Another man who shirked his parental responsibilities and thought he’d get away with it

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The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the 1930s

William Dell was having a bad day and it was about to get worse.

In the first week of June 1869 he had been presented with a summons to attend at the Guildhall Police court. Being summonsed was one of the ways you ended up before a magistrate in nineteenth-century London, and was certainly preferable to being brought there from a cell by a policeman or gaoler, but was still unpleasant and embarrassing.

Dell’s ‘crime’ was that he was behind with his child support payments, or, as the Victorians would have termed it, he was in ‘bastardy arrears’. Having impregnated Emma Barrett but not being inclined to marry her, he had left her and her baby ‘chargeable to the parish’.

In other words, without the financial support of William Dell Emma would have been forced to exist on money raised from amongst the local ratepayers. Where possible, and when a father could be identified, the overseers of the poor much preferred to avoid this. If Dell wouldn’t marry Emma he could at least be expected to stump up the money to support her bastard. The amount was at 26a week.

Dell either thought he should pay or didn’t have the spare cash to do so, so he ignored the bastardy order that had been imposed on him and had ran up arrears of £2 5by the beginning of June (suggesting that he had paid nothing for about 18 weeks).

Hence the court summons in June.

He was stood outside the Guildhall court waiting to be called in when a woman approached him. She was Sophia Barrett, Emma’s mother. She berated William for ruining her daughter and abandoning his child and, when Dell protested that the child was not his but his brother’s, she lost her temper completely.

Sophia started to hit Dell with the only weapon she had to hand, her umbrella. He tried to fend her off and then ran away to the rear of St Lawrence Jewry church (which stands in Guildhall Yard) to escape her.

Sophia Barrett was not so easily shaken off, and went round the church the opposite way and attacked him again in Gresham Street. Here she ‘pulled his hair and struck him’ again and again until William Dell was rescued by a passing policeman. Sophia Barrett was now arrested and both parties appeared in the Guildhall Police court together.

Sophia Barrett was charged with assault but showed no remorse. Indeed she went on the attack complaining to the alderman magistrate that Dell had neglected his obligations and left her, a poor widow,  to care for both her daughter and the child. Dell, she said, had ‘never contributed one farthing to the support of the child and had declared that he would not’.  She felt entirely justified in letting the man know exactly how she felt.

Alderman Finnis seemed to largely agree with her. He sympathized with her and dismissed the assault charge on the grounds of provocation. As she stepped down from the dock, her reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, Dell took her place.

Alderman Finnis asked him why he had failed to obey the order of the court to support Emma Barrett and her baby? Dell wriggled in the dock and claimed he had no money to do so. The money ‘he earned’, he stated, ‘was barely sufficient for himself’. It was a lame excuse even if for many in Victorian London barely subsistence wages were the norm. He had ‘had is way’ with Emma and was obliged to face the consequences.

In the alderman’s eyes if he allowed Dell to avoid his responsibilities he would be exposing the good ratepayers of the City to a flood of claims for child support. So he glared down at the man in the dock and told him that he could either pay his arrears now or go to prison with hard labour for two months. Dell refused to pay and so was led away to start his sentence.

It is worth noting that his incarceration did not cancel his debt, on his release he would still be expected to support Emma’s child unless she married and found someone else to pay for its upbringing. So Dell faced an uncertain future if he continued to refuse to pay. Once out of prison he was still liable and unless he found the money he might well end up being sent back to gaol. Moreover, having been inside once his chances of finding regular well-paid work were diminished. If he thought he was merely scraping by beforehand then his outlook after prison was hardly improved.

But at the same time the situation was little better for Emma; any hope that she might have had that Dell would recognize that his best interests lay in marrying her were probably killed stone dead by this prosecution and the animosity that came with it. She would also find it hard to persuade a suitor to take on another man’s bastard. So she would continue to live with her mother in a household with no male breadwinner, and few prospects of avoiding an impoverished existence.

At the heart of this was a child. A child whose father didn’t want her and who the ‘state’ (which in the 1860s meant the parish) didn’t want to have to pay for. Today Emma would be better supported, although our own society still struggles to make fathers take responsibility for the children they beget on women prefer not to marry or support.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 6 June 1869]

‘If the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’: an East End train disaster narrowly avoided

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In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy.  Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.

Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.

The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.

In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.

On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.

He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.

One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.

‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.

Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]

Another habitual criminal rightly punished, or a missed opportunity to make a difference?

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Following a spate of street robberies (or muggings) in London and elsewhere in the 1860s, colloquially known as the ‘garroting panic’, parliament passed a series of loosely connected laws that aimed to clamp down on criminal offending. This was a kneejerk reaction to a press conceived ‘moral panic’ and – as is so often the case – it would have a lasting impact on those caught by it.

One of those was Thomas Sims who, in April 1883, was working as a bricklayer in East London. Sims was trying to ‘go straight’ having previously been convicted of a crime that had earned him a sentence of seven years in prison.

Thomas had been released  on a ticket of leave (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of parole) some time around the beginning of 1882 and had been duly reporting himself to the Bethnal Green police station as was required under the terms of the Habitual Criminals Act (1869).

This legislation meant that anyone released on license would have to report the police once a month for the duration of their sentence and often afterwards for up to seven years. Offenders were recorded on a register and the police checked that they were ‘behaving’ themselves. At any time they could be brought before a magistrate if the police felt they were complying with the terms of their parole or were engaging in disreputable behavior.

Quite obviously this made it very difficult for men like Thomas Sims to escape the taint of prison and reintegrate into an honest life. He certainly thought so and in December 1882 he moved to Spitalfields and told the Bethnal Green station of his plans. The sergeant explained that he would now need to report in to the Commercial Street station but only did so once, on Boxing Day 1882.

He was picked up by police and gave them a false address. Detective sergeant Rolfe (K Division) brought Sims before Mr Hannay at Worship Street and said that, when asked, the prisoner had failed to produce his license. The magistrate asked him why he’d stopped reporting in and Sims told him that:

‘he would not go on reporting himself as everybody then knew that he had been convicted’, adding that he would rather back inside.

Hannay told him the act, ‘however stringent, was a very necessary one and require dot be enforced’. As Sims still had six months left of his sentence the justice sent him to prison for a year at hard labour, that 12 months to include the six he had outstanding.

Thomas Sims thanked him and was taken away to renew his acquaintance with a prison cell. Having stayed out of obvious trouble for over a year, and having held down a job as well, this prisoner was now back inside, a burden to the state.

There was worse to come. Following Sims’ release he went back to his offending pattern and was prosecuted in October 1884 for stealing money and a gold watch and chain, he was listed as 30 years of age. He got another 12 months in Cold Bath Fields prison. His conviction cited his previous ones, – the 12 months from Mr Hannay and the original seven years (with 3 years supervision) from Northallerton Quarter Sessions in October 1876, for stealing a gold watch and chain.

Another Thomas Sims (aged 42) was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in September 1894 for robbery with violence. Again, as in both his other listed larcenies, the stolen item was a gold watch and chain – he got five more years. Is this the same Thomas Sims? It is possible as ages can vary in the registers, and the crimes are quite similar. If it was Thomas then he didn’t live much longer, dying in 1903 aged just 51.

What a sad life and what a missed opportunity in 1883 to let a man ‘go straight’.

[from The Standard Monday, 23 April 1883]

‘Ringing the changes’ in a City pub, has nothing to do with campanology

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The Castle & Falcon Inn in Aldersgate Street, c.1827

What does ringing the changes mean to you? I’d always thought it was a phrase that suggested we might try something new, maybe originating from bell ringing, but it appears that in the 1870s it had another, less innocent, meaning.

In April 1879 Thomas James was brought before the alderman magistrate at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. James was a young man who lived with his mother in Hoxton and may well have been suffering with some sort of illness. He said he was a sailor but his mother, who came to court to speak up for him, said he was ‘subject to fits and not accountable for his actions’.

Thomas was in court because he had been arrested by a policeman at the Falcon Tavern in Aldersgate Street. According to a number of witnesses  he had approached the barman there and ordered a half pint of beer. The beer cost a penny and the youth handed over a shilling, receiving ‘6d. in silver and 5d. in copper’ in his change.

‘Young man’, James addressed the barman, ‘you have given me only 5 1/4d.’ The barman apologized and handed over another sixpence.

It was a scam, a trick known as ‘ringing the changes’. Thomas was well practiced at it and had conned Ada Slap, a barmaid at the Bell Tavern in Falcon Square out of 2s, and another (Ann Gale, barmaid at the Royal Mail in Noble Street) said he’d tried (and failed) to play her for a fool for a shilling.

Unbeknown to the conman however, a policeman had been alerted to his fraud by the staff at the Royal Mail and followed him to the Falcon. He watched him approach the bar and, as he began to walk away the officer asked the barman if he’d been tricked. When the man confirmed his suspicions PC Hickman (170 City) followed him out and nabbed him.

A search revealed that James was in possession of 8s 6d  in silver, 17in copper and a few farthings. At the Guildhall he was charged with obtaining money by false pretenses, with intent to defraud. He admitted the charge at the Falcon (he could hardly do otherwise) but denied the others. Alderman Hadley sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

According to Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) to ‘ring in’ or ‘ringing the changes’ was to exchange ‘bad’ currency (i.e. forgeries) for ‘good’. That expression dates back to at least 1811. ‘When a person receives silver in change, to shift some good shillings and put bad ones in their place’ says the dictionary. The term ‘ringing’ (for doing the same thing) can be traced to the middle of the previous century.

Ringing the changes,  as it was by Thomas James (to con people – generally tradesmen), is still a common enough fraud, as this warning from the Devon & Cornwall Policeshows.

The Falcon (or Castle and Falcon Inn) used to stand at 5 Aldersgate Street but was demolished many years ago. The Royal Mail (originally the Coachmakers Arms then the Royal Mail Coach) stood at 17 Noble Street. It was rebuilt in 1898 but I think it too has vanished.  After this current health crisis I wonder how many other London pubs will finally fall victim to the wrecking ball?

[from Morning Post, Monday 14 April, 1879]

 

The ‘irrepressible’ Tottie Fay, the ‘wickedest woman in London’.

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On 7 March 1887 the readers of the ‘occasional notes’ section of the Pall Mall Gazette were introduced to the ‘wickedest woman in London’, an epithet bestowed on a colourful character who went by several names. In the article she is referred to as Lily Cohen but also ‘Tottie Fay, Lilian Rothschild, Violet St. John, Mabel Gray, Maud Legrand, [and] Lily Levant’.

The writer goes on to add:

‘She is just thirty years of age. It would be interesting to have an accurate biographical and scientific diagnosis of this superlative specimen of human depravity’.

Well I’m not sure I can satisfy all of that request but I thought it might be possible to trace ‘Tottie Fay’ through the courts in the pages of the newspaper archive. And, I’m glad to say, she appears quite frequently.

In March Tottie (or Lily) had been sent to prison for a month, officially for being ‘disorderly’ but in reality for being one of the capital’s many prostitutes. Indeed ‘Tottie’ was described as the ‘wickedest woman in London’ by the magistrate. Millbank Prision, where he sent her, was an awful place to be incarcerated; damp, frequently flooded by the nearby Thames, and considered only fit to house short-term prisoners by this time.  It was closed just three years later (in 1890) demolished thereafter to make way for the new National  Gallery of British Art (now the Tate).

In her appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in March 1887 the sitting justice, Mr Mansfield, noted that she ‘had more than once perjured herself by making false accusations against men, and had for a ling time persisted in a life of vice and crime’. He regretted that he was only allowed to send her away for a month or fine her 40s. Since she didn’t have the money, off to gaol she went.

If that was supposed to teach her a lesson it failed. Not that we should be surprised by this. It seems Tottie had been in and out of prison on several occasions before 1887 and had probably been up ‘before the beak’ too many times to count. Offenders like her knew that the best strategy was not to be caught too many times in the same place and set before the same magistrate. If you became ‘known’ to the police and the magistracy your chances of avoiding heavy fine and/or prison were slim indeed.

In January 1889 Tottie was back at Marlborough Street but this time Mr Hannay was in the chair. He’d not encountered her before which gave her the opportunity to try and convince him that she was victim of a malicious prosecution and police brutality.

By this time the paper noted that she had acquired several new aliases, taking he rally past 20, and adding Blanche Herbert, Florence Larade, and Amy St Clair to those listed earlier. She was charged with being ‘drunk and riotous in Piccadilly’ on the New Year’s Eve. She was dressed smartly, if in a rather ‘gaudy dress’, suggesting that she looked like a ‘woman of the town’, a West End prostitute not one of her poorer East End sisters.

She’d been arrested at the Bath Hotel on Piccadilly after the proprietor had thrown her out for her disreputable behaviour. He testified that Tottie had been ‘running undressed all over the hotel’. When approached she locked herself in a room and refused to come out. The door was forced and she was dragged out and led away by the police. It seems she’d been using a room there to meet clients, on this occasion a West End gentleman (who didn’t appear in court).

She protested her innocence and complained about her treatment:

‘Even the chambermaids shed tears when they saw a lady like me being taken away by a rough policeman’, she told the magistrate. ‘I am truly innocent, although I have been here lots of times. Do give me a chance and I shall give up this unhappy life’,

adding

‘I will go into a servants’ home, a monastery, or even to America – anywhere in the world if you will let me go’.

She pleaded with the justice, imploring him that she was a ‘poor motherless orphan, a real young lady, whose mother lies in her grave’.

‘Do let me go, and you shall never see me again. Oh, do! do! do!’

She might have saved her breath because Mr Hannay fined her 40or another month inside.

It did no good.

In April that year the ‘irrepressible Tottie’ was back up before Mr Hannay. The court reporter noted that she’d been at Marlborough Street so many times that they had a special book just to record all her appearances.

Again the charge was disorderly behaviour, this time with drunkenness. She’d been arrested in St James’ Square after a large crowd had gathered to hear her tell a sad story about the death of her mistress. A policeman arrived having been alerted by a reports of a woman ‘misbehaving herself’.

She was dressed in her finery in court:  ‘a cream-coloured bodice trimmed with lace, a black shirt, and a large dress-improver’ (which was too large for the dock so became ‘much disarranged’). Over her gloves she wore five rings.

Again she claimed to be ‘a lady’ and complained about the rough way the policeman had treated her. She admitted to having a drink but only because she was so upset at the loss of a woman who had been ‘just like a mamma in every respect’. Hannay fined her 40with the option of prison if she couldn’t pay.

In June Tottie was back again. But now she gave her age as 22 (shaving a decade off if the other reports are accurate), and was calling herself Lily de Terry with an address in Grosvenor Square. PC Evans (316F) had arrested her on the 8th June 1889 after he found her  with a crowd around her protesting that someone had stolen her purse.

She was ‘very drunk’ and as he questioned her she tried to get away, saying ‘Oh, I have got it now, thank you’. When he stopped her she gave him a mouthful of verbal abuse and threw herself to the floor. He and another constable removed her and, the next day, she was brought up before Mr De Rutzen who questioned her. Tottie gave a very similar tale of being a lady, not being guilty, apologizing, and promising not to err in future. This magistrate took pity and gave her a small fine or a day in gaol by default . She tanked him with a ‘heaven bless you!’ and was removed.

By now she was so famous that the Illustrated Police News even included an artist’s impression of her arrest.

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In August the ‘stylishly-dressed’ and ‘so well known’ Tottie Fay was in court at Westminster accused, under the name of Mabel Granville (22) with using obscene language. PC Orebard (220B) was called to a pastrycook’s shop on Belgrave Street after she’d refused to pay for her purchases of ‘two pots of tea, four eggs, and a considerable quantity of bread’. She was drunk and her language was ‘shocking’. Mr D’Eyncourt ignored her (now well worn sob story) and fined her 14s or 14 days imprisonment.

I suspect she paid that fine because within a few weeks she was back in court, this time at Bow Street. A Mr Armstrong testified that Tottie had tried ‘to push into his house’ and was ‘otherwise molesting him’. Once again she was well dressed, with ‘a profusion of rings’, and presented herself in what one paper described as ‘her usual simpering semi-hysterical manner’. The court ordered her to find two sureties of £20 each for her ‘good behaviour for six months’. A tall order one imagines.

That was not the end of Tottie, in April 1890 she was back at Marlborough Street (as Dolly Leblane) where she was remanded on a charge of drunk and disorderly. Sergeant Brewer, the court’s gaoler, told Mr Newton that this was Tottie’s 31stappearance in court. She’d racked up well over 31 by May that year, appearing on a simailr charge having been arrested ‘amongst a lot of disorderly women’ in Piccadilly and telling the same story about her ‘mamma’ having ‘brought her out and lost her’. Sergeant Brewer not totaled her charges at 45 and gave Mr Newton (and us) some background to her story.

‘Her father was a costermonger’, the gaoler explained. ‘and for many years he resided in the Seven Dials, and was a member of the gang known as “The Forty Thieves,” ‘.

At this Tottie spoke up from the dock.

‘Oh, how can you say so? If I am a gay woman [i.e a prostitute] , you have no right to say that I am not a lady’.

She was remanded, as charges of theft were also alleged. He asked for a plain clothes officer to ‘see what he can find out’. On the 18 May she was up again charged with stealing clothes from a Mrs Green valued at £2. Her criminal career was catching up with her and Mr Newton was determined that ‘I must be stopped’. He committed her for a jury trial; things were getting ominous for Tottie.

On the 27 May 1890 Tottie (as Dolly Le Blanc) was tried at Clerkenwell Green in the London County Sessions on a charge of stealing with intent to defraud. She claimed to be an actress at the Alhambra Theatre but the manager appeared to deny this was the case. Her fantasies continued, and she wove an elaborate story of taking a train from Paris, having breakfast with her daughter, forgetting her luggage at Victoria and denying both charges of stealing clothes and food. Despite a ‘tearful appeal to the Court’ the jury convicted her and she was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

That ought to have been the end of it but she appears again, several times in 1891 (in April at Marlborough Street for example, charged with fraud and theft). This time a pen portrait of Tootie by the artists ‘P.I.P’  was reproduced in the Illustrated Police News alongside a lengthy account of her life and crimes. In May she was on trial for obtaining goods by false pretenses and sentenced to 12 months. She gave her name as Dorothy Le Blanc and the court recorded her age as 42. The papers referred to its as her ‘temporary retirement’.

In September, while the real Tottie Fay languished in prison a stage comedy focused on a police court included her as a ‘notorious’ character, ‘creating hearty laughter and applause’. I’m not sure Tottie would have liked that. She might have enjoyed the attention but I think she really did see herself as a victim of a hard life and a society which didn’t support her. She had a great sense of self-respect despite her drinking, evidenced by her desire always to look as glamorous as she could. As she went from being a high-class prostitute to a drunk reduced to stealing small amounts of food and drink, she also fell foul of the  criminal justice system.

1891 wasn’t the last time Tottie Fay appeared in court but, for now, it is where I am going to leave her. Not perhaps the ‘wickedest women’ in London but perhaps one of the most colourful.

It is hard not to like her.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 7 March, 1887; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 12 March, 1887; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday 2 January 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 9 1889; Illustrated Police News, 22 June 1889; Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 20 August 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 August 1889; Morning Post, 3 September 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 September 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 26 1890; Cornishman, 1 May 1890; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 11 May 1890; Sheffield Evening Telegraph19 May 1890; Morning Post, 28 May 1890; The Standard, 11 April 1891; Illustrated Police News, 25 April 1891; Daily News, 7 May 1891; The Vaudeville, 12 September 1891.

A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88