The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms

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I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

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Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

A postman is ‘bitten’ by an angry magistrate

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Londoners puzzled at the arrival of new ‘post box’ mistake it for a stove, (Punch , January 1855)

The postman seems to have been a British institution for as long as we can remember. Every day (except Sundays and Bank Holidays), all over the country, the Royal Mail deliver letters and parcels (and a considerable amount of waste paper) in a system that has its roots in the 15th century. The first mention of the term ‘postman’ was in 1526 (according to the OED) and literally means someone who delivers a message by post.

The English postman really rose to prominence in popular culture after the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840. Hill’s innovation – to create a standard rate for letters – was followed up by the adoption of a (whisper it) French invention, the pillar box in the 1850s. Now ‘ordinary’ people could stay in touch with loved ones wherever they were in the country, just as long as they could read and write (or find someone that could) and had a penny for the stamp.

The arrival of the post (so much more exciting than the arrival of an email) was an event; if you had a relative or friend living far away, or serving in the armed forces, how special must it have been (in the days before telephones) to get a letter from them? As one contemporary remarked:

Who has not heard with pleasure the sharp, loud, firm ‘ rat-tat’ of the postman? What a stir it causes in the house!

                 Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)*

I am struggling to find out whether ‘postman’ is or was an official term. The title ‘letter-carrier’ seems to be interchangeable with postman and it certainly appears to mean the same thing. Given that postmen (and women these days) are out in all weathers, walking long distances, carrying heavy loads, and fighting off the attentions of over-anxious canine guards, they have retained our affection.

However, as this case shows not all ‘posties’ were held in high esteem, at least not by everyone, and not when they ‘let the side down’.

Senior Stoker (which sounds more like a job description than a name) was charged before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable while employed as a letter-carrier for the General Post-office’.

Stoker, the court was told, had been working for the post office for five years. He had been found, as the PO’s solicitor (Mr Breton Osborn) testified, ‘helplessly drunk while in charge of a bag containing several post letters which should have been delivered’. The charge was ‘serious’ he said, and ‘of great public importance’.

The postman had been found ‘staggering about helplessly drunk’ by PC Knighton (230C) in Greek Street, Soho at half-past three in the afternoon, the bag over his shoulder. The policeman stopped him and asked what he had in the sack. ‘Only some cold boiled beef’ replied Stoker. PC Knighton didn’t believe him, checked, and found it actually contained about 30 letters.

Imagine the consternation in the Police Court; here was a public servant who should have been delivering the missives and messages of love, hope and congratulations to homes in the West End when instead he was as a drunk as a lord and swaying through the streets.

Not only that but Stoker had apparently got himself inebriated fast. One witness, Edward Powell (the assistant overseer of the Western District post-office) declared that Stoker had left the office at 2.15 and then he was sober. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to start his deliveries.

In his (albeit very weak) defence Stoker said that he ‘was short of food’ and ‘some drink he had in the morning took effect on him later in the day’. That must have been some delayed reaction if he was telling the truth. More likely he had met some ‘pals’ and stopped for some refreshment in a local beer-house.

The magistrate, Newton, asked Mr Osborn if Stoker would be dismissed from his job. That did ‘not always follow’, the Post Office’s solicitor explained, it was ‘at the discretion of the Postmaster-General’.  Mr Newton was pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour should mean that Stoker lost his job, and said so, but in the meantime he fined him £5 or one month in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 08, 1880]

*http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm [accessed 7 April 2017]