Be careful who you drink with, and how much you imbibe! A cautionary tale from the 1820s.

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Bow Street Police Office, c.1825 (by J. Winston)

In 1827 the Metropolitan Police were still a pipe dream; Peel may well have envisaged them but there was still considerable resistance to the idea of a state run uniformed police force in England. In London policing was still the responsibility of the parish and the Police Offices staffed by ‘runners’, the principal one being at Bow Street.

In May of that year several persons turned up at the Registrar’s Office in Chancery Lane, to receive the confirmation and certificates for a legacy that had been rumbling through the civil court for some time. William Jones had finally got his hands on his inheritance, a sum of £355 16and 2d. That was a considerable and potentially life-changing amount of money in 1827, representing about £24,000 today. That equated to about 6 years’ wages for a skilled craftsman.

William was accompanied to the registrars (and then to the Bank of England) by his wife, his younger brother, and a Thomas Jones (who ‘was in some degree related to him’). The group were joined by Jones’ solicitor and his clerk. At the bank the legacy was paid out in five £50 notes, some £20 and a large amount of coin.

Having secured his fortune William Jones now invited his family and friends to dine with him at a chophouse in Mansion House street before some of the party went on to a pub in Welbeck Street, off Cavendish Square. There the celebrations began in earnest and it seems the drink was flowing. until late in the evening.

Finally William, much the worse for drink, was bundled into a cab with his wife, brother and Thomas Jones and ferried back to his home in Draper’s Court, London Wall where he was helped to his bed.

In the morning he awoke with a sore head. That much was expected but much worse was the discovery that some of his money was missing. He’d lost one £50 note and two £20s. That might not sound much to us but it was about £6,000; he certainly hadn’t run up that sort of a bill in the pub!

He immediately went back to the Bank of England and, having been wise enough to note down the numbers of the bank notes, had the stopped. later that day one of the notes was tendered in payment for some boots at a shop in Oxford Street and the notes were traced because the purchaser had been required to give his name and address.

All of this investigation was carried out by Mr Jones not by the police, and he managed to find out that the thief was none other than his ‘some degree’ relative, Thomas Jones.  Since Thomas gave his real address, in Praed Street, Paddington, he was quickly apprehended by an officer from Bow Street (a ‘runner’) and brought before the magistrate. He was committed for trial at the Old Bailey where he was acquitted.

I can only imagine the jury were unconvinced by the evidence presented which, while it seemed to prove that Jones had tried to spend the missing money, did not really show that he had stolen it. It therefore wasn’t beyond ‘all reasonable doubt’ and the young man got away with it.  Of course it may be that the jury were simply jealous of Jones’ good fortune and, with typical English mean spiritedness, quite glad to see that he’d lost his money when he’d allowed himself to be robbed whilst in a state of inebriation. ‘Serves him right’, they might have concluded.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 10, 1827]

A practised thief accepts prison as ‘an occupational hazard’.

Any Gentleman Oblige A Lady Cassells Family Mag 1885

Public transport brought people of all stations of life together in the crowded Victorian metropolis. Contemporaries worried about the collapse of the natural barriers of class, particularly on the railways where women travelling alone were vulnerable to unwanted male attention. The London omnibus also provided the city’s thieves with plenty of opportunities to prey on the unsuspecting or careless commuter and practised pickpockets could hope to avoid detection most of the time.

Occasionally however they weren’t so lucky and risked an appearance before a Police Court magistrate, or worse – a sessions or Old Bailey jury – and the very real prospect of prison. I suspect many of them – like the fictional ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ of BBC’s Porridge – accepted this as ‘an occupational hazard’. If you chose to ‘pick a pocket or two’ then every now and then you would get caught.

This is what happened to one ‘respectably dressed’ woman named Jane Clark. Jane was riding on an omnibus in Oxford Street and keeping her wits about her for her next opportunity to ‘dip’. This arrived in the person of Mrs Amy Massy, a resident of Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia.

Mrs Massy was seated on the ‘bus and probably didn’t even notice the unremarkable woman sat beside her. Something moved her to become concerned however, and she reached into her pocket to ‘see if her purse was safe’. To her horror she discovered that the elastic band she used to keep it secure had been forced off and ‘two sovereigns had been taken from it’.

Amy called the conductor and accused her neighbour on the ‘bus of stealing them. She claimed she’d seen Jane’s hand ‘in her pocket’ but I doubt she did. If Jane Clark was a practised thief then it is highly unlikely anyone saw anything untoward. However, in order to secure a conviction it was imperative that someone witnessed the ‘private theft from the person’ that the law defined.

Jane denied the theft and no coins were found on her or, at first at least, on the omnibus. Later though a young lad named Henry Taylor found two sovereigns on the floor of the bus when it reached Islington. He handed them in and they were eventually traced back to Mrs Massy after a police investigation.

On the following day Jane Clark was set before the Police magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Tyrwhitt, where she was defended by Mr Lewis, a lawyer. Jane again denied the theft and Mr Lewis tried to suggest that Mrs Massy had dropped the coins when she took out her handkerchief to wipe her face. The magistrate said he was minded to send the case for a jury to decide; there was considerable doubt here as to whether Jane was guilty after all. But this wasn’t at all popular with the defendant.

It is quite likely that Jane Clark was a known offender and would be exposed as such at the Middlesex Sessions. If a jury convicted her she might face a lengthy spell inside and that was to be avoided at all costs. Mr Lewis pleaded with the justice to deal with the case summarily. Tyrwhitt was reluctant at first and even offered to bail Jane in the interim.

In the end Jane agreed to plead guilty (as was her right after 1855) and the magistrate sentenced her to two months in prison with hard labour, not ideal but not penal servitude with all that included. Jane would be back on the streets by the summer, and able to go back to ‘work’ on the thousands of tourists that rode the ‘buses of the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 23, 1865]

Rossini’s ‘cat song’ provokes uproar at the theatre and medical students threaten to give the police the Bartholomew “touch”.

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Medical students have a long established reputation for high jinx and drink related antics. They study hard, so the saying goes, and play hard so it is no surprise to see a number of them appearing before the London magistracy in the 1800s. This case involves several medical students from St Bartholomew’s Hospital but in particular a young man named Charles Astley, who lived in Ealing.

Astley was charged before Mt Knox at Marlborough Street for assaulting a man at the Oxford Music Hall on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Mr Knox’s court was packed with Astley’s fellow students, some of whom were also charged with a range of less serious offences related to Astley’s arrest and the circumstances of it. As a result the magistrate had to continually insist they behaved themselves or he would have them all ejected.

The complaint was brought by a Mr Freame (or possibly Freene), an employee of the theatre, and prosecuted in court by his counsel, who had the suitably festive name of Mr Sleigh. He explained that on several occasions large numbers of students had turned up at the music hall and had caused a disturbance. Their behaviour was riotous, disorderly and drunken. In the end the proprietor, Mr Syers, had been obliged to call on the police for support in keeping order.

On the night in question there were no less than 18 police constable deployed at the venue (which held around 1,800 paying customers. All was well until just before 11 o’clock at night when Signor Aldine took to the stage and began to sing. He sang the ‘Cat Song’ (which may well have been Duetto buffo di due gate or “humorous duet for two cats”, sometimes attributed to Rossini). I’m no expert on opera but it appears to be a song about two cats meowing to each other. At this point the medical students started to make a lot of noise, Astley ‘principal among them’. The musical director asked for quite but they ignored him, carrying on their commotion and shouting out things like ‘splendid’.

The Oxford Music Hall had undergone a rebuild after a fire in 1872, reopening in 1873 not long before the medical students caused such a fracas there.* So perhaps its not surprising that the owners were keen to avoid too much disturbance as they established themselves as a major nighttime venue when there was plenty of competition in the 1870s.

As the police moved in blows were thrown and abuse was shouted. Mr Freame said he made a grab for Astley, who he saw as a ringleader, and the medical student grabbed hold of his collar and manhandled him. Eventually Astley was whisked away to the nearest police station but about 500 students gathered outside the music hall threatening to ‘give the police the Bartholomew “touch” [and shouting] ‘let the bobbies have it’. Four of them were subsequently arrested and also appeared in court with their chum.

One of the Middlesex hospital’s teaching fellows, a lecturer on physiology, appeared to speak up for the young men and to say that if the charges were all dropped he had been assured that there would be no further instances of bad behaviour at the music hall. Mr Knox was not minded to take this case lightly however. He had, he said, already warned about excessive disorderly behaviour and drunkenness at the hall and would now carry through on his threat to deal harshly with offenders.

Ashley would go to the Central Criminal Court to face  a trial by jury and he insisted the other young men keep the peace in the meantime. One of them, John Pogose, he fined 40s (or one month in prison) for his part in the disturbances that followed Astley’s arrest. The other three were bound by their own recognizances to appear in January. Ashley appeared at the Old Bailey on 10 January on a charge of wounding but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and he was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 21, 1875]

*Those of you of a certain age you will be familiar with the site of the music hall, which was where Virgin Records stood on Oxford Street from the 1970s. If you are a little older you may recall the same premises as belonging to Lyon’s Corner House (which opened in 1927).

Montagu Williams and the case of the stolen fur cloaks – not one of his greatest triumphs

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Montagu Williams, by ‘Spy’, Vanity Fair, (1879)

At the beginning of August 1876 Harriet Sutcliffe stood in the dock at Marylebone Police Court accused of stealing four expensive fur trimmed velvet cloaks. Harriet was a 52 year-old ‘wardrobe dealer’ and the cloaks she was supposed to have pinched belonged to Messers. Marshall & Snelgrove, silk mercers on Oxford Street.

The charge was a serious one and the complainants had deep pockets. To prosecute the theft they had hired Montagu Williams, a prominent barrister in his day. Williams would later (in 1886) become a Police Magistrate himself before taking silk two years afterwards. He died after a period of illness in 1892 but has left us his reminiscences in two volumes, one of which (Leaves of a Life, 1890) I picked up in a bookshop in Hay of Wye at the weekend.

In late 1876  Williams was hired to defend a nobleman, Count Henry de Tourville, who was accused of murdering his wife in Austria a year earlier. According to Williams’ story* the charge was that De Tourville had killed his wife Madeline ‘by pushing her over a precipice in the Stelvio Pass of the Austrian Tyrol’. The motive was deemed to be financial as the pair had only recently married and the former Mrs Miller owned a ‘considerable fortune’ estimated by Williams at over £65,000 (or around £3,000,000 today – worth killing for perhaps).

The tale reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery but Williams doesn’t seem to have been able to affect matters. The count was presented at Bow Street before the magistrate Mr Vaughan who (having listened to a great deal of evidence that demonstrated that he certainly had a case to answer) committed him for trial. The count was extradited to Austria, tried and duly convicted of murder.

He was also accused of poisoning his first wife (with powdered glass in her coffee, something alluded to in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 masterpiece Decline and Fall), attempting to burn down his own house with his only child in it, and, finally, with shooting his mother-in-law.  De Tourville was sentenced to death but reprieved on condition he spend the rest of his days ‘working as a slave in the [Austrian] salt mines’.

Given that Williams had such tales as this to regale his audience with it is hardly surprising he overlooked the case of a fifty-something second-hand clothes merchant accused of stealing items from a  major high street store.

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There were three lawyers in the Marylebone court that day, Williams (who had been instructed by Messrs. Humphreys and Morgan), Mr Beesley, who appeared for the defence, and Mr Grain who represented the interests of a mantle manufacturer named James Cruse. Cruse was the man who had made the cloaks (mantles) and so Grain was probably there to provide evidence on behalf of his client as to the value of the items.

The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, listened to the case presented by Williams and the defence offered by Beesley that the items had been legally acquired and that there was little chance that a jury would convict her of theft on what he had heard. The magistrate decided to send the case to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) but allowed bail for Mrs Sutcliffe which he set at £300 (plus two sureties of £150 each). Montage Williams advised the magistrate that a warrant had been issued to find the defendant’s husband who seems to have had something to do with the supposed theft; so far however, he was lying low.

I rather suspect the evidence was as weak as Mr Beesley adjudged it to be because despite a series of separate searches I can’t find the case in the Old Bailey. Maybe that is why Montagu Williams chose not to immortalise it in print.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1876]

*Montagu Williams, Leaves of a Life, (1890, 1899 edition) pp.208-212

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

Knife-wielding Belgians run amok in central London

Most if not all of the Belgians I know or have ever met are gentle, intelligent and considerate individuals and we rarely associate violence with that particular European nation. Recently there have been terrorist incidents and Belgium itself has been trampled over in two world wars (neither of which had been caused by its own actions).

So it was rather odd to pen that headline and I apologise to any Flemish speakers that were outraged by it but in 1853 it seems at least two Belgian nationals did cause a scene in the English capital.

An ornamental painter was strolling with his wife on Oxford Street at 11 at night, presumably on the way back to their home at 98 Dean Street, when two men rushed by. One seemingly deliberately shoved the unnamed painter and the artist, believing he had been insulted, turn down him. He put his fists in that most British of stances (adopting a ‘defensive attitude’) only for his assailant to pull out a knife.

According to the victim’s testimony at Marlborough Street Police Court the aggressor, named as Richard Demaine, ‘drew a stiletto, and held it up as to stab him’. Fortunately no one was hurt but one of the men escaped. The other was remanded in custody until he could find bail.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 07, 1853]

A Daring snatch and grab robbery is foiled by an alert policeman

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19th century ‘life preservers’

It would seem that George Miller was a member of a dangerous ‘gang’ of criminals. One afternoon in late October 1849 Miller and two companions were riding in a cart on New Bond Street.

Unbeknown to them however, they were being watched by a plain-clothed policeman named Tottman. PC Tottman observed the cart move up and down the street before turning into Union Street, where it stopped. Tottman followed and kept an eye on them.

One of the men got out of the cart and looked around into Bond Street where a cab ‘with luggage on the roof’ presently appeared. The man vaulted onto the back of the moving cab and began to try and undo (or cut through) the straps that held a portmanteau in place.

As the first man joined his chums in the cart another of the men began to follow the cab at a safe distance. Clearly they three were plotting to steal the luggage and make off with in their cart. Tottman was on to them but he too was being watched. A woman in the street was acting as a casual lookout for the gang and she spotted the PC and alerted Miller and his friends.

Now the cart sped off, turning into Sheppard Street as the driver ‘urged the horses into a gallop’. Tottman set off in pursuit and caught them. However, as he tried to gain the cart and clamber aboard he was attacked by the occupants.

He later told the magistrate at Marlborough Street that his shots of ‘stop’ were ignored and he was hit about the head with the butt of a whip and by Miller with a ‘life preserver’. This was not what we think of today as a ‘rubber ring’ thrown from ships or docks, but a  short cudgel that could inflict a nasty wound.

The policeman was badly beaten but refused to loose his grip and eventually managed to arrest Miller when the cart collided with a cab in Oxford Street, throwing all the occupants into the street. Miller denied being involved and said he had just been holding the cart for the others. The magistrate remanded him for further enquiry.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, November 1, 1849]