Caveat Emptor is the watchword on the Ratcliffe Highway as an Italian sailor strikes a hard bargain

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Here’s a case of caveat emptor (‘buying beware’) from the Ratcliffe Highway, where in the nineteenth century unwary sailors and other visitors were frequently separated from their hard earned wages.

Marion Madria was an Italian seaman, one of many in the multi-cultural district close to the dockyards that stretched along the East End’s riverfront. As he walked along the Ratcliffe Highway in early August 1857 he passed a jewelry shop. One of the store’s employees stood outside offering items for sale to passers-by, tempting them to enter with special offers and ‘bargains of the lifetime’. Their tactics were much the same as those of retailers today, but relied on the spoken word more than print (sensible in a society with much lower levels of literacy than today’s).

Madria was hooked and reeled in to the shop where he was offered a gold chain for just £3. It was a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ bargain but £3 was still a lot of money so the sailor bartered the price down to £2 9s. He didn’t have all the money but that was no problem, the shop assistant said he could pay a deposit of 9and bring the balance back later. Moreover, he could even take the chain away in the meantime.

I suspect Madria might have been a little drunk when he bought the chain, which would hardly have been unusual for a sailor on the Highway. Later that day as he showed his prize off to his mates he soon realized he’d been ‘done’.  The ‘gold’ chain was nothing more than brass and worth barely 6not nearly £3. It should have been obvious that a chain of that eight made from gold would have cost nearer £300 than £3. It really was too good to be true.

Enraged and not a little embarrassed the Italian obtained a summons to bring the shop’s owner to court to answer for his attempt to defraud him. In consequence Samuel Prehowsky appeared at Thames Police court before Mr Yardley. Since Madria’s English was limited at best the case was presented by a lawyer, Mr Young.

Young set out the details of the case and showed the justice the chain in question. He said he’d had it valued at between 4 and 6 pence and it was clearly not even worth the 9sthat Madria had left as a deposit. Mr Yardley agreed but he was far from certain that any fraud had taken place. He couldn’t quite believe that anyone would have fallen for it anyway. Young said that his client had ‘been dragged into the shop, and done for’. The magistrate replied that had he indeed been ‘dragged in he would have dealt with this as an assault, but he’d entered of his own volition. There was no assault involved at all, just incredible naivety.

Mr Prehowsky was an immigrant himself, a long established Jewish trader in clothes and jewelry who had come to London from Poland many years earlier. He explained that he’d not been in the shop that morning but would be able to bring witnesses to prove that Madria was not charged £30 but just 10s, which he bargained down to 9s and paid.  At this Madra cut in:

‘He say all gold, only £2 9s. – you leave me de money, all you have got, -9s and bring me de money, all the rest of it’.

‘You have not paid him the other £2 I hope?’, the magistrate asked him.

‘No Senhor, all brass, like the Jew [who] stand there’.

This last exchange brought the house down, laughter filling the courtroom.

It was a cautionary tale for the paper’s readership – be careful when you are buying jewelry on the Highway or you might get less than you bargained for. It was also an opportunity to make fun at the expense of a foreigner (Madria) and remind English readers that Jews were untrustworthy and avaricious. But no crime had been committed. Prehowsky confirmed that he was not seeking the extra £2 in payment for this goods (he said he never had anyway) and the Italian had his chain so as far as Mr Yardley was concerned that was that. He advised Madria not to buy jewelry in future and let everyone go.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 6, 1857]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

The polite thief and her ‘have-a-go’ victim

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Female prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction 

Mary Driscoll was well known to the establishment at Southwark Police Court. A ‘powerful -looking female’, she was in the dock for ‘highway robbery’ before the sitting magistrate, Mr Coombe.

Her victim was a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Samuel Hunter and he gave his evidence without the need for a lawyer. Hunter alleged that at about midnight on Friday 9 April 1858 he was crossing from London Road to Borough Road when a hansom cab turned the corner fast, and knocked him to the ground.

A woman (the prisoner Mary) ran over to help him up but as she did so she took the opportunity to pick his pockets. Unfortunately for her he felt her dip into his pocket and seized hold of her. They struggled and a man ran over and got involved. Hunter thought she had passed something to this man, who then ran off.

It was plausible, palming stolen goods to an accomplice was a common practice then and remains so today. The woman was violent he said and several other ‘well-known thieves’ arrived on the scene to try and help her escape or, which seems as likely, steal his other effects including his hat and a handkerchief.

He held on to Mary and soon enough a policeman was on hand to take her into custody.

Mary’s defence was fairly straightforward; she denied everything and said that Hunter was drunk (which he probably was). Suggesting her victim was not in command of his senses was also a sensible tactic. It undermined the validity of his evidence (or at least introduced an element of doubt) and he gained him in a poor light.

Hunter retaliated by saying he was far from drunk and delighted in telling Mr Coombe that Driscoll (and the army of petty thieves that had joined in the assault on him) had failed to discover the £20 in gold and silver he had concealed on his person that night.

Mr Coombe offered Mary the opportunity (under legislation passed just a couple of years earlier) to have the case determined by him or to take her chances with a jury. Mary opted for the summary process and admitted the theft. Mr Coombe sentenced her to four months’ hard labour which she accepted gracefully, thanking the justice before she was led away.

For a practised thief like Mary Driscoll arrest and imprisonment was a calculated risk. She’d be out before long and in the meantime she got board and lodgings for free, at Her Majesty’s expense. Samuel Hunter had his day in court and a story to dine out on for year – how he’d thwarted a notorious ‘highway robber’ and protected his valuables.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 12, 1858]

A daring jewel thief on Houndsditch

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An old clothes shop in the Jewish community of Houndsditch 

In 1883 Mr Samuel Morris Samuels ran a jewellers shop at 157 Houndsditch in the City of London. The street was to become infamous in the early twentieth century when a gang of politically-motivated robbers raided a similar establishment at number 119 killing three City policeman in the ensuing attempt to arrest them. The criminals escaped and were later surrounded the following January leading to what has become known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

Samuel Morris Samuels was a member of East London’s large jewish community in the late 1800s. The great synagogue was close by, at Bevis Marks, and thousands of his co-religionists lived in the crowded houses of nearby Spitalfields. The 1800s saw waves of Jewish immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement but Samuels family had probably been in England for decades, if not centuries.

He knew a man called George Wyatt quite well. Wyatt, who dressed well and so was fairly comfortably off, worked for the Electric Light Company as an engine fitter. Im190102Cass-Edi1883 was the year that the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company was founded in London and Sunderland but Wyatt may have worked for a lesser known firm. Edison bulbs (like the one in this advertisement from 1901) have become fashionable again today – they must have seemed like ‘magic’ for our Victorian ancestors.

Wyatt was a regular customer at Samuels’ shop and so the jeweller didn’t pay that much attention to him when he came in at about one o’clock on Sunday 14 January 1883 and asked to look at some watch movements. He bought one for 2s and left. While he was browsing however, the jeweller was busy with another customer who he was ‘showing a parcel of jewellery and other things’. He soon realised after the engineer had left that he was missing a number of things from his counter. Locking up, he chased after Wyatt, caught him and took him back to the shop and called for the police.

At 1.30 PC Foc (55 City) arrived and Mr Samuels handed him a number of things that Wyatt had admitted having in his possession. It was quite a haul:

‘Six gold weddings rings,  which had been stolen from a  tray of eight, a silver watch, and two sets of watch movements’ were surrendered.

When he got him back to the police station PC Fox searched him and found another four watch movements, all later identified as belonging to the Houndsditch jeweller. But this was not the extent of Wyatt’s light-fingered activity.

When detective Robert Leeman searched Wyatt’s rooms he found: ‘a large quantity of miscellaneous property, consisting of gold and silver watches, watch cases, watch movements, and earrings’.

Not surprisingly this haul landed Wyatt in court before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court. There he was asked to explain himself. He provoked considerable laughter in court when he admitted taking the goods but stated that the prosecutor had ‘sold him £90 of worthless goods, and he was only serving him as he had been served’. The magistrate remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

This week I am going to attempt an experiment in my methodology. I have selected the year 1883 because its calendar corresponds with our own and so I should be able to track a week’s reportage of the Police Courts just as a contemporary reader would have done. So let’s see if Mr Wyatt turns up again as he is not in the Old Bailey that month.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 28, 1883]

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

Recently acquired wealth attracts the wrong sort of customers to a Bermondsey pub

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Bermondsey in a contemporary map (Map of London, by W=Edward Weller, 1868)

This blog has discussed the Australian gold rush in previous post (see One drink led to another… for an example) and despite the distance it seems many people were prepared to make the long journey in the hope of seeking a fortune in mineral wealth. Frederick Palmer was one such man and in September 1856 he was recently returned from ‘the gold diggings’ to his pub in Bermondsey, south London.

Palmer’s wealth was in the form of a £102 exchequer bill and a £20 bank of England note. This was a considerable  amount of money, – £140 in 1852 is equivalent to about £8,000 today. On the 3rd September Mrs Palmer ran the establishment, the Bricklayers Arms at number 11 Webb Street* while her husband was out an about on other business.

At around 1 or 1.30 that day two men entered the pub and drew Mrs Palmer’s attention. Both were well-dressed and to her eyes had the look of members of the ‘swell-mob’, a contemporary descriptor for ‘professional’ criminals that liked to flaunt their relative wealth through a conscious display of fashion.

Having drunk some ale one of the pair approached the landlady and asked if they might use the private ‘club room’ upstairs to ‘contract some business’. Before she let them upstairs Mrs Palmer made sure she had secured the valuable paper money her husband had left in her care inside a locked drawer in the bedroom. She also locked the bedroom door just in case.

Having taken the two men more beer upstairs Mrs Palmer’s brother (a Mr Willis) was surprised to see the pair return to the saloon and quickly leave the premises within fifteen minutes. Suspecting foul play he immediately told his sister to run and check that all was as it should be upstairs. It wasn’t and she was soon back downstairs declaring that the bedroom door had been forced and all her drawers turned out – not surprisingly the cheque and £20 note were missing. Good news travels fast and I wonder if the Palmers’ sudden acquisition of wealth had attracted some unwelcome local attention.

Willis rushed off in pursuit of the men and soon overpowered one of them, William Granger, in Bermondsey Street. The other man escaped but the police were looking for him. Appearing in Southwark Police Court three weeks later they had still not managed to catch the other suspect, nor had the police succeeded in finding the missing money. However, PC 155M told the presiding justice (Mr Coombe) that if Granger were to be again remanded if was confident that their enquiries would eventually bear fruit. He added that Granger was ‘well known as connected to with a gang of the swell mob who had recently plundered taverns and public houses all over the kingdom’. Presented with this ‘evidence’ Mr Coombe was quite happy to grant the request for a remand.

Whether the money or the other man was found is not clear. Granger was remanded until the following Tuesday (23 September) when three cases were reported (a ‘smoke nuisance’, a case of juvenile theft, and the robbery of ‘an old countryman’) but there was no mention of Granger. As with so many of the people mentioned in the police court reports William Granger disappears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 18, 1856]

*on the corner with Tower Bridge Road – the pub is no longer there.

A most ungallant forger and the plundering of the ‘dark’ continent

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Henry and Eliza Hendry appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court as a married couple. The pair were charged with ‘forging and uttering a transfer of shares’ in a South African gold mining company. While both seemed to have been involved, Henry hadn’t planned for both of them to benefit from the crime, as the court was soon to discover.

The prosecution was opened by Mr Abraham on behalf of the Luipaard’s Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company Limited . He alleged that while Hendry had been a clerk in the Consolidated Goldfields of South Africa he had stolen two certificates belonging to share holders. The documents represented 400 and 26 shares each, and so were of considerable value.

Mr Abraham went on to say that Hendry, ‘with the collusion of his wife’, had sold the shares certificates on the stock exchange, making the huge sum of £2,500 (£140,000 today).

Eliza was represented in court by her own lawyer, Mr Myers, and he told the Lord Mayor that his client was the very much the junior party in the crime. In the previous century the principle of coverture (femme couvert) may well have protected Mrs Hendry from prosecution as a wife acting with her husband was deemed to be following his lead, as any ‘good wife’ was expected to do. By 1900, however, I doubt that this rather surprising aspect of patriarchy would have worked for Eliza in front of a jury.

Fortunately for Eliza it never came to that. The Lord Mayor was told that once Henry Hendry had successfully sold the share certificates he left his wife and ran off with another woman. He had compounded his serious crime by acting like a pantomime villain. The City’s chief magistrate remanded him in custody but bailed his wife.

A case like this was probably complicated and evidence needed to be gathered. As a result it took several months for this to reach the Old Bailey. When it did there was no sign of Eliza, so she must have been released. As for Henry, the 30 year-old clerk pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey in May but judgement on him was respited. This probably means that there was some doubt over his conviction, possibly on some points of the law. Before 1907 (when the Court of Criminal Appeal was established) the Twelve Judges of England in the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, so they could lend their expert wisdom to the case.

Hendry disappears from the ‘bailey at this point so perhaps he too escaped the consequences of his grand scheme to defraud.

In March 1899  the area in which the Luipoards Vlei Estate was situated (the Witwatersrand) was firmly under British rule. This was to be (unsuccessfully) challenged in the coming year, as the second  South African (or Boer) war broke out in late 1899.  Britain’s imperial interest in Africa, in part driven by competition with other European powers (such as France and Germany) was underpinned by the desire to exploit the rich mineral wealth of the southern part of the continent. In trying to profit from the wider exploitation of Africa’s natural resources Henry Hendry was merely acting as he had seen many others do, and in the end, who can really condemn him for that?

As for leaving his wife however, now that really does mark him out to be a ‘bad lot’.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, March 28, 1899]

p.s The Luipoards Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company had been formed in London in 1888 and successfully traded until the mid-20th century. It extracted gold and then, after this dried up in the 1950s, it continued to mine uranium. It ceased to be a going concern in 1970.