A curious (and confusing) case of a two bob’ fraudster and his mate.

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There are plenty of cases of fraud that came before the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian period. From individual attempts to extort money from gullible ‘punters’ to full-blown and well-organized ‘long firm’ scams, the courts were kept busy with the full gamut of fraudsters. Some had quite elaborate ruses but William Jewell and Joseph Richards simply relied on talking fast and confusing their victims.

Jewell was a 38 year-old waterside labourer from Bethnal Green while Richards was a simply ‘labourer’ from nearby Mile End. In September 1895 both were placed in the dock at the North London Police court on a charge of being ‘suspected persons’ and with attempting to defraud tradesmen. Being ‘suspected’ was a catch-all term which allowed the police to pick up people they thought were up to no good.

Jewell was the main player in this case, Jackson seems to have acted as his accomplice, or look out. The scam went something like this:

Jewell entered a shop (such as Henry Amos’ confectionary shop in Well Street). He put a sixpence on the counter and asked for a pennyworth of sweets. The shopkeeper’s wife served him and  handed over the sweets and 5 pennies in change.

Now Jewell took a penny form his pocket, added it to the pile already there and asked Mrs Amos to please change it for a sixpence. Before she had time to scop up the pennies Jewell said: ‘Give me a shilling instead of the sixpence and the coppers’.

He was trying to confuse the poor lady and would have succeeded in gaining an extra sixpence had not Mr. Amos been listening in. He came in from the back room and Jewell scarpered. The eagle eyed confectioner spotted Jackson just outside the shop as Jewell ran off, he was nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper.

Unsuccesful here, the pair tried the same ruse at Mrs Muffett’s newsagent’s in Hackney Wick. Again it was Jewell who entered the shop and engaged Mrs Muffett in conversation. He asked for the evening paper (which cost a halfpenny)

and put a shilling on the counter. The newsagent gave him ‘eleven pence halfpenny change’. He then asked for his shilling back and Mrs Muffett obliged, assuming he’d found the 1/2d  for the paper in his pocket. But Jewell pushed the money back over to her and asked her to change it for a florin (a two shilling piece).

She didn’t have one she told him.

‘Then I have to give you a halfpenny’ he replied. ‘No, you have to give me a shilling’ she said, as he’d wanted to get back 2sf rom her. Again his attempt had failed but probably worked on other occasions. Shop assistants had (and have) to be alert  to possible attempts by customers who try to persuade then that that have given them large amounts than they have (‘I gave you a £20 note…’) or accused them of shortchanging them.

In these days of contactless debit transactions and a virtually cashless society we forget sometimes how easy it was to trick someone who is not expecting it.

Mrs Muffett called the police and with Mr Amos help the two men were picked out of a police identification parade. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute Jackson but Mr Taylor (the duty magistrate) decided there was ample proof of Jewell’s fraudulent intent, and he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour. Three months, for trying to trick two women out of two bob seems pretty harsh to me.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 27, 1895]

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]