Prison doesn’t work, and history has the proof.

It is what we all dread when we wake up in the night and hear a noise we can’t place. Was that the wind? Perhaps a cat? Or is there someone in our house?

Mrs North, the landlady of the Duke of Cambridge pub in Lewisham High Street, awoke to see a strange man in her bedroom.  He was staring directly at her and she shouted, ‘who are, and what do you want?’

At this he panicked and rushed towards the open widow, escaping into the night as Mrs North’s husband work and gave chase. He shouted ‘stop him’ from the window but he was gone.

When she’d recovered from the shock the landlady found that the burglar had carefully sorted a pile of their property to take away, including ‘some money’ and their pet canary. He’d left empty handed on this occasion but robberies were reported from other local pubs in late April 1883 and the same individual was suspected.

The police investigated break-ins at the Pelton Arms in East Greenwich on 24 April, where William Davis, the landlord, said he’d woken up to find the place burgled and clothes and a bag containing £2 and 10 shillings missing. The Rose of Lee (at Lee)* had been broken into on the same night as the Duke of Cambridge, and ‘property to the value of £6’ stolen.

The police had some leads and on the day after the Lewisham and Lee thefts PC Drew (75R) was watching a man named Edward Toomey and alerted his sergeant, Hockley. They seized Toomey, who was wearing some of the clothes identified as being stolen from the Pelton Arms, and pretty much admitted his crimes. As they led him off to the station Toomey reached into his pocket and pulled out the North’s canary, letting it fly off into the London skies. He’d got rid of the evidence and freed a caged creature just as he faced up to seven years’ for his own offences.

The case came up before the Police Court magistrate at Greenwich where one of Toomey’s associates turned informer to save his own skin and Mr Balguy committed Toomey to face trial at the Old Bailey.

Edward Toomey was tried at the Central Criminal court in May 1883 along with two others (Thomas Prosser and Cornelius Shay). Toomey was just 17 years of age and his accomplices were 38 and 18 respectively. Only Toomey was convicted and he was sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.

This early brush with the law and punishment did nothing to curb Edward’s criminality, nor indeed his MO. In 1885 (just after he came out of gaol) he was back in again after being convicted of burgling the Lord Nelson pub in East Greenwich. He got another year inside.

Did he learn from this one? Well no, he didn’t.

In January 1887 (just over a year after his conviction, and soon after his release) he was sent back to prison for burgling a jeweller’s shop in Lee High Street. This time the judge gave him a more severe sentence: five years penal servitude. At least that was that for Edward’s criminal career we might think, but no. In 1903 now aged 37, Toomey broke into the ‘counting house of the managing committee of the South Eastern and Chatham railway company’ and robbed the safe, taking away over £80 in cash. For this latest crime he went to prison for another five years. He was released on license in 1907 aged 41.

Edward’s experience is proof (if proof is needed) of the ineffectiveness of prison as a punishment for crime. It did him no good whatsoever and failed to protect the property of the persons he robbed. Sadly home secretaries and justice ministers are unlikely to read histories of crime and punishment, if they did perhaps they’d come up with some more innovative forms of dealing with serial criminals.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 09, 1883]

*where, many years later Kate Bush played her first gig.

A ‘Champagne charley’ causes mayhem in the cells

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John Betts’ appearance at the Mansion House Police court in early May 1867 caused something of a stir. Betts, a notorious thief in the area, was arrested in Crutchedfriars in the City at 11 o’clock at night as he raced away from a victim he’d just robbed.

Charles Cadge had been walking with his wife in Gracechurch Street when they encountered Betts. The robber started him ‘full in the face, and then made a rush at him and snatched his watch from his pocket, breaking the guard’. It was a daring attack and had a City Police patrol not been just around the corner the thief might have evaded capture.

However, now he was up before the Lord Mayor, and he was far from happy about it.

Those waiting for their cases to come up were supposed to stand quietly once they had been brought up form the holding cells but Betts was in no mood to behave. He had made so much noise before his own hearing that he’d been taken back to the cells and while Mr Cadge and other witnesses (Inspector White and one of his constables) tried to give their evidence Betts made such a row that it was almost impossible to hear them.

Once in the dock he refused to give his name. Asked again (even though the warder of the City Prison said he was well known to him) he said he would only give his name if they gave him half a pint of beer. When this was not forthcoming he started singing the music hall standard ‘Champagne charley’.

The Lord Mayor admonished him, telling him to behave himself.

‘I shan’t’ Betts replied, ‘I want half a pint of beer. I have had nothing this morning. Look at my tongue’ which he stuck out, provoking much laughter in the courtroom.

The magistrate simply committed him for trial at the next sessions and the gaoler went to take him away. But Betts wasn’t finished and he lashed out, resisting the attempts to lead him to the cells. Two constables had to help the gaoler drag the prisoner down the stairs. As he passed a glass partition that allowed some light to the cells below Betts kicked out violently, trying and failing, to smash it.

Placed in a cell on his own he continued his protest, smashing ‘everything he could lay hold of, and armed himself with a large piece of broken glass in one hand and a leaden pipe which he had succeeded in wrenching up in the other’ and standing there in just his shirt, ‘he threatened with frightful imprecations that he would murder anyone that approached him’.

When he was told what was happening below him the Lord Mayor ordered that Betts be secured and taken directly to Newgate Prison, but this was easier said than done. Several men were sent to take him and after some resistance he gave in and said he only wanted a half pint of beer and he would desist. Finally the gaoler acquiesced and Betts was given a glass of porter, which was placed carefully on the floor of the cell in front of him. He tasted it, declared it was ‘all right’, gave up the weapons he’d armed himself with, and was taken to Newgate to await his trial.

When Betts (or in fact Batts) was brought for trial at the Old Bailey he refused to plead, pretending to be mute. A jury determined that he was ‘mute from malice’  not ‘by visitation of God’ (in other words he was shamming) and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. It wasn’t a great way to start one’s defence but by now I think we know that Batts was probably suffering form some sort of mental illness. Even his encounter with the police that arrested him suggests an unbalanced mind (as the Victorians might have described it).

Inspector White explained that:

On 2nd May, about eleven o’clock, I heard a cry of “Stop thief!” and saw the prisoner running—I stopped him with the assistance of another constable, and said,”Where are you going?”

He [Batts] said, “All right, governor, I am just going home; we are having a lark”—he ran round the urinal, took a watch out of his trousers pocket, and threw it against the urinal—I picked it up, and Cadge came up and identified it

On the road to the station he said, “It is only a lark; I did not take the watch, it was only a game; I did not throw it there”—he said nothing at the station except joking.

The prisoner said nothing in his defense and was convicted. It was then revealed that he had a previous conviction from Clerkenwell Sessions in 1864 where he’d been given three years’ penal servitude for stealing a watch.

For repeating his ofence the judge sent him back to prison, this time for seven years. He was let out on license in 1873 and doesn’t trouble the record again after that. Perhaps he went straight, let’s hope so as in 1867 he was only 21.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 04, 1867]

‘He is a good son and I have done no more than any mother would do’.

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When William Bennett was first brought before a magistrate at the Guildhall Police court he was remanded in custody for a few days. The justice, Alderman Stone, had wanted to hear from a key witness who had failed to turn up to give evidence. He remanded Bennett and issued a summons to bring the witness to court.

On Monday 8 April 1872 Bennett was brought up from the cells and once more faced his accuser, a shopkeeper named Mr Edgar who traded from premises on Fann Street, off Aldersgate Street. Bennett was charged with stealing a swing mirror which, according to Edgar, he had brazenly stolen  on the 25 March. Bennett, in company with another man had simply walked into Edgar’s shop  at two 2 in the afternoon and walked out with the mirror.

There was a shop right opposite that of Mr Edgar, run by a woman named Emily Hollingsworth. She was supposed to come to give her evidence but had not appeared. Now she was in court because of the summons and testified that she had seen Bennett and another man take the mirror as Edgar alleged.

The alderman magistrate demanded to know why she hadn’t appeared when the case was first heard. Emily replied that she had in fact come to give evidence before but had met Bennett’s mother in the  courtroom. Mrs Bennett asked her:

‘to throw doubt on the identity of the prisoner, and she refused to falsify her evidence, but said she would rather leave the court altogether than tell a falsehood’.

Next to appear was one of the warders from Cold Bath Fields prison who identified Bennett as someone who been previously convicted. Herbert Reeves said that Bennett had served a two year sentence recently with hard labour and added that a gaoler at the City prison would attest to him being in there on more than one occasion as well. This probably sealed the man’s fate and Alderman Stone fully committed him to take his trial before a jury.

He then turned his ire on Mrs Bennett, reprimanding her for ‘tampering with the witness’. She was unrepentant, telling the magistrate that her boy was a ‘good son to her, and she had done no more than any mother would do’.

When it came to the Old Bailey William pleaded guilty as charged. His previous convictions did count against him and he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude by the judge, for stealing a mirror valued at 5s 6d (about  £17 today).

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 09, 1872]

‘Long Bob’ is nabbed as the American Civil War causes ripples in Blackfriars

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In early March 1865 Mr John Crane’s (a gunmaker’s agent) warehouse in Birchin Lane, in the City of London, was raided. Thieves broke in and stole a number pistols over the weekend of the 4th to 6th March. Three men were arrested as they attempted to sell on the guns on the day the burglary was discovered. However, it was believed at least one other man was involved and, by April 1865, the police had been looking for him for nearly a month.

Robert White, who went by the nickname of ‘Long Bob’ was presented at the Mansion House Police Court on the 4th April charged with being involved in the burglary. The middle-aged ‘commercial traveller’ had been brought in by City detectives Hancock and Harris after being found trying to sell a pair of revolvers to a pawnbroker in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.

The case was prosecuted by Mr Davis, a Cheapside lawyer. He produced the pawnbroker’s assistant to give evidence. The assistant told Alderman Carter (who was sitting in for the Lord Mayor) that a man fitting White’s description but giving the name ‘Martin’ had pledged two ‘six barrelled revolvers’ on the evening of the 4th March. The man was loaned £2 5s against the security of the weapons.

Later that evening ‘Martin’ (White) was back, this time with five more guns which he offered for sale. Asked for their provenance White told the pawnbroker’s man  that they belonged to a ‘friend of his’ who had asked him to sell them. They were part of a large order for the Federal Army, he added, and were surplus to requirements.

In early April 1865 the American Civil War was almost at an end. The Union blockade of the South which had been increasingly effective in choking the Confederacy’s economy was strengthened by the capture of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Only a few days later (on the 9 April 1865) General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union troops at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending four years of bitter conflict.

The Blackfriars pawnbrokers was run by a Mr Folkard and the police (in the person of Detective Edward Hancock) visited as part of their inquiries into the theft. They notified the ‘broker that stolen guns were in circulation but what happened next is far from clear.

The pawnbroker’s assistant – a Mr Parker – had given ‘Long Bob’ £5 for the revolvers he wanted to sell. White wanted £7 10s which Parker had said he would have if his master was convinced they were worth that. White agreed to return later. In the meantime of course, the police had been.

When White returned Parker told him that the guns were stolen and that if he gave back the money he’d given him he could have back the guns. This seems bad practice at the very least; if he knew they were stolen he should have detained the thief and called for a constable. However, White denied knowing anything about any robbery and said he would get the money back. Shortly afterwards he returned, with money and the pistols. Parker now kept both.

Amongst all this the revolvers produced in court were identified as belonging to the gunmaker’s agent, Mr Crane.

There was some confusion and dispute about the facts presented in the Mansion House Court and it can’t have been easy for the Alderman to work out who was telling the truth. The police suggested that when he visited Mr Parker he’d shown him the two pistols that White had pledged but hadn’t mentioned the other five he’d tried to sell. He added that under questioning the prisoner (White) said that Parker had agreed he could have the guns back if he retuned the £5 he’d been advanced for them. When he’d returned however the ‘broker had kept both the guns and the money, something Parker now denied.

The magistrate decided that all this argument about who did what and when needed to be picked over by a jury and so he sent Robert White to join the others accused of stealing Mr Crane’s pistols. He would face a trial at the Old Bailey.

On the 10 April four men appeared in the dock at the ‘Bailey: John Campbell, James Roberts, Edmund Collins and Robert White. They were charged with stealing 50 revolvers from the warehouse of John Crane. The weapons had a collected value of £130.

In front of the jury and Old Bailey court Henry Parker explained that while he was aware of the robbery he hadn’t associated Roberts with the theft because he was a regular visitor, often trading items under the name of Martin. This fitted with White’s image as a commercial traveller and suggests that he was part of a shady underground in Victorian London where thieves worked together to shift stolen goods through the second-hand market.

Should Parker have been more careful? Probably. Was he attempting to make some money for himself or Mr Folkard’s business on the back of this crime? Possibly, but that is hard to prove. In the end all four men were convicted of the burglary. Collins received a good character and got away with six months’ imprisonment. Campbell went down for 10 years of penal servitude while White and Roberts got seven years.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 05, 1865]

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

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The Three Counties Lunatic Asylum, Bedfordshire, (c.1871)

On the morning of the 22 February 1899 Eliza Williams and her husband Herbert were in bed at their home in Shepparton Road, Islington. Suddenly the door of the bedroom hurts open and a man sprang in armed with a large knife.

He rushed at the couple and aiming for Eliza,  he grabbed her arm and stabbed her in the side. He drove the blade in deeper and as she ‘slipped off the bed, he stabbed her in the breast’. Herbert roused himself and tried to protect his wife, charging at the attacker. But the man was in violent homicidal rage and was too strong for him. Herbert was brushed aside and thrown back onto the mantelpiece.

Herbert recovered his wits and wrestled with the maniac just as he was attempting to ‘rip open [Eliza’s] stomach’. Eventually the trio were dragged into the passageway as the fight continued and Herbert managed to get he knife out of the man’s hands. Soon afterwards the police arrived and the attacker was overpowered and taken away to the nearest police station. Eliza was badly hurt but lived and was rushed to hospital.

It took a while to come to court because the key victim, Eliza, was too ill to give evidence but in early April 1899 the case was heard at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr Horace Smith. Mr Smith now heard that the attacker was none other than Eliza’s father, Reuben Dunham, a 59 year-old carpenter from Wheathamstead in Hertfordshire.

Reuben was a troubled individual who had been residing in the Three Counties Lunatic Asylum near Stotfold before he’d absconded. At the time of the attack Eliza had applied for a summons to have him brought before a justice, perhaps for issuing threats against her. Was he unhappy about her marriage, or something else? Nothing is clear from the court report in The Standard but Dunham was clearly unhappy about something.

The detective dealing with the case, Inspector Collett, testified that when he had charged the carpenter with the attack he had exclaimed:

‘If a man is a man he can look at a man; if he is a scoundrel he turns his head away. This job has been going on for 18 months. I wish I had finished the pair of them’.

At Clerkenwell this level of brooding violence continued as Dunham was fully committed to trial for the assault and wounding. Turning to Herbert he told him:

‘You are a lucky man to be alive. I should like to have another cut at her’.

He was then led away to await the judgement of a jury in due course. He didn’t have long to wait. On the 10 April he was tried at Old Bailey and convicted of wounding and attempted murder. While he had been in Holloway Prison the medical officer there examined him and declared him to be sane, despite what seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dunham apologised for attacking his daughter and son-in-law and blamed it on his drinking. He said ‘he thought his daughter was going to take all his things away’ but had no other reason for what he’d done.

Despite the jury hearing that Eliza was lucky to survive the assault on her they recommended Dunham to mercy. However, he now admitted several other offences and to being previously convicted. The judge sentenced him to seven years’ penal servitude.

Thanks to the Digital Panopticon we know what happened to Reuben after this. We also have a description:

Eyes bl[ue]. Hair gr[ey] (bald top). Complexion f[ai]r. Height 5′ 3″.

He was granted a prison license (parole) in June 1904 and released from Gloucester prison on the 4 July aged 64.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 03, 1899]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

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The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]