A cheeky fraud that reveals the deep roots of British industry

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Twining’s Bank, at 215 The Strand 

On 6 June 1870 Elizabeth Smith pleaded guilty at the Central Criminal Court to ‘feloniously forging and uttering’ a cheque for £120 with intend to defraud. She gave her age as 32 years and said she was unmarried: the judge respited her sentence. No reason is given for this but respites were commonly applied to women who were pregnant or in cases where the law was in some way in doubt.

Elizabeth had first appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House on 22 April 1870 where this charge was laid. The prosecution was conducted by Mr Samuel Mullens on behalf of his client, the Banker’s Protection Association.

The victim (the bank) was Smith, Payne, and Smith of 1 Lombard Street, City of London and the cheque was drawn in the name of William Longman, the ‘well-known publisher’.

The Lord Mayor was told how the fraud was perpetrated. Smith (calling herself Mary Simson) had presented herself at Twining & Co.’s bank in the Strand and had handed over a letter of introduction. This was supposedly written by a Dr Charles Brooke of Fitzroy Square, and described Elizabeth as a ‘dear old friend of mine’.

Elizabeth explained that she would like to open an account and handed Mr Twining a cheque for £120 ‘purporting to be drawn by Mr Longman upon Messrs. Smith, Payne, and Smith’. ‘Mary’ had endorsed it with her own signature. She asked for some money there and then and she was given a chequebook from which she cashed a cheque for £50. The cashier (as was customary) made a record of the bank notes (five at £5 each) he issued. The balance was in sovereign coins.

The bank only realized something was wrong when Dr Brooke arrived later that day and told them the letter was a forgery and that he’d nothing to do with it or any ‘Mary Simpson’. Three days later the cashier that had served Elizabeth – Donald King – recognized her in Fleet Street. She’d just left a ‘refreshment house’ with another woman and King decided to follow them.

As they reached Temple Bar (pictured below in 1870) Elizabeth stopped and turned around. Was he following her, she asked?

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King admitted he was and said that she must now accompany him to Twining’s Bank or he would call a policeman to arrest her. After a brief hesitation she agreed and the pair returned to the Strand where Elizabeth was shown into a private room at the bank. Interviewed there she caved in and promised to return all the money if only they would ‘overlook the matter’. Mr Twining told he could not possibly do that and sent for the police. While they waited Elizabeth took out some papers and letters and tore them up.

As detective sergeant Hancock led her away Elizabeth denied forging the letter and told him she’d been forced to signed the cheque by someone else, but gave no name he could trace. At Bow Lane police station Elizabeth was searched (by a female searcher) and three of the £5 notes that Donald King had issued to her were discovered. In addition Mts Johnson (the searcher) found:

‘three sovereigns, a gold watch, chain, and three lockets, an opera glass, an eye-glass, a gentleman’s ring, a brooch, penknife, [and] three keys’.

It would seem that Elizabeth Smith was not only a fraudster and forger, she was a practiced ‘finger smith’ (pickpocket) as well.

In court at the mansion House Mr Longman appeared and said he knew Elizabeth and her family. She had written to him, he stated, in great distress and asking for money. He’d sent her a cheque for £5 but when she failed to acknowledge it he wrote again, complaining about her ingratitude. This prompted her to write back apologizing and making excuses, before asking for more money. Longman wrote to the local parish priest who was unable to verify the story Elizabeth told about her desperate situation. Nevertheless the publisher sent her another £5.

The Lord Mayor remanded her and we know of course that that remand eventually resulted in a trial at Old Bailey where, perhaps unsurprisingly given the evidence against her, she pleaded guilty.

Thomas Twining had opened a teashop – London’s first – on The Strand in 1706. It did well and the company braced out into banking in 1824. By 1835 banking was successful enough to warrant building a new property next to the teashop. Twining’s Bank lasted until 1892 when Richard and Herbert Twining sold it to Lloyds.

Smith, Payne, & Smiths bank had been established in 1758 as a collaboration between Abel Smith (a Nottingham banker) and John Payne, a London merchant and line draper, and chairman of the East India Company. The bank moved to new premises in Lombard Street in 1837, just two years after Twinings opened their new doors. In 1902 Smiths (which owned 5 family banks in the chain) merged with the Union Bank of London to form Union of London & Smiths Bank Ltd. This new bank lasted until the end of the First World War when it became the National Provident & Union Bank of England, eventually turning into first, the Westminster Bank (1968) and then the National Westminster Bank (Natwest) in 1970.

Thomas Longman founded his publishing house in Paternoster Row in 1724, buying a shop owned by William Taylor who had published Jonathan Swift’s Robinson Crusoe. The firm prospered through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, most famously publishing Maclaulay’s Lays of Ancient Romeand then his History of England(which sold in excess of 40,000 copies). Longman’s continued into the 1900s, survived a direct hit during the Blitz (which destroyed their premises and their stock), before Pearson bought it in 1968.

I suppose what this little story of fraud and forgery from 1870 reveals is the deep roots that some of our household names have, even if very many of them are now owned by global multinational companies. Elizabeth Smith, by contrast, leaves very little behind her, just one of many who came before the courts in the 1800s accused of stealing or defrauding those with much deeper pockets than she had.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 28 April 1870]

While Elizabeth Smith is hardly an unusual name for the Victorian (or any other) period there is another mention of someone with that name in the Digital Pantopticon for 1870. An Elizabeth Smith was tried at Clerkenwell (the quarter sessions for Middlesex) in October 1870 and sentenced to seven years. She was sent to Millbank Prison from where she was released, on license, on 19 May 1874. Did Elizabeth have a baby between June and October and find a home for it? Or was it taken away so the law could take its course?

‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ An ingenious defence from the dock

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Peter Chambers was determined to prove his innocence although his method suggested that perhaps he did ‘protest too much’. He’d been arrested on a charge of picking pockets at the Albert Hall at the end of November 1889.

In court at Westminster he described himself as an artificial florist and vehemently denied the charge. The police constable that arrested him said that several ladies had complained him that their purses had been stolen and he saw Chambers ducking under a horse and cart to escape the throng of lady choristers that surrounded the entrance to the convert hall.

Chambers took the stand in his only defense and, with a flourish, produced a piece of paper and called the constable to come and examine it.

‘Now, constable, I wish to introduce to your notice a little sketch or plan which I have prepared, because if you could see me from where you stood you must have had one of those double magnifying glasses we read about’.

As the laughter in court subsided the officer peered at the sketch but made little of it.

‘You will observe the dotted line on the plan?’ Chambers continued, but the policeman declared he didn’t quite follow his line of argument.

‘I am not surprised at you making nothing of it’, the defendant huffed. ‘Does you Worship see the dotted line?’ he asked Mr D’Eyncourt. ‘The cross’, he said pointing it out, ‘ is where the constable stood, and how could he see me – unless he can see round a corner!’

‘but what is your defence’, the magistrate asked him.

‘I am innocent’, Chambers intoned, melodramatically. ‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ he demanded, pointing at the policeman. ‘It is blasting my reputation to be here on such a charge’.

There were doubts as to the evidence or at least the lack of it presented by the police but they asked for a remand and Mr D’Eyncourt granted it.

After all Chambers asserted that he could bring his brother in to testify that he was at the Hall on legitimate purposes, to assist him in his role as a linkman (showing people to their carriages).  The magistrate doubted this would prove anything, one way or the other, and the gaoler took him away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 03, 1889]

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ in court once again.

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Clerkenwell Prison , c.1862

PC William Warren (208N) was perambulating his beat when he saw a man and a woman leant up against the railings at the corner of Nelson Place on the City Road. The pair were arguing and when the man saw the officer he called out to him. He gave his name as John Stourton and claimed the woman had picked his pocket, stealing his purse and half a sovereign. Warren arrested the woman and took her back to the station.

Since a search there revealed nothing PC Warren retracted his steps and searched the areas around the railings. There he found the purse close to where the pair had been standing. It had clearly been dropped by the thief as soon as she’d seen the officer appear.

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Lewis but she was more commonly known as ‘broken-nosed Liz’, and was a notorious thief. A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ as Reynolds’s Newspaper described her, Liz had a string of previous convictions. PC Barker (124N) told the magistrate that she had served six months for stealing a watch in 1859, three years for a similar offence in in May 1860 and had committed two like offences since she’d got out of goal.

Whilst the case showed up Liz as an old offender it didn’t too much for Stourton’s reputation either. The court heard that the stonemason, a married man with children, had picked up Liz in the street after she had asked him to buy her a drink.  It was a common enough ploy for women soliciting prostitution and having had a drink she told the justice that Stourton then went with her to a nearby house ‘for an immoral purpose’. She denied stealing anything and was trying to undermine her accuser by pointing out his own, less than respectable, character.

It didn’t work in front of Mr Barker who committed her to take her trial at the in due course. She was brought to the Middlesex quarter sessions on the 17 October where the jury convicted her and she was given yet another sentence of penal servitude, this time for seven years. Her previous convictions really counted against her here, as the system punished her severely for not learning her lesson.

In reality of course there was little hope for someone like Liz. At 35, with a history of prostitution and crime and little hope of finding work she was condemned to repeating her actions and lifestyle until poverty, the cold or an angry punter ended her miserable existence.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]