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’.


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]

One drink led to another…

Rosemary Lane had a bit of a reputation in the eighteenth century, and its fair to say this persisted well into the 1800s. Now the lane has gone, replaced completely by Royal Mint Street which runs to join Cable Street, south of Whitechapel High Street. In 1861 Henry Mayhew wrote of the people that here:

The lodgings here are occupied by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpen, and others whose trade is connected with the river, as well as the slop-workers and sweaters working for the Minories. The poverty of these workers compels them to lodge wherever the rent of the rooms is the lowest.

One of those living in and around Rosemary Lane was Mary Ann Carey, who described herself as a ‘basket woman’. On Tuesday, the 22 September 1868 Mary was in a pub when John Fletcher, a native of Scotland, newly arrived from Australia, walked past.

According to Fletcher Mary ‘rushed out’ and asked him to have a drink with her. Mary may have fallen for him, or perhaps she was already a little the worse for drink to be so forward, but my understanding of her actions suggests that she was a prostitute as well as a basket woman. Many women in the area sold themselves when they could not sell something less personal.

Gold rush

Fletcher had been to Australia for the gold rush; we know this because in court he said he was carrying ‘two nuggets of gold entrusted to him by a  scotchman [he met] at the diggings’. The gold rush in Australia drew thousands of fortune hunters to the continent i the 1850s and 60s. John Fletcher said he had had arrived back in London from Melbourne on the Lincolnshire and had presumably gone out to party on his new wealth. Months at sea with only male company led him to Whitechapel and the dock community than was synonymous with cheap booze and casual sex.

He took Mary up on her offer and the two of them started drinking at noon. ‘One drink led to another’, he told the court, and soon he realised he was missing not only the two gold nuggets but also four sovereigns. At least he still had his gold watch he thought, as the chain was in his pocket. Alas when he pulled the chain out, the watch was gone!

He called for a policeman and PC Childs came to his assistance. The policeman told the magistrate (Mr. Paget) that the pub was a ‘notorious den of thieves’ and he knew Mary as well. She was soon apprehended and presented in court. PC Childs suggested it was unlikely she was working alone and he begged time to round up the others.

Mr. Paget sympathized with the Scotsman’s plight but also said that his experienced should be a warning to others to avoid such places and keep their valuables safe. The court reporter took great delight in transcribing Fletcher’s words in dialect:

When asked what he would do now the poor man replied: ‘I was guan to Scotland. What am I to do now I dinna ken’. Where had he slept? ‘I was oot all the nicht in a yard’.

It was a very long way to go to find gold only to lose it within hours of landing back home in Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1868]