If it looks like ‘easy money’ it probably means you are about to get fleeced: trains, racing and the 3 card trick

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In mid June 1882 a well-dressed man was stood in the dock at Southwark Police court and charged with conspiracy to steal (or rather defraud) from two German visitors to the races. However, Henry Archer was no small time thief and appeared in court represented by his lawyer and ready to vigorously refute the charges laid against him.

There were two supposed victims (unconnected and on separate days) but only one showed up in court. Archer’s brief, Mr Keith Frith, suggested that the absence of one of the complainants was evidence of his client’s innocence, as we shall see.

The case began with the prosecution giving their version of events on the 8 June 1882. Mr Batchelor, from the Treasury Solicitor’s office led the prosecution and stated that on the Thursday in question William Tremel was travelling in the first class carriage from Waterloo to Ascot to watch the horse racing. As he took his seat Archer and two other men joined him. As the train pulled out of Waterloo one of Archer’s companions spread a travel rug over his knees and pulled out a pack of cards. He then proceeded to play the ‘three card trick’ with his friends.

The trio were betting and winning and losing money. Tremel may not (as a foreign visitor) have been familiar with the game and watched intently. Not long afterwards Archer asked him if he wanted to join in and the German was soon hooked and, inevitably (because it was a scam) started to lose.

By the time they got to the end of the journey he had lost between £8 and £10 (which may not sound that much, but represents about £500-£650 in today’s money). Tremel also borrowed another £20 from Archer and gave him and IOU; he had been well and truly fleeced but Archer claimed that he had never been on the train and had never met the German.

At the racetrack the prosecution claimed that Archer had bid his friends farewell and told Herr Tremel that he was off to see his brother, who was ‘Fred Archer the jockey’. Later that day Tremel saw Archer on the racecourse and noticed that he was carrying a book for recording the odds. Mr Frith explained that his client was a respectable individual and a ‘bona fide betting man’. In other words he was a licensed bookmaker on the Ascot and Kempton Park racetracks and argued that he’d done nothing wrong and that Tremel must have been mistaken in identifying him.

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The other victim (Robert Poehl) had stayed away from court because he accepted that he lost a similar amount of money on the train playing at a game of chance at which he’d hoped to profit.

When Archer had been arrested the police found ‘commissions and telegrams from certain noblemen well known on the turf’ and so – Frith argued – it was ‘absurd to bring charges against him’. He produced a witness who gave Archer an alibi and a glowing character reference. Batchelor, prosecuting, said he’d be able to find a witness to shoot down the alibi and asked for a remand so he could bring further evidence against Archer (and possibly track down the other two men). Mr Slade, as magistrate, agreed and bailed Archer in the meantime.

The whole episode reminds me of the racetrack wars of the 1910s and 20s (dramatized by the BBC in the Peaky Blinders series) involving rival gangs led by Billy Kimber, Darby Sabini and Alfred Solomon. There was a legitimate betting industry but it worked in the shady borders between legitimacy and criminality and the two worlds were never very far apart.

People are still being fleeced by the ‘three card trick’ (or ‘find the lady’) mainly because humans continue to believe they can beat the system. You can’t and as every casino owner knows 9and every gamble forgets) the ‘house always wins’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 15, 1882]

Fred Archer was a famous jockey in the 1880s, if not the most famous. He won champion jockey no less than 13 times in a row and rode 2,748 winners. Despite his success he had a sad end, taking his own life at the age of just 29 following the death of his wife in childbirth. Fred Archer had one surviving daughter to whom he left a huge fortune worth over £6,000,000 today. He did have two brothers, but neither of them were called Henry, so perhaps our Archer made that up as well.

For a detailed analysis of the racetrack wars see Heather Shore’s London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-1930, which offers an excellent study of networks of crime and the people involved in it.   

‘I don’t give a damn who drinks here, so long as they spend plenty of money’.

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Hungerford Stairs, c.1822

1830 was the first full year that the Metropolitan Police patrolled the streets of the capital. They received a mixed reception and often concentrated on the sorts of offences that were easy to clear up, as this made it easier to justify the ratepayers’ expense in paying for them. This involved policing street crime (pickpockets, shoplifters, robberies) as well as moving on traders, vagrants and beggars, drunks and gamblers, and keeping an eye on licensed  premises (pubs and beer shops for example) to ensure they were were training out of hours or illegally.

Sometimes they took proactive action, watching public houses and even donning plain clothes to catch out unsuspecting landlords; on other occasions they relied on tips off from the public or informers, or simply reacted to complaints.

In May 1830 a Thames waterman had lost his apprentice. The lad had gone out and not come back but the master had a pretty good idea where to look. He made his way over, at three in the morning, to the Cannon public house, by Hungerford Stairs. There he found his apprentices and another boy ‘playing at cards, and in a state of intoxication’.

He collared them, dragged them home and, on the next day, brought them before Mr Minshull the Police magistrate at Bow Street.

The waterman said that the Cannon was notorious for being open all night but when he’d companied to the landlord there about allowing the two apprentices to drink and gamble he’d got short shrift.

The landlord said he ‘did not care a d____ who came to his house so long as they spent plenty of money‘.

The magistrate told the boys the off and warned them to behave in the future, and then discharged them into the care of the two watermen they were apprenticed too. If they hadn’t been disciplined already  they could expect a thrashing when they got home. As for the landlord well Mr Minshull was determined he wouldn’t escape the law and so he instructed the New Police to investigate. It was against the terms of the Police Act for the landlord to suffer ‘card playing and other prohibited games’ in his house and he could expect the ‘heaviest penalty’ if prosecuted.

Following this the superintendent of police appeared to request and receive permission to prosecute seven similar establishments for breaches of their licenses. They could all expect large fines and regular visits from the police.

Not surprisingly then the relationship between the police and the landlords of the city got off to a bad start from the New Police’s inception  and didn’t improve much thereafter. Some police could be bribed to turn a blind eye, others probably thought there were bigger fish to fry and found pubs a useful source of information. Others were incorruptible. Either way, pubs were ‘easy pickings’ for a new police force determined to prove its value to the community it served.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 05, 1830]

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’. The great cake controversy of 1883

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I am going back to 1883 for the next few days. Regular readers will recall that I sampled a week’s news from the Police Courts of the metropolis earlier this year and traced a number of cases that came up more than once. Today’s story may be another of those as it ended with the defendants being required to reappear, bound over on their own recognizances. This case is also interesting because it hints at contemporary concerns about police corruption or, at best, favouritism, and at how this affected those that plied their trade in the local streets and markets – a regular battleground between costermongers and ‘the boys in blue’.

In March 1883 James Williams and Samuel Stephenson were charged before Mr Shiel at Wandsworth Police court with ‘playing at a game of chance and causing an obstruction’ in Battersea Park Road. They had been brought in by Detective Gilby who said he’d been alerted to the crowd that had gathered around the pair’s barrow as it stood on the road on Saturday evening. He and his fellow detective, DS Vagg, watched the men operate what they believed to be a swindle.

The men appeared to be auctioning cakes using a ticket system. Detective Gilby described what he saw:

‘The prisoner Williams took eight tickets from a box, pretended to shuffle them, and sold them at  penny each. After the tickets were collected he called out a number, and pointed to a person as having won a cake’.

The police officers explained that Williams then called out to the crowd that they could swap the cakes for sixpence if they preferred, making this possibility now to win money rather than cake by gambling on your ticket coming up. A boy working for the men handed out several cakes, three of whom were returned to him, presumably in the hope of turning their pennies into sixpences.

Detective Sergeant Vagg bought three tickets to test the system and catch the men red handed. When he had handed the tickets over to Stephenson he had effectively proved they were operating a ‘game of chance’ (rather than simply selling cakes) and he arrested them and took them back to the station. He accused them of swindling the public by placing stooges in the crowd to make it seem as if it was a fair raffle, when in reality the whole thing was staged (as so many street swindles were – or are).

The men denied it and Williams went further, alleging police corruption.

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’ he said, although it is unclear who he meant to be the target of that remark. Quite possibly it was the informant that had told the detective Gilby about the illegal game in the first place. Perhaps this was a rival coster who wanted to reduce the competition or even a trader that paid a premium to ensure that he wasn’t the subject of unwanted police attention.

Mr Shiel was not keen to have this kind of talk in his court and tried to close down that particular line of enquiry. Williams was glad to have the case taken before the magistrate he claimed, as he had long ‘been persecuted by the police’.

The pair claimed merely to be selling cakes at sixpence a go and said they’d not used a ticket system since they’d been arrested and charged with doing so by the same officers some time ago. The suggestion was that the police were either making the whole thing up or prosecuting them for misdemeanours in the past, in order to persecute them. It sounded pretty far fetched but they were able to produce a witness of sorts who backed them up.

Charles Lloyd was described as a comedian, living in Bermondsey. He told the court that he’d been standing at the corner of the street near to where the men’s barrow was when he overheard “two gentlemen” (indicating the two detectives in court) say ‘they meant to have a cakeman, whether he had any tickets or not’. Lloyd said he watched for 15 minutes and saw Williams and Stephenson selling cakes by auction but saw no tickets. When the men were arrested the crowd rushed forward to take their cakes.

Mr Shiel said he would like to speak to the boy that had supposedly been collecting the tickets and Williams told him he was sure he could produce him. At that point the pair of ‘cakemen’ were released to appear at a later date. We shall see if they make the pages of the newspapers before the end of this week.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 27, 1883]

The perils of drinking with strangers

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William Kirbyshire, of Aswell in Hertfordshire, had come down to London to get married. As he strolled along Regent Street a man stopped him and asked the way to Leicester Square. William apologised and he too was a stranger in the capital and regretted he was unable to help. The man thanked him and walked away. A few minutes later William decided it was time for some refreshment and he entered the next public house he came to.

As he propped up the bar nursing his drink he noticed the man that had asked him for directions chatting to two others. One of them came over and introduced himself as William Hook. Hook asked William if he ‘knew of any place of amusement where the evening could be passed pleasantly’. William mentioned a couple of places and Hook suggested they go there together, but the visitor to London declined.

Hook was seemingly persistent in making friends however and offered to treat him to a bottle of champagne, an offer that was soon lowered to beer. As the pair were joined by Hook’s companions, Peter Stevens and William Smith, the drink began to flow and very quickly the conversation turned to boasts of strength.

Hook declared that he could throw a ‘certain weight 30 yards’ and was prepared to put money on it. It took some persuasion but eventually William agreed to meet Hook and the others at a different pub later that day. When he arrived the three men were already there, and Hook bought them a round. They soon moved on to a third pub – this was turning into what we might call a ‘pub crawl’ – and Hook was in effervescent mood.

He stated loudly that he ‘thought nothing of spending £20 on a lark, as he could have £100 whenever he wanted it’.

The impression he was giving was a wealthy young man who had deep pockets. He was also luring the unwary Kirbyshire in however, and Smith and Stevens soon played their part in this.

As William and his new found chums began to toss coins (a simple game of chance) Smith leaned over and whispered to him that since Hook ‘had plenty of money, he might as well have some of it as anybody else’. William was ready to play and bet and won a shilling from Hook straight away. The others now persuaded him to carry on and managed to get him to lay a huge bet of £10 (about £500 today). Reluctant at first he was only convinced when he saw Stevens put down 5 sovereigns.

Hook won the toss and paid up but William he felt he’d been cheated. He claimed that a ‘plant had been played on him’ by the men and demanded his money back. When they gave him back a few sovereigns but refused to hand over the rest he called a policeman and had them arrested. The next day the four men all appeared before the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police court.

Mr Beadon, the justice, was unsympathetic. As far as he was concerned while the trio of gamblers were ‘known bad characters’ in the area and this was clearly a scam, they hadn’t actually broken the law. Instead William was simply a dupe and he had ‘acted in a very foolish manner in drinking and betting with strangers’. Hook, Smith and Stevens were discharged while William Kirbyshire slunk away to lick his wounds and put the whole thing down to experience.

London was a dangerous place for the unwary. It remains so today and visitors were constantly being warned to keep a close eye on their possessions in the crowded streets and not to take strangers at face value. One wonders what William’s future wife thought of the whole affair, if he even chose to tell her.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 11, 1857]

A feckless husband and father is brought to book

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Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.

Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.

Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.

Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.

Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.

They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:

‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.

Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.

Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Detectives nab a home made roulette wheel in Bethnal Green

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When detectives Cook and Lillystone from K Division turned into a Bethnal Green  thoroughfare at half past 9 o’clock in the evening of Saturday 27 December 1873 they found what they were looking for. They had information of an illicit gambling scam involving at least two men they’d been after for weeks. As they rounded the corner they saw a large group of men and excitedly surrounding a pair of men.

John Hambleton and his mate were operating what might to our eyes have looked like a fairly crude roulette wheel. It was numbered and players were placing bets on where the dial landed after it had been spun by the operator. The board was illuminated by candles placed on the ground around it which must also have lit up the faces of those involved. This probably meant that no one noticed the approach of the police until they were almost upon them.

Gambling in the street without a license was against the law and Lillystone and Cook watched for long enough to establish that Hambledon was the operator while his partner acted as cashier, taking the bets and paying out any prizes.

The device was called a ‘spinning jenny’ in the newspaper report, which was also the name of the famous weaving machine invented by James Hargreaves in 1764 and credited with being one of the key innovations of the early Industrial Revolution. Hambledon’s device was far less ‘industrious’ however.

Satisfied that they had enough evidence against the two men the detectives moved in, one seizing Hambledon and the other going for the cashier. A struggle ensued as the rest of the crowd of players scattered before they too could be nicked. The cashier got away with the help of one of the players but Hambledon was dragged back to the police station and searched.

The police found 9s 6d in silver and 26d in copper coins on him and charged him. They weren’t able to find the missing partner by the next morning and so it was just Hambledon that appeared in the dock on the Saturday morning. The police said Hambledon was well known to them as a man that ran betting scams on the streets, and that he involved young boys in them. The magistrate, Mr Hannay, said this was ‘almost the worst form of gambling’, and warranted more than simply a fine. He sent the spinning jenny operator to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 28, 1873]

Police break up a ‘prize fight’ in Dalston as the Ripper case reaches its apogee.

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The Havelock Arms in Albion Drive, Dalston in the 20th century

On the morning of the 10 November 1888 the reports from the London Police Courts in The Standard made no mention of the latest ‘Ripper’ murder (that of Mary Kelly, who’s eviscerated body was discovered at her lodgings in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street). But then no one had been arrested, and no one charged for the killing and the court reports concerned appearances not general reports of criminality. There was plenty of  newspaper coverage of Mary’s murder of course, as the extensive links on the most useful ‘Ripper’ site (Casebook.org) testify.

One case that day did catch my eye because highlighted the existence of illegal prize fighting in late Victorian London. The Marquess of Queensbury had published his rules to govern boxing in 1867 (although previous attempts to regulate the sport had been tried in 1838 and even earlier, in the 18th century). But, as both Ripper Street, and Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes in recent years suggest, illegal prize fights, with the gambling that was associated with it, continued.

Like dog fighting (also the subject of attention from the writers of Ripper Street)  such illegal fights were hard to stop; they took place at night in out of the way places and news of them was spread by word of mouth to avoid police informers if possible. Despite this in November 1888 police inspector Alcock and his men successfully raided a premises in Dalston and arrested several of those taking part.

Thomas Avis and Thomas Porter, labourers at the small arms factory at Enfield (which made rifles) and John Hicks, a carriage builder from Mile End, were charged at Dalston Police Court with ‘being unlawfully concerned in a prize fight’.

The raid had taken place on the Havelock Gymnasium on Albion Road, attached to a pub that bore the same name. Avis and Porter had been the ring fighting while a crowd watched,Mr but the case turned on whether this was merely practice (sparring) or an actual fight. The men had excellent characters, the inspector admitted, and a future fight had been arranged and was waiting for official approval.

The police had a ‘spy’ in the gym; a former detective named Rolfe was embedded and keeping an eye on proceedings. The court was told he was ready to give evidence if required but wasn’t called. The Enfield pair were defended in court by Mr C. V. Young who explained that they headed up ‘rival gymnasiums, and were only trying conclusions in a friendly manner’.

The magistrate, Mr Bros, was content that nothing illegal had occurred, or at least nothing that could be conclusively proven.

‘The evidence shows’, he explained, ‘that the men were engaged with boxing gloves or the ordinary character and in an ordinary boxing match, which is no offence in law. The lowering of the gas, however, gave the affair a suspicious aspect, which was intensified by the rush of the people’.

In other words, whilst they had been doing nothing that was technically illegal they were sailing fairly close to the wind and ought, in future at least, to ensure they observed both the letter and spirit of the law. Damage had been caused to the property, which had been attributed to the large numbers who wanted to get into the see the fight, but this, it was accepted, had actually been the result of the police raid itself. All the defendants were dismissed to go back to their places of work and training for the main event.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 10, 1888]