A ‘Champagne charley’ causes mayhem in the cells

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John Betts’ appearance at the Mansion House Police court in early May 1867 caused something of a stir. Betts, a notorious thief in the area, was arrested in Crutchedfriars in the City at 11 o’clock at night as he raced away from a victim he’d just robbed.

Charles Cadge had been walking with his wife in Gracechurch Street when they encountered Betts. The robber started him ‘full in the face, and then made a rush at him and snatched his watch from his pocket, breaking the guard’. It was a daring attack and had a City Police patrol not been just around the corner the thief might have evaded capture.

However, now he was up before the Lord Mayor, and he was far from happy about it.

Those waiting for their cases to come up were supposed to stand quietly once they had been brought up form the holding cells but Betts was in no mood to behave. He had made so much noise before his own hearing that he’d been taken back to the cells and while Mr Cadge and other witnesses (Inspector White and one of his constables) tried to give their evidence Betts made such a row that it was almost impossible to hear them.

Once in the dock he refused to give his name. Asked again (even though the warder of the City Prison said he was well known to him) he said he would only give his name if they gave him half a pint of beer. When this was not forthcoming he started singing the music hall standard ‘Champagne charley’.

The Lord Mayor admonished him, telling him to behave himself.

‘I shan’t’ Betts replied, ‘I want half a pint of beer. I have had nothing this morning. Look at my tongue’ which he stuck out, provoking much laughter in the courtroom.

The magistrate simply committed him for trial at the next sessions and the gaoler went to take him away. But Betts wasn’t finished and he lashed out, resisting the attempts to lead him to the cells. Two constables had to help the gaoler drag the prisoner down the stairs. As he passed a glass partition that allowed some light to the cells below Betts kicked out violently, trying and failing, to smash it.

Placed in a cell on his own he continued his protest, smashing ‘everything he could lay hold of, and armed himself with a large piece of broken glass in one hand and a leaden pipe which he had succeeded in wrenching up in the other’ and standing there in just his shirt, ‘he threatened with frightful imprecations that he would murder anyone that approached him’.

When he was told what was happening below him the Lord Mayor ordered that Betts be secured and taken directly to Newgate Prison, but this was easier said than done. Several men were sent to take him and after some resistance he gave in and said he only wanted a half pint of beer and he would desist. Finally the gaoler acquiesced and Betts was given a glass of porter, which was placed carefully on the floor of the cell in front of him. He tasted it, declared it was ‘all right’, gave up the weapons he’d armed himself with, and was taken to Newgate to await his trial.

When Betts (or in fact Batts) was brought for trial at the Old Bailey he refused to plead, pretending to be mute. A jury determined that he was ‘mute from malice’  not ‘by visitation of God’ (in other words he was shamming) and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. It wasn’t a great way to start one’s defence but by now I think we know that Batts was probably suffering form some sort of mental illness. Even his encounter with the police that arrested him suggests an unbalanced mind (as the Victorians might have described it).

Inspector White explained that:

On 2nd May, about eleven o’clock, I heard a cry of “Stop thief!” and saw the prisoner running—I stopped him with the assistance of another constable, and said,”Where are you going?”

He [Batts] said, “All right, governor, I am just going home; we are having a lark”—he ran round the urinal, took a watch out of his trousers pocket, and threw it against the urinal—I picked it up, and Cadge came up and identified it

On the road to the station he said, “It is only a lark; I did not take the watch, it was only a game; I did not throw it there”—he said nothing at the station except joking.

The prisoner said nothing in his defense and was convicted. It was then revealed that he had a previous conviction from Clerkenwell Sessions in 1864 where he’d been given three years’ penal servitude for stealing a watch.

For repeating his ofence the judge sent him back to prison, this time for seven years. He was let out on license in 1873 and doesn’t trouble the record again after that. Perhaps he went straight, let’s hope so as in 1867 he was only 21.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 04, 1867]

‘They have treated my young lady shamefully’: a schoolmaster has his day in court

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In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.

There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.

In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.

The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.

The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:

‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.

She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.

Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.

When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.

Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.

Minton had come quietly and happily stating:

‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.

The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.

He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]

A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

An appeal to the Lord Mayor so ‘that one of the few holidays in this country would not be lost’. Some pre-Christmas cheer at Mansion House

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Before I became an academic historian I worked mostly in retail. I enjoyed the busy Christmas period but it has to be said that shopkeepers and shop staff work extremely hard for very little pay and hardly any time off. Most of us that are lucky enough to work in education will get at least a week’s downtime over Christmas and probably quite a bit more.

This is because schools and universities close down between Christmas and New Year and there is no teaching at my place for three weeks. I will use some of this time for marking, preparation and research but will also have a week’s proper holiday as well. Contrast this with the 15 years I worked in a variety of shops when I would work till 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve and be back in on the 27 December and sometimes even on Boxing Day.

Indeed Boxing Day has almost ceased to be a day off for many workers. Traditionally Boxing Day was a time when we rewarded servants and tradespeople for their service over the past year in a custom that stretched back to the 17th century at least. Now many if not most shops open their doors at 9 am so that the British public can start to spend the vouchers and money their relatives have given them for Christmas, or exchange their unwanted presents and ill-fitting clothes.

It seems that even in mid Victorian period there was some recognition that workers needed some proper time off. In 1842 an organisation was formed to campaign for an end to Sunday trading and to regulate shop opening times. From the evidence I see in these newspapers reports, shops in London opened all hours in the 1800s, you could walk into a grocers, or haberdashery, or a cheese shop anytime from early morning to almost midnight. In fact nineteenth-century London looks a lot more like twenty-first century London than does it resemble the city of my youth.

In December 1859 a deputation from the Early Closing Association appeared at Mansion House Police Court to ask for the Lord Mayor’s support. In 1859 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Given that the 25 December was observed as a holiday the Association were worried that the ‘toiling classes’ would miss out on an extra holiday this year.

Mr Lilwall and Mr Winkworth (secretary and vice president respectively) reminded the Lord Mayor that in 1857 the then incumbent chief magistrate had issued a recommended that Boxing Day be observed as a public holiday. Shops and other businesses had taken up the idea and it had even been adopted by mayors across the country. The result was that shop workers, clerks, and all manner of the ‘industrial classes’ got a proper holiday from Saturday afternoon through to Tuesday morning on the 27th.

The Association urged this Lord Mayor to follow suit and urge businesses to adopt the holiday. It was hard, they said, for individual tradesmen to grant an extra day of leave and close their shops because they didn’t know what the competition was doing. It needed a voice of authority to make a declaration.

The Lord Mayor agreed with the deputation from the Association but it wasn’t sure he had either the power or the influence to instigate a holiday in London, let alone elsewhere.

But he was certainly happy to publicly ‘express his hope that the tradesmen and merchants of the city, and the bankers, as far as they possibly could, would close their establishments on the 26th inst. and so give an opportunity for rational and recreative enjoyment to those in their employ’.

He hoped that this would mean that Christmas, as one of the ‘few holidays which were generally observed in this country would not be lost’.

The Early Closing Association continued it campaign throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It took them until 1912 to achieve part of their aim, half-day closing. Some of you might remember when shops would close early on a weekday and many will recall that until the 1990s Sunday opening was rare. Nowadays shops open Sundays, all week long, from 8 to 8 and later, and some big stores are open 24/7.

Spare a thought then for those that have to man the tills and restock the shelves over the bus Christmas period who work even harder than they normally have to. They need a rest just as much (if not more) than everyone else. Perhaps its time that we made Boxing Day a proper national holiday, with all shops closing for the day. After all, do we really need ‘retail therapy’ on the morning after Christmas?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 9, 1859]

An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and commented that he hadn’t seen him for some time. This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three week earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him.

The 61 year-old wine dealer told him that he would; ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’, he said. Rowe was shown in to the counting house and Lock left him. Then five minutes afterwards he heard the sound of a pistol fire and a cry of ‘Rowe has shot me!’ from his master. He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then moved Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

‘What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?’

‘I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes’ replied Rowe. Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant. After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could help thinking it was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me’.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was throw on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

‘The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything’.

Rowe was stony faced: ‘My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough’.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

‘I have had them for 30 years’, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway’.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads and a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice. After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

 

‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

A career in crime looks inevitable for a young servant that could not resit temptation

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William Luker, The Mansion House Police Court, (c.1891)

Sometimes, in order to understand exactly what is going on in a historical courtroom (like the Mansion House Police Court in 1866) we need to have some clarity about which laws were in operation and being utilised. That isn’t always easy because laws were amended and new rules superseded them. It is also often the case with the history of crime that the practice of those applying the law (in this case the Police Court magistrates of London) preceded that of lawmakers rather than following it.

In September 1866 Mary Ann Goodchild, ‘a young girl’ of 18 and a domestic servant, was brought before the Lord Mayor and Alderman Abbis in the City of London to answer a charge of theft. Mary Ann was accused of stealing face sovereigns from her master, Noah Aaron.

This was a serious offence, one worthy of a criminal trial before a jury and the possibility (if convicted) of a long prison sentence. However, the defendant was young, female and, crucially, prepared to admit to her crime.

The court was told that Noah Aaron, a general dealer who worked out of a property named Roper’s Buildings, had placed 44 sovereigns in a drawer in his bedroom. Sometime later he counted them and found that the money was short by £5. His suspicions immediately fell on Mary Ann because only she and his wife had access to the room.

The servants were the business of Mrs Aaron so when her husband told her what had happened she confronted Mary Ann with it. Having tried and failed to deny the charge Mary Ann admitted it but pleaded with Mrs Aaron not to ‘do anything with her’. Whether she hoped that this would not lead to a court case or was simply desperate to keep her position is not made clear, but having confessed she clearly hoped for some leniency from her employers.

Mrs Aaron would give her no such assurance and so Mary Ann was forced to give more information about the missing money. She said she had given it to another woman, Alice Alexander, ‘who she said had out her up to it’. In court at Mansion House Alexander was produced but denied all knowledge of the crime (as well she might). Mary Ann was left high and dry.

Since she had confessed to the theft Mary Ann was able to opt to be dealt with summarily. Under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (1855) magistrates were able to deal with cases of theft up to the value of 5 shillings without sending it on to a jury so long as the accused consented. If the defendant pleaded guilty then the theft of goods over 5s came under the power of the magistracy. In 1879 the basic requirement was raided from 5s to £2 as the summary courts began the main tribunal for hearing nearly all small-scale property crime in the capital.

Mary Ann was dealt with under legislation that was initially intended to speed up the process of justice in London and to  keep the higher court clear of petty offenders. She was young and the summary jurisdiction acts were aimed at young offenders (albeit a little younger than she was).

The Lord Mayor sent Mary Ann to prison for four months, a fairly lenient sentence in the context of Victorian punishments but she was probably a first offender, again a factor that was at the heart of legislation that extended the summary jurisdiction of magistrates in the 1800s.

It hardly mattered to Mary Ann however. Having lost her job and without references, with her character therefore ruined and a criminal record added to her CV she was unlikely to find legitimate work in the future. When it launches later this week the Digital Panopticon project may allow us to find out whether Mary Ann managed to make it back to the straight and narrow or descended into a ‘career’ in criminality.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 11, 1865]