An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

StBotolph

St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

plan_of_london_docks_by_henry_palmer_1831.jpg

Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

A sailor finds that he’s been sold a parcel of horses**t

Victorian pipe smokers

James Randall had bought a packet of what he believed to be tobacco from someone, possibly a dock worker, at one of the many pubs in and around the City of London. The vendor had torn open the package just enough to allow him to test a sample of the tobacco, and he had handed over 2for it. Later he discovered that instead a pound and a half of ‘baccy, all he had was a worthless mix of ‘sawdust and horsedung’.

The sailor had been ‘done’ but instead of accepting his bad luck he decided he would try to recover the situation. Later that day he was walking in the Minories in the City, close to its eastern edge, when he encountered a young lad named Thomas Watts. He offered him the parcel of ‘tobacco’ for 2s3d hoping to make a small profit from the deal.

Watts, a ‘respectable’ youth, was unsure, and said no. Randall immediately dropped the price to 19d, but Thomas still wavered. The sailor went to 16d  and Watts caved in. He handed over the money and was about to examine his purchase when a policeman ran up to the pair of them.

PC Hayton (588 City) had watched the transaction and knew Randall as a suspicious individual. He took the parcel and the plug sample of tobacco  fell out soon followed by the worthless mixture of sawdust and manure. The copper quickly established that the boy had been ripped off and instructed Randall to give him his money back. He demurred at first but then complied. As Watts thanked the policeman the seaman took his chance and ran off.

The officer chased him across the City and caught up with him in Finsbury Circus where he arrested him. On the way to the station Randall confessed to knowing his parcel was valueless and so to trying to defraud Thomas. Not surprisingly then when he was produced at the Mansion House Police court Sir Robert Carden committed him for trial.

Randall was tried at the Old Bailey on the 22 October 1855 and found guilty on his own confession, he was 25 years of age. The judge sent him to prison for three months.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1855]

The pitfalls of being a newly arrived sailor in Victorian London

Sailors' Home, Well Street, London Docks

The Sailors’ Home, Penny Illustrated Paper, (29 August 1868).

London was the world’s largest and busiest port in the Victorian period, and ships and sailors from all over the globe traveled to and from it. Merchant seamen were generally paid off when they arrived in port, getting their money from the Mercantile Marine Office that was situated in the Minories, close to the borders of East London and the City.

After weeks or months at sea many sailors simply blew their hard earned cash in a  matter of days or even hours on drink or women or both. Others fell victim to thieves. These were often the prostitutes that picked them up in the many pubs and lodging houses along the Ratcliffe Highway.

As a result (either of criminality or their own carelessness and profligacy) many sailors found themselves destitute and in danger of falling into crime themselves, especially if they couldn’t quickly find another ship to take service on. In 1827 the Destitute Sailor’s Asylum was founded in Dock Street but welcome as it was it soon became inadequate to the needs of the hundreds of seaman that required its help. In 1835 a second institution opened its doors: the Sailors’ Home in Well Street.

The Home also helped sailors avoid some of the dangers associated with being a fresh face (and a potential meal ticket) for unscrupulous locals in the dock area. They did this by sending agents or arranging for others to meet sailors at the Marine Office and escort them to safety at the Home. We can see this in operation in a case that reached the Mansion House Police Court in 1868.

On the 19 August a  sailor presented himself at the Marine Office to collect his wages of £6. He wanted to get home to Liverpool as soon as possible and was worried about getting distracted or robbed  and so he asked if an agent could escort him to the Sailors’ Home.

John Williams, who was employed by the Marine Office as a messenger, was directed to accompany the seams through the throng of ‘loose characters waiting outside’. However, ‘the moment they got into the streets they were mobbed by a number of crimps, touters, and lodging-house keepers’. The sailor was bundled into a waiting cab and driven away.

One of the crowd of vultures was identified as William Lee and he was later arrested and brought before Alderman Causton at Mansion House on a summons.  The justice fully convicted him of using ‘threatening and abusive language’ towards the Marine Office messenger and condemned the fleecing of newly arrived sailors. He told Lee that these ‘poor fellows who received their money after long and severe labour should be protected’ and he fined the lodging-house keeper 40s and made him enter into a recognisance of £10 to keep the peace for six months.

It is unlikely that it would have done much good however, the sailor was probably already parted from his £6 and if he made it to Liverpool there were just as many ‘crimps and touters’ there to exploit him. Lee would have chalked it off to bad luck at getting caught, I doubt it would have altered his behaviour much. The Ratcliffe Highway was a notorious area for crime and prostitution and a magnet for discharged seamen throughout the 1800s and beyond. The Sailors’ Home itself only closed its doors in 1974, more than 100 years later.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 27, 1868]