Odin makes an appearance on the Pentonville Road as as a sailor seeks sanctuary on a London rooftop

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The Pentonville Road, looking west (John O’Connor, 1884)

When PC Baylis (442G) and his fellow constable (PC Apps) were called to a disturbance in the Pentonville Road they got a little more than they bargained for. When they arrived it was to see a man standing on the roof of number 196 pulling up the coping bricks and stacking them in a pile, presumably so he could use them as missiles.

They entered the house and got on to the roof to confront him.  As soon as the man noticed the police he started chucking bricks at them. One struck Baylis on the side of the helmet but fortunately he wasn’t hurt. He did knock him over though and both officers were fortunate that they didn’t lose their footing and tumble to the street below.

It was a difficult situation and it was made more so by the low level of light available at 9.30 in the evening, even if it was the middle of the year. The man, later identified as a Norwegian sailor, spoke little or no English and seemed terrified as well as belligerent. A stand off ensued until a local man took things into his own hands. A volunteer soldier named Smith produced a rifle and fired a blank round up into the air. Thinking he might be shot the sailor calmed down and surrendered to the officers who took him into custody with the aid of a ladder.

Next morning he gave his name as Edwin Odin, a 20 year-old sailor who had recently arrived in London on a ship. With the help of a translator he explained that he had running away from some sailors in East London who wanted to hurt him or worse, and he’d taken refuge on the roof of the building (a bedding factory). When the police had appeared he panicked thinking they were his pursuers, which is why he attacked them.

Mr Horace Smith presiding, seemed to accept this excuse but suggested that the sooner he return to Norway the better it would be for all concerned.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

Cross-dressing in late Victorian London draws the wrong sort of attention in King’s Cross

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Where yesterday’s post (on a tragedy averted) reveals the human interest nature of the reporting of the Police Courts, today’s has much more to do with an editor’s decision to find something that amused his readership.

At half past three in the morning of the Tuesday 2 April 1895 PC Day (262E) heard shouts of ‘police!’ on the Euston Road and he hurried towards the entrance to the Great Northern Terminal at King’s Cross.

There he found what appeared to be a man and woman grappling together. As he tried to intervene he soon became aware that the ‘woman’ was no woman at all, but a man in female costume. Regardless of who had started the fight in the first place or indeed as to whether an assault had taken place, PC Day arrested the ‘woman’ and let the other assailant go.

When he had successfully removed him to the Police station Day discovered that his prisoner was indeed a man, a German by the name of Otto Schmitt. Still dressed as  woman he was presented to the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court on the next morning.

The newspaper reporter described the man in the dock in detail:

Schmitt wore a black skirt and bodice of the same colour, with velvet sleeves, black fur cape, and a small black bonnet and figured veil. His wig was of a rich golden colour, and hung in curls down his back. He carried in his hands a pair of dull red cotton gloves‘.

An interpreter was fetched to court and , through him, Schmitt explained that he was ‘character vocalist’ and had been employed by the Harmony Club in Fitzroy Square. According to one author the club was a well-known haunt of Germans in London in the 1890s and up to the outbreak of war in 1914.*

Schmitt said after he had left the club and was making his way home to an address in Pentonville the other man had attacked him. It is quite possible that he was mistaken for a street walker given the time of the night, for no ‘respectable’ woman would have been walking the streets at 3 in the morning alone.

The Clerkenwell magistrate decided to look into Schmitt’s claims that he has a valid reason for dressing up in women’s clothes, and remanded him in custody.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 03, 1895]

*  Panikos Panayi,  Enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War, (Bloomsbury, 1991),

Look after your belongings if you’re waiting for a tram at the Angel.

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A tram at Upper Street, Islington (c.1908)

On a Monday evening in August 1874 Detective Allingham of N Division, Metropolitan Police, and PC Anst (252N) were watching the tramcars at the Angel, Islington. They must have had some information that crimes were being (or had been) committed on this popular form of public transport.

They spotted three men mingling with the passengers waiting to board; they ‘did not enter but pushed in among the crowd’. Allingham and Anst observed them ‘put their hands into the pockets of several ladies’.

The policemen followed them ‘up Pentonville’ (presumably the Pentonville Road as this runs towards King’s Cross from the Angel) and overheard them discussing their success. One, later identified as Charles Ackerman, a labourer, ‘produced a pocket-handkerchief’ and said that was all he’d managed to filch. It was slim pickings but enough for the coppers to arrest them.

The three appeared in the Clerkenwell police court and were named as Henry Gordon (a glass blower), Donald Brown (a japanner), and Ackerman; all three lived close to each other in and around Clerkenwell Green. Inspector Taylor, appearing for the police said that ‘there were frequent complaints from the Angel corner of persons having their pockets picked whilst getting in and alighting from tram cars’.

The three men were charged with picking pockets but the evidence was slender, and so the magistrate used the discretion available to him using the wide-ranging power of the Vagrancy laws rather than trying to convict them as thieves on such limited evidence. He sent them to the house of correction for a month as ‘rogues and vagabonds’.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 26, 1874]