her. What had began as friendly ‘banter’ quickly descended into open hostility and Arthur looked dagger at his mate. He reached for a shovel and threatened Howard with it.

Realising he’d gone too far Howard tried to calm things and told his workmate to put the makeshift weapon down. When Arthur declined the two came to blows and the pair swore at each other. Howard struck him once or twice without return and Arthur staggered backwards. He missed his footing, slipped, and tumbled over the edge of the platform, plummeting the 18 feet down to the floor.

Howard clambered down the ladder and ran over to his mate, ‘who was quite dead’, his neck broken.

The foreman arrived on the scene and, seeing what had occurred, called the police. Howard was arrested while the police surgeon examined the deceased. Howard tried to say he’d not hit his friend but there had been at least two witnesses who’d been drawn to the noise the pair had made in their arguing.  Mr Benson (the magistrate at Thames Police court) remanded Howard in custody so that these witnesses could be brought to give their testimony.

At a later hearing Timothy Howard (described as an ‘Irish labourer’) was fully committed to trial for the manslaughter of his work colleague. On the 11 January 1869 he was convicted at the Old Bailey but ‘very strongly’ recommended to mercy by the jury who accepted that it was really a tragic accident, their was no intent on Howard’s part. The judge clearly agreed as he only sent the man to prison for a fortnight, a shorter term than many drunker brawlers would have received at Thames before the magistrates.

[from The Standard, Monday, 28 December, 1868]

It was a great pity they did not go to school’ : truancy and the Victorian state’s motivation to educate the masses.

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.

In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.

Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.

One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.

In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband.  He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.

In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.

The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.

Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]

It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

Curtain Road, from the Corner of Great Eastern Street

Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]

A Factory fight in Edmonton ends in tragedy

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Wharf on the River Lea, c.1890

When William Clark arrived at the Ridley, Whiteley & Co. factory on Angel Road Edmonton he was already drunk. It was Christmas Eve 1894 and about 9 in the morning. Clark drove a cart which conveyed canvases (the firm were floorcloth manufacturers*) from the barges at the wharf to the nearby River Lea workshop.

Alfred Green was a ganger at the wharf so his job was to supervise the labourers unloading and loading goods there. He had worked for the firm for 15 years and was well-liked and respected. Clark on the other hands was something of a loose cannon, mouthy and prone to drinking.

As soon as he arrived at the wharf Clark started on Green. He demanded he move the load of material to the workshop himself and when he was ignored, ‘he called him all manner of foul names, and went on from nine to twelve’. Eventually the pair came to blows and Green, who apparently showed great restraint beforehand, punched or shoved his man who fell onto the hard ground and cracked his skull.

At first Clark refused attempts to help him but was eventually persuaded to go the nearest hospital, at Tottenham suffering from concussion. His head was bandaged and he was released but on Boxing Day he died and Green was now facing a charge of manslaughter.

Detective Inspector Nairn arrested Green at the factory on the 2 January 1895 and he was presented at Wood Green Police Court. His solicitor, Mr Avery, applied for bail but this was refused and he was committed to take his trial at Old Bailey. There, on the 7 January 1895 the 30 year old labourer from Folkestone Road, Edmonton, was acquitted of the manslaughter of the carter and released. It was an accident resulting from one man’s drunkenness and refusal to back down and see reason. Nevertheless Alfred Green would have to live with the fact that he had killed man and done so in front of his fellow workers, and at Christmas to boot.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 5, 1895]

*’Messrs. Ridley, Whitley and Co., [was] established by 1865 at Angel Road works between the river and the New Cut. (fn. 347) The factory, which manufactured floor-cloths, employed 900 workers in its heyday but had only 100 by 1914, shortly before its closure’. (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp161-172)

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

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If the Match Girls’ strike of 1888 and the Great Dock Strike of August 1889 can be seen as two of the most important victories for the British Trades Union movement then another dispute in 1889 must go on record as equally important, if only for demonstrating the limits of that success.

The Silvertown strike, by workers at Silver’s India Rubber and Telegraph factory in West Ham, lasted for 12 weeks as the workers, emboldened by the success of other unionists in the capital, demanded better pay and conditions. However, the owners of the factory, S.W.Silver and Co, resisted the best efforts of the striking workforce to force them to negotiate and succeeded, in the end, in breaking the strike.

The workers were aided by Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl, and Tom Mann the co-author of New Unionism, the defining work of the new Labour movement in London. But the bosses in this case held firm and refused to capitulate, using the press to criticise the actions of the strikers and questioning the use of picketing. This had been a tactic used in the Dock Strike but then it had failed to dent public  support for the dispute; in 1889 at Silvertown it was seemingly much more effective.

We can see the ways in which the courts were used to break the strike in this report from   The Standard, in November. A number of summoned were heard by the sitting magistrates at West Ham concerning employees of the factory who were accused of ‘intimidation and riotous conduct’.

The summonses were brought by Mr Matthew Gray, an employee of the firm, and prosecuted by the company’s legal representative, Mr St. John Wontner. The strike had ben underway for six weeks and the legal questions turned on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of picketing. St. John Wontner explained the tactics used by the striking workers:

‘The entrance to the works was in a cup de sac‘, he told the bench, ‘and every day hundreds of the workers collected at the top and and hooted at the people as they came out, and shortly afterwards the women left their employment’.

Mr Baggallay warned the strikers that if they continued with this sort of behaviour they would be severely dealt with. ‘They were perfectly entitled to go on strike’ he conceded, ‘but they had no right to threaten others who desired to go to work’. He bound them all over on their own recognisances for £5 each and dismissed them.

In January 1890, unable to support their families through the strike and with a hardline attitude from management continuing, the workers were literally ‘starved back to work’ and the strike collapsed. Other firms were quick to congratulate Silver’s management for their fortitude and equally quick to learn the valuable lessons it taught them.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

Today the site of S.W.Silver and Co is the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery on the banks of the Thames

No ‘soft soap’ from Mr Lushington as he fines a company for exploiting its workers

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Messrs. Paton and Charles, soap manufactures, were summoned before Mr Lushington at Thames Police Court accused of breaking the terms of the Factory Act.

There were several acts to restrict working hours and try to improve conditions in the workplace in the 1800s, from early efforts in 1833 (mainly aimed at the cotton industry in the north) to later reforms after the extension of the franchise in 1867. Most of this was targeted at preventing the exploitation of children under 14 and was tied up with new arguments about the nature of childhood and the value of education.

It is probably fair to say that while the acts were well-meant they were (at first anyway) pretty toothless. An economic downturn in the 1870s also led some to argue that legislation had gone too far and that Britain was becoming uncompetitive internationally  because of restrictions imposed on employers – now where have we heard that before (or since)?

Paton & Charles’ soap manufactory operated out of premises in Brewhouse Lane,  Wapping , close to the river. Records at the London Metropolitan Archives suggest they had been trading in Wapping (at 148 Wapping High Street) since at least 1867 and there is a Post Office entry for them as early as 1843 at the same address, so they were a well established firm by 1881 when their representatives appeared in court. They may well have moved in 1880 to the Brewhouse Lane site, a year before this case emerged.

Mr Lushington was told that the firm employed ‘around 80 hands’ , both girls and boys as well as adults. Four young women were in court to testify that they had been asked to work longer than a ten hour day, working ‘until ten o’clock at night, instead of six in the evening, which was the normal time of leaving off’. They cited two dates (15th and 22nd of June) when this had occurred but the suggestion was it was more common than this. Someone (presumably an inspector) had found them at work at seven in the previous week, hence the summons.

The girls were employed in the perfume department where they worked under the direction of Alfred Smith. It seems it was Smith who was directly responsible for getting them to work overly long hours against the stipulation of the Factory Acts. He was not in court however, and Lushington felt the responsibility was wider than this. He determined that the ‘firm had [not] used due diligence to enforce the carrying out of the provisions of the Act ‘ and fined them £8 and 16s (or around £400 today).

[from The Standard, Friday, July 22, 1881]

Student prank that takes the biscuit…

PeakFreans

A big fire was always likely to bring people onto the streets in Victorian London. In August 1888 a fire at the docks would have been the news item in the papers the next day had not the mutilated body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls been found in Bucks Row, Whitechapel in the early hours.

Fires were dangerous, and appalling but they were also exciting, especially for London’s youth.

As PC Robert Beavis (283 M division, Metropolitan Police) was watching the fire service tackle a blaze at the Peak Frean’s biscuit factory on Mill Street, south of the river, he claimed he saw three youths ‘larking and pushing one another about’.

As he moved towards them one of them knocked another’s hat  off (a fairly common prank for London youth). As PC Beavis was closest the lad whose hat had been tipped off span round and confronted him. This was a young man named M’Cullock Torrens,  who accused the policeman of knocking his hat off. Beavis denied do anything of the kind and turned away. Presumably angered by this, Torrens then punched the policeman twice in the chest and ran off.

All three men attempted to escape, climbing into a hansom cab before PC Beavis managed to alert the driver to stop. He took his prisoners back to the station and the next day brought Torrens to the Southwark Police Court to be charged with assault.

Several other policeman were on duty that night and corroborated Beavis’ version of events in court. Torrens, who was clearly of ‘respectable’ stock and who was described in court as a ‘student’ living off Eccelston Square, near Victoria, told Mr Partridge (the magistrate) that he had taken a cab with two friends to witness the fire.

They had left the West End and stopped for a few drinks (but were sober, if excited). At the fire he had met up with the police and ‘treated’ the to a few drinks in a nearby pub. He insisted that it was the policeman that had knocked his hat off and when he asked him why the officer had walked off, ignoring him. When he put it back on the copper tipped it off again, so yes, he had hit him, ‘but not very hard’.

One of Torrens’ companions, Charles J Ware confirmed his friend’s account and said he did not consider that Torrens’ actions amounted to an assault. The magistrate disagreed, further more he chose to blame the young men for tempting police constables ‘from their duties and into public-houses at that hour in the morning’, rather than criticise the police for drinking on duty.

He added that ‘no doubt they got to larking, and someone knocked the prisoner’s hat off, but he had no right to assault the constable. An example must be made in such a case, consequently he fined him £10, or two months’ hard labour’. Torrens paid up and left the court with his mates.

The police magistrate was protecting the authority of the police in this case; he could have chosen to side with the young ‘gentlemen’ but that would very publicly have undermined PC Beavis and the collective voice of his colleagues. Torrens could easily afford £10 and was able to leave the court will little damage to his reparation – in fact, in the eyes of his peer group he may well have emerged as something of a ‘hero’.

[from the Morning Post, April 24, 1873]

P.S Peak, Frean & Company Ltd (known later as Peak Freans) were founded in 1857 in Bermondsey, London. According to reports the fire of 23 April 1873 was so spectacular it drew huge crowds, including the Prince of Wales. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with Huntley & Palmers and created the less interestingly named, Amalgamated Biscuit Manufacturers Limited. Several other buyouts over the next few decades mean that now both famous brands are under the umbrella of United Biscuits.

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’.