Heartache for one couple as their baby boy disappears with his nurse

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The state of mind of George Augustus Mahon can only be guessed at when he turned up at Bow Street Police court to seek the help of the magistrate. His appearance there is a reminder that not everyone that came to court was brought by the police or a summons. Mahon and his wife had suffered a terrible shock and they turned to the magistrate as the most obvious person to advise and assist them.

Mahon was a commercial clerk, an upright member of the middle class, who lived at 15 Serle Street in Lincoln’s Inn, in London’s legal quarter. Two months earlier the Mahons had employed a new servant, Kate Curly, a steady sober woman of 26 years of age and she had served them well thus far. Families like theirs would probably only have afforded one or two domestics but Kate was hired as a nurse to look after their infant son, who was just a few months old.

On Monday 9 May 1870 Kate requested permission leave to visit her mother who lived locally.  She wanted to show her the baby she said and Mr Mahon granted her request. He had no doubts about Kate as she her behaviour and work had been exemplary up to then. However, when it got to 4 o’clock and Kate had not returned home Mrs Mahon began to get concerned. 5 o’clock came and went and still there was no sign of the servant. In the evening, when George returned from his office he went in search of her.

Mahon visited Kate parents and they told him that she had left their house around 7 or 8 in the evening that they had walked with her as far as the Gray’s Inn Road where they had said their goodbyes. No one had seen Kate or the baby boy since. If they were telling the truth then the servant and the child had disappeared close to Holborn. Had something happened or had Kate abducted the baby boy?

The clerk went to the police and detective sergeant Kerly of E Division sent a description to every police station and had dispatched men to enquire at the local hospitals to see him Kate had met with an accident. The chief clerk at Bow Street asked the sergeant if he had placed a notice in the Police Gazette. He hadn’t but he would consider it. Sir Thomas Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, suggested that the following description of Kate and the child be placed in all the newspapers:

The child is described to have been dressed in long clothes, and a white cloak trimmed with blue silk. The nurse [Kate Curly], was 26 years of age, and about five feet three inches in height, with dark complexion and black hair. She wore a black and white cotton dress, black cloth jacket, and black lace bonnet with white flowers’.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported this as ‘another case of child stealing suggesting that there had been a spate of abductions in the capital, but then it was a more sensational publication that the sober Morning Post.  I wish I could say what happened to the Mahon’s baby and their nurse but I haven’t managed to find anything that follows up on this story. I hope they both turned up or were found, perhaps having been involved in some minor accident as the police suspected. If not one can only imagine the heartache of the Mahon’s, who entrusted their child to someone they’d only know a matter of months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1870; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 15, 1870]

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

‘I believe this to be an act of extortion’: a cab driver and his passenger clash at the Guildhall.

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So, Cabbies, how long would you wait for a fare to come back and pay you?

John White drove a hansom cab in 1856 (cab no. 3,264) and he had a fairly regular customer in Mr Kelly, a Holborn surgeon. It was often the case that the medical man asked White to wait for him, usually for a few minutes but on one occasion for up to an hour.

So when he’d ferried the doctor to his destination from his Fetter Lane residence and been left waiting again, White did so. He’d dropped his passenger off at 2.45 in Blackfriars but after the man had ran off he saw nothing of him. The cabbie waited; an hour passed, then another and it was only when the clock sounded nine in the evening that White gave up and moved off.

He’d waited over six hours to get his payment and decided to summon the surgeon to court to extract the fare plus the waiting time, which he put at 12and sixpence.

The case came up before Alderman Carter at the Guildhall Police court in the City. White made his case and the magistrate questioned him. Why had he waited so long, he wanted to know, did he know the gentleman well?

Yes, I know him well. I have taken him twenty times before. I waited, thinking he would come back, but, finding he did not come, I sent  a man to his house to see if it were right to wait any longer’.

Next he turned to Kelly to see whether he could offer any explanation for the accusation that he’d run off without paying what he owed. He could:

I certainly did run away when I got out of the cab’, he admitted, presumably because he was racing to a medical emergency. ‘but before doing so, I put my hand through the door at the top of the cab, and placed a shilling on the roof for the complainant’s fare’.

So he had paid, he insisted, but had White seen him do so, or collected the money? Seemingly not. The alderman wondered if the coin had rolled off. The doctor was adamant that the cab driver would have noticed however: ‘he could see my hand’, he declared and suggested White was try to get more money out of him than was reasonable.

I believe this to be an act of extortion’, he said, ‘and therefore it is I defend it at great inconvenience to myself’.

However, he admitted that he’d not seen the cabbie take the shilling so could not be sure that he had, in reality, paid him.

Alderman Carter decided on a compromise. He told White that while waiting for so long was ‘ridiculous’, he might have been justified in waiting two hours and so he was entitled to claim the fare for that, which was 4s. In addition he could have his fare (sixpence) and costs of 2for the summons.

The surgeon seemed satisfied with this and paid immediately, donating a further 10sto the Poor Box. What White thought of it is not recorded but I doubt he’d be driving the good doctor around again anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, September 17, 1856]

A brothel madam falls foul of the law

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In Victorian London overcrowding was common and tensions often flared between occupants of lodging houses and those that owned them. Disputes over non payment of rent were frequent and overcrowding and the demand for somewhere to sleep meant that landlords were able to kick out their tenants with relative ease. If they didn’t immediately evict those who were behind with the rent it was rarely out of any consideration for their welfare. More likely they were aware that if someone owed several weeks’ rent then evicting them was hardly likely to get the debt settled.

One option was to distrain their goods against the value of the debt. This was what happened to a young woman that lived in a house owned by Mary Lawson near the Gray’s Inn Road.

Mary’s unnamed tenant owed her the small sum of 2s 6d, or about £5 today. It wouldn’t buy you that much and helps illustrate how cheap the lodgings Mary ran were. Was this a week’s money, a month’s, we don’t know. What we do know is that the girl didn’t have the money to pay it and so Mary Lawson employed a broker named Chase (from nearby Saffron Hill) to seize her possessions.

The girl was obviously poor but she also had a child to support and so ‘was driven to wander about in great want’, until her former neighbours undertook to support her. The property she lived in at George Court,  Gray’s Inn Lane was home to many other people. Nothing remains of this property today and the space is occupied by Fox Court a modern office building which is home, a little ironically perhaps, to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Social Security and Child Support).

In 1845 George Court was a brothel, and a large one. It had ‘accommodation for 46 girls’ in no less than seven houses, all of them owned by Mary Lawson. This ‘elderly woman’ was a madam on a large scale. The girl who she was in dispute with was a prostitute; we know this because when she came to the Clerkenwell Police Court to complain that Lawson had assaulted her she was described as ‘unfortunate’, Victorian code for a sex worker.

When Mary had heard how the other residents had clubbed together to help the girl she went into a rage, shouting at them and threatening to evict them all or seize their property. She couldn’t have her authority undermined in so direct a manner.

In court the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, saw an angle to challenge both Mary and her practice of extorting money with menaces. He called the broker over and told him, as one lawyer to another, ‘that no money can be due arising out of such places of immorality’. In short, Mary Lawson couldn’t charge her residents rent or distrain their goods for non payment because she was in effect living off their immoral earrings. He said he would inform the parish authorities (at St Andrew’s, Holborn) and have them put ‘down the nuisance’.

He added that it had already been allowed to be ‘carried on for too long a period, to the annoyance of the more peaceable and respectable inhabitants in the vicinity, as disturbances and robberies were the constant result of the nuisance, which had frequently been complained of’.

As for Mary Lawson, he took note of her relative wealth and how she had come by it and fined her the princely sum of 50s for the assault plus costs, and sent her on her way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, July 20, 1845]

‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ when the law is involved.

Calais circa 1830 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Calais, c.1830 by J.M. Turner

Towards the end of January 1830 a flustered man rushed into the Bow Street Police Court in some distress. He gained an audience with the sitting magistrate and told him his story.

The man (a widower who was not named in the press report) had traveled from Calais where he ran a ‘respectable English Tavern’. His main source of help was his 17 year-old daughter and a  couple of other servants, one of which was a young man ‘of rather low connexions and habits’.

An ‘intimacy’ had developed between the innkeeper’s daughter and the serving lad which was becoming something of a concern to her father. I imagine he expressed this on several occasions and the young lovers must have realised there was little hope of them being allowed to continue their fledgling relationship.

So they did what all romantic early nineteenth-century couples did, they decided to elope.

The young man forged a draft for money and secured £80 from a local tradesman the landlord dealt with regularly; the girl squirrelled away all of the day’s takings. They made their escape late one Sunday night, chartering a small boat from Calais harbour to England. They arrived in Dover and headed for London. When he discovered them gone the father set off in hot pursuit.

When he had finished telling his tale at Bow Street the principal officer (or ‘Runner’ as we more commonly term the men that served the Bow Street court) set off to find them. J.J. Smith tracked them down to a lodging house in Holborn where he secured the girl and told the lad he was free to go, ‘the sole object being to recover [the landlord’s] daughter’.

But the young beau was not so easily put off. He followed Smith and the girl back to Bow Street and even into the building. Here he was ‘very unceremoniously ejected’ and warned to stay away unless he fancied prison and a turn on the treadmill. Still he lingered, seeing the father and daughter climb into the carriage that would take them back to Dover and thence to France. As the coach pulled away ‘the “lovers” were observed to exchange parting signals’.

There really is a story to be written here, for anyone out there with more imagination than me.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 30, 1830]

Literally scraping the barrel in a Fetter Lane boozer

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The Swan & Sugar Loaf pub in Holborn, c.1919

Joseph Howitt, the landlord of the Swan and Sugarloaf pub in Fetter Lane found himself in front of an unforgiving magistrate at Bow Street in December 1878. Howitt was accused, by  officers from the Inland Revenue, of adulterating his beer with cheap sugar.

The officers had taken a sample of Howitt’s beer and tasted it from the tap. They had also searched his cellar and found plenty of incriminating evidence. They had had their suspicions verified by ‘an analytics chemist’, Mr G. N. Stoker.

What Howitt had done was to add ‘put’ sugar to his beer in the cask. This was a ‘coarse brown sugar, the refuse or scraping of barrels, which was sold at cheap rate’. Officials found several bags of the sugar and 43 empty ones.

The sugar made beer seem stronger than it was and imparted a different (and not unpleasant) taste. One of the IR officers said that it gave the beer a ‘crispness’ that ‘a finer sugar, sometimes used by brewers, failed to accomplish’. It was also said to give the beer a ‘fictitious strength’, which again may have made it more appealing to Howitt’s customers.

Perhaps because it was no threat to health and may even have improved the drinking the officer had told Howitt that while he intended to bring a prosecution it was not a very serious offence and he should appeal any fine.

Unfortunately for the publican the justice, Sir  James Ingram, was either in a bad mood that day or held publicans in low esteem. He said he was of the belief that the defendant had been attempting to fortify his beer (which was a more serious offence, carrying a maximum fine of £200). Howitt escaped the maximum fine but still received a hefty fine of £50, hardly welcome a week before Christmas.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 20, 1878]

NB: The Swan & Sugar Loaf in Holborn is listed as early at 1800 and survived until 1941 when it was destroyed by the luftwaffe.  Sir James Ingram (1847-1924) trained at the bar and went on to be a Liberal MP. He was managing director of the Illustrated London News, taking over when his father and brother died in 1860 and serving until 1900.

A swindling ‘fellow with mustachios’

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Henry Seplater, described as a ‘tall young fellow, with mustachios, ..having all the appearance of a foreign swindler’, was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth.The charge was obtaining watches (8 in total) from a manufacturer in Holborn.

Lucien Marchard was a watchmaker who had a business at 1-2 Red Lion Street in central London. On the 12 October 1852 Seplater had entered his shop and declared that he was acting for a Mr Cooke who wished to buy some watches.

The watchmaker then allowed him take away 8 time pieces, one of gold and the others silver. He said he would return on the next with the money for those his client wished to keep and return those he had no use for.

The following day he was back – not with money, but with three of the silver watches which he exchanged for ‘three of a better description’. Then he vanished and Marchard heard nothing from him for several days. After some time the watchmaker received a note from the young man saying that he was being prosecuted at the Court of Exchequer for selling watches without a license. The only way he could ensure that Marchard got his money was if he was prepared to wait for two months.

Marchard was not convinced and obtained a summons against Seplater. On arrest several duplicates (pawn tickets) were found on him relating to the watches and other items. He was presented at Lambeth for the justice to consider the case. The magistrate, Mr Elliott chose not to accept the defence’s argument that this was simply a matter of ‘credit and account’, to him it seemed to have more to do with larceny and fraud.

Seplater was remanded in custody for further examination and the reporter suggested that other ‘cases of swindling’ were expected ‘to be brought against him’.

[from The Morning Post,  Saturday, November 13, 1852]