‘I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’: A lucky escape in Mitre Square

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Yesterday’s blog concerned a violent assault in Berner Street, where Liz Stide was murdered on 30 September 1888. Today’s is about a theft committed in Mitre Square, the other killing site on the night of the so-called ‘double event’.

A night watchman – whose name wasn’t given in the newspaper’s report – testified at Guildhall Police court to hearing a noise on the International Tea Company’s premises in Aldgate. He went off to investigate and discovered a man trying to carry off a packing case. He called the police and the man was arrested.

On 11 September the man was placed in the dock and gave his name as Andrew Birke, he said he was a shoemaker. The magistrate, Sir Andrew Lusk, asked the night watchman what the value of the packing case –which had been entirely empty when Birke stole it – was.

‘I don’t know sir’, he replied.

‘It isn’t worth much, say 1d’, Sir Andrew suggested.

‘It is worth more than 1d, the man insisted, ‘but its not the value. This man has been convicted before, and I have known a man to be sent to prison for stealing a turnip’.

‘Well, I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip’ said the justice; ‘and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’.

He then turned to the prisoner and told him ‘ I shall discharge you; but mind you don’t touch anybody’s property, in case you get into trouble’.

Two weeks later PC Watkins found Catherine Eddowes’ body in Mitre Square and one of the first people he spoke to was George Morris, an ex-policeman who worked as a night watchman for Kearly & Tonge, wholesale grocers in the square (see the 1887 map of the square, right). 10Mitre_Square_1887Morris had seen nothing untoward that night and entirely missed the killer brutally murdering Kate and removing her kidney and uterus.

However Kearly & Tonge were tea merchants so perhaps the unnamed watchman was Morris. This would make sense of his desire to see Birke prosecuted and punished as a thief despite the petty nature of the crime. Morris might have known him to be a villain and his comment about knowing someone convicted of stealing a turnip also rings true if he was formally a police officer. Sir Andrew Lusk was – as far as I am aware – no relation to George Lusk, the chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance society who was to receive a portion of a human kidney in the post a few days after the murder. Whether this came from Kate Eddowes is impossible to say.

So, first Berner Street then Mitre Square, it is strange how these coincidental connections appear just before the ‘double event’ happened.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 12, 1888]

A young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

A teenage girl succumbs to temptation and is ruined

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Theft by domestic servants was a common enough occurrence in the nineteenth or indeed any century. There were constant complaints about staff who pilfered, prompting one eighteenth-century commentator to quip that the servants of the wealthy ‘beggared them by inches’.

Two realities are clear of course: that servants were daily presented with an array of temptations and that this was compounded by the fact that they were paid very little.  So it is hardly surprising that some, like young Ann Scully, succumbed to these temptations.

Ann was probably a teenager. She came from a ‘respectable’ working class family in Poland Street, Soho. She was employed by Mr. and Mrs Cook in their home at 18 Berwick Street nearby. On her days off Ann liked nothing better than a trip to the theatre or a concert to hear the latest sounds or laugh at a play. Perhaps she went with a friend or even a sweetheart. In early February she was going to a concert and wanted something new to wear.

She had her eyes on a bonnet that would set off her look, decked out with the latest ‘trimmings’ that would be sure to catch the attention of any young man worth his salt. Sadly she was short of money, her wages not sufficient for such luxuries. She knew her mistress kept some earrings in a salt cellar in the parlour and figuring she can’t have placed much store by them if she didn’t wear them Ann decided to pinch and try and sell them.

She took the earrings to a jewelers shop in Prince’s Street near Leicester Square. The owner, a Mr Borley, told her they weren’t worth much but gave her a few shillings and sent her on her way. Recognizing that the cases were better than the stones that they carried he had the latter removed, replacing them with other ones from his stocks.

Some hours later however Elizabeth Cook noticed that her earrings were missing and she questioned Ann. At first the girl denied it but she eventually caved in and confessed. The servant girl then led her mistress to Borley’s shop to try and retrieve the items. The jeweler flatly denied ever buying the earrings, even trying to persuade Ann (who insisted this was the place and the man) that she was mistaken. After some persistence however he produced the jewelry but only one of the stones that they had originally housed, one remained missing.

Mrs Cook might have left the whole affair there. She had the earrings and a confession from Ann and the girl had only recently joined her service. A reprimand was the likely punishment and perhaps Ann would be expected to forfeit some of her wages to pay for the missing stone. But Mr Cook was  not so inclined. He had ‘suffered through this sort of conduct’ before and ‘no one knew so well where the shoe pinched as those who wore it’.

So the case went before a magistrate, Mr Beadon at Marlborough Street. Mr Borley was called and PC Turner (77C) represented the police. The justice directed most of his ire at the jeweler who he held responsible for not asking more questions and for trying to pretend he’d never seen Ann before. One of the stones remained unaccounted for and the tradesman had ‘better lose no time in finding’ it he insisted.

As for Ann he was minded to be lenient given her youth and the respectability of her parents. So hoping she had learned her lesson he would not send her to prison for a ‘the long period he might do, but [just] for 14 days’. Given that this probably meant that she would be dismissed as well it was a heavy penalty for the young girl, who would now most likely have to return to her parents’ care in Poland Street and hope that work, or marriage, would be found for her. It was a heavy price to pay for a ‘jolly new bonnet’ and a statutory lesson for any young domestic that might be reading the papers that day.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 3 February, 1859]

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Not if the vicar has his way

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Legislation in 1847 and 1850 brought nearly all no violent crime committed by juveniles under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. Developments in the 1850s then empowered justices to send boys and girls from 8-14 to reformatory or industrial schools to be disciplined and to learn some basic life skills. This did a lot to remove young people from the adult courts where, for centuries, they had been dealt with alongside all other offenders. It took another half century (to 1908) before separate courts were created for juveniles but we can see the mid century acts as an improvement of sorts.

William Frewen wasn’t in a reformatory in 1863 but he could well have been. William attended Barnes National School in South London. He was listed as a scholar and lived near by. In early January 1863 the school was still closed up for the Christmas holiday but a break-in had been discovered. The schoolmaster’s desk had been forced open and a small money box was missing.

The box (described as the ‘missionary box’) was used to hold donations for charity and at the time contained about 10s). Young William had already gained an unwelcome (if not unwarranted) reputation for pilfering and it was to him that the school master turned when he learned of the theft.

William denied everything but he was taken to see the local vicar, the Rev. Coplestone where, after another boy said he’d seen William enter the office by an open window, he confessed. Perhaps because of the confession or maybe out of a sense of Christian forgiveness the reverend told the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court that he was reluctant to press charges.

After some discussion the vicar and Mr Ingham (the magistrate presiding) decided that while they would not take this further (and send the boy away) he did require some form of punishment, if only to deter future acts of criminality. Mr Ingham ordered that he be given over to the local police sergeant so he could ‘receive eight strokes with a rod’.

Hopefully that short, sharp, lesson would be quickly learned and William would mend his ways. If not then it is likely that he would become a fairly regular occupant of a Police Court dock.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 09, 1863]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]