‘I trusted her and she has robbed me over and over again’; one father’s lament over a daughter gone astray.

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If you follow this blog closely you may have noticed that I live quite close to the former Colney Hatch Asylum. Once the largest ‘lunatic’ asylum in Europe, it is now a private residential development with an onsite gym run by the Nuffield Health organization. The asylum was built in 1851 and the area I now live in grew up around it. Many of the occupants of houses in my street and those around it either worked in the asylum or its grounds, or were associated in some way with it.

In 1937 Colney Hatch asylum became plain Friern mental hospital (locals keen to lose the association with mental illness that the institution’s presence had implanted). A couple of decades later it was renamed Friern Hospital and in 1993 it closed its doors for good, and the developers moved in.

In 1865 the asylum was ‘home’ to the wife of John Nicholls, a Bromley based boilermaker. While his wife was confined in Colney Hatch John had to provide 4a week for her maintenance and continue to support their family. The couple had four children, and he looked to the eldest girl, Ann (17) to look after the younger ones and keep the home while he went out to work.

Unfortunately Ann didn’t seem inclined to accept her fate as a ‘housewife’ or unpaid domestic; like so many teenagers she craved adventure and independence.   And this got her into trouble with her father and eventually led to an appearance at the Thames Police court.

On 29 March 1865 a reluctant John Nicholls brought charges of theft against his daughter Mary Ann before Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate. He explained that she had been stealing from him for ages and despite his efforts to stop her, and her promises to reform, nothing had changed in the last few weeks.

Mr Paget asked him if he seriously wanted to prosecute his own child. ‘Would you not save her from a prison’, he demanded. John Nicholls answered that ‘she had robbed him so often that his complete ruin would result if he passed over her delinquencies any longer’.

‘I trusted her to look after my home and property, and she has robbed me over and over again and pawned my things’, the unhappy father told the justice.

‘I cannot keep a thing in place’, he continued. ‘She goes out when she likes and comes in when she likes. She went out last night and came in at half-past 1 o’clock this morning. I don’t know where she goes to or what company she keeps’.

On one occasion she took all his weekly earnings and spent it. The family had no fuel or food as a result. He showed the magistrate a series of pawn tickets as proof of his daughter’s offending. He gave her money he said, but she took everything else and he was now at his wits end, clearly struggling to cope with the loss of his wife.

‘I have lost her dear mother, and she has neglected me and the house, and I am afraid she is going to ruin fast’, adding: ‘What am I going to do, sir?”

Mr Paget was sympathetic. It was a sad case he said and he would remand Mary Ann for a week in the hopes it brought her to her senses.

I suspect that week in custody was enough to persuade Mary Ann that her father was serious about stopping her from descending into ‘ruin’. Whether it worked or not is impossible to discover. Mary Ann is not an uncommon name in the 1800s and there are several women of that name (though not that age) in the records held within the Digital Panopticon.

We might be able to find Mrs Nicholls in the records of Colney Hatch (which are held by the London Metropolitan Archives) and discover if she ever got out and went home to John and her children. It is a terribly sad story, as many of those I write about were. Support simply did not exist  in the 1800s for working class families which suffered as John Nicholls’ had. Even today mental illness can devastate families and seriously impact the lives of vulnerable young people like Mary Ann.

Who knows what she had seen  and heard as her mother deteriorated and was taken away to be effectively imprisoned behind the walls of a Victorian asylum. How can we begin to understand what effect it had on her own mental health and her relationship with her father and siblings?

Today I suspect we would be able to offer some professional help both to John and Mary Ann but in 1865 that help simply didn’t exist.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday 30 March 1865]

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

Teenagers in church, but not for the sake of their souls

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Police constable William Gearing (86B) was on his beat in Horseferry Road when he noticed two things that were suspicious. First, a lamp in the street had been extinguished, something he associated with criminals operating under cover of darkness.

The second was that there was a light flickering in the nearby Roman Catholic chapel. Given that it was 11.45 at night he assumed that the priest was not taking a late service or communion and decided to investigate.

The gate of the chapel was open but when he tried the door itself it was locked. He somehow found the keys and entered the building. Two men were in the chapel and they panicked, rushing up into the gallery to hide. PC Gearing went outside to call for help and as soon as another officer arrived they managed to secure the two intruders.

Once the pair –Joseph Isaacs and John Mason – had been locked up back at the nearest police station house, PC Gearing returned to the chapel to investigate. There he found evidence that the men had been trying to rob the place: several drawers were opened and a cupboard in the sacristy had been forced. He also found some of the church’s silver placed wrapped up in a large handkerchief ready to be taken away. The final clue was a portion of recently lighted candle and some false keys, both essential ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth-century burglar.

He carried on his enquires and discovered that the chapel had been securely locked the evening before so the men had to have picked the lock (or used their false keys) to enter. In court at Westminster one of the duo, Isaacs, said they’d found the keys in the sacristy cupboard but couldn’t account for why they were in the chapel in the first place. Mason, probably wisely, said nothing at all.

Mr Paynter wanted to know if the men had previous form for burglary. The police told him that Isaacs had served time for highway robbery while Mason had been imprisoned for three months under a different name, for theft. The magistrate duly committed them to take their chances with an Old Bailey jury.

On the 24 November 1856, less than a week after the Westminster hearing, the pair appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to simple larceny, a lesser offence than breaking and entering. They were only youngsters, both just 17 years of age. Isaacs got four years, his companion 12 months.

According to the Digital Panopticon neither lad repeated their offences (or at least were not recorded as being caught for anything after 1856). Joseph lived until he was 63, dying in 1902. John Mason was not so fortunate, he died in 1870, at the young age of 31. He was buried in St Pancras.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 19, 1856]

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’: youthful pranks in Rosemary Lane

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Rosemary Lane had a reputation for criminality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The street was one of several in Whitechapel where the police were cautious about patrolling at night and where they would often turn when they needed to locate the ‘usual suspects’ for a bit of local thievery.

In 1847 PC H180 was passing nearby when he heard a terrible noise emanating from the lane and decided to investigate. He soon found almost two dozen young boys gathered together as some sort of impromptu orchestra, making an awful racket.  Some were banging pots and pans, others clashing knives and cleavers together; even bones were being used to pound out a rhythm on kettles and saucepans.

The policeman waded into this row and tried to get the lads to disperse. The boys were in high spirits and in no mood to listen. That day there had been a wedding – a Jewish marine store dealer, unpopular in the neighbourhood had married, and the reaction of the boys might have been some sort of youthful communal protest.

From the early modern period right up to the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for communities to express their displeasure or antipathy towards those they disliked or disapproved of by way of a charivari or skimmington. This was an old folk custom involving a mock parade with discordant (or ‘rough’) music.

As the policeman tried to stop the noise and make the crowd of boys go to their homes several of them turned on him and attacked him. One in particular hit him over the head with a kettle, knocking his hat into the gutter (before 1864 the police wore tall top hats, not helmets like they do today). He grabbed the boy and took him into custody, the others ran away.

The next day the child was brought before Mr Yardley at the Thames Police court charged with assaulting a policeman. Isaac Gardiner was so small his face could hardly be seen as he stood in the dock. When the magistrate was told that the boy had uttered the words ‘take that blue bottle!’ as he aimed a blow at the constable there was laughter in court. Isaac denied the charge, claiming some other boy was to blame.

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’, he said; ‘How could I reach up to a tall policeman’s head?’

It was a fair comment even if it was probably untrue. Mr Yardley was in no mood to have his court turned into a comic music hall act however, nor was he about to condone bad behavior by street urchins like Isaac. He told the prisoner that ‘boys must be taught to conduct themselves properly’. Isaac would be fined 5s and, since he had no money to pay, he’d go to prison for three days.

The poor lad was led away whimpering that it was unfair and he ‘didn’t see much harm in having a lark on a weddin’-day’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 20, 1847]

Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

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Imagine the scene if you can. You are on board a Thames steamer heading towards Battersea Bridge, it is nighttime, on a Sunday, the ship is packed and it is quite dark on the river. Suddenly the boat veers off course and starts to head directly towards the piles of the new bridge, sticking up out of the murky waters of London’s river. As the crew tries to slow the boat or alter its course the passengers panic, screams are heard, and everyone rushes about blindly.

Inevitably the steamer slams into the bridge but fortunately only sustains relatively minor damage. No one is badly hurt and the ship stays afloat. This is no repeat of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 when 650 people lost their lives. However, that was only 10 years previously and very many of those onboard would have remembered that awful event.

Having secured the ship and its passengers the crew’s next thought was to find out what happened. It quickly became clear that the boat had been sabotaged. The lock pin of the rudder had been unscrewed and removed, causing the vessel to become steer less. Suspicion fell on a group of young men who had been rowdy all evening, pushing and shoving people and generally acting in an anti-social manner as gangs of ‘roughs’ did in the 1880s.

One youth was blamed and brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. Remanded and then brought up on Monday 3 September 1888 Sidney Froud, an 18 year-old grocer’s assistant, was accused of ‘maliciously and wantonly interfering with the steering gear’ of the Bridegroom, a Kew steamer. He was further accused of endangering life and causing £30 worth of damage (around £2,500 in today’s money).

The prosecution was brought by the Victoria Steamboat Association (VSA) who were represented by a barrister, Mr Beard. He asked that the case be dealt with under section 36 of the Merchant Shipping Act, where a fine of up to £20 was the penalty. Several members of the crew gave evidence describing the lads as ‘full of mischief’ and testifying to hearing the defendant laugh as the pin was removed.

Froud did not deny his action but his defense brief claimed he had not acted maliciously, saying he had no idea that the consequences would be so severe. His conduct was ‘stupid’ but the ship’s company was negligent in allowing the youths to get so close to such an important part of the ship’s steering mechanism.

Mr D’Eyncourt, presiding, rejected any negligence on the part of the crew or the VSA and found against the lad. The only thing to be considered was his punishment. Mr Dutton for the defense, said he was only being paid 5sa week at the grocers so couldn’t possibly afford a huge fine like £20. His friends were ‘very respectable’ and several persons would testify to his good character. Perhaps a sound thrashing would have sufficed if he was younger he added, but at 18 he was past that.

Mr D’Enycourt listened to all of this carefully and in the end awarded the company 23scosts and fined Froud a further 50s. In total that amounted to almost 15 weeks’ wages for the grocer’s boy, if indeed he kept his job after such a public display of recklessness. I suspect he did because the fine was paid up on the day and he was released to his friends. He was lucky, as were the 100 or more souls that his stupidity had endangered the lives of.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 04, 1888]

A boy steals a horse and cart as Whitechapel wakes up to news of a serial killer in its midst

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On Saturday 1 September 1888 the East End was digesting the news that a woman’s dead and mutilated body had been discovered in the early hours of the previous morning. At some point around 3am an unknown killer had attacked and murdered Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols as she walked near the board school in Buck’s Row (now renamed as Durward Street). No one had heard anything despite several people living nearby and there being workmen in the knackers’ yard around the corner.

Polly was the first of the ‘canonical five’ female victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ and her death sparked the attention of the world’s press to cover what became known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Polly was a desperately poor woman who lived a hand-by-mouth existence, supporting herself by prostitution when she had no other options. She wasn’t alone in being poor, Whitechapel was among the poorest quarters of Victoria’s empire.

Despite the murder in Buck’s Row life went on as normal in the capital police courts and reading the reports from these you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward had happened that week. On the Saturday The Morning Post reported goings on at the Thames Police court, the magistrates’ court that covered part of the East End of London (Worship Street being the other).

There an eleven-year old boy was charged with stealing a horse and cart from a carman while he was delivery goods in Lower East Smithfield. The boy had climbed into the cart and was driving it along Worship Street when he was stopped by PC William Thames (421G). When he asked him what he was doing with a cart the lad replied:

‘I am going to take it home. I have been with the carman to take some goods to Wood-green but the carman got drunk and had to go home by train’.

Later he claimed that the carman had fallen out of the cart. It was a lite and in court it was revealed that this was the firth time young John Coulson had been found in possession of someone else’s vehicle. Given that he was so young this was quite an amazing record and the magistrate  Mr Lushington told his mother that she would be best advised to get her son into an industrial school.

Lushington then had more serious case to deal with. Nathanial Rose was charged with violently assaulting a police officer. PC William Gunther (133H) had been called to attend to an incident on Betts Street, near Cable Street by several local tradesmen. A group of local ‘roughs’ were terrorizing passers-by; pushing them off the street, verbally abusing them, and generally behaving in an anti-social manner. When the policeman reached the scene there were about 10 lads gathered there and he told them all to go home.

He then strolled off thinking his work was done. It wasn’t. Within minutes they jumped him. He was jostled by several lads before Rose hit him on the side of te head with a bottle, cutting his eye. As he recovered they ran off.

PC Gunther knew who the culprit was and once he’d been patched up went round to Rose’s lodgings and arrested him. Mr Lushington sent him to prison for 10 weeks with hard labour.

Over the next three months or more the police of Whitechapel and the East End were kept very busy as a manhunt developed in response to Polly’s killing and the subsequent murders of at least four more poor local women. No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the murders and to this day there is considerable debate as to how many victims were killed and who exactly ‘Jack’ was. We all have our own theories and if you’d like to read mine it is available to buy from Amazon and all good booksellers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 01, 1888 ]