The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

The repercussions of the Maiden Tribute are felt in Lisson Grove

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) was one of a handful of scandals that rocked Victorian society in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In an attempt to force the hand of parliament to pass legislation to raise the age of consent, the newspaper editor and scourge of government, William T Stead undertook to procure a young girl of 13. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette,  wanted to show the world just how easy it was for wealthy elite men to obtain access to the daughters of the working classes and in doing so shock and shame MPs and lords into protecting girls under the age of 16 (the age of consent in 1885 was 13).

Stead employed the help of a retired and reformed brothel madam, Rebecca Jarrett, who obtained a girl named Eliza Armstrong, paying her mother £5 for the child. Jarrett took Eliza to a room where she was drugged (as victims would normally be) before Stead visited her. There is no suggestion that Stead went through with any rape of the girl but simply made his point. The Pall Mall Gazette then published a serialised account of the problem and Stead’s exercise in exposing it.

One of the consequences of this was that Eliza’s mother and father came in for considerable abuse from their neighbours for selling their daughter into prostitution. Mr and Mrs Armstrong claimed they had done no such thing; as far as they were concerned Jarrett was taking the child off to be trained as a domestic servant for a wealthy employer.

Regardless of whether they knew the real fate intended for Eliza or not this led (with support from those opposed to Stead and his campaign) to a court case at the Old Bailey where Stead and Jarrett were convicted of kidnapping and indecent assault. Stead went to prison for three months, Jarrett for six. There was a ‘happy ending’ in that Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent to 16 but all parties were damaged by the process. Stead never fully  recovered his former reputation as an investigative journalist; Jarrett withered in Millbank prison, and poor Eliza was badly affected by her experience.

In August 1888, just as the cycle of killings known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’ began in East London Elizabeth Armstrong (Eliza’s mother) appeared before the police magistrate at Marylebone. Elizabeth, aged 39 and resident at Charles Street, Lisson Grove, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting one of her neighbours and a policeman.

Ellen Tuley deposed that Elizabeth had attacked her with ‘a sweep’s broom and kicked the constable’. Constable Nicholas (100D) confirmed this and so the case was fully proved against her.

Mrs Armstrong was defended in court by Mr Pain, who had been her lawyer throughout the Maiden Tribute case. He said that ‘ever since the unfortunate case of Eliza Armstrong, when it was suggested that his client had sold her daughter for £5, she had been subjected to systematic annoyance at the hands of the prosecutrix and others’. Her husband had been sent quite mad by the affair and was now living in the Marylebone infirmary.

Elizabeth Armstrong denied the assault and counter claimed that Ellen had instead attacked her. The magistrate had to deal with several other related summons from various neighbours of the Armstrongs, binding several over on their own recognisances to behave in future. The Maiden Tribute case had clearly polarised opinion in this poor district of London.

Elizabeth was sent to prison for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly and most probably for the attack on the constable, which would not be tolerated by the magistracy in the 1880s. Mr Pain noted that it was not her first appearance or her first conviction at Marylebone and that too counted against her. By 1888 Eliza Armstrong would have been 16 and free to get on with her life, if she was able. With a father in a lunatic ward and a mother in gaol one wonders if that was possible. Stead clearly believed he was doing God’s work in exposing child prostitution but not for the first time one is bound to ask whether journalists and newspaper editors fully consider the effects of their ‘higher’ actions on the ‘ordinary’ people they use along the way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 5 August 1888]

Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]