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 defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

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The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

The case of the missing linen and the frustrations of historical research

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The reports of cases heard before the London Police Court magistrates can be frustrating. It isn’t always obvious what individuals roles are and important contextual details are often omitted. I understand that editors had limited space and that reporters were jotting things down quickly, and not always with the knowledge that the editor was going to choose that particular story to run. These courts dealt with dozens of cases in a morning or afternoon but rarely more than one was immortalized in newsprint.

Today I am left wondering who Henry Jepson was. He may have been a private detective or even a member of the Detective Department at the Met, or simply a friend of the victim.

See what you think.

On Thursday 2 July 1868 Jepson received a letter. It was from Elizabeth Milner, a dressmaker, living at 6 Hasker Street in Chelsea. In her letter Elizabeth complained that she had been robbed and asked for his help. On Sunday (5 July) Jepson traveled from his Great James Street residence to Chelsea, talked to Elizabeth about the theft and decided to set a trap for the thief.

Elizabeth had told him that she suspected one of her servants was responsible, the char Sophia Williams. Acting on Henry’s advice she locked up her rooms and told Sophia she was going out for the day and wouldn’t be home until much later. Meanwhile Henry hid under her bed and waited to see what happened.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes after Elizabeth had left Sophia entered the bedroom. Although he couldn’t see her Henry could hear her and noted that she left the bedroom and went into the parlour. He could hear her ‘ransacking boxes’ before she returned to the bedroom.

Henry had carefully selected some linen before he’d concealed himself and had left it, temptingly, on a chair. Peering out from his hide he saw he rifle through the linen and select ‘two new pillow cases’. As she started to leave the room Henry snuck out from under the bed to go after her. She must have heard him though because she quickly dumped them back on the pile and rushed off. Henry called for a constable who took her into custody.

This is the action that makes me doubt that his role was official; if he had been a detective he would simply have arrested her himself. Of course he may have, and then have handed her over to a junior officer, but it seems unlikely. There are no references to a detective named Henry Jepson in the Old Bailey either (this case does not appear), which is a little odd if he was one.

Sophia Williams was brought before Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court charged with multiple thefts. The police had found no less than 41 pawn tickets in her room, many, but not all, of which, related to property belonging to Elizabeth Milner. The magistrate remanded her in custody for  four days so the police could pursue their investigations.

And here the frustration continues because the case, and Sophia Williams, disappears from history.  If the police found more evidence she may have stood trial (at the Middlesex Sessions or the Central Criminal court at the Old Bailey). The justice may have decided to deal with her summarily and given her a few months in prison. But as there is no record of her in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records linked by the Digital Panopticon site we cant be sure. Selfe may have decided there was insufficient evidence or Williams could have had a legitimate reason for having so many duplicates for items she’d pawned.

In the end it is a mystery, not one worthy of Sherlock Holmes I accept, but an unsolved one nevertheless.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 07, 1868]

Two thieves ‘going snowing’ are caught by the peeled eyes of a child detective.

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I have a dictionary of underworld slang on my shelves. It is a fascinating compendium of words associated with crime, criminals and punishment. There are dozens of words for policeman for example, very few of them nice ones! Much of it is thieves ‘cant’; slant – such as cockney rhyming slang – used to conceal meaning and confound attempts at arrest or prosecution. So we get slang words or phrases for certain sorts of offences, many of them to do with different kinds of theft.

One of these is ‘going snowing’. Nothing to do with the inclement weather we are currently experiencing but instead a reference to stealing clothes or linen from washing lines.

Ruth Williams and Catherine Conway usually earned their living by selling (or ‘hawking’) lace on the streets. I rather suspect that they weren’t always absolutely honest in revealing the sources of the materials they sold on, and in December 1849 a sharp-eyed young girl landed them in court.

Williams and Conway entered the garden of house in Chelsea and knocked on the door, offering to sell some of their lace. As Williams discussed her goods with the woman at the door Conway stayed close to a line of washing drying nearby. When she was quite sure she wasn’t being watched she must have snatched a few items from the line and concealed them about her person. The pair then made off, no doubt to try the scam elsewhere.

However, this time they had been observed. The house belonged to the Walbedge family and their 11 year-old daughter had been carefully watching the two strangers from the moment they arrived. As soon as they left through the gates the girl ran to tell her mother that she thought she’d seen them steal some linen.

Mrs Walbedge quickly despatched the child to follow the women at a  distance, to see where they went. Meanwhile she checked, and discovered that they had indeed been robbed. The little girl stuck to her task and followed the thieves for ‘some considerable distance’ before she met a policeman, ‘quietly’ told him what she’d seen and had the pair arrested.

Back at the police station the women were searched and the missing linen found on them. When they appeared at Westminster Police Court they were committed for trial on the child’s evidence. Shaw Taylor would be have been proud – ‘keep ’em peeled’ as he used to say on Junior Police Five.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 14, 1849]

The pair don’t seem to have made it to the Old Bailey on this occasion but just two years later a Catherine Conway was acquitted of a very similar theft (of a shirt that was wet, suggesting it had come from a line), in a location not that far from this one.

An drunken imposter in Belsize Park exposed in court at Hampstead

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John Davey or George Stubbs (as they were one and the same apparently) was a curious fellow and his appearance at Hampstead Police Courts may well have caused considerable excitement. He certainly did enough to catch the attention the Morning Post‘s court reporter who wrote up his story for his readers.

The Hampstead court was presided over by a bench of magistrates (unlike those in the Metropolis that feature in most of my blogs). Messrs Marshall and Prance, along with Captain Redman, listened to a number of witnesses relate Davey (or more likely Stubbs) ‘extraordinary conduct’ in February 1864.

A merchant named Castle who resided at 3 Buckland Terrace, Belsize Park came to the court to complain about Stubbs’ conduct and the behaviour of one of his servants. Mrs Castle had employed Mary Daley as a ‘house and parlour maid’. On the previous Thursday however both Mary and George had turned up at the Castle’s residence at 10 at night, both quite drunk.

Mary was admitted with her bags because she had a ‘good character’ but Stubbs was refused. The next day he was back at 7 in the morning demanding entrance. Again he was turned away but he persisted and came back later in the morning.

He managed to get in during the afternoon and sat himself down in the kitchen and ‘told the cook she was to do whatever he ordered, and the first thing she must do was make him some tea’.

The servants informed the lady of the house who promptly asked him to leave, which he refused to do. He was still there when Mr Castle got home and gave him his marching orders. Mary followed him out of the house because Mrs Castle had found some items of linen that the careless maid had allowed to singe by the fire.

When they were out both in the street Stubbs started a row, banging on the door and being abusive, until the police were called to take him away.

Back at the Police Station Stubbs first claimed to be Mary’s brother and said he had gone to help her. He insisted he was a coach spring maker called Davey who resided in Portland Town*, before changing his story when pressed. He then claimed his name was George Stubbs and that he lived in Camden Town and made pianofortes. Goodness only knows what the truth was.

As for Mary, when she appeared in court she said first that Stubbs was her brother then her lover. She told the bench the name he had given her was John Sandon and that they were to be married.

Poor Mary, she was as much a victim of deception as the Castles. The policeman involved (Inspector Webb) informed the court that Stubbs was already married. At this Mary said she did not believe it and asked Stubbs to prove it by introducing her to his wife.

Stubbs said he was happy to do so which drew down condemnation from the bench and Mary. ‘You are a wicked young man’ Mary told him, ‘and a gay deceiver’. The justices dismissed his attempts at a defence and fine him 20s plus costs or 14 days imprisonment in the house of correction.

As for Mary nothing was reported and it doesn’t seem she was charged with anything (except with being a poor domestic). She was released from the Castle’s employment without references so unless she was lucky she may have found it hard to pick up work in a similar occupation. She had also been abandoned by the man she claimed intended to marry her, so I fear her life took a downwards turn from here.

[from the Morning Post , Monday, February 15, 1864]

*Portland Town was ‘a metropolitan suburb and a chapelry in Marylebone parish, Middlesex’. [http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/23887]

Going ‘snowing’ south of the river

PC George Stent (186M) was patrolling his beat along Rockingham Street at about 10.30 on the evening of the 14 December 1870 when he heard a noise. Following his hunch he turned into an entry to a business premises owned by Messrs. Nod & Hunter of Newington.

As he entered under a gateway he saw two young men, one standing on the wheel of a wagon and the other ‘concealed underneath it’. PC Stent arrested them and took them to the nearest police station and locked them up. In the morning the policeman made some enquiries and discovered that there had been a number of thefts in the area.

Returning to the yard he searched the waggon and found a pile of linen hidden underneath it. He took Turner’s boots with him and matched them with footprints he found at the scene of the crime – a good example that bobbies on the beat were using detection methods in routine enquiries in the late Victorian period.

The men appeared at Southwark Police Court of the 23 December and were named as John Turner (16) and John Smith (17). They were charged under the all encompassing Vagrancy Laws. These allowed the authorities to prosecute thefts and other crimes on the filmiest of proofs, effectively convicting persons on suspicion that they were going to commit a crime.

The lads had been engaged in a crime that was recorded by James Greenwood in his 1869 work The Seven Curses of London. This was called (in criminal cant or slang) ‘Going snowing – Going out to steal linen in process of drying in gardens’.

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Linen would have been quite easy to sell on and was a fairly low risk crime – so long as you didn’t encounter a switched on policeman as Turner and Smith had.

The teenage gangsters were sent to prison for three months at hard labour, whether it taught them a lesson or not we shall never know as ‘John Smith’ is hardly a name we can trace through the court system.

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