A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

“The last descendant of the Bruce”?: madness and the magistracy in mid Victorian London

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This is another example of mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards mental illness. At the time mental health was not as well understood as it is today but it seems to have been, if not as prevalent, then still quite significant as a societal problem.

Ms Wetherall (if indeed that was her real name) was quite well know to the staff and magistracy at Marlborough Street Police court. The respectably dressed middle-aged woman had appeared at the court to ask the magistrates’ advice on more than one occasion.

On her previous visit she had told the bench that she was about to be married to Earl of Carlisle and had been summoned by ‘various tradesmen’ upon she had imposed in order to get herself the necessary wedding outfit on credit, something they had declined to do.

In a separate incident  she apparently declared she was ‘the last descendent of the Bruce’ (meaning Robert the Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn and a Scottish national hero). She had made this extraordinary assertion outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and was led away by a policeman. The magistrate then had sent her to be assessed by the medical authorities in St Martin’s to see if she was quite in her right mind.

Now she appeared before Mr Hardwick (the parish officials at St Martin’s clearly not wanting anything to do with her) to make an application to retrieve some property that she claimed her former landlady was withholding from her. It was a common enough application for a magistrate to decide on but given her history Mr Hardwick chose to fob her off. He said that as she had previously applied for similar things to his colleague Mr Bingham, she would have to direct this application to him on the following Monday.

Ms Wetherell was unhappy with this decision as she said she may not be able to make Monday. She told the justice she was sailing to Australia on Monday and may well have already sailed by the time the court opened. Having stated her case she upped and left the court leaving everyone wondering what her story would be when she next appeared.  She was clearly suffering with some form of mental illness which Victorian society was unable to help. However, she was not abusive or dangerous, the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of the early modern ‘village idiot’ perhaps, so off she went, no doubt with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, 15 November, 1849]

Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

Huge numbers of special constables are sworn in London. Why?

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We all love a mystery don’t we? When you dip into a newspaper that was published 170 years ago sometimes things just don’t make sense on their own. Take this report from April 1848 at Marlborough Street Police court for example. The report is headed ‘Special Constables’ and starts by declaring that:

‘The swearing in of special constables continued throughout the day, without intermission, in consequence of the large numbers of persons of all ranks that presented themselves at this court’.

Historically special constables were sworn in to police particular events (notably public executions) or at a time of crisis (during riots for example). The practice both preceded the introduction of the New Police in 1829 and continued afterwards. You can still serve as a ‘special’ today so long as you can give four hours of voluntary service a week.

In April 1848 the press reported that hundreds of men had come forward in London to swell the ranks of the professionals: ‘There could not have been fewer than twelve or fourteen special constables sworn in yesterday’ the The Morning Post noted. Men were joining en masse from businesses that employed large numbers – not unlike the ‘Pals’ battalions later raised during the First World War.

‘Messers. Cottam and Hallam’s men, to the number one hundred, were sworn in. About 120 men in the employ of Messers. Dowbiggin, the upholsterers, were also sworn in; and Mr. Lumley, the lessee of the Opera, furnished 63 able men’.

But it was not just the working men of London that were signing up in their droves to represent their communities and employers, ‘men of rank’ were also volunteering for action.

‘Lord Colchester, Lord Wharncliffe, Lord Cawdor, Lord Sondes, the Marquis of Blandford, B. Neville Esquire, Sir Moses Montefiore, Mr. Fox Maule, the Hon. F. Baring, Colonle Sir E. Cust, Colonel C. Hutchinson, Hon. C. Hardinge, Colonel Wood, Henry Agar, A.E. Lockhart MP, etc..’ all signed up.

A tradesmen approached the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street with a query. He said he had men who were keen to serve but were concerned that they would not, as he believed was the principle of specials, be used to support policing in their own community, but instead be deployed elsewhere. Mr Bingham thought to reassure him:

‘It was perfectly well understood’ he said, ‘that special constables were for the protection of their own immediate neighbourhood only, and so long as they assisted to preserve the peace of their own locality, they need be under no apprehension of being called elsewhere’.

This calmed the tradesman who said he now suspected many more of his employees would be presenting themselves at the court in due course. The paper reported that Mr Bingham would now sit in tandem with his colleague Mr Hardwick tomorrow, so they could get through the numbers of men wishing to be sworn.

Nowhere, however, does it explain why so many specials were being called for or were volunteering. For this you need to know your history, particularly the political history of Britain in the mid 1800s. 1848 has been described as the ‘year of revolutions’ because of events in Paris, Sicily, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and elsewhere. Everywhere the desire for liberal democracy clashed with autocracy and in Britain, a nation more ‘democratic’ than some, we had our own taste of a popular movement for change: Chartism.

This is not the place for a careful analysis of Chartism but it was both a democratic movement and a revolutionary one. The Chartists wanted to extend the vote to all men, by secret ballot, and the abolition of the property qualification that effectively excluded all but the wealthy from standing for parliament. Indeed of the six demands they made only the call for annual elections has come into being. At the time however, these were radical demands and while Lord Russell (the sitting Prime Minister) was sympathetic to an increase in the franchise Britain wasn’t ready for one-man-one-vote (and wouldn’t be until 1918).

Chartists were split internally, between those that believed change had to come from persuasion and rhetoric and those that agitated for direct action to force change. The most extreme example of this would be the Newport Rising in November 1839 the failure of which which led to arrests and the transportation of the ringleaders to Australia. By 1848 Chartism was on its last legs but one of its leaders, Feargus O’Connor, decided that the best way to achieve their aims was by a combination of public demonstrations and a petition to Parliament.
He called a mass meeting of Chartists at Kennington Common, south of the river Thames, to rally his supporters and then a march to Parliament to present the petition. It echoed the events of 1780 when Lord George Gordon summoned his rag bag of anti-Catholic protestors to the Common to rail against attempts to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. In the end his supporters ran riot for a week burning down several prominent buildings (including Newgate Gaol) and attacking the Bank of England.

This may have been in the minds of the government and public in 1848 (as would Newport of course) and a call went out for volunteer constables. Lord Russell pleaded with O’Connor not to address the rally and agitate the crowd, nor to march on Parliament. He also arranged for 8,000 troops to be on hand and 150,000 special constables.

chartistsThe meeting went ahead on the 10 April 1848 without trouble, the Chartists claimed 300,000 turned up by other estimates put the numbers at a more conservation 20,000 – 50,000. O’Connor also claimed he had gathered over 5,000,000 signatures but in reality the petition contained just 1,975, 496 many of which were fake.

 

The whole thing did little for the cause and Chartism died a death after that.

So now we know why there were so many men signing up to be specials in April 1848, but without this little bit of historical knowledge (which I remember studying as a schoolboy) nothing in this newspaper report would make sense.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 08, 1848]

A Frenchman’s ‘foolish frolic’ in Wardour Street

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Part of the role of a Police Court magistrate in Victorian London was to determine whether cases that came before them ought to be sent up through the justice system. Much of the ‘crime’ they dealt with was petty, but far from all of it was. The magistrate was often the first stop in a longer process of prosecution; he heard the initial case put by the police (or a private individual) and decided if it required to be heard by a judge and jury.

The magistrate had quite considerable summary powers (the ability to sit in judgement on prisoners alone and without a jury) and these increased after the implementation of the Summary Jurisdiction Act (1855). Nearly all juvenile crime and a growing amount of petty theft, non fatal violence, and a huge variety of disorderly and anti-social behaviour was left to these law men.

Today’s case is an example of a justice having to decide whether he was going to deal with something himself, as a minor offence, or whether he felt it was serious enough to warrant a jury trial at the Middlesex Sessions or the Old Bailey.

Mr Bingham was presiding over a number of cases on a cold Monday morning in November 1851. He might have preferred to have been taking in the sights at the Great Exhibition which was in full swing at the time. Sadly for him, a steady stream of drunks, vagrants, petty thieves and wife-beaters demanded his attention instead.

At least Theodore Guibelei offered some light relief and a touch of continental sparkle to his morning of deliberation. Guibelei (most probably a Frenchman) was initially charged with theft by the policeman that brought him into Mr Bingham’s courtroom.

PC Martin (C68) deposed that he had found his man knocking at doors on Wardour Street in the early hours of Sunday morning. It was about 2am and so this strange behaviour attracted the attention of the beat ‘bobby’. As Guibelei left the doorstep on No. 43 PC Martin stopped him. Clearly unhappy with whatever response the Frenchman have the constable asked him to accompany him back to the door he’d just left.

It was then that PC Martin saw that the house’s door knocker had been wrenched off completely. Assuming that it was an accident or a prank the officer demanded that Guibelei raise the occupants of the house so that he could ‘square the matter’ with them (in other words apologise for the damage and offer to pay to repair it).

When the man refused he was arrested and taken to the nearest police station. On being searched two knockers were discovered, and it was found that the other belonged to a house in Princes Street. As a result Guibelei was charged with theft and damage.

In court the justice had to make a decision. Was the man a thief or some sort of prankster or nuisance? It mattered because if he sent him for trial for theft there was a very real risk that, if convicted, he could go to prison or worse. In court Guibelei had support from a ‘professional person’.

He told Mr Bingham that his friend was no thief and there was no ‘animo furandi’ [no intent to steal] on his part. It was all just a ‘foolish frolic’. And the magistrate chose to believe him. He said he would deal with there and then and fined him £3 plus £1 in damages for each door knocker. The Frenchman paid the money and left a free man.

Perhaps because of the class of the defendant or his representative, or maybe b

 

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 25, 1851]