If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

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Daniel Risbey was in East London to visit his wife, who was an inmate at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street. The fifty year-old fisherman from Essex was unfamiliar with the capital and certainly a stranger to the dodges and pitfalls that often befell the unwary. He must have stuck out like sore thumb.

As he left the hospital and was making his way along Mile End Road a man stopped and chatted to him. As they conversed he noticed another person just ahead stop and appear to drop some pieces of paper on the street. The first man, who had introduced himself as Thomas Windsor, picked them up and showed them to Risbey.

‘Why’, Windsor declared, ‘these are £5 notes!’ and he called the other man back. He now joined them and said his name was George Boyce and that he’d recently come into money following a payout for an incident on the railway. Boyce had received the princely sum of £300 and declared that ‘he meant to do some good with the money, and would lend to any deserving man’.

What a stroke of luck then, for Risbey to run into two such generous chaps on his visit to London. The pair now said that they trusted him enough to have some of the money up front while they sorted out the ‘usual arrangements’ of a loan and suggested he wait in a local pub while they did so. This proved, they said, that they had ‘confidence’ in him. To show them that he was worthy of that confidence they asked him to hand over his purse and money while they sorted things out. He had several £5 notes, they had his money – which only amounted to about 5s anyway.

The fisherman took out a few pennies for a beer, handed over his purse and walked over to the nearest pub to wait. After an hour they hadn’t returned and he was about to leave when a police sergeant appeared and asked him to accompany him to the station. When he got there Boyce and Windsor were in custody and Sergeant Rolfe explained the situation.

The officer had seen the two men talking to Risbey, knew them as ‘sharpers’ (or confidence tricksters) and watched them. He followed them after they left Risbey and, with some assistance, arrested them. When searched all they had was three pence, the notes, a few Hanoverian medals, and the Essex man’s purse. Both were charged with theft and presented at Worship Street Police court on the following morning, Thursday 6 July 1882.

The whole episode was related to Mr Hannay the sitting magistrate. The notes were fake – from the ‘Bank of Engraving’ Sergeant Rolfe explained. The medals were used to represent sovereign coins and the two men were well known to the police. On this occasion Daniel Risbey was lucky, thanks to the sharp eyes and wits of the local police all he lost was his innocence and he left London a little wiser than he arrived. At least on the next occasion he visited his wife in hospital he’d have a tale to tell, if he chose to tell it at all. As for the two ‘sharpers’, Mr Hannay committed them for trial.

I think we’ve all heard of the confidence trick but it isn’t often that it is so clearly described in those terms. The paper was reporting this as news, as a warning to readers, and as gentle dig at the expense of the ‘country bumpkin’ come up to town and taken for a fool. We might nod sagely at how gullible he was (as many of those reading the Standard in 1882 would have done) but how many of us have fallen, or come close to falling, for internet scams that have promised us easy money or other benefits that have few strings attached. Remember folks, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 07, 1882]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

No joke as a comedian finds himself in the dock of an East End court

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In 1888 the comedian Walter Groves appeared, not on stage this time, but in the dock at Worship Street Police court. He had been summoned by his former manager and fellow comedian Henry Bruce who accused him of assaulting him after the pair had fallen out in a dispute over what we would probably term ‘intellectual property’.

Back in February 1888 Bruce had employed Groves to perform as part of his theatre company. The comedian had written (or perhaps co-written) a sketch act that brought the house down on Easter Monday. On the basis of that success they decided to carry on performing the act and, Bruce insisted in court, had agreed to share the proceeds.

As seems so often to be the case in show business however, the pair fell out and eventually Bruce was forced to let Groves go but seemingly carried on using his material. This clearly irked the other man and on 14 May that year Groves found his former collaborator deep in conversation with the manager of the Forester’s Music hall (also known locally as Lusby’s after its owner, William Lusby). He strode up to the seated pair and loudly accused Bruce of stealing his idea and denying him the profits of it.

The court was shown evidence of playbills listing some of the sketches performed by ‘Harry Bruce’s Company of Comedians’ such as: ‘A sweep for king’ and ‘the Tin Soldier’ that Groves presumably claimed were originally his. It also heard that when Bruce denied any wrongdoing and insisted Groves leave the comedian challenged him to step outside and fight him, man to man. When the other man declined this invitation to a fist fight Groves thumped him in the face and gave him a black eye.

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This was corroborated by Frederick Clarence, a comedian in Bruce’s troupe, and by Charles Barber who worked for Bruce as clerk. In defence of Groves Neal Dryden (himself a comic) said his friend was sorely provoked, adding that he understood that Mr Lusby had wanted to employ Groves to perform in the act but Bruce had told him not to, saying the other man was ‘no good’. So with his character and talents impugned and his creative ideas ‘stolen’ from him it was hardly a surprise that Groves lashed out. It didn’t convince the magistrate however who ordered the comedian to find two sureties of £25 each to ensure that he kept the peace towards Bruce for the next twelve months at least.

William Lusby was a minor local celebrity in the 1880s and his first music hall was a popular venue on the Mile End Road. He had taken over the premises in 1868 and rebuilt the theatre, reopening it in April 1877 as Lusby’s Summer and Winter Palace. When it opened a gushing press review stated:

‘This new place of amusement, which, both on account of its great size and the splendid appearance of its interior, deserves to be described as “grand,” was opened to the public for the first time on Easter Monday evening. It affords accommodation for five thousand visitors, and there must have been nearly that number of persons who availed themselves of the earliest opportunity to see the magnificent building which Mr William Lusby has had erected for the use of the pleasure-seekers of the Mile End-road and its vicinity, as well as to witness the performances of the large and talented company of artistes which he has engaged’.

(The Era, 8 April 1877)

However, by 1888 Lusby had sold the theatre and it later burned down in a fire in 1884.  A new music hall rose from the ashes, the Paragon which opened in 1885 but by then Lusby had moved on, opening the Forester’s Music Hall where Bruce and his fellow comedians performed their sketch act.

Lusby, an East End lad made good, had built his success on property speculation and had, he claimed, only got into show business to help a young relative get a foot on the ladder. The Foresters was on Cambridge Road East, in Bethnal Green and in 1885 it gave Dan Leno his first big break in the entertainment industry. The legendary music hall star performed two comic songs and a clog dance and was paid £5 a week for doing so. Leno is credited with inventing stand up comedy which is probably why his name is still remembered today while Harry Bruce and Walter Groves have disappeared from history.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 31, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Fire and murder in the East End but business as usual for Mr Lushington

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

John Tenniel’s Nemesis of Neglect, Punch (29/9/1888)

On Friday 31 August 1888 the Standard newspaper reported on the ‘great fire’ that had raged at the London docks the night before. Workers had knocked off at 4 that day as usual but at 8.30 in the evening someone noticed the smell of burning. It took until nine for the authorities at Whitechapel to be alerted whereupon officials there ‘ordered every steamer to proceed to the scene’. By the time they got there (coming from all over the city) a massive fire was underway.

The fire was raging in the South Quay warehouses which were ‘crammed with colonial produce in the upper floors and brandy and gin’ at ground floor level. With so many combustibles it is not surprising that the 150 yard long building blazed so violently. The conflagration not only drew the police and fire brigade to the site it also attracted thousands on Londoners  in the East End to step out of their homes to see the fire.

The Pall Mall Gazette also featured a report on the fire within its fourth edition that day. It described the warehouse as 200 yards long and said 12 steamers were engaged in fighting the blaze. It reported that soon after the first fire was brought under control a second broke out at the premises of Messrs. J. T. Gibbs and Co. at the dry dock at Ratcliffe, damaging workshops, goods and a nearby sailing ship, the Cornucopia.

As dramatic as the dockyard fires were they were eclipsed by an adjacent report on the same page which read:

HORRIBLE MURDER IN EAST LONDON

ANOTHER WHITECHAPEL MYSTERY

This of course refereed to the gruesome discovery made by police constable John Neil as he walked his beat along Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) parallel to the Whitechapel High Street. PC Neil had found the dead body of a woman later to identified as Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, the first ‘canonical’ victim of murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The Gazette’s reporter must have seen the body in the Whitechapel mortuary because he was able to describe it in some detail for his readers.

‘As the corpse lies in the mortuary it presents a ghastly sight […] The hands  are bruised, and bear evidence of having been engaged in a severe struggle. There is the impression of a ring having been forced from one of the deceased’s fingers, but there is nothing to show that it had been wrenched from her in a struggle’, ruling out (it would seem) robbery as a motive.

No one, it seems, had heard anything despite there being a night watchmen living in the street. It was a mystery and as more details of Polly’s injuries emerged in subsequent days the full horror of the killing and the idea that a brutal maniac was at work in the East End gained ground in the press.

Meanwhile it was business as usual for the capital’s Police Courts; at Thames Francis Greenfield was charged with cruelty to a pony. He was brought in by PC 73K who had found the man beating the animal as he exercised it around a circle, presumably training it. The poor ‘animal was bleeding from the mouth, and there was a wound on the side of its lip’. The constable was told by several bystanders that Greenfield had been ‘exercising’ the beast for well over an hour. Mr Lushington, the magistrate, adjourned the business of his court  to go and see the pony for himself. When he returned he sentenced Greenfield to 10 days imprisonment with hard labour for the abuse.

Having dealt with that case the next reported one was of Philip McMahon who was in court for beating his partner, Emily Martin. The pair had been cohabiting for four or five years and it wasn’t the first time he had hit her. After a previous incident, when he’d blacked her eye, she had forgiven him and had done so several times since. Then on Monday (27 August) he had come up to her on the Mile End Road and grabbed her by the throat. He tore off a locket that she wore and assaulted her. He declared he was leaving her and when she tried to reason with him and implore him not to go he hit her again, knocking her senseless. Mr Lushington gave him 6 months hard labour.

Both cases testify to the violence and cruelty that was often associated with the working class residents of the East End of London. This allowed the press to construct a picture of Whitechapel as a place that had abandoned any semblance of  decency. The area became the ‘abyss’, a netherworld or living hell, where life was cheap and personal and physical corruption endemic. The “ripper’ became the embodiment of this vice and crime-ridden part of the Empire, given form by John Tenniel’s nemesis of Neglect, published on 29 September 1888 at the height of the murder panic. As with the modern press, historians and other readers need to be very careful before they take everything written in them at face value.

[from The Standard , Friday, August 31, 1888; The Morning Post, Friday, August 31, 1888;The Pall Mall Gazette , Friday, August 31, 1888]

for more Ripper related posts see:

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]