Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]

Another avoidable shooting in Hackney

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Frederick James was an anxious man. He kept a loaded revolver under his pillow in his Cumberland Street address, where he worked as a machine sewer in the shoe trade. There had been several burglaries in recent weeks and Fred, who didn’t trust the banks, kept just under £300 in his room and had the gun as his protection against robbery. But he was also a considerate man; his sister, Annie, lived at the property and she cleaned and cooked for him. He always took the pistol out from under his pillow in the morning and laid it close by him at his desk, so as not to alarm her when she turned the bed down.  Sadly, as we know from bitter experience of hundreds of modern tragedies, owning a gun often means that someone gets hurt or worse, especially when pride and machismo are involved.

James employed two other men – William Tripp and Thomas Hannibal – and took in work from larger operatives. On the 1 April 1872 a man named Charles Starkie turned up at 103 Cumberland Street, (off Great Cambridge Street, Hackney)  as he had done several times before, with a  pair of boots that required repair. As it was 5.15 the men were having their tea and so Starkie chose to wait.

There was clearly some underlying tension between the younger man (Starkie was about 28) and Frederick James (who was 39). The pair quarrelled and a lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. Starkie (according to Annie, Tripp and Hannibal) called the other man a ‘bloody thief’, a ‘bloody rogue, and a bloody shit, and a bloody swine’ (although the word ‘bloody’ was rendered in the Old Bailey Proceedings as ‘b_____’, so as not to give offence to the readers).

It isn’t clear exactly what happened after that but Starkie appears to have been taunting the cobbler, and threatening to take business away from him to give to someone else. It sounds like these were empty threats as James’ team enjoyed the confidence of their suppliers, but Frederick was still angered by the abuse he received.

A scuffle was heard upstairs and it may be that while James tried to walk away from the argument Starkie chose to continue it. Three shots were heard and when Annie and the others went to see what they were about, they found Starkie dead or dying.

When the police arrived – in the person of PC Edward Dunt (152H) – Fred admitted shooting the man but not intentionally. He had fired twice into the wall, which suggests he was either frustrated or wanted to send a strong warning. Starkie, as those in the house later  testified, poured scorn on James, saying he was just firing blanks.

Whether he was or not the third shot hit Starkie, entering his head via the jaw, fracturing his skull and ‘smashing’ his spinal cord. He probably died instantly and was dead before Dr Wallace reached the scene.

PC Dunt told Fred he must come with him to the station. James then asked to be allowed to change his shirt and promised to come quietly. He seemed to be very sorry for what had occurred and this was continued when he appeared some days later in the Worship Street Police Court. The charge was ‘wilful murder’ but there was clearly some doubt surrounding it. At Worship Street, on what was his second appearance his solicitor asked for  further remand so that James would not go before the next sitting of the Old Bailey. The higher court was busy, Mr Straight (the defence solicitor) told Mr Hannay (the magistrate) and it would not be fair to ‘hurry his defence on’ in such circumstances.

Hannah agreed and remanded him for a week, presumably meaning that he missed the sessions. The court reporter described James as looking ‘pale, and as if suffering much from the charge hanging over him’.

As well he might. If he were to be convicted of murder then he was quite likely to hang.

When it came to it however, the Old Bailey jury were lenient. There decided that there was ample evidence of provocation and insufficient evidence of intent. They found him ‘not guilty’ of murder but guilty of the second count of manslaughter. Frederick James escaped the noose and went to prison for 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 10, 1872]