A young Turpin is nipped in the bud


William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

Prison doesn’t work, and history has the proof.

It is what we all dread when we wake up in the night and hear a noise we can’t place. Was that the wind? Perhaps a cat? Or is there someone in our house?

Mrs North, the landlady of the Duke of Cambridge pub in Lewisham High Street, awoke to see a strange man in her bedroom.  He was staring directly at her and she shouted, ‘who are, and what do you want?’

At this he panicked and rushed towards the open widow, escaping into the night as Mrs North’s husband work and gave chase. He shouted ‘stop him’ from the window but he was gone.

When she’d recovered from the shock the landlady found that the burglar had carefully sorted a pile of their property to take away, including ‘some money’ and their pet canary. He’d left empty handed on this occasion but robberies were reported from other local pubs in late April 1883 and the same individual was suspected.

The police investigated break-ins at the Pelton Arms in East Greenwich on 24 April, where William Davis, the landlord, said he’d woken up to find the place burgled and clothes and a bag containing £2 and 10 shillings missing. The Rose of Lee (at Lee)* had been broken into on the same night as the Duke of Cambridge, and ‘property to the value of £6’ stolen.

The police had some leads and on the day after the Lewisham and Lee thefts PC Drew (75R) was watching a man named Edward Toomey and alerted his sergeant, Hockley. They seized Toomey, who was wearing some of the clothes identified as being stolen from the Pelton Arms, and pretty much admitted his crimes. As they led him off to the station Toomey reached into his pocket and pulled out the North’s canary, letting it fly off into the London skies. He’d got rid of the evidence and freed a caged creature just as he faced up to seven years’ for his own offences.

The case came up before the Police Court magistrate at Greenwich where one of Toomey’s associates turned informer to save his own skin and Mr Balguy committed Toomey to face trial at the Old Bailey.

Edward Toomey was tried at the Central Criminal court in May 1883 along with two others (Thomas Prosser and Cornelius Shay). Toomey was just 17 years of age and his accomplices were 38 and 18 respectively. Only Toomey was convicted and he was sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.

This early brush with the law and punishment did nothing to curb Edward’s criminality, nor indeed his MO. In 1885 (just after he came out of gaol) he was back in again after being convicted of burgling the Lord Nelson pub in East Greenwich. He got another year inside.

Did he learn from this one? Well no, he didn’t.

In January 1887 (just over a year after his conviction, and soon after his release) he was sent back to prison for burgling a jeweller’s shop in Lee High Street. This time the judge gave him a more severe sentence: five years penal servitude. At least that was that for Edward’s criminal career we might think, but no. In 1903 now aged 37, Toomey broke into the ‘counting house of the managing committee of the South Eastern and Chatham railway company’ and robbed the safe, taking away over £80 in cash. For this latest crime he went to prison for another five years. He was released on license in 1907 aged 41.

Edward’s experience is proof (if proof is needed) of the ineffectiveness of prison as a punishment for crime. It did him no good whatsoever and failed to protect the property of the persons he robbed. Sadly home secretaries and justice ministers are unlikely to read histories of crime and punishment, if they did perhaps they’d come up with some more innovative forms of dealing with serial criminals.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 09, 1883]

*where, many years later Kate Bush played her first gig.

Poisoned treacle in Lewisham (and an empty poor box in the City)


In a report of a meeting of the Lewisham Board of Works (which sounds as riveting as its title suggests) from 1877, it was claimed that a supply of poisoned treacle was being sold in the borough. The treacle had apparently been ‘accidentally poisoned with arsenic’ but was now being sold in the ‘poorest districts, where it could easily be disposed of at low prices’ (suggesting to me that the vendors were well aware of what it contained).  The board reported that two families had already been made ill by the sweet sticky substance and requested samples be taken so the source could be traced and the remainder removed from sale.

This was not yet a crime (in that no one had been arrested and therefore no court action taken). But hopefully this would have eventually ended up in the Police Courts and in a prosecution for adulteration of food at the very least. Hopefully no one was killed as arsenic in low quantities is rarely fatal.

Meanwhile over at Mansion House a very different problem faced the authorities.

The magistrate (the Lord Mayor on this occasion) announced that the poor box was empty. Indeed not only was the ‘poor-box fund of the court’ […] ‘quite exhausted’, it was also slightly in debt.

It seems to have been the norm for the Mansion House court to use the proceeds of fines and sometimes of costs to provide temporary handouts to the poorest of those that came before the court. Now, however, these funds had been used up and so the Lord Mayor issued an appeal to the public to donate monies to replenish the fund.

I suppose this shows us that in the 1800s (as indeed seems to have been the case in the previous century) the summary courts of the capital played an important role in providing temporary support to London’s large population of paupers and others, like abandoned wives and mothers, that needed it.

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

a grave ‘crime’ in Lewisham



Today’s post demonstrates the variety of business that came before late Victorian magistrates in the capital’s police courts. In the last few days I have written about a rape case, pickpockets at the Oval, and a burglary from a shop in Whitechapel. But this case, from 1894, whilst sad is far less serious and hardly ‘criminal’ in any modern sense of the word.

Sarah Piper (aged 19) and Edith Hollidge (who was just 14) were both servants working for families in Greenwich. They were seen by a witness at Lewisham Cemetery taking flowers (specifically China asters) from one grave and placing them on another.

In court Piper protested her innocence, she said she had not touched any flowers. Edith however, admitted her crime, saying ‘she did not see why one grave should have all the flowers’.

The cemetery’s superintendent (a Mr. Bugg) appeared to add the information that neither child had any relatives buried there. A widow then came to give evidence that her husband’s grave was frequently having the flowers she left there stolen, which must have been very upsetting for her.

The justice told Edith that her behaviour was ‘wanton mischief’ and fined her 5s, Sarah was discharged without punishment.

I can’t imagine two teenagers appearing in court for such a ‘crime’ today, much less being punished for it. Distressing as I am sure it was for the bereaved I don’t think the girls had any malicious intent. Edith just wanted to ensure that no grave was neglected.

The rising population of Victorian London presented the authorities with a major headache in the second half of the 1800s. The old parish churchyards were full or filling up and so several major new cemeteries were built (of which Highgate is the most famous). Lewisham (more properly called Hither Green or Lee Cemetery) opened in 1873.


[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 11, 1894]