A fishy tale of dishonesty or an act of love?

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Fish Street Hill in the City

Parliamentary legislation in 1848 (collectively known as the Jervis Acts) and the 1850s had allowed for the fast processing of prisoners who had been arrested for relatively minor acts of property crime. Mostly these acts were aimed at the treatment of juvenile offenders and those accused of simple theft of small amounts or low value items.

So it is a little surprising to see the act being cited in the case of Mary Ann Gill, who was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House in May 1860.

Surprising because Mary was charged with stealing the not insignificant sum of eight sovereigns from her master. For context, £8 in 1860 equates to about £500 today. Then it would have been the equivalent of 40 days labour for a skilled tradesman, and worth much more to a shop girl like Mary. Mary could quite easily have ended up before a jury for this crime but, because she eventually pleaded guilty, she avoided that, perhaps hoping for a more lenient sentence.

The circumstances were fairly straightforward: Mr Rouse, a fish salesman, employed Mary at his premises on the appropriately named Fish Street Hill (close to the Monument which marks the outbreak of the 1666 fire). At some point in February 1860 Rouse suspected that Mary might have been responsible for stealing money missing from a bag he kept in a cupboard. She denied it however, and he had no proof.

Then, some months later he discovered a watch in her possession and demanded to know where it came from. She told him she’d bought and (presumably because he didn’t pay her enough to be able to afford such luxuries) he realized she’d used the money he’d lost to pay for it. Having grilled her closely he brought her before the Lord Mayor to be dealt with by law.

Under the pressure of the courtroom Mary confessed. She had stolen the sovereigns and used close to £5 to buy a gold watch. What had she done with the remainder she was asked? The rest she had spent on a ‘young man with who she rode about in a cab when she had a holiday’, she explained. Perhaps the gold timepiece was for him as well, a gift to seal their love, or maybe he’d induced her to steal in the first place?

I prefer the more romantic explanation.

Mary’s life now began to unravel quickly however. It was revealed that she had been dismissed on no fewer than two previous occasions for ‘dishonesty’, a precarious situation for anyone seeking work, even in a vast metropolis like London. Moreover, she had secured the job with Mr Rouse by providing him with a ‘specious, but utterly false statement, as to the reason for her being unable to produce a character.

The magistrate – the Lord Mayor – sent her to prison for six months. In the circumstances this was not that lenient an outcome; had she braved an Old Bailey jury she may even have got off scot-free; unlikely but not impossible. There are only a handful of cases of servants stealing from their masters in 1860 which suggest either that many preferred the summary option or that cases simply didn’t make it that far very often.

Of course, she wasn’t to know that.

[from Morning Chronicle, Saturday 12 May 1860]

A fruity case: a man sacrifices his character for ‘a trumpery consideration’.

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Mr Adams had employed George Groves in his warehouse for 14 years. In that time the man had been a model employee, never late, never any trouble, always carrying out his work loading and unloading fruit, efficiently and without any hint of dishonesty. Adams’ wholesale fruiterers operated from premises in Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire had started over 200 years earlier) and supplied all manner of produce to the markets, shops and restaurants of the capital.

Groves was paid reasonable well: he earned 4a day basic, but could make this up to 6s with overtime. As a senior member of staff he had the owner’s trust and the ‘greatest confidence was placed in him’. In short George Groves was just the sort of chap every small businessman wanted: honest, reliable and loyal.

So it must have come as a tremendous shock and personal betrayal to find that his man had stolen from him. It must have been tempting when working with easily disposable items such as apples, oranges and the occasional exotic pineapple, for a worker to snaffle something into a pocket to take home for the wife and kids, or indeed to munch themselves. But Groves had filched 5lbs of grapes which he had hidden (not very well it turned out) ‘about his person’.

He was walking home from work on Friday night when something about his appearance or movements alerted the suspicions of a City police constable  on Fish Street Hill. The officer stopped him and searched him, finding the grapes. He marched him back to Pudding Lane where the foreman identified the fruit as being missing. Groves was arrested and held overnight in the cells before being taken before the Lord Mayor in the morning.

At Mansion House Groves admitted his crime but could provide no explanation for it. The grapes sold at retail for 6d per pound (making them about £1.50 per pound in today’s money) but he reckoned he’d have only realised 1d so it was hardly worth his while). It was so out of character and the Lord Mayor was amazed that a man would ‘sacrifice [his] character for such a trumpery consideration’. The crime was theft but the justice was feeling charitable on the grounds of his previous good conduct. He decided to convict him of unlawful possession, which was a lesser offence and carried a punishment of seven day’s hard labour.

If Mr Adams (as was likely) refused to take him back afterwards then the period of imprisonment was the least of his troubles. For a man in his 30s or 40s, most probably with a family, to find himself unemployed a month before Christmas with little or no chance now of getting a letter of recommendation finding such well paid work would be difficult. If he was lucky he’d find casual labour, if not he was staring at the prospect of the workhouse.

All for what, a large bunch of grapes?

[from The Morning Post, 24 November, 1873]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met

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Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]