Two young chaps ‘go snowing’ in Southwark.

July - Dog Days

One of my favorite possessions is a 1961 edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) that has the wonderful subtitle:

 Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals  Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Trade, The White Slave Traffic,  and Spivs.

It catalogues both British and American slang terms for all sorts of criminal activities from an A C coat (one that has many pockets to hide stuff in) to ‘zombie’ (a less than affectionate term for police women, which arose in the 1950s).

One phrase I’ve always liked is ‘going snowing’, which refers to the deliberate theft of linen from a washing line. In December 1870 that is what brought two teenagers before the magistrate at Southwark Police court, who sentenced them spend Christmas and the New Year behind bars.

PC George Stent (186M) was on duty in Rockingham Street at about 10 in the evening of the 14 December when he heard a noise. It seemed to have come from an entrance which led to Messrs. Ned and Hunter’s workshop so the alert constable went off to investigate.  As he walked through the gateway he saw a wagon and a young lad balancing himself of the wheel. Underneath he noticed another boy who was now trying to hide.

The bobby tugged the lad down and hauled the other one from under the vehicle. There had been a spate of robberies in the vicinity and he suspected he might have discovered the cause. A quick look under the wagon revealed a stash of linen that the lads had been stowing away having filched it from a nearby garden.

Using the powers he had under the Vagrancy Act (1824) he arrested them both on suspicion and took them into custody to be questioned further.  While the boys were locked up at the police station he returned to the scene with a pair of their boots and compared it to footprints in the garden where washing had been drying. They fitted exactly and the two were formally charged with theft.

Their final examination before the courts took place on the 23 December 1870 and Mr Partridge (the ‘beak’) decided against letting them take their chances with a jury. He used the vagrancy act to send John Turner and John Smith (both lads of 17 years) to prison with hard labour for three months.

Happy Christmas!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 24 December, 1870]

A child has a narrow escape as a disenchanted teenager poisons her lunch

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In December 1895 Edith Fenn appeared before Mr Lane at the West London Police court. Edith was just 15 years old and worked as a kitchen maid at 21 Courtfield Gardens, Earl’s Court. She had been asked to take food up to the youngest member of the household, Gwendolin Morris who was just 3 and a half years of age.

As she carried a tray with a bowl of cooked mincemeat along the landing Elizabeth Smart, a housemaid cleaning upstairs, stopped her. Elizabeth  could smell something bad, like ammonia, asked Edith what is was. The kitchen servant nodded to the jug of milk standing on a slate on the landing: ‘Perhaps it is in the milk’, she suggested, and carried on to the nursery.

The milk was there because Edith had brought it up earlier (as was her duty) and the little girl had rejected it. When the child tried it she spat it out complaining that it tasted ‘nasty’ and her nurse, Florence Powell agreed. Since the milk was slightly off the nurse decided to put it outside.

Now Edith had arrived in the nursery with Gwendolin’s meal of minced meat and potatoes. Immediately Powell recognized the smell of ammonia, just as Elizabeth Smart had. Edith set the tray down on a side table and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The nurse sniffed the meat and found it was certainly the source of the ammonia smell and handed it to the housemaid to take back to Mrs Longhurst, the cook.

What was going on? Had the cook inadvertently added ammonia to the baby’s dinner or was something more sinister at work?

Once the cook had seen what had happened she called for her mistress, and Mrs Louise Morris, the wife of an army officer, summoned a doctor. He examined both the milk and the minced meat and found that both were poisoned. The meat contained ammonia and the meat had traces of prussic acid, a cleaning agent used on gold lace. Dr Wyckham gave the little girl some ether as an antidote and she was later said to be recovering well in hospital.

A police investigation was soon underway and suspicion fell on Edith who had only been with the Morris family for six weeks. A bottle labeled ‘poison’ was found in the dustbin and in a subsequent trial at Old Bailey Edith admitted throwing it away after poisoning the girl’s milk and food.

Why had she done so, a nurse at the hospital wanted to know? All Edith would say was that she didn’t like taking the girl’s food up to her. At the police station she seemed much more anxious that her mother would find out what she had done. In the end she was charged with a form of wounding (‘Unlawfully administering a certain poison to Gwendolin Sutherland Morris with intent to injure and annoy her’) and, thankfully, no real harm was done to the child.

It was the end of Edith’s career as a domestic however. The jury recommended her to mercy on account of her age and the fact that two people stepped up to say that she had a previously unblemished good character. The judge sent her to prison for four months with hard labour. If she didn’t enjoy the tiresome trudge up and down stairs with a tray of food she was hardly going to prefer the treadmill and the crank and a diet of thin gruel.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, 18 December, 1895]

‘There’s no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’: Fenians, Police and the ‘Manchester Outrage’.

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In the 1850s transportation to Australia slowly declined before being abandoned in the 1860s. Transportation, which had been the most effective alternative to hanging for the Georgians, was now itself replaced by incarceration at home. In 1865 the Prisons Act consolidated control of prisons under a government agency (rather than being left to local control) and penal servitude replaced transportation as the most serious of non-capital punishments.

One of the innovations of the colonial transportation system had been the mark system. This allowed convicts to earn points for good behaviour; points that might lead to better conditions, food and, ultimately, early release. The principle was sound: convicts would be easier to control if they understood that it was in their interest to get their heads down, accept their punishment and strive to win their freedom. The ultimate goal was a ticket-of-leave, which allowed convicts to live as free men within the colony, so long as they did not offend again.

The ticket-of-leave system (which in modern terms is parole) was exported back to England and applied to criminals locked up in the country’s various gaols. Here too offenders could earn the points that would enable them to be released on license before the end of their sentences. There were conditions of course, and these were easily broken, at which point a convict might find himself up before a magistrate and, ultimately, back in prison.

In May 1867 John Jones had been released on a ticket-of-leave and came back to his friends and family in London. The license required that he report to the police with 48 hours of being released and that he carried his ticket-of-leave on him at all times. Moreover, every moth Jones was required to report in to his nearest police station and confirm his address. He was then expected always to sleep at this address, and no other. The police were supposed to able to find him if they needed to. If he moved home Jones had 48 hours to inform the local police or he would be in breech of the terms of his release.

This close relationship with the local police must have made it pretty difficult for a convicted criminal to return to normal life. The prison stamp would have been on Jones following his release: the deathly pallor, close cropped hair, poor constitution, and sunken eyes (all products of the ‘hard labour, hard bed, hard fare’ policies of the prison system under Edmund Du Cane) would have marked him out as an ex-con. With little opportunity to rejoin ‘straight’ society Jones would naturally have gravitated back to the ‘criminal class’ that Mayhew and Binney had described in their writings.

In late November 1867 PC Harry Shaw (77G) saw Jones in Golden Lane, Clerkenwell. Jones was with a group of men the officer knew to be convicted thieves and he understood that he had gone there to express his sympathy ‘with the relatives of three men who had been hanged at Manchester on the previous day’.

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This was a infamous case, that of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brian were Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they had been part of crowd of over 30 who had attacked a police van carrying fellow Fenians to gaol. In the attempt to release their prisoners a policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was killed.

Five men were convicted of Brett’s murder but two had their sentences overturned. Allen, Larkein and O’Brian were not so fortunate and were ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd above Salford Gaol on 23 November 1867. This was one of the very last public hangings to take place in England. Karl Marx remarked that the hangings served the cause of Irish nationalism better than many an act of terrorism had because it gave them martyrs to act as inspiration for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Naturally anyone celebrating those that had killed a police officer was unlikely to earn much sympathy from a serving constable. John Jones had joined a procession of men and women who marched from Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park and PC Shaw followed, watching them. As they ‘dodged’ in and out of the crowd the constable suspected they were trying to pick pockets but he had no definite proof, just suspicion.  In the end he collared Jones and cautioned him, demanding to see his ticket-of-leave. Since he didn’t have it on him, Jones was told he must appear at Clerkenwell Police court to explain himself.

In early December, looking ‘rough’ John Jones presented himself before the sitting justice. He said little, saying ‘it was no use for him to speak, as there was no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’. The police, added, ‘had entered into a conspiracy to injure him, and he could do nothing’. The magistrate asked to see his license but he didn’t have it on him so he was remanded in custody so that one of his friends could fetch it.

Within days Clerkenwell itself experienced the full force of Fenian terror as conspirators attempted to break their fellow nationalists out of prison by blowing open the gate.  On 13 December 12 people were killed and over a hundred were injured in what The Timesdescribed as ‘a crime of unexampled atrocity’. Eight men were charged but two gave Queen’s evidence against the others. Two more were acquitted by the Grand jury and , in the end, only Michael Barrett was held responsible for the bomb. On the 26 May 1868 Barrett earned the dubious honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in England as William Calcraft ‘dropped’ him outside Newgate Gaol.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 11 December, 1867]

‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.

We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London.   In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.

The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).

Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.

Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.

More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10was not inconsiderable.

Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]

A fruity case: a man sacrifices his character for ‘a trumpery consideration’.

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Mr Adams had employed George Groves in his warehouse for 14 years. In that time the man had been a model employee, never late, never any trouble, always carrying out his work loading and unloading fruit, efficiently and without any hint of dishonesty. Adams’ wholesale fruiterers operated from premises in Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire had started over 200 years earlier) and supplied all manner of produce to the markets, shops and restaurants of the capital.

Groves was paid reasonable well: he earned 4a day basic, but could make this up to 6s with overtime. As a senior member of staff he had the owner’s trust and the ‘greatest confidence was placed in him’. In short George Groves was just the sort of chap every small businessman wanted: honest, reliable and loyal.

So it must have come as a tremendous shock and personal betrayal to find that his man had stolen from him. It must have been tempting when working with easily disposable items such as apples, oranges and the occasional exotic pineapple, for a worker to snaffle something into a pocket to take home for the wife and kids, or indeed to munch themselves. But Groves had filched 5lbs of grapes which he had hidden (not very well it turned out) ‘about his person’.

He was walking home from work on Friday night when something about his appearance or movements alerted the suspicions of a City police constable  on Fish Street Hill. The officer stopped him and searched him, finding the grapes. He marched him back to Pudding Lane where the foreman identified the fruit as being missing. Groves was arrested and held overnight in the cells before being taken before the Lord Mayor in the morning.

At Mansion House Groves admitted his crime but could provide no explanation for it. The grapes sold at retail for 6d per pound (making them about £1.50 per pound in today’s money) but he reckoned he’d have only realised 1d so it was hardly worth his while). It was so out of character and the Lord Mayor was amazed that a man would ‘sacrifice [his] character for such a trumpery consideration’. The crime was theft but the justice was feeling charitable on the grounds of his previous good conduct. He decided to convict him of unlawful possession, which was a lesser offence and carried a punishment of seven day’s hard labour.

If Mr Adams (as was likely) refused to take him back afterwards then the period of imprisonment was the least of his troubles. For a man in his 30s or 40s, most probably with a family, to find himself unemployed a month before Christmas with little or no chance now of getting a letter of recommendation finding such well paid work would be difficult. If he was lucky he’d find casual labour, if not he was staring at the prospect of the workhouse.

All for what, a large bunch of grapes?

[from The Morning Post, 24 November, 1873]

It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

Curtain Road, from the Corner of Great Eastern Street

Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]