Caveat Emptor is the watchword on the Ratcliffe Highway as an Italian sailor strikes a hard bargain

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Here’s a case of caveat emptor (‘buying beware’) from the Ratcliffe Highway, where in the nineteenth century unwary sailors and other visitors were frequently separated from their hard earned wages.

Marion Madria was an Italian seaman, one of many in the multi-cultural district close to the dockyards that stretched along the East End’s riverfront. As he walked along the Ratcliffe Highway in early August 1857 he passed a jewelry shop. One of the store’s employees stood outside offering items for sale to passers-by, tempting them to enter with special offers and ‘bargains of the lifetime’. Their tactics were much the same as those of retailers today, but relied on the spoken word more than print (sensible in a society with much lower levels of literacy than today’s).

Madria was hooked and reeled in to the shop where he was offered a gold chain for just £3. It was a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ bargain but £3 was still a lot of money so the sailor bartered the price down to £2 9s. He didn’t have all the money but that was no problem, the shop assistant said he could pay a deposit of 9and bring the balance back later. Moreover, he could even take the chain away in the meantime.

I suspect Madria might have been a little drunk when he bought the chain, which would hardly have been unusual for a sailor on the Highway. Later that day as he showed his prize off to his mates he soon realized he’d been ‘done’.  The ‘gold’ chain was nothing more than brass and worth barely 6not nearly £3. It should have been obvious that a chain of that eight made from gold would have cost nearer £300 than £3. It really was too good to be true.

Enraged and not a little embarrassed the Italian obtained a summons to bring the shop’s owner to court to answer for his attempt to defraud him. In consequence Samuel Prehowsky appeared at Thames Police court before Mr Yardley. Since Madria’s English was limited at best the case was presented by a lawyer, Mr Young.

Young set out the details of the case and showed the justice the chain in question. He said he’d had it valued at between 4 and 6 pence and it was clearly not even worth the 9sthat Madria had left as a deposit. Mr Yardley agreed but he was far from certain that any fraud had taken place. He couldn’t quite believe that anyone would have fallen for it anyway. Young said that his client had ‘been dragged into the shop, and done for’. The magistrate replied that had he indeed been ‘dragged in he would have dealt with this as an assault, but he’d entered of his own volition. There was no assault involved at all, just incredible naivety.

Mr Prehowsky was an immigrant himself, a long established Jewish trader in clothes and jewelry who had come to London from Poland many years earlier. He explained that he’d not been in the shop that morning but would be able to bring witnesses to prove that Madria was not charged £30 but just 10s, which he bargained down to 9s and paid.  At this Madra cut in:

‘He say all gold, only £2 9s. – you leave me de money, all you have got, -9s and bring me de money, all the rest of it’.

‘You have not paid him the other £2 I hope?’, the magistrate asked him.

‘No Senhor, all brass, like the Jew [who] stand there’.

This last exchange brought the house down, laughter filling the courtroom.

It was a cautionary tale for the paper’s readership – be careful when you are buying jewelry on the Highway or you might get less than you bargained for. It was also an opportunity to make fun at the expense of a foreigner (Madria) and remind English readers that Jews were untrustworthy and avaricious. But no crime had been committed. Prehowsky confirmed that he was not seeking the extra £2 in payment for this goods (he said he never had anyway) and the Italian had his chain so as far as Mr Yardley was concerned that was that. He advised Madria not to buy jewelry in future and let everyone go.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 6, 1857]

Think you’ve got what it takes to be a lady detective? Send 10s 6s now!

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John George Binet had set up the grand sounding ‘National Detective Agency’ (perhaps modeled on America’s infamous Pinketon’s) which was, in effect, himself and one or two other persons acting as private investigators. In the early 1890s they investigated a range of private matters including unpaid bills, unfaithful spouses, and missing persons. In short the usual fare of the private ‘dick’.

On the 8 July 1893 Binet found himself on the wrong side of the Bow Street dock however, accused of obtaining money by false pretences. The accusation was that he had placed adverts in the papers calling for more men and women to join his agency as detectives. If you were interested all you had to do was send a postal order for 10s 6d (about £45 today) and he promised to send a certificate by return (showing you were now attached to the NDA) and then details of cases you could investigate. In effect he was franchising private detection across the country.

Binet was quite successful in this enterprise as several people sent him money and waited for the work to roll in. Sadly, very few, if any of them, got any more than a certificate, and some didn’t even get that. The supposed fraud made the pages of Tit Bits and the Truth, two of the better selling periodicals of the day and hopefully some people were deterred from parting with their cash so easily.

In the end enough people complained and the police investigated, hence Binet’s appearance at London’s senior police magistrate court. He didn’t speak himself, leaving his defense to his lawyer, a Mr Cranshaw. The legal man told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan) that he intended to bring several witnesses that would speak to his client’s reliability as a detective and to his good character. Mr Vaughan listened to them, and heard Cranshaw’s attempt to argue that the case did not constitute one of ‘false pretences’ and then fully committed Binet to take his trial at the Central Criminal Court later that month.

On the 24 July John George Binet was tried at Old Bailey and found guilty. The court heard from a number of witnesses on both sides but mostly the defense was that Binet was good at being a private detective and that his clients were happy with the work they had commissioned. That Binet and his star employee – Mrs J Gray, ‘the celebrated lady detective’ – were competent investigators was somewhat beside the point. The court heard that they were also in debt and behind with their rent. Perhaps that pushed Binet to try and raise some quick money by the means of his postal fraud scheme.

It didn’t wash with the jury or the judge, who sent him to prison for a year with hard labour. Binet had tried or evade the law once he knew that summonses had been issued to bring him in. He was arrested on the platform of Victoria railway station where he was attempting to catch a train out of the capital disguised as a sea captain. Mrs Gray and another of Binet’s team of detectives, ‘Chief Inspector’ Godfrey (formally of the Jersey Militia) were more successful in escaping justice having vanished before the police could catch up with them.

I am now intrigued to find out if ‘Mrs Gray’ is one of my distant relations…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 9, 1893]

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

‘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]

An ‘attempt to impose on the Duchess of Cambridge’ (no, not that one…)

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Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, the 2nd Duchess of Cambridge

On 12 March 1869 an elderly man by the name of Alfred Rodwell (a retired bookbinder) was brought into the Bow Street Police court by PC Fraser. He was charged with obtaining money by false presences from ‘her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’. Today that elevated position is held by Kate, wife of Prince William, and mother of the third in line to throne of England. In 1869 the incumbent was Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel the wife of Adolphus, the seventh son of George III. In 1869 she would have been in her early seventies and lived with her husband at Kew, and then later at St James’ Palace.

It was to the palace that Rodwell had sent a petition for her attention. According to the duchess’ equerry, Lord Frederick Paulet, the petition and a covering letter were received on the previous Wednesday asking for money. Numerous other aristocrats had appended their names to the petition making promises of cash for the former bookbinder, including Countess Russell (right) Frances-Anna-Maria-Fanny-ne-Elliot-Countess-Russelland Lord Amberley. A search was made of Rodwell’s lodgings where several large envelopes were found, each of them addressed to a person of title or importance, and each of them containing the petition and a similar begging letter.

It quickly became apparent that while Rodwell had been helped by Countess Russell in the past she no longer deemed him to a respectable person worthy of her benevolence. Paulet was suspicious and so he had contacted the Mendicity Society to find out if Rodwell was a ‘deserving case’ or a charlatan.  The Bow Street magistrate, Sir Thomas Henry, decided to remand the old man in custody while enquiries were pursued.

A few days later he was back in court and this time it became evident that he’d altered the petition (changing the date from one that Countess Russell had signed a year or more earlier) and he had also forged some of the signatures on it. Mr Fryer from the Mendicity Society (who made it their business to root out imposters seeking charitable support) showed that the signature of ‘Captain S. Sanderson’ and that of ‘Lord Bailey’ were both fake. ‘Some of the signatures were genuine’ he said, ‘others doubtful’.

He added that Rodwell had also stuck some of the pages of the petition together so that it obscured the whole of some names (like that of Lady Victoria Buxton, a noted philanthropist). Sir Thomas questioned the accused about his attempts to alter the document in a number of ways but Rodwell stuck to  his story even when the magistrate confronted him with the evidence that he was obviously changed the date from ‘1862’ or ‘1867’ to ‘1869’. Rodwell said that the Countess Russell had signed his petition in 1867 and that was enough.

‘But you have altered the date’, said the justice, ‘and that is forgery. A character may be good at the time it is written, and not hold good another year. I can’t tell when it was written’.

When asked again why he had altered the writing Rodwell rather lamely claimed that it ‘was to make it look more modern’.

Sir Thomas could have asked each and every person who had supposedly signed the petition to come to court to swear that they had (or had not) given their consent to it but it would be waste, he said, of their time, especially when they would only have acted from ‘a charitable motive’ in the first place. Alfred Rodwell had been shown to be a chancer and he would suffer for it. He sent him to prison for three months and the gaoler took him down.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1869; The Morning Post, Friday, March 19, 1869]

The ‘wise woman from Leicester’ who cheated the ‘credulous young women’ of Chelsea.

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I wonder how many of us have had our fortunes told? Perhaps you’ve had your palm read at a fair, or been to see a tarot reader, or have paid to have your astrological birth chart created? You may just read your horoscope in a daily paper. The reality is many people would like to know what the future holds even if they are a bit skeptical of authenticity or reliability of these sources of information.

Fortunetellers have always existed, from the ancients to the present but while today we tend to regard them as mostly purveyors of harmless fun, in the past they were sometimes seen as witches and/or charlatans. In 1736 the laws that allowed the hanging of people for witchcraft were repealed but it remained a crime to try and trick others into believing you had magical powers. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 remained on the statute until 1951 when the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which allowed for the prosecution of individuals who claimed to be psychic, replaced it. This law was repealed in 2008 under legislation that brought Britain in line with EU regulations regarding ‘unfair sales and marketing practices’. Perhaps after March 2019 we will need a new law to protect us from people who say they can predict the future.

The Witchcraft Act (1736) was rarely deployed but magistrates and the police had another weapon with which to act against gypsy fortunetellers and fairground charlatans. This was the catch-all Vagrancy Act of 1824 which allowed the police to hoover up and prosecute pretty much anyone they liked found in a public place asking for money without good cause. It was also possible that fraudulent fortune tellers could have been prosecuted under the laws that prohibited the selling of goods or the obtaining of money by false pretenses, and perhaps it was this that brought Charlotte Elizabeth Priscilla Veasey before Mr. D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court in late July 1883.

Charlotte Elizabeth was 68 years of age and was accused of ‘obtaining money by pretending to “tell fortunes”’. Several women had complained about her behaviour to the police and they had set up an investigation that involved the planting of two police witnesses. Detectives Scott and Wilson (B Division) set up a watch on Veasey’s house in White Lion Street, Chelsea.  They also employed an out of work serving girl named Reed and the widow of a policeman (Mrs Gregory) to act as planted clients.

As they staked out the house the detectives saw 13 women come and go during just two hours. On the same day a further five clients called at the house in the afternoon. When Mrs Gregory and Miss Reed had been in and out they quizzed them as to their experiences.

The servant told them she been told that:

she had five sweethearts, none of whom would marry her – that a dark young man had left her for a fair woman, but that a very “nice young gentleman” had honourable intentions, and would ask to go out on evening walks’.

Miss Reed had paid sixpence for this information and some of this, it seems, was true. But then again, it wasn’t unusual and was suitably vague (as many predictions like this are).

Mrs Gregory paid 8to be told that she would, at last, find a new husband. However Veasey was wrong about the number of children she had and told her that one of her sons was stepping out with a fair haired girl, which she was sure was false, but later turned out to be true. Again, Veasey had been pretty vague and her guesswork was combined with telling her clients what they wanted to believe.

In her defense Veasey insisted that she did no harm. As a ‘sixteenth child’ she claimed she could interpret dreams, always gave ‘good advice’ and never charged a fixed sum for her services. She’d charged Miss Reed less for example, because she was unemployed. She’d been doing this for almost 40 years and was know as the ‘wise woman from Leicester’.

She made the court laugh when she told Mr. D’Eyncourt that all Mrs Gregory was concerned about was whether she would get another husband.

She seems harmless enough and I imagine that is how she would be seen today. An old lady who mixed homespun advice with a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and charged a not unreasonable amount for reassuring people that everything would ‘be ok’. Not surprisingly Mr. D’Eyncourt didn’t see it that way. He ‘told her that she got her living by cheating credulous young women’ and sent her to prison for three weeks at hard labour, not even countenancing the alternative of a fine.

She hadn’t seen that coming.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1883]

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

A fraudster is exposed at a West London court as a possible copycat killer strikes in the East End

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At 2.15 in the morning on 13 February 1891 the last of the Whitechapel murder victims was discovered, by a raw police constable on his first unsupervised beat patrol. PC Thompson of H Division heard retreating footsteps in front of him as Chamber Street curved away in the near distance and stumbled over the dying body of a woman whose throat had been slashed three times.

The woman was Frances Coles and experts continue to argue as to whether she was killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ or a copycat killer. In the wake of her murder one man, James Sadler, was arrested and questioned, but cleared of all involvement in her mystery. Coles’ is the last name in the police file at the National Archives, one of nine associated with the as yet unknown serial killer that terrorised East London between 1888-91.

Coles’ murder didn’t trouble the Police Courts on Valentine’s Day 1891, Sadler would appear but later in the week. Over at the quieter West London Police court business went ahead as normal. We should remember that most of the work that the Police Courts did was routine; they dealt with day-to-day petty crime: assaults, thefts, frauds, domestic violence, street disputes, trading violations, drunks and paupers. Murder was unusual, serial murder (outside of 1888) almost unheard of.

John Roberts, a jeweller who lived and worked on Westmorland Road, appeared to answer a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. The prosecutor was a coffee house keeper named John Sparks who explained that he’d answered an advertisement in the newspapers.

The advert offered an incentive for investing in a business via a loan. For anyone putting up £15 a ‘bonus of £7’ was offered and this was unwritten by a security of £160 in jewellery and watches. Thinking that he had nothing to lose Sparks wrote the address given in the advert in early September 1890 and arranged to meet with Roberts. Roberts came to his house and assured him that he had plenty of backers and had ‘a large contract for a city firm’. His business was growing, he employed seven men and he gave him ’19 [pawnbrokers’] duplicates relating to watches and jewellery’. Confident that the offer was genuine the coffee man handed over £18 and was given a promissory note for £25, to be cashed in 14 days later.

Six days later Roberts came to see Sparks requesting a further loan, this time of just £10. Again he offered a premium (£3 on this occasion) and handed him 21 duplicates as security. Sparks gave him the money but, not surprisingly (yo us at least) the jeweller was back again on the 16 September to borrow a further £2. All he got this time was an IOU.

Time passed and there was no sign of Roberts so Sparks, understandably anxious about his investment, went to the address he’d written to expecting to find a jeweller’s shop with Roberts in place but he was disappointed. Instead of a jeweller’s he found a tobacconist, and there was no sign of Roberts at all.

Eventually Roberts was traced and arrested and (five months after the affair began) he was presented at West London in front of Mr Curtis Bennett the sitting magistrate. Was this his first foray into money lending the justice asked? It was, Sparks replied, and ‘likely to be the last’ Mr Bennett quipped. The pawnbroker duplicates were produced and seemed to be genuine, but were all in different handwriting and signatures. Mr Bennet wanted this investigated and granted a remand so that Roberts could be held while further police investigations were made.

Sparks was out of pocket and, unless it could be proven that Roberts had scammed him and, more to the point, the value of the duplicates that covered the loan could be realised, he was at least £30 out of pocket. £30 in 1891 is about £1,800 in today’s money so a not inconsiderable sum to lose. Mr Bennett looked over to the coffee house keeper and advised that in future:

‘to place his money in the Post Office Savings Bank, and not try to make himself rich by lending money to sharks’.

ouch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, February 14, 1891]