‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

An execution brings out the crowds – and the pickpockets

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A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison 

Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.

Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.

The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.

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William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out. 

Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.

His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.

So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.

However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.

In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.

Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.

At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.

So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

‘There’s no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’: Fenians, Police and the ‘Manchester Outrage’.

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In the 1850s transportation to Australia slowly declined before being abandoned in the 1860s. Transportation, which had been the most effective alternative to hanging for the Georgians, was now itself replaced by incarceration at home. In 1865 the Prisons Act consolidated control of prisons under a government agency (rather than being left to local control) and penal servitude replaced transportation as the most serious of non-capital punishments.

One of the innovations of the colonial transportation system had been the mark system. This allowed convicts to earn points for good behaviour; points that might lead to better conditions, food and, ultimately, early release. The principle was sound: convicts would be easier to control if they understood that it was in their interest to get their heads down, accept their punishment and strive to win their freedom. The ultimate goal was a ticket-of-leave, which allowed convicts to live as free men within the colony, so long as they did not offend again.

The ticket-of-leave system (which in modern terms is parole) was exported back to England and applied to criminals locked up in the country’s various gaols. Here too offenders could earn the points that would enable them to be released on license before the end of their sentences. There were conditions of course, and these were easily broken, at which point a convict might find himself up before a magistrate and, ultimately, back in prison.

In May 1867 John Jones had been released on a ticket-of-leave and came back to his friends and family in London. The license required that he report to the police with 48 hours of being released and that he carried his ticket-of-leave on him at all times. Moreover, every moth Jones was required to report in to his nearest police station and confirm his address. He was then expected always to sleep at this address, and no other. The police were supposed to able to find him if they needed to. If he moved home Jones had 48 hours to inform the local police or he would be in breech of the terms of his release.

This close relationship with the local police must have made it pretty difficult for a convicted criminal to return to normal life. The prison stamp would have been on Jones following his release: the deathly pallor, close cropped hair, poor constitution, and sunken eyes (all products of the ‘hard labour, hard bed, hard fare’ policies of the prison system under Edmund Du Cane) would have marked him out as an ex-con. With little opportunity to rejoin ‘straight’ society Jones would naturally have gravitated back to the ‘criminal class’ that Mayhew and Binney had described in their writings.

In late November 1867 PC Harry Shaw (77G) saw Jones in Golden Lane, Clerkenwell. Jones was with a group of men the officer knew to be convicted thieves and he understood that he had gone there to express his sympathy ‘with the relatives of three men who had been hanged at Manchester on the previous day’.

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This was a infamous case, that of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brian were Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they had been part of crowd of over 30 who had attacked a police van carrying fellow Fenians to gaol. In the attempt to release their prisoners a policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was killed.

Five men were convicted of Brett’s murder but two had their sentences overturned. Allen, Larkein and O’Brian were not so fortunate and were ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd above Salford Gaol on 23 November 1867. This was one of the very last public hangings to take place in England. Karl Marx remarked that the hangings served the cause of Irish nationalism better than many an act of terrorism had because it gave them martyrs to act as inspiration for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Naturally anyone celebrating those that had killed a police officer was unlikely to earn much sympathy from a serving constable. John Jones had joined a procession of men and women who marched from Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park and PC Shaw followed, watching them. As they ‘dodged’ in and out of the crowd the constable suspected they were trying to pick pockets but he had no definite proof, just suspicion.  In the end he collared Jones and cautioned him, demanding to see his ticket-of-leave. Since he didn’t have it on him, Jones was told he must appear at Clerkenwell Police court to explain himself.

In early December, looking ‘rough’ John Jones presented himself before the sitting justice. He said little, saying ‘it was no use for him to speak, as there was no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’. The police, added, ‘had entered into a conspiracy to injure him, and he could do nothing’. The magistrate asked to see his license but he didn’t have it on him so he was remanded in custody so that one of his friends could fetch it.

Within days Clerkenwell itself experienced the full force of Fenian terror as conspirators attempted to break their fellow nationalists out of prison by blowing open the gate.  On 13 December 12 people were killed and over a hundred were injured in what The Timesdescribed as ‘a crime of unexampled atrocity’. Eight men were charged but two gave Queen’s evidence against the others. Two more were acquitted by the Grand jury and , in the end, only Michael Barrett was held responsible for the bomb. On the 26 May 1868 Barrett earned the dubious honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in England as William Calcraft ‘dropped’ him outside Newgate Gaol.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 11 December, 1867]

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.

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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]