‘You only have to order for one of the cafés, they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’: testing the boundaries of credit in Victorian London

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Today we operate a society largely underwritten by credit. I hardly use cash to pay for anything and for many things that I buy I use a credit card. My grandmother would no doubt be horrified if she was alive today. She was an Edwardian, born before the outbreak of war in 1914 in a very different country to the one we live in today. There credit was usually reserved for the wealthy although many small shopkeepers recognized that poor people needed some help in making ends meet and did them credit where possible.

But the real beneficiaries of credit in the way we understand it today (not paying for goods or services for sometime after you received them) were the middle class and elite. Many of wealthy in Victorian and Edwardian society simply lived on the ‘never never’, paying their bills when they really had to. Naturally this system was open to abuse as while the payments came from those at the top many of purchases were actually made by their servants.

In April 1888 Mary Hughes was prosecuted at the Marlborough Street Police court for ‘unlawfully obtaining three slices of salmon, value 10(or about £40 today). Hughes had entered Mrs Ann Crump’s fishmonger’s shop on New Bond Street and had asked for the fish. She said that the fish was for her mistress, the Countess of Dudley, and so the salmon was wrapped and the bill added to the countess’ account. Normally the fishmonger would have delivered the item later but Mary insisted that it was needed in a hurry, so she was given it straight away.

Something about her demeanor raised the cashier’s (a  Mr Woodwatd) suspicions however, and he decided to follow her. Woodward followed Mary along Bond Street to St James’ Street where she boarded a bus headed for Victoria. When they reached the Vauxhall Road Woodward collared her and told her he suspected her of committing a fraud. Mary spun him a line about having to go somewhere before she returned to her mistress but he didn’t fall for it. He called over a passing policeman and had her arrested. The officer took her in a cab to Dudley House, (below right) the home of the countess, and Woodward followed behind. dudley house

At Dudley House Mary’s unraveled: the housekeeper stated that she didn’t know her, she had never worked there and no one had sent her out to buy salmon. Mary was taken back to a police station to be charged and brought before the magistrate the next day. In court it was revealed that she’d told the officer on the way to the station that her ruse was an easy one to perpetrate:

‘You know what it is, constable, in these large firms. I have had many a piece there; you only have to order the salmon for some of the cafés, and then they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’.

This admission brought chuckles of laughter in the courtroom but the magistrate was unlikely to have been amused. This exploitation of the credit system undermined it and that, ultimately, affected people like him who enjoyed the freedom to choose when to pay that it brought. Mary said she had a relative who worked for the Countess of Dudley which is how she knew where the household placed its orders, let’s hope there were no repercussions for that employee. She added that on the day she’d committed the fraud she’d been drunk.

It was a lame defense at best but Mr Mansfield decided to remand her for a week while he decided what to do with her.  In the end Mary was tried and convicted at the quarter sessions and sent to Millbank prison for two months.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1888]

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]

A Daring snatch and grab robbery is foiled by an alert policeman

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19th century ‘life preservers’

It would seem that George Miller was a member of a dangerous ‘gang’ of criminals. One afternoon in late October 1849 Miller and two companions were riding in a cart on New Bond Street.

Unbeknown to them however, they were being watched by a plain-clothed policeman named Tottman. PC Tottman observed the cart move up and down the street before turning into Union Street, where it stopped. Tottman followed and kept an eye on them.

One of the men got out of the cart and looked around into Bond Street where a cab ‘with luggage on the roof’ presently appeared. The man vaulted onto the back of the moving cab and began to try and undo (or cut through) the straps that held a portmanteau in place.

As the first man joined his chums in the cart another of the men began to follow the cab at a safe distance. Clearly they three were plotting to steal the luggage and make off with in their cart. Tottman was on to them but he too was being watched. A woman in the street was acting as a casual lookout for the gang and she spotted the PC and alerted Miller and his friends.

Now the cart sped off, turning into Sheppard Street as the driver ‘urged the horses into a gallop’. Tottman set off in pursuit and caught them. However, as he tried to gain the cart and clamber aboard he was attacked by the occupants.

He later told the magistrate at Marlborough Street that his shots of ‘stop’ were ignored and he was hit about the head with the butt of a whip and by Miller with a ‘life preserver’. This was not what we think of today as a ‘rubber ring’ thrown from ships or docks, but a  short cudgel that could inflict a nasty wound.

The policeman was badly beaten but refused to loose his grip and eventually managed to arrest Miller when the cart collided with a cab in Oxford Street, throwing all the occupants into the street. Miller denied being involved and said he had just been holding the cart for the others. The magistrate remanded him for further enquiry.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, November 1, 1849]