A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

Teenagers in church, but not for the sake of their souls

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Police constable William Gearing (86B) was on his beat in Horseferry Road when he noticed two things that were suspicious. First, a lamp in the street had been extinguished, something he associated with criminals operating under cover of darkness.

The second was that there was a light flickering in the nearby Roman Catholic chapel. Given that it was 11.45 at night he assumed that the priest was not taking a late service or communion and decided to investigate.

The gate of the chapel was open but when he tried the door itself it was locked. He somehow found the keys and entered the building. Two men were in the chapel and they panicked, rushing up into the gallery to hide. PC Gearing went outside to call for help and as soon as another officer arrived they managed to secure the two intruders.

Once the pair –Joseph Isaacs and John Mason – had been locked up back at the nearest police station house, PC Gearing returned to the chapel to investigate. There he found evidence that the men had been trying to rob the place: several drawers were opened and a cupboard in the sacristy had been forced. He also found some of the church’s silver placed wrapped up in a large handkerchief ready to be taken away. The final clue was a portion of recently lighted candle and some false keys, both essential ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth-century burglar.

He carried on his enquires and discovered that the chapel had been securely locked the evening before so the men had to have picked the lock (or used their false keys) to enter. In court at Westminster one of the duo, Isaacs, said they’d found the keys in the sacristy cupboard but couldn’t account for why they were in the chapel in the first place. Mason, probably wisely, said nothing at all.

Mr Paynter wanted to know if the men had previous form for burglary. The police told him that Isaacs had served time for highway robbery while Mason had been imprisoned for three months under a different name, for theft. The magistrate duly committed them to take their chances with an Old Bailey jury.

On the 24 November 1856, less than a week after the Westminster hearing, the pair appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to simple larceny, a lesser offence than breaking and entering. They were only youngsters, both just 17 years of age. Isaacs got four years, his companion 12 months.

According to the Digital Panopticon neither lad repeated their offences (or at least were not recorded as being caught for anything after 1856). Joseph lived until he was 63, dying in 1902. John Mason was not so fortunate, he died in 1870, at the young age of 31. He was buried in St Pancras.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 19, 1856]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

A very ordinary homicide in the extraordinary ‘autumn of terror’

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We have spent the past few days in Whitechapel, looking at the cases selected for reporting at Worship Street Police court before Mr Montagu Williams. On Tuesday there was an illegal boxing match, yesterday an example of an over officious vestryman being brought to book. Today’s case received far fewer column inches but was much more serious than either, because it involved a homicide.

In the autumn of 1888 murder was on everybody’s mind; an unknown assassin had already struck several times in the district and the police were no nearer to catching him. ‘Jack the Ripper’ would kill again that year but for the time being the streets of Whitechapel were relatively quiet.

Serial and stranger murder – the sort the ‘Ripper’ indulged in was (and is) relatively rare. It was (and is) much more common for homicide victims to know their killer. This was the case with Mrs Roberts (we don’t know her first name) who died on the 18 October 1888.

She lived were her husband Joseph, a boot fitter, at Essex Place on the Hackney Road and the pair had a tempestuous relationship. On the 8 October she was drunk and so was Joe and the couple had a furious row in front of one of their children. The little girl told Mr Williams that she’d seen her mother aim a blow at her father as they quarreled in the street. Joe had fallen backwards but regained his feet and retaliated.

The boot fitter, much stronger and heavier than his wife, struck her hard on the head. She fell down senseless and never made a full recovery, dying ten days later. Other witnesses testified that there ‘was an utter absence of intentional violence’. Moreover, the medical evidence suggested that she had died from peritonitis, so not something directly related to the fight that the victim had started herself.

Joseph Roberts was discharged but told he would have to face trial on the coroner’s warrant. On 22 October Joe stood trial at the Old Bailey but since the prosecution offered no evidence against him he walked away a free man. He’d not meant to kill his wife and quite probably he regretted it but his actions would now mean his daughter and her siblings would be without a mother. Sadly, this was an all too familiar story in the Victorian capital.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 24, 1888]