A ‘notorious’ thief’s cross-examination skills backfire at the Guildhall

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Sir Robert Carden by ‘Spy’ (aka Leslie Ward) (Vanity Fair, December 1880)

In yesterday’s post I was able to show that a policeman who stayed in court (when all witnesses had been asked to leave) effectively undermined his own evidence and allowed a magistrate to exercise his discretion in a case he clearly felt slightly uncomfortable about. The newspaper reports of the London Police Courts, anecdotal as they undoubtedly are, can therefore be extremely useful to understanding how the summary process operated in the nineteenth-century capital.

This case, from the Guildhall Police Court in 1859, also reveals the nature of the hearing and, in particular, how the accused’s voice could be heard. In this instance the accused, a young man whom the papers certainly wanted to represent as a ‘bad character’, decided to act as his own defence counsel, cross examining the complainant in court.

As we will see, it probably wasn’t the wisest of strategies.

The complaint was brought by a ‘highly respectable young woman’ named Miss Martha Orange. The young lady in question was walking along Ludgate Street in the City at around 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon when he realised that a young was at her side. He touched her on the shoulder and startled, she quickly crossed over the road to escape his attentions.

Very soon afterwards he was back and she realised she’d lost her purse. As she turned to confront him he ran off. Calling for others to help her catch him Miss Orange ran off after him. A few streets away he was captured by a policeman (PC Collins 337 City) in London House Yard and taken into custody. The lad had dumped the purse but it was found in the yard by a butcher’s son named Phillips Jeacocks, who handed it in.

The purse had contained quite a lot of money, which is why Miss Orange was aware it had been stolen from her. The prisoner, who gave his name as John Howard, now took it upon himself to challenge the woman’s testimony. In doing so he certainly asserted his rights but the nature of his line of questioning also suggests a familiarity with the legal system. I suspect that this familiarity exposed him as a ‘known’ offender, and he was later described as a member of a notorious local gang of thieves.

Howard started by asking the prosecutor if she had seen her purse in his hands. Miss Orange admitted that she hadn’t.

‘How do you know I took your purse?’ he enquired.

‘Because there was no one else near my pocket’ she replied.

He also cross-examined the butcher’s boy: ‘Will you swear I am the man?’ he demanded. ‘I am most sure you are’, said Phillip Jeacocks.

Having heard from the two principal witnesses the court now listened to the report of the police. Constable Haun (360 City police) declared that he was sure that the prisoner had previous convictions at Guildhall and Mansion House.

‘I was never at either place in my life’ Howard protested.

The arresting officer, PC Collins said he recognised him as someone who had escaped arrest after another man’s pocket had been picked. Now a Met policeman added that Howard belonged to a ‘notorious gang in Golden Lane’. Haun continued his evidence by telling the magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, that Howard had been imprisoned in Holloway and may well have been convicted at Old Bailey. Nowadays a prisoner’s previous convictions would not be revealed in court prior to conviction, but then again in the 1800s a person’s criminal record was not so easy to determine; these were the days before pretty nay kind of forensic science existed.

Unfortunately for Howard (if that was his name) even Sir Robert recognised him. Haun added that several of the lad’s ‘associates’ were in court that day, offering moral support to their chum. At this the magistrate warned the watching public to keep a close eye on their valuables, while he assured them he would make sure that Howard couldn’t pick any pockets for a couple of weeks at least.

This was because he intended to commit the lad for a jury trial where he might expect a severe custodial sentence. Howard twigged this and immediately put in a plea for justice to be served summarily: ‘I would rather you would deal with the case here sir’ he said.

Miss Orange had one last statement to make saying that at the police station Howard had admitted his crime and told her he was driven to it by his mother’s poverty and the need to look after her. He hoped she might forgive him and promised to mend his ways. His attempt to appeal to her good nature didn’t work but was overhead by PC Haun. Whether it was true or a lie he now denied it anyway, perhaps to avoid admitting guilt but maybe also to save face in front of his friends.

Sir Robert commended Miss Orange for the ‘coolness and courage’ she had displayed in apprehending and prosecuting the supposed thief. As for Howard, he turned to him and said: “I shall send you for trial, where you will have the opportunity of convincing a jury of your innocence’.

Howard did appear at the Old Bailey, on the 24 October 1859, indicted for stealing Miss Orange’s purse. Just as he had failed to undermine Miss Orange’s case at Guildhall Howard singularly failed to convince the jury of his innocence either. They found him guilty and when an officer from the Clerkenwell Sessions appeared to confirm that the prisoner had a previous conviction from August 1858 – for larceny for which he received a 12 months prison term) his goose was cooked. The judge at Old Bailey sent him into penal servitude for four years.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 27, 1859]

Two little urchins embark on a life of crime

The age of criminal responsibility in England stands at ten years old, below that children are not deemed responsible for their actions. Up to 1998 they were not considered capable of criminal intent (doli incapax) until the age of 14 but the Bulger case led to a change in the law in the face of widespread horror at the actions of the two boys involved. In 1836 the law held those aged over 7 accountable with the caveat that those under 14 were obliged to demonstrate that they knew the difference between right and wrong.

Two little boys, James Branston and James Oxford, found themselves in court at the Guildhall in July of that year. The ‘little urchins’ (as they were described by the newspaper reporter) had been accused of breaking into a silk manufacturer’s shop and stealing four pair of gloves. This was a serious crime with potentially serious consequences. An adult criminal might expect to be transported to Australia or to suffer a lengthy prison spell at best.

Branston had been brought to the local beadle by his parents when they discovered the stolen items. Presumably they hoped the parish officer would admonish the child and scare him out of future criminality. He questioned the lad who spun a few lies before he spoke the truth. At first he said he’d picked up the parcel of gloves in Puddle Dock (near Blackfriars’ bridge), then that he had pinched them from a shop on Blackfriars’ Road.

The truth was that he and his mate had climbed over the board that protected Mr Ellis’ silk shop (on Ludgate Street) at six in the evening of Sunday last, where they had found some carpentry tools. They used the tools to cut a hole around the lock and break in. The beadle checked the story and found it to be accurate. It was quite an accomplished burglary for children and all the more so given that Branston was 7 and Oxford just 6 years of age!

Nor was it the first time they had raided a shop in this way; a witness testified that they had been seen giving away pairs of gloves to their little friends before.The magistrate could do little with them because he noted they were too young to ‘be held accountable for their acts in a criminal court’. Instead he said that their parents would have to ‘watch them closely, and punish them when they did wrong’.

The hope that they might change their ways seems to have been unlikely in the eyes of the paper’s correspondent, who noted that the two showed no sign that they found being arrested or presented in court in the least bit troubling.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 12, 1836]