A cunning thief who finally runs out of luck

Doctor examines the patient's state of health during home visits - 1896

Joe Jackson was a thief with a clever modus operandi. Operating in the late 1880s he perfected a ruse whereby he approached the houses of ‘well-known physicians’, knocked on the door, and claimed that his mother (or elderly aunt) was ill. In the days before GP waiting rooms he would be shown into the library or study.

He would then ask for a pen and paper, so that he could write known his relative’s symptoms for the doctor, and while this was fetched by the servants, he’d quickly steal anything of value he could and leave.

On the 22 November 1888 Jackson’s mini spree came to an end when he was brought up before Mr Shiel at Southwark Police court. There he was formally charged with stealing a silver salver from the home of Dr Taylor in Thomas’ Street, the Borough.

He’d taken the salver while the butler was out of the room but the servant had chased after him and nabbed him. Thereafter he was handed over the police, in the person of PC Greenwood.  Jackson commented to the officer that ‘it was rather hard that he should be given into custody, as the article he stole was not silver, ‘it was “only plated”.

He told Mr Shiel that his mother really was ill, he himself was ‘hard up’ and so he only stole to ‘get a little money’. Sergeant Hardy informed the magistrate that Jackson was wanted for at least 20 similar cases and that 16 pawn tickets, all traceable to items stolen in similar robberies, were found when they searched him.

The magistrate fully committed him to trial.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 23, 1888]

Doctors were very much in the news in 1888. North of the river from the Borough, in Whitechapel, a series of brutal murders had shaken Victorian Britain. The killer was never caught but in our recent book myself and Andy Wise believe we might have a new suspect to discuss. If you are looking for a good new read or  present for a family member that enjoys True Crime and Victorian history can I nudge you towards Jack and the Thames Torso Murders? Published by Amberley Books it is available on Amazon now, ideal for Christmas! 

Hooligans battle with cyclists and come off worse

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In the 1890s a new word entered the lexicon: ‘hooligan’. It was used to refer to gangs of youth, mostly men, who engaged in petty crime and acts of anti-social behaviour. We’ve taken the word and applied it more broadly to any group of badly behaved people, and in the 1970 and 80s, largely those associated with football ‘fans’.

Of course the ‘hooligan menace’ was not a new thing in the 1890s it was more that the period witnessed one another media generated ‘moral panic’ about youth, and specifically youth in Britain’s large urban areas. This fear of youth, and preoccupation with gangs, re-emerged in the 1890s and then again at various points in the twentieth century (in 1920s London, in the 50s with Teddy boys, 1960s with Mods and Rockers) before it changed its focus to concentrate on knife and gun crime in the late 1900s and early 21stcentury.

Before the term ‘hooligan’ was coined most youth gangs were identified as ‘roughs’ or ‘ruffians’; fairly generic terms that could be used against any group of ill-mannered people gathered in small to larger crowds, such as could be found at a political rally or demonstration.  If you look at the context of reports in the media however it is fairly easy to spot where the ‘roughs’ in question are young men (and women) behaving badly.

In May 1890 Lloyd’s Weekly included a report of a ‘ruffianly attack on cyclists’. Lewis Smead (a licensed victualer), William Harbert (a skate maker) and Edward march (an engineer) were enjoying a day out with their cycle club on the Fulham Road. Rather like today’s lycra clad enthusiasts that clog up the country lanes on the edges of the capital and throughout the Home Counties, these three ‘respectable’ members of lower middle class society were taking the air and indulging their passion for two wheels.

They belonged to a club and were cycling slowly and in single file along the Fulham Road when they passed a group of young people. Almost immediately they were subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. This soon escalated into physical violence as random youths rushed into the street to try and knock a rider off his bike, perhaps daring each other to do so.

The police quickly got involved as they had already been trying to move on the ‘gang of disorderly youths and girls’ who had been pushing pedestrians off the pavement as they strutted their way down the road.

One lad, later identified as Lewis Rogers, a 19 year-old coachman, knocked Mr Smead off his vehicle and then punched him in the jaw, swearing at him for good measure. Then a full blown battle ensued which the police were hard pressed to do much about. One of the club’s bicycles was ‘completely smashed up’ and as Harbert tried to apprehend the perpetrator he was assaulted. Rogers allegedly told him that ‘he would boot him up’.

March’s lip was split open as he struggled with several youths and at least one of the girls, and noted that the females were ‘helping [the boys] in every possible way’. The girls it seems were every bit as ‘ruffianly’ as their male companions. The whole episode ended with Rogers being arrested and brought before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court. One young woman testified in his defense, swearing on oath that Rogers had collided with Mr Smead’s machine by accident.

The magistrate dismissed her evidence out of hand. Rogers, he said, was:

‘evidently one of those troublesome young roughs who could not let a decent person pass without interference, and he would go to hard labour for a month’.

He added that the lad was lucky it wasn’t the longer sentence that he would have preferred to hand down had it not been for the punishment meted out to him already by members of the club. It transpired that Rogers had been knocked against a wall and his head cut open by the angry cyclists that his ‘gang’ of ‘ruffians’ had chosen to abuse. It was justice of a sort and the magistrate made no effort to condemn the violence of the ‘respectable’ men of the cycle club.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

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 15 June this year. You can find details here:

The bravery of one young man saves another from a terrible beating at the hands of his father

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Battersea, in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1889-90

John Hobart had just got home to the house his mother ran in Gywnn Road, Battersea when she called to him. Eliza Hobart rented rooms to a family who lived upstairs, a father (William Williams) and his young son. Eliza was worried because she’d heard screams from upstairs and it seemed as if Williams was beating his young lad half to death.

‘Go upstairs and stop it’, she shouted to her own lad, who hurried upstairs at once. He reached the Williams’ door and tried it but it was locked. He could hear dreadful noises from within so put his shoulder to the portal and forced it open. As he fell into the room he saw Williams brandishing a heavy rope and raining down blows on his boy. When he saw the intruder Williams let go of his victim and went for Hobart swinging his rope.

Fortunately before he could do any damage a policeman arrived and subdued him, taking him away to the station while the little boy was carried off to the infirmary, bleeding from wounds to his head and face. The rope and a piece of wood was recovered from the room as evidence and the police constable reported that when he examined Williams at the station he noticed blood on his cuffs.

In court at Wandsworth Williams admitted beating the lad with the rope but denied the accusation that he’d hit with a piece of wood. He justified his actions by saying that the boy had played truant from school but had kept the money his father had given him for his fees. The justice, Mr Sheil, remanded Williams in custody while he decided what to do with him.

And that, I’m afraid, is the last we hear of him. If Williams came back to be punished or released by a Police court magistrate the papers didn’t report it. If he was sent for a jury trial or imprisoned or fined, again, we have no record. All we can hope is that his little boy survived and that may be due entirely to the determination of his landlady to interfere and the bravery of her son to intervene.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 26, 1885]

‘A weak-minded blackguard’: unrequited love and mental health collide at Hammersmith

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Frederick George Helmore was a troubled young man. The son of a successful coal merchant Frederick had been before the magistrates on more than one occasion, and had been cited in Chancery as a father moved to protect his daughter from the young man’s advances.

The problem had started in 1874 when Frederick had met Sarah Alice Grierson at Margate when she and her family had been on holiday. Sarah was also well connected, as the daughter of the General Manager of the Great Western Railway she enjoyed a life of considerable luxury. At first it seems that Sarah was quite enamoured with Frederick and enjoyed his attention. She wore a necktie he gave her to church and returned his letters.

But either she tired of him or her parents felt the match was inappropriate or she was too young (at 16 or 17) and she cooled on him. Fred was not to be deterred however and he kept writing to her, sending gifts and turning up at places he expected to find her (including at school and at seaside retreats like Margate and Folkestone).

This behaviour was not ‘normal’ and today we would describe as stalking. The courts soon became involved as her family tried to protect her. Frederick was summoned before Mr Sheil at Hammersmith Police court and bound over for £250 to refrain from approaching her. Her father had even fixed a sum of £100 on her to make her a formal ward of the court of Chancery as a result of Frederick’s unwanted attention.

None of this stopped the young man however and his behaviour became ever more extreme to the point that his mental health was being called into question. In October 1881, seven years after his initial meeting with Sarah, he was again in court at Hammersmith, this time in front of Mr Paget.

The charge was one of annoying Miss Grierson and threatening her life. According to the prosecution (conducted by Mr Lambert) Fred had approached Sarah and her sister in town and when they had climbed into their coach he ran after them. The magistrate was told that he tried to hang on the window and shouted threats at Sarah. Her sister reported that he warned that he ‘would do for you now, Alice’, before the window was closed and the coach moved off.

Mr Grierson gave an account of the years of trouble that Fred had caused and said that only recently he had donated a watch that the young man had sent to Sarah Alice to charity. The railwayman described Frederick as either a ‘lunatic’ or a ‘weak-minded blackguard’.  He was clearly sick of the whole business and wanted something to be done about it.

In court Frederick vehemently denied threatening Sarah Alice, swearing that all he said was that she ‘had gone too far’. He was not dealing with rejection at all well and the hints at the state of his mental health were probably close to the truth.

This is certainly what Mr Paget concluded. He bound the man over again, this time for the huge sum of £1000 plus two further sureties of £500 each (one of whom was Fred’s father).  But he warned him (and his family) that if he was summoned before the police courts again he would be dealt with as a lunatic and ‘not under proper control’. In other words he would restrained and locked up in an asylum (‘sectioned’ as we might term it today).

Frederick was led away and given into the care of his family. Hopefully they took the necessary precautions to make sure he never again troubled the Griersons.

[from The Standard, Thursday 13 October, 1881]

Echoes of Saddleworth as arsonists set Wimbledon Common on fire

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At the beginning of the week the Fire Serve in Greater Manchester declared that they had finally put out the fires that have devastated Saddleworth Moor in the past few weeks. Although they warned that the continuing hot weather might precipitate further outbreaks of fire, the situation is now under control.

The exact cause of the fire hasn’t yet been confirmed but there were sightings of men or youths on the 24 June apparently deliberately setting fires. Of course it goes without saying that anyone who starts a fire that might endanger people, homes, wildlife and the environment is either completely devoid of morals or intelligence, or is in need of psychiatric support.  It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow.

Sadly arson is not that uncommon an offence, nor is there anything particularly new in what those people did in the north west of England. In July 1881 four men were charged at Wandsworth Police court in South London with ‘wifully setting fires’ on Wimbledon Common.

Now, readers of a certain age may associate Wimbledon Common with much more positive examples of outdoor activity but it is fair to say that Frederick Deverell (a porter), William Grain (a lighterman), William Booth (a plumber) and Alfred Byrant (a painter) were no Wombles. SHOWBIZ Wombles 1

Deverall and Grain were seen lighting matches and throwing them into the furze on Sunday evening (the 17 July, 1881), while Booth and Bryant were sighted doing exactly the same on the Monday. The common had been set on fire several times that month and so the offenders could expect to be dealt with severely if they were caught.

All of the parties denied any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming it was an accident. Mr Shiel, the presiding magistrate, didn’t believe them however and fined Booth and Bryant £5 each, with a month in prison if they were unable to pay the fines. He clearly deemed that Deverall and Grain’s crimes were the greater however, as he indicted them to stand trial in front of a jury where they might be given a longer custodial sentence if convicted.

The pair were lucky. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 2 August and acquitted. Both were young, just 17, and the situation on the common was confused with lots of visitors and some people camping out in the summer holidays.

Nevertheless there does seem to have been sufficient witness testimony from the police (who were there in plain clothes) and the head keeper of the common to have convicted them so perhaps the fact that they received good character references saved them from a lengthy spell in gaol. I hope those responsible for setting the fires on Saddleworth Moor are not afforded such generosity if they ever come before a jury.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 20, 1881]

An avoidable tragedy as a builder’s misplaced retaliation ends in death.

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James Hall was working as a builder in a yard on Manresa Road in Westminster. He was climbing the scaffolding to readjust it when a piece of wood sailed past his ear. The wood had been thrown by one of his mates, as a prank no doubt, but he couldn’t see whom at the time and then he noticed a group of small boys playing nearby.

Grabbing a flint stone from he found lying by the poles he aimed it at the boys and let fly. It hit one of them, a lad named Frederick Littlewood, who  fell the ground. As his friends gathered round him he simply groaned ‘take me home’ and they ran for help.

Fred passed away the next morning, he was eight years old.

The inquest heard what had happened and the police arrested Hall and on the 10 June 1891 he was stood in the dock at the Westminster Police court for Mr Sheil to decided what to do with him. Hall was desperately sorry for what had happened; he clearly had no intention of killing the boy, or anyone for that matter. He said he only wanted to frighten the boys.

The magistrate decided he needed more information, more witnesses if possible, and so he released Hall on his promise to return to court in seven days and took his own recognizance to the value of £10.

It was a stupid thing to do but ultimately it was an accident. Hall himself was only 18, not that that would prevent him from hanging if a jury deemed that he had committed murder.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 11, 1891]

 

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]