‘A Reckless Blackguard’ in the dock for a murder on the Isle of Dogs

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Today’s case took up almost the entirety of the Morning Chronicle’s  crime news coverage when it was published in April 1838. The story concerned a murder and, if that was not sensational enough for the paper’s readers, a murder that had taken place nearly a year earlier. The case had surfaced on the previous Monday when it had been brought before the magistrates at Greenwich, but when it was determined that the victim had been murdered by the banks of the River Thames, they transferred it to the Thames Police Court.

The victim was an engine smith named Duncan Crawford and he had met his death opposite Greenwich, on the Isle of Dogs on the 9 April 1837. His killer had remained unknown and at liberty ever since but on 10 April 1838 Thomas Paul (alias Scott) was placed in the dock at Thames to be formally examined by two justices: Mr Ballantine and Mr Greenwood.

Paul looked rough but the paper wanted to show him as suitable murder suspect. He was bruised and battered from some recent scuffle (suggestive of his violent tendencies) but he still cut a ‘tall, athletic’ figure in the courtroom. However the reporter was at pains to point out that the prisoner at the bar had the appearance of ‘a reckless blackguard’. He was clearly agitated by his public examination:

‘he betrayed considerable emotion, and his legs and arms frequently crossed and re-crossed each other, and his countenance underwent several changes’.

Here was a man ill at ease with himself, was his failure to control his emotions and sign of inner turmoil and his guilt? I think that is what the writer wanted his audience to think. Murderers had to look different from the rest of civilised society; a monster amongst us and Paul’s inability to keep control over his own body was surely a sign of his animalistic nature desperately trying to break out.

The arrest had been made by PS Benjamin Lovell (15R) who’d picked him up at his lodgings in Deptford. He had given the name Paul but apparently this was  alive, his ‘real name was Scott’ and he went by the nickname locally of ‘Scottey’. It seems as if ‘Scottey’s downfall was that after attacking Crawford and robbing him, he sent a female friend off to pawn the gold watch seals he’d  stolen. She took them to a pawnbroker but this had been discovered by the police and the watch identified as the victim’s. When sergeant Lovell arrested Paul/Scott he admitted giving a woman a watch to pawn.

Mr Ballantine wanted to be sure that Lovell had not tricked his man into revealing what he’d done. He hadn’t the policeman assured him. He had arrested him (on a tip off from a woman – the woman who pledged the watch perhaps?) and when he’d searched him he’d found a number of suspicious items including one or two more duplicated for items pledged at Mr Perry’s pawnshop in Flagon Row.

All of this evidence was backed up by James Cooper (191R) another police officer who’d been present at the arrest and presumably involved in the Greenwich police’s investigation. The court now heard from Anna Philips who lived in the same street where Paul had lodged, Dock Street.

Anna recalled that a year earlier a young woman named Jane McCarthy had popped in to ask her advice. Jane had three gold watch seals and she wanted to find out if they were genuinely gold, of just fake. Jane was Thomas Paul’s lover, the pair cohabited Anna explained, and so it must have been her (Anna Philips) who’d given the information that led to Paul’s arrest.

Why had it taken her a year though? Well it seems she had quarrelled with Thomas Paul a few weeks after the seals were brought to her house. Paul had thrown a jug at her and in her rage she’d said she knew that the watch seals were stolen and had heard they came from a  man that had been murdered. Paul then seized her and ‘swore he would murder her if she said so again’, so she said she’d keep her thoughts to herself.

Two other women had been involved with Paul: Mary Davis had taken the watch to Perry’s (where the pawnbroker had ‘stopped it’ – in other words seized it because he thought it to be stolen). She reported this to Paul. Elizabeth Tiller had lived with Jane McCarthy and so knew her side of the story. Paul had told her he’d found the seals in the river, she had nothing to do with the robbery. Not that it mattered much anyway, since Jane had died four months earlier, how or of what Elizabeth didn’t reveal in court (although we do discover this later).

Possibly the most dramatic moment in court was when the next witness came forward. She was Mrs Charlotte Johnson, a respectable woman that lived in Rotherhithe Street with her elderly father. Duncan Crawford had lodged with them for seven months, so she knew him well. Mr Ballantine handed her a silver watch case inscribed with the initials ‘J.R.K’.

‘Now look carefully at this watch-case’ the magistrate told her, ‘and don’t let me mislead you. Tell me whether this is the deceased’s watch-case or not’.

The case produced was that detained at the pawnbrokers and so it could be traced back to Paul and the murder. The public in court must have held their collective breath.

‘That is it, sir’ replied Mrs Johnson, ‘He had it on the day he left my father’s house’.

She was handed several other items found at the ‘brokers and believed to be Crawford’s. She identified some of them but couldn’t swear to everything there. There seemed to be enough evidence though that these things were Crawford’s, but that didn’t mean that Paul/Scott had killed him. He had claimed he’d found the items in the river and Crawford had ben found dead in a pond by the river, maybe Paul had simply robbed an already dead body? Callous yes, but criminal? Not clearly.

The magistrate asked what the coroner’s verdict had been. After some hesitation he was informed that the victim had ‘been found drowned, with marks of violence on his person, but how or by what means they were caused was unknown’. This was long before effective forensics remember.

Mrs Johnson’s father had identified Crawford’s body in the Poplar dead house. He aid he ‘had no doubt he’d been robbed and murdered’.

‘He had received a tremendous blow under the left ear, another on the forehead, and the legs were bruised from the ankles up to the knees, as if they had been trodden upon’.

Mr Ballantine thanked him and turned to the prisoner. Did he wish to say anything at this stage? The matter was serious and ‘affected his life’. Paul was well aware of that and declined to offer a defence at this point. Mr Ballantine remanded him to appear again, with all the witnesses and the pawnbroker Mr Perry, on the following Wednesday.

It was left for the reporter to paint his readers a picture of the discovery of Crawford’s body and reflect on what was known about the murder (if that’s what it was, and the Morning Chronicle had no doubt it was). Crawford’s body had been found ‘in a lonely spot’ on the island, covered in mud close to the muddy pond.

‘It was extraordinary’ the report continued, ‘that the facts relating to the murder of Crawford have not come to light before’. Scott (Paul) had many quarrels with his neighbours, and with Jane McCarthy and it was said that his violent outbursts ‘hastened her death’. Two days before Jane died she told one of the women who gave evidence that day that Scott had confessed to the murder.

In the end however, the magistrates must have decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Paul with Crawford’s murder. He was indicted instead for simply larceny and tried at the Old Bailey in mid May of that year. The jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years. He was 36 years old and, if the records are accurate, he did ok ‘down under’ living to the ripe old age of 88. As for Duncan Crawford, he must go down as one of thousands of murder victims in the Victorian period whose killers escaped ‘justice’ as contemporaries would have understood it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 11, 1838]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

A brothel madam falls foul of the law

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In Victorian London overcrowding was common and tensions often flared between occupants of lodging houses and those that owned them. Disputes over non payment of rent were frequent and overcrowding and the demand for somewhere to sleep meant that landlords were able to kick out their tenants with relative ease. If they didn’t immediately evict those who were behind with the rent it was rarely out of any consideration for their welfare. More likely they were aware that if someone owed several weeks’ rent then evicting them was hardly likely to get the debt settled.

One option was to distrain their goods against the value of the debt. This was what happened to a young woman that lived in a house owned by Mary Lawson near the Gray’s Inn Road.

Mary’s unnamed tenant owed her the small sum of 2s 6d, or about £5 today. It wouldn’t buy you that much and helps illustrate how cheap the lodgings Mary ran were. Was this a week’s money, a month’s, we don’t know. What we do know is that the girl didn’t have the money to pay it and so Mary Lawson employed a broker named Chase (from nearby Saffron Hill) to seize her possessions.

The girl was obviously poor but she also had a child to support and so ‘was driven to wander about in great want’, until her former neighbours undertook to support her. The property she lived in at George Court,  Gray’s Inn Lane was home to many other people. Nothing remains of this property today and the space is occupied by Fox Court a modern office building which is home, a little ironically perhaps, to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Social Security and Child Support).

In 1845 George Court was a brothel, and a large one. It had ‘accommodation for 46 girls’ in no less than seven houses, all of them owned by Mary Lawson. This ‘elderly woman’ was a madam on a large scale. The girl who she was in dispute with was a prostitute; we know this because when she came to the Clerkenwell Police Court to complain that Lawson had assaulted her she was described as ‘unfortunate’, Victorian code for a sex worker.

When Mary had heard how the other residents had clubbed together to help the girl she went into a rage, shouting at them and threatening to evict them all or seize their property. She couldn’t have her authority undermined in so direct a manner.

In court the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, saw an angle to challenge both Mary and her practice of extorting money with menaces. He called the broker over and told him, as one lawyer to another, ‘that no money can be due arising out of such places of immorality’. In short, Mary Lawson couldn’t charge her residents rent or distrain their goods for non payment because she was in effect living off their immoral earrings. He said he would inform the parish authorities (at St Andrew’s, Holborn) and have them put ‘down the nuisance’.

He added that it had already been allowed to be ‘carried on for too long a period, to the annoyance of the more peaceable and respectable inhabitants in the vicinity, as disturbances and robberies were the constant result of the nuisance, which had frequently been complained of’.

As for Mary Lawson, he took note of her relative wealth and how she had come by it and fined her the princely sum of 50s for the assault plus costs, and sent her on her way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, July 20, 1845]

A ‘common evil’? London’s police in their early years

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I have referred previously to criticism of the police in the decades after their creation in June 1829. Historians such as Robert Storch have pointe out that far from the smooth transition described by early historians of the force, the ‘New Police’ were openly abused, distrusted and despised by ‘ordinary’ working-class men and women.

It wasn’t just the lower order that disliked the ‘boys in blue’. The upper and middle classes resented them as burdens on the rates and for overstepping their class position. In short the wealthy were not at all keen on being told what to do by their social inferiors.

The working classes were equally disgruntled about being told off or told to to ‘go home’ by someone of their own class who seemingly lauded it over them. The p’liceman who earned a steady wage where others of his class struggled, was bound to attract some unfriendly comments at the very least. Policeman were also recruited from outside the capital, often former agricultural labourers (who could be relied upon to be strong, dependable, and not ask too many questions).

This case illustrates some of the underlying tensions that existed in the first 20 or so years of the Met and reflects the awkward position of both the police officer on the beat and the ‘Police’ Magistrate (who was not a part of the same organisation). It also gives the paper an opportunity to aim some fairly typical racist barbs at the Irish.

One of Mr Greenwood’s cases at Clerkenwell Police Court on the weekend of the 18th-19th June 1842 concerned a man (unnamed) of ‘decent-looking’ appearance. He appeared with the policeman (also anonymous here) who had arrested him and accompanied him to court. The PC was Irish and possibly a new recruit. This, it was explained, might have accounted for his behaviour.

There was no obvious charge levelled against the man and it soon became apparent that there was little reason for him to be in court at all. He had been arrested, effectively, for loitering on Grove Lane, Holloway.

The policeman testified that he had seen him standing in Grove Lane two days in succession, presumably passing him on his beat. On the second occasion he asked hi what he was doing there but the man refused to answer.

He then asked him where he lived, and was told ‘Islington’.

‘”Where” ses I’ continued the policeman.

‘What’s that to you?’ replied the man.

“Be the powers, are yer respectable?” I thin [sic] remarked’, the officer told the court, ‘and he still refusing to give any satisfactory explanation, I marched him off to the station-house’.

The magistrate now examined the policeman directly:

‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Nothing at all’ responded the bobby, to peels of laughter from the courtroom.

‘And that was why he was locked up?’ enquired a clearly puzzled Mr Greenwood.

Yes, yer Worship. He wouldn’t say anything about himself but told me to mind my own business’.

Well, that was as it should be the magistrate chided him. He told the policeman that he had no more right locking up this person than would have in arresting him or anyone ales for that matter. The man had done nothing wrong; had broken no law and was simply being locked up for being slightly impertinent to a copper.

He said that this should not have resulted in a charge and for that the policeman was less to blame than the desk sergeant. However, he added, ‘I have frequently of late had to complain of the conduct of the police, and if there is not an alteration, they will be become a common evil’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 20, 1842]