Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]

The workhouse girl who failed to take her opportunities and took the silver instead

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Yesterday we celebrated 100 years of women over 30 having the vote in England. Britain wasn’t the first nation to give women the vote however, that was New Zealand in 1893. In 1893 in England women were still firmly viewed as second-class citizens.

Many young working-class women found work in London as domestic servants. One such woman was Harriett Sabin, a 17 year-old who found herself before the North London Police court in February 1893, charged with theft.

Harriett had been hired in December 1891 to work at a house in Clissold Road. She had got the position through the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) which had been formed in 1874 by Henrietta Barnet and Jane Nassau Senior. MABYS helped young women who had grown up in workhouses to find work in the homes of the better off and by 1890 the charity had over 1,000 volunteers throughout the capital.

It soon became evident that Harriett wasn’t suited to the position she been found however. She had arrived with ‘an indifferent character’ but ‘had pleaded for a chance’. Sadly her opportunity didn’t last very long though and she was given notice to quit at the end of a month. While employment hadn’t worked out Harriett was determined she would get something out of the experience.

On the penultimate day of December 1891, while the family were at dinner, Harriett got hold of a key and absconded through a side gate with a number of articles belonging to the house and staff that worked there. A search was made and it was found that the following items were missing:

‘a silver teapot, a gold bracelet, two gold brooches, a gold ring, a case of dessert knives and forks, and an umbrella’.

Another servant also reported that she had lost some items and suspicion inevitably fell on the girl from the workhouse. A warrant was issued to arrest her but she was nowhere to be found. Harriett had disappeared and nothing was heard about her until she surfaced in December 1893 in Northampton where ‘she was in custody for a similar offence’.

The police investigation, led by Detective-sergeant Bowers, had traced several of the stolen items to a pawnbrokers in Wood Green. In court the magistrate was at pains to point out that the pawnbroker was also at fault here. In the eighteenth century pawnbrokers were heavily criticised by commentators like Henry Fielding (the novelist and Bow Street magistrate) for allowing thieves a mechanism for laundering stolen goods. In this case a silver watch had been accepted even though it was engraved with the name of the owner – Mr Attree, Harriet’s former employer.

Many of the goods were produced in court for members of household (the Attrees and their staff) to swear to. The pawnbroker’s assistant, John Smith, was also there (n doubt shuffling uncomfortably under the magistrate’s glare).

DS Bowers had traveled the 60 miles north to question Harriett and reported that she had been convicted of theft there, and sent to prison for two months (which helps to explain why she had seemingly ‘disappeared’). Since she was now before Mr Ware and Mr Lane (the two sitting justices at North London) that sentence must have been completed. They decided that since she was clearly ‘a bad girl’ she would  to prison for a further three months.

The system was harsh. Harriett, a workhouse girl from a pauper background, had been given an opportunity to carve out a better life for herself, albeit as someone else’s drudge. She didn’t take it, or couldn’t adapt to it, and we don’t entirely know why. As a result she ended up exchanging one closed institution (the poor house) for another (the prison).

She was just 17 when she appeared before the magistrates at North London Police Court, and would be nearly 20 by the time she would be released from gaol. In effect her life was already ruined. I can only imagine what the future held for her but with a set of previous convictions and no character references to support her, that future must have seemed bleak to her.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 07, 1893]

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]