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]

The man who was flogging a dead horse

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I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.

While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.

So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street.  William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.

Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.

Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:

‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.

He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).

Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.

At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888

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

Ticket-of-leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

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 deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]

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]