‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

‘We got a little list’:’SmartWater – nineteenth-century style – foils a burglar

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A news report last week suggested that Londoners were up in arms because the police had concentrated so much of their attention on knife crime that burglars were able to loot properties with impunity. Of course the police refuted this but it does seem that given the huge cuts that the Home Office have made to the Met’s budget over the past decade have impacted the force’s ability to fight crime in England’s capital. Quite obviously the police can’t be everywhere all at the same time, and so they have to prioritize. However frustrating that might be for victims of burglary (and having been burgled in the past I can appreciate how they feel) tackling record levels of knife crime must come first.

The solution, some say, is in preventing burglary and much of that responsibility lies with the homeowner. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century burglar alarms (which were advertised in the national press) have been on the market for those than can afford them. Now we are also being urged to use ‘smart water’. According to the website of the leading manufacturer of this anti-theft technology:

SmartWater contains a ‘unique code within the traceable liquid [which] provides an irrefutable forensic link back to the owner of stolen goods and also links criminals with the scene of their crime’.

So if thieves do break in to your home and steal your stuff you stand a reasonable chance of getting it back and seeing them caught and prosecuted.

Wind back to the 1880s however and no such technology existed. If the police wanted to catch burglars they had to do so through traditional policing methods (such as information gleaned from informers, surveillance, and the alertness of ‘bobbies’ on the beat) and a good deal of luck.

Fortunately thieves weren’t always that ‘smart’ themselves. Having stolen goods they then had to get rid of it, usually via a ‘fence’ (a receiver like Fagin in Oliver Twist) or at a pawnbrokers. Some pawnbrokers probably turned a blind to a watch or bracelet’s provenance, happy to make a bit of money themselves.  Others were much more honest, tipping off the police when something (or someone) ‘dodgy’ turned up.

And it seems the police also had a list of stolen items, which they circulated amongst the trade (‘brokers, jewelers, chandlers, and other dealers who might be offered stolen property for resale). This was the undoing of one burglar, Henry Moore, who was charged at Bow Street with the unlawful possession of an aluminum watch.

Moore had gone to a pawnbrokers in Broad Street, in Bloomsbury, and tried to pawn the watch which had a resale value of 10s. The ‘broker quickly identified it as being on the ‘Police List’ and called out for an officer.  The watch belonged to a haul of 120 watches that had been stolen from John Lock’s jewelry shop at 78 Tottenham Court Road on 10 January 1884. Moore was arrested and taken before Sir James Ingram at the Bow Street office on 26 January, a little over a fortnight after the raid.

The police couldn’t prove that Moore had carried out the burglary but he couldn’t explain how he had come to have one of the missing watches in his possession. Unlawful possession was an offence in its own right, albeit a lesser one than burglary. It came under the jurisdiction of the magistrate, meaning he didn’t need to test Moore’s guilt before a jury. Instead he sentenced him to three month’s imprisonment and the gaoler led him away.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly, Sunday, 27 January 1884]

An unlikely jewel thief who is not as clever as he thinks he is

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Paul’s Wharf by Joseph Pennell (1884)

Very many of the crimes prosecuted at the police courts were easily dealt with by the magistracy who handed down fines or short spells of imprisonment. However, the courts also acted as filters for the jury courts – the Middlesex sessions and Central Criminal court at Old Bailey. When a very serious case – like today’s – came before the justices their task was to stage a pre-trial hearing and commit the defendant to take his trial later.

Samuel William Liversedge was a commercial traveller. The 33 year-old worked for a City jewelers based at 44 St. Paul’s Churchyard, Goddard & Lawson.  He enjoyed the full confidence of his bosses, being trusted with thousands of pounds worth of jewelry each week, which he took around the various shops in the capital to sell. He was paid on commission but with a retaining salary, and this was always topped up to 50a week so Samuel was well remunerated for his work.

At some point in 1877 things began to wrong for him it seems. Whether he simply succumbed to the temptation that carrying around a small fortune in precious stones and gold and silver presented, or perhaps because he was in debt despite his generous salary. Either way as early as April that year he began to steal from the firm.

Things came to a head in November when Liversedge left St. Paul’s Churchyard with £1,000 worth of items in his usual black leather bag. When he got back, that evening, he was excitable and somewhat the worse for drink. The bag was missing and he told his Mr Goddard and Mr Lawson that he’d been robbed on a train whilst traveling between Edgware Road and King’s Cross. By his account he’d entered a carriage in which there were three men and a woman and as they left they brushed past him and must have pinched the bag containing all the jewelry. He called the guard who was unable to stop the train and so the thieves got away.

That was his story but it didn’t hold up in court, either at the Guildhall (before Sir Andrew Lusk) or later at the Old Bailey in March 1878. The guard testified at Liversedge’s trial and said he had looked for the three men and a woman and had seen no one leave his train carrying a bag such as had been described.

The bag did reappear at about 6.30 the same evening, ‘floating off Paul’s Pier, with the empty jewel cases and the cards attached to them’. William Barham found them. Barham was a Thames lighterman and he saw the bag in the water and fished it out. Lightermen knew the river intimately and was sure that it hadn’t been in the water long. The bag was closed and there was hardly any water inside, so someone had thrown it in not long before.

Goddard and Lawson had taken a cab to Scotland Yard as soon as their traveler had told them he’d been robbed. They had been told to make a full inventory of the missing items and came back to tell Liversedge. He suggested they all go to Bow Lane police station to do this, which they objected to. Samuel ignored them and rushed off to the station where he gave a list of the missing items, but a very short and partial one. Crucially Bow Lane Police station was close by Paul’s Wharf, where the bag was later found.

Sir Andrew Lusk heard from the prosecutors that at first they’d wanted to deal with this carefully and without prejudicing any future court case. Fundamentally they wanted their goods back though and hoped that some publicity might lead to the identification of items that they expected  that LIversedge had pawned. They asked for a remand which the magistrate granted.

It took a while for this to all reach the Central Criminal Court but in March of the following year Samuel Liversedge was formally tried and convicted of stealing ‘three watches, one pendant, nine pairs of earrings, and other articles’ belong to the City firm. Several pawnbrokers turned up to give evidence that they had received items from Liversedge over the course of the last six months or so. The jury found him guilty and the judge sent him to prison for seven years at penal servitude.

Whatever motivated Liversedge to steal from his masters and jeopardize a pretty well paid career is a mystery; his voice – if he spoke at all – is not recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. At 33 he was probably fit enough to survive 5 or so years in gaol before he earned his ticket of leave but his chances of returning to that level of trusted employment were slim.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 10, 1877]

If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]

 

No sign of the garrotting panic but a Victorian ‘Wonga’ scam is exposed

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Prompted by a facebook post from the Police historian Neil Bell I decided today to go back to 1862 to see if there was any hint of that year’s big crime story in the Police court reportage. 1862 was the year that Sir Hugh Pilkington MP was attacked by robbers on his way home from the Houses of Parliament. He was attacked from behind, throttled (‘garrotted’) and robbed. It was a form of highway robbery (‘mugging’ we would probably call it) but it sparked a moral panic about returning ‘ticket of leave’ criminals and the perceived ‘softness’ of the criminal justice system.

The panic died done fairly quickly and historians have shown that in reality street crime was no more prevalent in 1862 than it was in years either side of that; it was the reaction of the police, public and government to the press coverage that was the real story, not the incidents of ‘garrotting’ themselves.

Plus câ change.

Meanwhile over at Worship Street Police court things were a little more mundane. No garrotting or otherwise dangerous street crime here, just a case of unlicensed pawnbrokers. It’s still interesting however, as we learn much more about the everyday life of the Victorian city through these snippets of ‘real life’.

William Murray and James Spriggs were both brought up as offenders against the Excise Act. The prosecution – led by officers from the Inland Revenue – alleged that the men had been carrying out the business of pawnbrokers without have the required license to do so. The pair were trading as chandlers (sellers of all sorts of cheap goods) rather than pawnbrokers, but were proven to have extended loans to local people in the East End in exactly the same way as ‘brokers operated.

It was a well executed investigation and both men were duly convicted. The magistrate, Mr Leigh, handed down fines of £12 10plus costs to each man, the minimum he was obliged to levy. Each was warned that a failure to pay would result in them going to prison for a month.

The excisemen reported that they had been investigation many more instances of this sort of offence in recent months, and mostly in East London. These two shopkeepers were ‘ostensibly’ chandlers in Bethnal Green – hardly a well paid occupation – but both could afford to employ a lawyer to defend them. They were doing very well out of this sideline to the day job.

The court was told that there were plenty of ‘leaving shops’ in East London where the poorest could get short or medium term loans at very high interest by pledging their possessions as security. The magistracy were aware of it and two justices in particular, Mr Beard and Mr Abbott, condemned the practice and assured the public that they would be prepared to inflict the maximum penalty of £50 on offenders.

It strikes me that leaving shops were operating very much like the high interest pay day loan companies like Wonga, which today offer (or used to offer in Wonga’s case) much needed cash but at huge cost in terms of interest. These companies profit from the very poorest in society and the same practice, albeit a less sophisticated version, was taking place in the 1860s.

Plus câ change, eh?

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1862]

An young Indian is taken for a ride by a beguiling fraudster

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Mr Tahrir-ud-din Ahmed was an Indian student studying in England. He had taken up residence at 1 Colville Gardens in fashionable Kensington and so must have come from a wealthy family in British India. He would have made an impression in his fine clothes and he certainly caught the eye of one young woman at London Bridge station. However, her intentions towards him were far from honourable, as Tahrir was about to find out.

Tahrir had gone to the station on the 13 July to bid farewell to a friend who was travelling back to Brighton. As he entered the waiting room he noticed a fashionably dressed young lady sitting on her own. He enquired after her and she explained that she was waiting for her parents to arrive, as they were expected on an incoming train from Brighton.

She gave her name as Blanche Coulston and said she’d recently arrived from Australia and knew no-one in the capital. She then asked Tahrir if he would mind waiting with her until her parents arrived; the young man could hardly refuse such a request, and agreed to look after her.

One can imagine the scene: two young people, of probably equal social standing, enjoying each others’ company regardless of any presumed cultural differences. Tahrir was acting like a gentleman in protecting a lone woman from any potential dangers and sharing the company of an attractive young lady of fashion and style in the process. So when Miss Coulston’s parents failed to appear and she suggested they dine together, Tahrir agreed straight away.

They took the young lady’s landau to the Temple and back, and when Mr and Mrs Coulston still failed to make an appearance Blanche suggested they continued their friendship by retiring to her family’s rooms near Regent’s Park. Tahrir and Blanche climbed back into the coach and headed to 3 Stanhope Terrace where the Coulstons had a suite. After a supper Tahrir slept in Blanche’s father’s room and the next morning they breakfasted together.

It was all going very well, except, of course, for the mystery of the missing parents. The pair headed for the Grosvenor Hotel as Blanche thought they might have arrived while she and her new friend were absent for the night and had checked in there instead. When they discovered they hadn’t Tahrir suggested she send them a telegram and they returned to his lodgings to do so.

Having sent her message the pair returned to Stanhope Gardens as Blanche said she needed to collect some things she had left at a school nearby. I presume like many young ladies of quality, she had worked as a teacher or governess. The pair went back to her rooms and she said there would be a short delay while her landau was made ready. They had lunch and Blanche suggested that Tahrir might like to freshen up in her father’s rooms.

The Indian student thanked her and was about to head off to bathe when she asked him if she might admire his gold rings. He had three on his fingers and he gladly handed them over to her.

That was a mistake.

When Tahrir had washed and shaved he returned to the family’s drawing room to find Blanche, but she wasn’t there. He rang the bell and summoned the landlady who informed him that she had left sometime ago. Tahrir took a hansom cab to London Bridge, assuming perhaps that she had news from her parents.

She wasn’t there so he returned to Stanhope Gardens. At 10 the carriage came back without her. Tahrir went home requesting that the landlady wire him should Miss Coulston return. In the morning he’d heard nothing and so he informed the police.

A month later Tahrir was at the Fisheries exhibition when he saw Blanche in company with a man. He found a policeman and had her arrested. On Wednesday 15 August 1883 Blanche was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marylebone to face a charge of stealing three rings worth £20. She had the rings but claimed he had gifted them to her, something he strongly denied.

The court heard from Henry Selby who ran a livery stable with his brother. He deposed that Miss Coulston had approached him to hire a carriage and had offered two gold rings as security. She had taken the carriage but failed to pay for the hire, so he’d kept the rings and told the police. Detective sergeant Massey had tracked the third ring to a pawnbroker’s on Buckingham Palace Road. He’d established that Miss Coulston claimed (to several people it seems) to have bene the daughter of a Brighton doctor who was in the process of relocating to London.

On the strength of this, and her plausible persona, she was defrauding all sorts of people in the capital. The magistrate had little choice but to commit her for trial.

I rather suspect that everything about Miss Coulston was fake, including her name. No one of her name appears at the Old Bailey and perhaps that is because she gave a false name. Or perhaps the prosecution case was weak or Tahrir, having recovered his property, chose not to press charges. Maybe he put it all down to experience and decided to forgive her. The lesson is clear however, people aren’t always exactly what they seem.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 19, 1883]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]