A close encounter at the theatre sends one ‘very old thief’ back to prison.

Ticket-of-leave

As Daniel Vincer was pushing his way up the crowded stairs of the Victoria Theatre (the ‘Old Vic’ as we know it) he thought he felt his watch move. Reaching to his fob pocket he discovered it was half out and he pressed it firmly in again. Looking around him he noticed a man directly behind him but presumed the timepiece had just come loose in the press of people.

Just second later though he felt the watch leave his pocket. Turning on his heels he saw it in the hand of the same man who was in the process of trying to break it away from its guard. As soon as the thief realized he’d been noticed he fled, with Vincer in pursuit.

The odds favoured the pickpocket but Vincer managed to keep him in sight as they moved through the theatre goers and with the help of one of the venue’s staff, Vincer caught his man.  On Saturday morning, the 13 August 1864, Vincer gave his account of the theft to the sitting magistrate at Southwark Police court.

The thief gave his name as Charles Hartley but Mr Woolrych was told that the felon was an old offender who also used the name Giles. He was, the paper reported, a ‘morose-looking man’ but then again he had just spent a night in the cells and was facing a potential spell in prison, so he’d hardly have been looking chipper.

Had Vincer seen the man actually take his watch, did he have it in his hands? Vincer said he had. ‘He put his hand along the chain’, Vincer explained, ‘and [he] saw the prisoner break it off’. There were so many people on the staircase that Vincer hadn’t be able to stop him doing so, he added.

Hartley denied everything. He’d ditched the watch as he ran and so was prepared to brazen out a story that he was nowhere near the incident.

However, this is where his past indiscretions caught up with him. Stepping forward a police sergeant told the magistrate that Hartly was believed to be a ‘returned transport’. In other words he’d previously been sentenced to transportation to Australia and had either escaped or, much more likely, had served his time and earned a ticket of leave to come home.

‘That’s a lie’, declared Hartley, ‘I never was in trouble before in my life’.

This prompted the Southwark court’s gaoler to step forward and ‘to the prisoner’s mortification’ identify him as a ‘very old thief’. If his worship would just remand him, Downe (the gaoler) insisted he could prove at least 20 previous convictions against him. Not surprisingly then, that is exactly what Mr Woolrych did.

So, did Hartley (or Giles) have a criminal past?

Well the digital panopticon lists a Charles Giles who was born in 1825 who was frst convicted of an offence in 1846 (aged 21). He was accused of forgery at the Old Bailey and sent to Van Diemens Land for 7 years.  He earned a ticket of leave in September 1851 but this was revoked just one year later, on the 13 September.

Could this be the same man? By 1864 he would have been 39 but could have looked older after a life spent in and out of the justice system, and at least two long sea voyages in poor conditions. The gaoler had described him as ‘a very old thief’ but it might have meant he was an experienced offender not an aged one. There are various other Giles’ but none that fit well, and several Charles Hartleys but again none that dovetail with this offence.

When Hartley came back up before Mr Woolrych on the following Friday PC Harrington (32L) gave the results of his investigation into the man’s past. He told the court that the prisoner had indeed been transported and had been in prison several times. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the criminal justice system’s ability to track a criminal’s life history had improved significantly even if it hadn’t developed the forensic tools that modern police investigations depend upon (such as fingerprints and DnA tests).

Sergeant William Coomber (retired) said he recognized Hartley as a man he had helped put away several years ago. According to him the prisoner had been sentenced (at Surrey Assizes) to four months imprisonment in 1851 for a street robbery, before being transported for 7 years in July 1853. He had earned his ticket of leave in January 1857 but attempted to steal a watch and got another 12 months instead.

Mr Woolrych committed him for trial. By 1864 he wouldn’t be transported again so the unfortunate, if serial, offender was looking at a long term in a convict prison.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 15, 1864]

A heckler gets ejected from the Old Vic

41847

The Coburg Theatre c.1820 (renamed  the Victoria after 1832)

In modern times actors have had to deal with noises and interruptions from their audience, some accidental (like the SatNav that started giving directions during a performance I saw in Kilburn), others more deliberate (such as the heckling that provoked Lawrence Fox to react with a  string of expletives). It would seem that heckling in the theatre is nothing new however, as this case from 1847 shows.

In August Robert Dixon appeared in the dock at the Southwark Police Court charged with  ‘making a disturbance in the Victoria Theatre’ and assaulting the constable  on duty. The magistrate heard that during the evening performance ‘a noise was heard from the gallery, which rendered it impossible for the audience to hear what was going forward’.

Murray, the constable, (whether an official Metropolitan police constable or the name given to what we might term ushers is not clear) made his may up in the direction of the disturbance and found Dixon who was:

‘standing up on one of the benches hissing the performance, and doing everything in his power to excite a disturbance , and to prevent the play from going on’.

The constable told him to be quite several times but he was ignored. Eventually he moved in to try and remove him from the auditorium. Dixon wasn’t happy about being ejected and resisted; in fact he resisted so much that it constituted an assault and he was arrested.

In court Robert Dixon was asked to explain himself. He told the justice that he was perfectly justified in expressing his displeasure at the performance he had paid to see. He felt it entirely improper that ‘the constable had dragged him out’.

Constable Murray added that this sort of disturbance was quite common in the theatre. There were ‘a number of young fellows like the defendant [who] were in the habit of frequenting the gallery, and out of mere wantonness interrupting the performance’.

The magistrate agreed that it was outrageous behaviour and had to be ‘repressed’ as he put it. He decided to send Dixon for a jury trial at the next sessions and asked him to find bail. If he was unable to do so he would have to go to gaol in the meantime. This didn’t go down well with the young man. He complained that he had already been ‘locked up since ten o’clock the night before, and he thought that was punishment enough for hissing an actor’.

The magistrate ignored his plea and Dixon’s father came forward to post bail for his son. I imagine the outcome would have been that Dixon would have had to promise to keep the peace, and possibly avoid the theatre for a period of time; entering into a personal recognisance (or one supplied by his family) to enforce it.

The Victoria Theatre (called the Coburg until it was acquired by Egerton in 1832) was on the New Cut and we know it as the ‘Old Vic’. According to an advert in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper the entertainment that Dixon was objecting to might have been part of variety show that included the Tremont American Serenaders (who sang ‘Ethiopian melodies’) , a magician named King, and a demonstration of a chromatrope. It would only have cost him 3d (75p) to sit in the gallery.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 11, 1847; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, August 8, 1847]