‘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]

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street

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Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)