Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

A wilful act of youthful vandalism that echoes down the centuries

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I used to live opposite a bus stop on a busy route into Northampton. The stop had a glass shelter to protect passengers from the elements, and buses called every 10-15 minutes at peak times. Behind the shelter was one of the town’s larger parks, laid out in the Victorian period for the good people of Northampton to enjoy. However, the park at night (while locked up) also provided a suitable hiding place for a group of small boys who took great pleasure in aiming small stones at the bus shelter whilst remaining hidden from prying eyes.

With depressing regularity the youths smashed the glass in the shelter which was then cleaned up within a few days and the glass replaced. Only, of course, for the cycle of criminal damage to begin again. One of my neighbours decided to watch the shelter from an upstairs window and called the police when the boys started their attack. I’m not sure they were caught but the violence stopped and the bus company’s property has only suffered more mild forms of vandalism since.

I can almost hear the complaints about ‘cereal’ modern youth, with no respect for property, and no curbs on their behaviour. ‘Young people these days…’ and all that.

But the reality is that teenagers behaving badly is not a new phenomena; it has little or nothing to do with the internet, with computer games, with modern divorce rates, or the end of corporal punishment in schools or any of the reasons the Daily Mail and its ilk like to present as symptoms of the decline of a once great Britain.

Take this tale, from 1881, a mere 137 years ago (when we had corporal – and capital – punishment, divorce was all but impossible, and women hadn’t yet got the vote). George Martin, the verger of the presbyterian church in Upper George Street, Marylebone, was fed up with arriving in the morning to find the windows of his church broken during the night.

Martin decided to set a trap for the culprits (whom he suspected to be a group of local lads) and he lay in watch to see what happened. A about six o’clock on the evening of Friday 2 September 1881 he watched as a group of four lads entered the churchyard. They picked up some stones and started to lob them at the church’s windows. As one hit and broke a pane Martin leapt out from behind a tree and chased after the now fleeing boys. Three escaped but he managed to catch one on of them, and hands him over the police.

On the Saturday morning Edgar Ashworth – a 13 year-old milk seller from Paddington appeared in court at Marylebone charged with breaking the church’s windows. George Martin had helpfully produced a drawing of the church windows, indicating where the damage was. He put the cost of the broken window of the previous night at 1s but said that upwards of 70 small panes had been broken in the last fortnight.

The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen was appalled; he ‘said he’d never heard a more miserable case that this’, and was determined that someone should be held responsible. ‘The evidence against the prisoner was as clear as noonday’, he said and he decided to fine him 40s for the criminal damage plus 1costs. His father was in court to hear this and said he had no intention of paying for his son’s actions.

As a result Edgar would be obliged to suffer the alternative: he was sent to prison for seven days.

My modern vandals would have been dealt with quite differently of course, but it is sobering to think that even the prospect of a hefty fine or imprisonment did not deter Edgar and his chums from a similar act.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 05, 1881]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr. Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

The apple doesn’t fall that far

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William Thomas’ son – Thomas Thomas – had been a difficult child. He had grown up in a large family with eight siblings, another one of which had been in trouble with the law as Thomas had. In January 1866 Thomas had been brought before a magistrate and sent to the Reformatory School ship Cornwall, which was moored off Purfleet in Essex.

The school could take up to 250 boys who had been convicted of offences that earned them three years on board but parents were expected to contribute to the costs. William Thomas now found himself in court at Marlborough Street because he had neglected to pay for his son’s keep. He now owed £1 and 7for his failure to pay 1s 6d  a week.

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William Thomas pleaded poverty but that didn’t go down well with the prosecutor (a Mr Brannan from the Home Secretary’s office) or the magistrate – Mr Knox.

The court heard that William had abandoned his wife and six children at home and was now living in Foley Street with a new partner and had already given her two new mouths to feed. He’d promised to pay if given time but had then furnished Mr Brannan with a false address.

Mr Knox sent him to prison for 10 days and told him to find the money.

Underlying this of course is the domestic environment that Thomas Thomas had grown up in. Poverty, overcrowding, and domestic instability would all have contributed to his delinquency. We are very aware of these issues today and try to support children caught up in them.

Not that we are always that successful: there are still high truancy rates, children are abused and abandoned, and thousands suffer mental health problems. At least birth control has allowed couples to take more control over the size of their families and this would have been useful had it been available to the Thomas’s in the mid 1860s.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 16, 1866]

Three little girls are failed by a penny-pinching state

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After a campaign by Mary Carpenter and others Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854. This piece of legislation allowed magistrates to send children (up to the age of 16) to a state certified reformatory school for a period of 2 to 5 years. Carpenter and her colleagues believed that juvenile offenders needed to be removed from bad influences and environments and given an opportunity for an education and training for a new life. She and Russell Scott had pioneered the reform with their school at Kingswood near Bristol, which opened in 1852.

It was worthy innovation but it was undermined by at least two things: a lack of money and the imperative that all juvenile convicts should spend time in a prison first (usually about 2-4 weeks). The latter was to meet the demands of society; rarely a good way to conduct penal policy.

The problem was that without proper state funding the number of reformatories established was limited and the levels of staffing always insufficient. Without the space to hold juveniles many were simply returned to their parents once they had served their initial sentences and those in care were not always given the education promised because there weren’t enough staff to supervise them adequately.

Eliza Wood, Emma Major and Margaret Hawkins are just three examples of the problems the reformatory movement encountered in its early years. The three girls, with an average age of 10, had been convicted of stealing at the Lambeth Police Court in the spring of 1860. When it was explained to Mr Norton, the magistrate, that girls’ mothers were ‘drunken and dissipated women’ living in an area around Kent Street that was notorious for crime and prostitution, he decided to use the new option allowed by law. He sentenced them to three weeks in prison to be followed by four years in a certified reformatory.

The girls were taken to the house of correction on Wandsworth Common but at the end of their term the prison governor wrote to Mr Norton. He apologised but said it was impossible for him to send the girls on to a reformatory because there wasn’t one that could take them.

The only certified school in London was at Hampstead, and that was full. Indeed they had already turned away another child that Norton had sent their way: Hannah Reynolds (convicted in February 1860). The governor had been trying to place the trio at a reformatory ‘in the country’ but so far he’d had no success. As a result there was nothing he could do but send them back to Lambeth and the dubious ‘care’ of their parents.

Various charities existed to help juvenile offenders and the governor assured Norton that he had tried to enlist their support but that they too had been unable to help. It seems that the new legislation was the victim of its own success; so keen were magistrates to use the option of sending children away that the reformatories simply couldn’t cope with the numbers.

I am firm believer in the necessity of spending money on criminal justice, whether that be on police, prisons or the courts. This country has a very long history of penny pinching when it comes to penal policy, sometimes in the misguided notion that treating criminals harshly by making their environment as unpleasant as possible somehow prevents others from criminality.

It doesn’t. All that is achieved is to brutalise those locked up or to make it harder for offenders to return to society and find work on release. This simply perpetuates the cycle of offending.

We have seen what fewer police on the streets means for our society: it means higher levels of violent crime and wilful disregard for the laws of the road. We can also see what the result of austerity in the court service is, as several recent rape cases have collapsed because insufficient resources have been deployed to allow a thorough disclosure of information that might be useful to defendants.

These three little girls (aged 10, 9 and 10) should never have been sent to the Surrey house of correction at Wandsworth (later the prison that now bears that name). But the age of criminal responsibility was low and children were routinely caught up in the justice system and flogged, imprisoned, transported, or even executed on rare occasions. Mary Carpenter’s vision was the right one for the time: the separation of children from the poverty and destitution that overwhelmed them in Britain’s growing urban and industrial districts. Sadly the government of the day only paid lip service to this vision and so the reformatory movement was hamstrung from its birth.

If we want to deal properly with crime and its causes we need to invest the time, money and effort in it, not be constantly looking at ways of saving money which we justify with a level of analysis worthy only of the most populist of modern tabloid newspapers.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 2, 1860]