Housebreaking in Stokey and Hackney; slim pickings perhaps but poverty was relative in 1887

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In early September 1887 William Parker (an 18 year-old box maker) and James Hall (also 18 and described as a boot maker), appeared at the Worship Street Police court accused of breaking and entering.

The pair, both Bethnal Green lads, had strayed west, targeting three different properties in Stoke Newington. They’d been picked up by police from N Division (which covered Islington and included Stoke Newington) with a bag that contained ‘housebreaking implements’ and their lodgings in Hackney and Globe Street, Bethnal Green were raided.

Sergeant Helson and his colleagues Sergeant May explained that they had arrested the pair on suspicion that they were involved with burglaries at the homes of a Mr Cameron (at 102 Clarence Road), Mr Mears (62 Bentham Road) and Ernest Beckman (a commission agent who lived at 82 Rectory Road).

Mrs Beckman testified that she’d left her home at 3 in the afternoon on Saturday 20 August and came back and hour and half later to find that the front door had been forced open. The dining room had been left in a terrible state, and upstairs in the bedroom her jewelry box was lying open and empty.

She said she had lost ‘£5 in gold, a gold watch and chain, a gold ring, two pairs of earrings, two brooches, and a pair of solitaires’.

The solitaires were found on Hall’s person when the police arrested him and a witness testified to seeing him loitering outside the property earlier that day. Sergeant Helson told the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that the area had suffered a great deal from break-ins recently and requested that the men be committed for trial. Mr Hannay obliged and both men were tried at the next quarter sessions. Hall was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for 15 months, Parker got an extra three months.

In Charles Booth’s 1888-90 poverty maps Rectory Road (where the Beckmans lived) is solidly red in colour, marking it out as ‘comfortable’. Rectory Road had ‘many old houses’ Booth reports, with ‘old fashioned wooden palings round the front gardens’. Several were semi-detached and rents were £45 (around  £,650 today). There were shops on Rectory Road’s west side and at the corner with Amhurst Road there was a large red brick building ‘with a  boy in buttons at the entrance’. This was the ‘Amhurst Club’ which charged a 2 guineas a year subscription. I have to check this but I believe this might be the site of the Regency Club (at 240a Amhurst Road) – popular with the Kray twins in the 1960s (below right).

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However, I can’t find a Bentham or Clarence in the near vicinity so perhaps those break-ins occurred further east, in Hackney (where  there is a Bentham Road). In the notebook covering the wider area Booth mentions Clarence Road (and Terrace) as a street where the houses have workshops ‘in their back gardens’; he coloured these purple moving to light-blue as it reached Clarence Terrace. One wonders what Hall and Parker could find to steal here but if they came out of worse conditions in the East End perhaps even slim pickings were worth stealing.

I’ll look in more detail at the area around Rectory Road in the next post.

[from Morning Post, 2 September 1887]

‘A most outrageous assault’: more gang violence in Oxford Street

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Most of the gang crime that plagued London in the late 1800s was pretty minor compared with the stabbings and drug related crime experienced by Londoners today. Even so, then, most of the victims were rival gang members. When ordinary members of the public were caught up they were often simply harassed or shoved as they walked home from the theatre or the pub and encountered groups of ‘roughs’ on the streets.

This incident, from December 1889, was within that typology of gang attack but was of a more serious nature, which was probably why it ended up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

Herbert Easton was walking home along Oxford Street after a late night out in town. He was heading past Harewood Place where a group of around 20 young men were gathered. As he past them something hit him on the back and he spun round on his heels. He wasn’t drunk but he had been drinking and, possibly emboldened by the ‘Dutch courage’ he demanded to know who was responsible.

He was met by silence and denials and carried on his way.

He was quickly aware that the group was now following him, in a very threatening manner. Before he had time to take evasive action they were on him, knocking him to the ground and kicking and punching at him.  As he tried the lift his umbrella as a makeshift weapons they overpowered him and held him down with it.

Easton struggled to his feet and pushed one of his assailants away. Seeing a cab he hailed it and jumped in side. The driver set off but the lads grabbed hold of the reins and one, George Leonard, tried to clamber into the cab. As Easton fought and grappled with Leonard the driver shouted out for help. A constable was quickly on the scene and fought his way through the throng, blowing his whistle to summons others.

As a number of officers arrived and the gang decided their luck was up, they melted away leaving Leonard in police custody. The police ordered the cabbie to make directly for Marlborough Police station where the young ‘rough’ was charged and thrown in a cell.

Appearing before Mr Hannay he had little to say for himself. The magistrate was much more forthcoming however. He told George Leonard (19) that this was ‘one of the worst street outrages he had ever heard of’ and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 10, 1889]

A Soho gambling den is raided but Mr Hannay shows some leniency

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Gamblers playing at Faro in the American midwest 

In November 1889 detectives and regular police constables led by Superintendent Heard of C Division raided a suspected gambling den at 14 Meard Street, Soho. The rounded up about 20 suspects, all of them Jewish immigrants, and took away several packs of playing cards and a Faro table.

Faro (or Pharo) was a old card game closely associated with gambling. It used a table, often covered in green baize and marked out in squares. There was a banker and the players laid bets. It was a simple game but, like other card games such as Poker, it was open to cheating by the ‘house’ and players. As a result it was banned in most European cities.

Despite the large number of participants the police only found small sums of money were involved. The men were gambling with their weekly wages, not their life savings and so Mr Hannay, the presiding magistrate at Marlborough Street (where the case was heard) was not inclined to penalize them overmuch.

Charles Levi, a tailor, was held to be the most responsible and was convicted of ‘keeping a common gaming-house’. He was fined £20, a large sum but still ‘small when compared with the fines that had been imposed in other cases’, Mr Hannay told him.

All the others were liable to fines of 6s 8dbut on this occasion the magistrate said he would be lenient and simply demand that they all entered into recognizance of £5 each to ensure they did not offend again. He also allowed Levi time to find the £20 fine, paying by installments if he chose, and so saved him from the default of going to prison for a month instead.

I wonder if Mr Hannay enjoyed a flutter himself and so considered moderate gambling no bad thing. He had to act of course, since a large police operation had been carried out; but he was able to be as lenient as possible.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]

‘You shan’t take him’; mob rule breaks down in the East End

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Some areas of the capital were notoriously difficult to police. There were several streets and alleyways in Spitalfields and Whitechapel where the police simply did not go unless they were in twos or threes; a single beat bobby was at serious risk of being assaulted if ventured into ‘the Nichol’ for example, or strolled down Dorset Street unawares.

In September 1883 one unfortunate copper had affected an arrested  on Brick Lane, just south of the notorious old Nichol Street slum. He’d been given the man in custody on an accusation of assault and was attempting to take him to the nearest station house when a man started winding up the watching crowd against him.

William Harrils shouted at the policeman: ‘You shan’t take him’, before urging the gathered people to intervene. They did, and a ‘mob’ of about 50 started jostling him and trying to get the prisoner away from his captor.

Suddenly the officer was tripped from behind and landed on his face. A woman rushed in and started to kick at him as he lay on the ground, Harrils punched him in the eye as he sat up. Thankfully help soon arrived in the person of a fellow officer and the crowd melted away leaving the female attacker and Harrils in the arms of the law.

The pair were brought before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court where Harrils received a sentence of 21 days in gaol and his accomplice, Emily Manley,  was fined 10s(or a weeks’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay).

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 27, 1883]

A wary theatre man avoids the ‘dippers’ and H H Holmes is linked to London

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Distraction theft is still one of the commonest forms committed by pickpockets in London. There are frequent warnings on the underground of ‘thieves operating’ and crowded areas like Oxford Street, Camden Town and Covent Garden are happy hunting grounds for ‘dippers’. If someone stops and asks you the time, says they know you from somewhere, or points out that you’ve dropped something – maybe even just brushes against you in the street and apologies – check your pockets!

Edward Walpole was pretty clued up and had his wits about him as he strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue one morning in July 1894. The concert agent lived in Pimlico and was presumably in the West End for work. He knew the area, was no stranger and certainly no wide-eyed tourist.

Two men approached him and one of them started to talk to him. ‘We’ve met before’, he said, ‘in Chicago, at the exhibition’. Walpole had never seen the pair before in his life, and had never been to the USA. He was suspicious, and uncomfortable as one of the men had got very close to him.

He looked down and saw that the chain of his watch was hanging loose from his waistcoat pocket and the watch itself was in the other man’s hand. As soon as they realized they’d been rumbled the other man told his companion to give Walpole his watch back and began to move away.

Edward seized the thief and the two of them struggled, falling to the pavement in the process. The fracas alerted a policeman and having ascertained that a theft had been attempted he arrested the stranger. The man gave his name as Henry Saunders but he was also known to the police as Henry Reginald Mason. He was charged before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

The Chicago Exhibition that the men mentioned was the World Fair (or the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’) that took place in 1893 and drew people from all over the globe to Illinois. Many locals profited from this influx of business but one man allegedly, exploited the event for a much darker purpose. Dr Henry Howard Holmes (or HH as he is almost always referred to) had built a hotel to accommodate gests for the fair but rumours soon circulated that several individuals, mostly women, had disappeared whilst staying there (although he never traded as a hotelier). HHH

Holmes (right) was a serial fraudster, coming money out of businesses and making false insurance claims and eventually when the going got too hot he quit Chicago. He was tracked down to the east coast where it was suspected he’d killed his business partner Benjamin Pitezel for the insurance money.  Meanwhile agents operating on behalf of companies Holmes had defrauded searched the hotel in Chicago. The property was very odd, with secret passageways, trap doors and windowless rooms.

Holmes was convicted of the murder of Pitezel and admitted killing many more (some of which were false claims, as the people concerned were still alive!). The hotel (dubbed ‘the castle by locals) was searched more thoroughly and human remains were found there. HH Holmes was executed in 1896 and remains a mysterious figure and possibly America’s first serial killer. Indeed, some people have suggested that he might have come to London to commit the Whitechapel murders, but having studied that case I think it unlikely. In fact if you want to know who I believe was ‘Jack the Ripper’ you might find my latest book interesting. Holmes, however, will form a small part of my next one.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 21, 1894]

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

‘Picking up rotten fruit from the ground’: Two small waifs struggle to survive in a society that doesn’t care

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The fact that Alice and Rosina Purcell were charged at Worship Street Police court under legislation intended to prosecute beggars and vagrants is not, in itself, unusual in the 1870s. Policemen, officers of Mendicity Society, and other public servants were all obliged to point out and have arrested those who wandered the streets destitute and begged for alms.

No, what makes this case so upsetting is the fact that that Alice and Rosina were aged just 6 and 8 respectfully. They were found wandering around Spitalfields Market begging ‘and picking up rotten fruit from the ground’. They were dressed in ‘the dirtiest of rags’ when James Gear, a school board inspector, decided to intervene. He took them to the nearest police station and then brought them before Mr Hannay at the east London police magistrate’s court.

The pair were clearly poor and hungry but through the filth the reporter still described them as ‘cheerful and intelligent’. They told the justice that their mother was dead and their father, who worked as a dock labourer, ‘left nothing for them at home’. They had no choice but to try and beg or find food for themselves.

This is a good example of the reality of life for very many people – young and old – in late Victorian Britain. Without a welfare system that supported families effectively girls like Alice and Rosina had to literally fend for themselves. We can criticize and condemn their father but with no wife at home to care for his children he was obliged to go out to work all day. Moreover dock work was not guaranteed – he’d be expected to be there very early in the morning for the ‘call on’ and such seasonal work that he would have got was very badly paid.

Mr Hannay was told that the girls were protestants and it was hoped that they might be sent away to the Protestant School. That would provided a solution of sorts but sadly there were no places available. Instead the magistrate ordered that the little sisters be taken to the workhouse until a better option could be found.

We might congratulate ourselves on having left such poverty behind. Children as young as Alice and Rosina should not have to beg for food in the modern capital of Great Britain. After all we are one of the richest countries in the world and have a well established welfare system that, we are told, people travel to the UK from all over the planet to exploit.

Yet poverty still exists in Britain and to a much higher rate than any of us should be comfortable with.  In March it was revealed that 4,000,000 children live in poverty in the UK, an increase of 500,000 since 2012. Last night’s news detailed the impact this is having in schools where almost half of all teachers surveyed said they had given children food or money out of their own pockets such is the degree of want they experience among pupils. The news report stated:

‘Children reaching in bins for food, homes infested with rats, five-year-olds with mouths full of rotten teeth. The reality of poverty in Britain, according to teachers who say they’re having to deal with it every day’.

This is not that far removed from the case above, the key difference being we no longer prosecute children for vagrancy or separate families in the workhouse. But it is absolutely scandalous that in a country that can waste £33,000,000 on ‘botched no-deal ferry contracts’ or spends £82,000,000 annually on the Royal family, and allows directors of FTSE companies to earn (on average) £2,433,000 each year (without bonuses) any child is going without sufficient food.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

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