The Police Court: a progress report

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I thought I’d do something a little different this morning. I’ve been writing reports from the Victorian Police courts for over two years now and have collected several hundred stories which were beginning to give me some historical findings that I might be able to analyse more broadly.

There is a difference I’ve found, both in the nature of cases, the way the courts are used by the public, and the way in which they are reported by the press, and this seems to move in patterns across the period 1830-1900. I’m not at a stage where I can be completely sure about this but it does seem that the newspapers are clearly highlighting particular sorts of case or crime in much the same way as we see ‘hot topics’ appearing in our own papers today.

Sometimes that is a sort of criminal activity (and notably this is fraud of some sort when the Mansion House or Guildhall courts are reported). Other times it is begging and vagrancy – real concerns of the mid Victorians who had reframed the Poor Law to treat the ‘undeserving’ poor more harshly. Later see we plenty of domestic violence cases highlighted as this was something that certainly concerned several of the late Victorian magistrates who wrote up their memoirs. Child neglect, abject poverty, and suicide were also topics that come up time and again with varying degrees of shock, sympathy and distaste.

One of the key problems I’ve faced in undertaking this sort of research is that the papers only ever offer us a snapshot of the magistrates’ work. The daily or weekly newspapers run about a half page on the Police Courts and that means they cover about 5-8 courts and report on one (sometimes two or three) cases from each of them. But we know that these courts were busy places, dealing with hundreds of cases daily, especially on Monday mornings when the police cells emptied of the weekend’s drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters.

Judging by the archival records I have looked at from Thames Police court (one of the few places where records from the 1800s have survived) most of those prosecuted there were fined for being drunk and disorderly, or drunk and incapable. Very many others were in for some form of assault and received fines or short prison sentences. Cases which were complicated and led to serious charges being heard at the Old Bailey were relatively few by comparison but were more often reported by the papers, because of course they were often more interesting for the readership.

So what we get is a fairly lopsided view of the police courts and I have been aware that I am also engaging in a selection process in offering up the ones for you to read. Once I realised that dozens if not hundreds of people were reading my blog did that affect they way I chose which cases to cover? It is a difficult question to answer; there are all sorts of factors that determine what I write about. I am drawn to certain types of case because they seem to offer insights into Victorian society at different points, but other times I just find the story sad, amusing or unusual.

Today I am speaking at the 2018 East End Conference, a gathering of largely amateur historians who have a fascination with the Whitechapel Murders and the context in which they occurred. I on quite late in the day and as this is the 130th anniversary of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of ‘Ripperologly’ (the study of the murders) and the problems of historical evidence. This is because the Ripper case and the character of ‘Jack’ has been manipulated from the beginning of any interest in it. He has been used by tour guides, entertainers, politicians, social reformers, historians, video game makers and others for all sorts of purposes. Each generation has shaped their own ‘Ripper’ to suit contemporary concerns or tastes.

In the process we have lost touch with the reality of the murders which were brutal in the extreme. The Ripper figure has become separated from the real killer and an entertainment industry has grown which has exploited the victims and the area in which the killings took place. In the light of recent movements that oppose misogyny (like the ‘Me Too’ movement) I believe Ripperology needs to reflect carefully on the sometime casual way in which the killer has been turned into some sort of cult comic book figure – the mysterious topped hat gent with a knife and a Gladstone bag swirling his cape through foggy backstreets.

This characterisation has arisen from the lack of hard evidence we have for who ‘Jack’ really was. The vacuum has been filled by speculation – which is not in itself a bad thing – and by a vert partial reading of what evidence we do have. Much of this is gleaned from the Victorian press in the 1880s and I can see (simply by reading them every day for this blog) how careful we need to be about that material.

So writing this blog and writing and researching my own ‘Ripper solution’ book has helped me think more carefully about how we use and present ‘history’ and that will form part of what I have to say this afternoon. Normal service – in the form of the reports of the magistracy – will return tomorrow with a tale of pyromaniac who risked the lives of those he lived with. A tale appropriate for Guy Fawkes I thought.

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Two lads are charged ‘with getting an honest living’ as the press attack the police.

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The City of London’s Green Yard

Victorian newspapers did not use headlines as we know them today but quite often they deployed a sort of headline at the start of an article. I think we can see the development of the modern headline here, aimed at catching the attention of the reader and giving a sense of what the article was about.

On the 10 July 1858 one of the entries under the coverage of the Metropolitan Police Courts news declared:

HOW WE ENOURAGE INDUSTRY!

What followed was a direct criticism of a new police policy, which the writer clearly believed did exactly the opposite.

Michael Welsh and Morris Haven were two young entrepreneurs  (or at least that is how The Morning Chronicle’s reporter viewed them. They had bought a quantity of cherries and had been selling them from a barrow in the streets around the Guildhall in the old City of London.

They were not alone in this, several independent hawkers were operating throughout the area selling fresh fruit as it was now in season. They drew large crowds, particularly of young boys, who ‘swarmed round’ the barrows, ‘each eager to invest his halfpence in cherries’.

Buying from a coster’s barrow was popular, and some people who seldom visited fruiterers did stop and buy from a barrow. It was cheaper and more convenient and the City magistracy thought this a ‘good thing’. Sadly it seems the police did not.

New regulations had been put into force regarding street sellers and the City Police seems to have decided that anyone selling goods from a barrow constituted an obstruction that had to be removed. As a consequence the paper reported:

great numbers of fruit sellers have been brought up on the same frivolous pretext. Alderman Hale discharged several so charged during the last few days, and remarked that it was a pity the police did not show a little more indulgence to persons earning a reputable loving, particularly as the fruit season would not last long’.

Sitting in judgement on Welsh and Haven, Alderman Gabriel broadly agreed with his colleague’s actions earlier in the week but he wanted to uphold the law at the law time. After all he agreed, ‘the streets must be kept clear’. He told the young businessmen he would let them off on this occasion but they must refrain from breaking the regulations in future or he would punish them.

They didn’t get away scot-free however; their barrows had been impounded by the police and they had to pay 2s 6deach to liberate them from the Green Yard at Whitecross Street (where all stray animals and vehicles had been taken by the police and their predecessors for centuries).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 10, 1858]

A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

A serial abuser gets his just desserts at the Guildhall

Maria Caddick was a tolerant woman who seems (like many victims of domestic abuse in the 1800s) to have put up with a lot before she sought the protection of the law. But in March 1859 her husband went too far and the couple ended up in the Guildhall Police Court.

It could have been worse for Mr Caddick because while he had often beaten his wife, this time he took a knife to her. Had she not been able to escape him the 60 year-old man might have found himself on a murder charge.

Maria told Alderman Salomens that her husband had come back late to their home in Field Lane, quite drunk (as he often was). The couple exchanged words (probably about Caddick’s frequent drinking) and the old man went for his wife. When he used language ‘unfit to be repeated’ she struck out with her fists, knocking him on the head.

He retaliated with blows of his own and she picked up a saucepan lid and threw it at him. Enraged, her husband now grabbed a knife and stabbed her in the forehead and then in arm.

Maria told the court: ‘I ran downstairs for a policeman, but before I could find one I fell down and became insensible. I afterwards went to the hospital.’

Caddick tried to deny he had done anything at first, and then blamed his wife. Finally, when this tactic was exposed for the falsehood it was he tried to dismiss his actions as the result of having had ‘a drop’ (of alcohol).

Mrs Caddick said the problem was that ‘he took those “drops” so often that one day he might kill her’.

She then admitted to the magistrate that she had brought her husband to court before when he had beaten her, but had forgiven him and pleaded for him to released without punishment. Mr Salomens was in no mood to be as lenient on this occasion and threw the book at him.

Mr Caddick, an old man with a serious drink problem, was sent to prison for six months at hard labour and told to find sureties of £20 (a considerable sum) for his good behaviour towards his wife on his release.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, March 8, 1859]

The Lord mayor drops into the Police Courts to discuss the problem of prison reform

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Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) as it is today

Today’s tale from the Police Courts is less of a particular crime and more a report of how contemporaries felt about the criminal justice system of the late 1830s. In 1839 the Metropolitan Police had been in existence for a decade, the transportation of felons to Australia was in full flood and London’s first ‘national’ prison (Millbank on the Thames) had been open for 20 years. After the turbulent years of the late teens and 1820s Britain was moving towards stability and peace but the threat of political unrest had not entirely gone away, as Chartism (c.1836-48) showed.

The problem of crime was ever present of course, because each successive generation tends to believe that life was less criminal in the previous one and any outbreak of criminality (like the ‘garrotting’ panics of the 1850s and 60s, or the ‘hooligan’ panic of the 1890s) had reporters and correspondents to the newspapers rushing to their quills to complain about the state of law and order.

In December 1839  appeared at the Guildhall Police Court and discussed the state of crime with the sitting magistrate, Alderman White. Sir Peter had an interest in law and order, having served as Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate in 1832) and had written two books on prison reform.

He informed Alderman White that he had seen the reports of the prisons of the metropolis  and shared its contents. These revealed that no less than 58 ‘desperate destitute persons’ were being ‘let loose to prey upon the public from the several prisons of the metropolis’ every morning.

The debate about what to do with criminals had raged in the first decades of the nineteenth century as Robert Peel’s reform of the justice system removed capital punishment from all property crimes meaning that hanging was now reserved for murderers and (until 1842) rapists. The state still transported thousands to Australia but increasingly it was the prison (the penitentiary prison, with an emphasis on reform) that provided the backbone of the penal system.Within prisons there was also a highly contested debate about how to treat convicts with some advocating a ‘silent’ system (where inmates could mingle but not talk) and others opting for the more draconian ‘separate’ system which was in effect, solitary confinement.

Sir Peter was not a fan of the modern penitentiary prison; he said that he had read a study of the penitentiary at Philadelphia (a model of the American penal system) which showed its ineffectiveness.

He told the magistrate that ‘so far from the Penitentiary at Philadelphia reforming and making useful citizens of thieves, it breaks down their bodies as well as their minds. He saw a number of prisoners who had been confined for two years, and he never before beheld such a collection of emaciated, miserable looking objects, with lack-lustre eyes. Such an approach’ he argued, ‘did men no good’.

Alderman White commented that prison reform was one of those topics that everyone seemed to have an opinion about but no one really understood; it needed much more research in his opinion. For me this is a comment that could easily be applied in the 21st century. Too much of our penal policy seems to be based on the reactions of the government of the day to public opinion expressed in the tabloid press and not on a scientific understanding of the problem.

Sir Peter ended his visit to the court by reading the report of releases from the London prisons. This showed that in the past 49 weeks 16,940 persons had been discharged from institutions in the capital (at an average  rate of 345 a week). This report did not include Millbank, Newgate, or the New Prison at Clerkenwell however; if it had I think the numbers would have been considerably higher.

This shows then that the numbers being related were in the public domain (I wonder if they are so prominent today) and so Londoners could see the effect of the move away from capital punishment and transportation on the streets. This was to become much more pronounced in the 1850s as transportation to Australia slowed and then stoped in the next decade. Thereafter, the prison, however, ineffectual it might have been, was the only form of punishment available until the experiments with probation in the early Edwardian period.

 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 18, 1839]

Pinching the hotel’s silverware lands a ‘respectable’ young man in trouble

Sometimes the news reports of the Police Courts of the metropolis give us an indication of how the hearing worked in practice. Most of the cases I’ve looked at over the last 7 months  have a cast of characters: the ‘prisoner’/defendant; victim/prosecutor (this can be a police officer in later cases); witnesses (for both sides);members of the legal profession and, of course, the magistrate himself.

The accused had the opportunity to have their case heard before the police court or to go before a jury, but the latter risked a stiffer penalty so many probably opted to take their chances at summary level. I doubt many could afford a counsel so defended themselves. But until this case I wasn’t sure whether the prisoner could actually question the prosecutor or witnesses, or simply make a statement in their defence.

In late November 1845 John Studd Weeding (a ‘young man of respectable appearance’) came before the Guildhall justice in the City accused of stealing silverware from a London hotel.

Mr Radley (the owner of Radley’s Hotel on Bridge Street) testified that Weeding had stayed at his premises on Sunday night and that on the morning he had left, saying he had an appointment at a nearby hairdresser. One of Radley’s staff was concerned because the man had not settled his bill ‘or left any luggage’, so he ‘directed the porter to watch him’.

The porter followed Weeding at a distance and saw him enter a silversmith’s shop. There he sold a silver fork and a dessert spoon, both of which were monogrammed with an ‘N’. When this was reported back to the waiter who had raised the concern, he then undertook a quick inventory of the hotel’s plate, and soon found some items were missing.

At 5 o’clock the prisoner had finished a glass of brandy at the hotel when the waiter approached him and asked him to step ‘in to the counting house’ (presumably the accounts office at Radley’s). Here he accused him of taking one of the hotel’s silver spoons.

Weeding hotly denied this and said he could produce friends who would vouch for his respectability. The waiter said he was satisfied with this and suggested they send someone to fetch them.

At this Weeding backtracked and so the waiter called for a policeman who searched the young man. ‘Not only the spoon, but two silver forks, all marked “Radley’s Hotel”… were found in his possession. There were also three forks, a tablespoon and a dessert spoon, all marked ‘N’…as well as a duplicate for a teaspoon and three silk handkerchiefs, pawned for four shillings’.

The court was told that the police believed the items not belonging to Radley’s had been lifted from the Mount Ephraim Hotel (which was in Tunbridge Wells). The magistrate asked Weeding if he wished to question any of the witnesses, the first time I’ve seen a report of what may well have been standard practice. He didn’t and made no statement either.

The magistrate then told Weeding he was now likely to face further charges from Tunbridge in addition to the one at Radley’s and remanded him in custody so more evidence could be sought.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 26, 1845]

A firebrand preacher angers the Guildhall magistrate

The magistrate at Guildhall on July 17 1829 must have wished it was someone else’s turn to sit the justice room when James Yandall was brought before him. Yandall was described as a ‘singular looking diminutive old man, with white hair’. He came in clutching a box that was strapped to his front and seemed to contain candle snuffers.

Far from being what he at first appeared – a candle extinguisher street vendor – Yandall was actually a fire-brand Presbyterian preacher. The street-keeper of St. Sepulchre’s in the City of London had fetched him in for obstructing the pathways around Newgate prison by drawing a crowd.

The street keeper, a man named Gittens, had tried to move the fellow on but had been told, in no uncertain terms, that he was standing on his ‘Father’s ground, and he would not move for anybody’.The alderman magistrate warned him that if he ‘persisted in assembling mobs on the pavement, it  would be necessary to put an extinguisher on him‘.

Yandall was not in the least bit cowed by the justice’s words and retaliated. He announced to the court that  he had no fear of ‘dust and ashes, but only of hell’. As far as he was concerned he was doing God’s work and no man, not even those of the la, could or should intervene. He was, he continued, ‘a joint heir to the use of the ground given by his Heavenly Father, and he should stand upon it where and when he pleased’.

The alderman threatened to fine him £5 if he gathered ‘mobs in the City’ again. Yandall replied that it would the justice that paid, not him. ‘Then I will lock you up’ the magistrate told him. ‘If you lock me up, you cannot lock out God’ was the prisoner’s response.

While the magistrate thought about the issue the preacher was quietly led away.

 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 17, 1829]

Child neglect that led to abuse in 1847

Child abuse and the activities of paedophiles is high on our news agenda for good reason. Whether it is high profile abuse over many years (as exposed in the Saville case and Operation Yewtree  ) or recent reports that the internet is being used daily by ‘tens of thousands’ of abusers  it would be wrong to believe that this is a ‘modern’ problem or a product of our digital society. Sadly children have been abused sexually throughout history and the records of the courts show this.

In June 1847 George Simpson ( a man who gave his age as 32 but who ‘looked much older’) was accused at Guildhall police court of ‘having violated the person of Ann Davis’. Ann was a child ‘of about ten years of age’.

The circumstances of the assault were perhaps very familiar to modern professionals working in child protection. Ann father was a cork-cutter and the family lived in Bridgewater Gardens where Mr Davis also had a shop. On the previous Saturday evening Simpson had driven his truck up to the premises at about 7 o’clock as he was delivering two large bundles of cork.

Ann answered the door and Simpson asked her if her parents were at home. She said she thought they had gone to Newgate market. The market supplied London butchers but contemporary opinion held that Smithfield was superior and cheaper (which probably explains why the market was demolished in 1869). Mr and Mrs Davis may have gone there to buy meat or more likely as a result of the father’s trade. Whatever the reason they had left their ten year-old daughter in charge of the shop and this was to have dreadful consequences.

Having established that Ann’s parents were absent Simpson invited himself into the shop and locked the door behind him. He told her to place a piece of cork against a broken window pane and then forced the girl down onto ‘some cork shavings under the bench’, covered her mouth with his hand and ‘eventually effected his object’.

Pretty much all descriptions of the sexual act were omitted from newspaper reports; the editors preferred to use euphemisms or to allude to rape rather than spell it out for their readers. But I think it is quite clear that Ann was sexually assaulted.

After twenty minutes a knocking was heard at the door and he started up, saying: ‘here’s your father and mother, open the door’. Ann duly opened the door and told them what had happened. They called a policeman and Simpson was arrested. In court Mr and Mrs Davis testified that when they had entered their shop they had seen Simpson ‘buttoning up his clothes and their daughter black and dirty, and to all appearance as if she had been half choked’.

The other material witness in court was a surgeon from Basinghall Street (in the City of London) who deposed that having examined her he was sure that force had been used and that the prisoner ‘had partially but not fully effected his object’. The magistrate, Alderman Sidney, committed Simpson for trial.

NB: This is an unpleasant case and I’ve not been able to find it in the records of the Old Bailey so despite the defendant Simpson being committed for trial there is no certainty that such a trial ever took place.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, June 23, 1846]

The real life Dodger and his crew?

Most readers will be familiar with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (or at least with one of the many film versions of the story). The young runaway Oliver arrives in London, tired, hungry and homeless, and is befriended by the Artful Dodger and inveigled into a (brief) life of crime.  Dickens probably based his characters on real people; he was a court reporter before he became a successful novelist and attended these same Police Courts.

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Oliver was fortunate that Mr Brownlow rescued him (twice in fact) or he may have suffered the same fate as so many young boys and men in the first half of the 1800s, to be transported to Australia or locked up in prison and set to hard labour.

Dickens based his story on seeing or reading about real life characters like Ikey Solomons or Bill Sheen either of whom could have been Fagin the receiver. And when we look at the pages of the newspapers for the 1820s it is possible to see the sketchy beginnings of the Dodger and his crew, as in this case from 1821.

Three boys, teenagers barely 14 years old, were brought before the City magistrate at the Guildhall. James Morgan, Henry Moir and George Singleton were accused of taking handkerchiefs in St Swithin’s Lane (a long winding road that runs between Cannon Street and King William Street and emerges by the Bank of England).

Mr Sandford, who was walking up the lane, missed his handkerchief and looking round saw a small boy (named Davison) who informed him some other lads had been attempting to pick his pocket. Sandford followed the boy to Lombard Street where he pointed out one of the culprits, Morgan, who was wearing a  brown coat.

A constable was called and Morgan was dragged to the Compter (the holding gaol for the city in Poultry, a street nearby). Here Morgan loudly declared his innocence although his face was well known to the watch and the City constables. While he continued to protest, saying he had ‘never been in custody before’, Singleton arrived with a black coat over his arm which he said he’d brought along as it belonged to his chum Morgan.

The officer he spoke to was suspicious however, and looking around he noticed another, smaller boy (Moir), who had no coat on. Moir was recognized as being released from Newgate prison only the day before, having ‘had the good fortune to be acquitted on an indictment for picking pockets’. Young Davison now swore that he had also seen Moir with Morgan in St Swithin’s Lane and so he (and Singleton) were quickly arrested.Singleton’s ploy was to have switched coats with Morgan to make the process of identification that much harder – on this occasion it hadn’t worked.

Moir’s parents appeared in court and were described as ‘respectable working people’ who lamented the fact that they could do nothing to keep their son on the straight and narrow. They told the beak that ‘they were desirous that he might be disposed of in any that might prevent his destruction’. No one appeared for Morgan, his friends having apparently ‘given him up as incorrigible’; Singleton said he had an employer who would speak for him  All three ‘dodgers’ were remanded for re-examination at later date, when Mr Sandford could appear to prosecute them. Their likely fate if found guilty? Probably prison and possibly transportation to New South Wales. Who know, they may even and benefited from the latter and emerged unscathed to become citizens of the new Australian nation.

            [from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, May 23, 1823]