Picking pockets under the eyes of God

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The interior of St Stephen’s Church, Westminster in the nineteenth century 

I think we imagine Victorian Britain as a much more religious place than our current society. That may be true, but as with many of our assumptions or impressions of the past it doesn’t always stand up to examination. In 1851 a religious census was taken which included Jewish and Christian non-conformist and Catholic chapels alongside the established Church of England churches.

It showed that on average that year 10.8m people attended some sort of religious service, about 69% of the population (of nearly 18,000,000). The census itself has been criticized as being inaccurate and therefore worthless as a statistical exercise but we can read in a number of ways. About half of the number attended CoE services, but there were nearly 400,000 Catholics in a country where Catholicism had been under extreme pressure for centuries. There were also very many more non-conformists (Methodists for example) despite the Anglican Church being the official church of the crown and state.

Yet even in such a supposedly religious country almost a third of Britons did not attend church at all, which should cause us to question its supposedly dominant role in shaping Victorian society and morality. And some of those attending church were not there for their spiritual enlightenment either, as this report from April 1853 (just two years after the census) shows.

James McMachlin and George Wilson were practiced pickpockets. They infested the crowds that gathered at any event in mid Victorian London and a church service, especially a prominent one, was as good a place as any for them. In April the Bishop of London was presiding over a large conformation ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in Rochester Row, and the locals filled the venue. It gave the two thieves ample opportunity to mingle with the congregation and ‘dip’ the pockets of the unwary.

Among those targeted were Jane Elizabeth West and the Honorable Miss Georgina Colville, but they were not alone. Mr Childerson the churchwarden was robbed, as was an unnamed lady who lost the huge sum of £25 from her purse. Miss Burdetts Coutts was not so naive however and managed to keep an eye on her valuables as she attended another service (this time conducted by the Archbishop of York at St John’s, Smith’s Square, Westminster)  where the same pair of crooks were operating. smith-square-18282

Unfortunately for McMachlin and Wilson Sergeant Loom of B Division, Metropolitan Police, was on duty in the church in plain clothes. He was on the look out for thieves (which suggests a church service was a not uncommon place for crime) and he noticed the pair. Wilson had a coat draped loosely over his arm, to cover his actions. He watched as the other thief (McMachlin) got close to Miss West and placed his hand near her pocket. He rushed over and grabbed him and the young woman soon realized she’d been robbed (although she’d not felt her purse get lifted).  He removed McMachlin with some difficulty and then went back into the throng to search for Wilson, who was in the process of robbing Miss Colville. When cornered he dropped her purse and protested his innocence.

Both men were brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court and a crowd of churchgoers, including Rev. Tennant from St Stephens and two of his curates, were present to witness the hearing. McMachlin and Wilson denied the crimes they were accused of and denied knowing each other but they were still fully committed for trial by a jury. I doubt that they were ever tried though, gaining convictions against such operators was notoriously difficult unless the victims could swear that they had seen the theft happen. Not surprisingly then neither man appears in the published records of the Old Bailey or in the Digital Panopticon.

Today less than half of the UK’s population describe themselves as ‘belonging’ to a religion. This number has been rising as well. In 1983 65.2% people identified themselves as Christian, by 2014 this had fallen to just 41.7%. Moreover, only 16.3% of the population were declared as members of the CoE in 2014. Where worship is up is in the Catholic Church and in other churches where immigrant communities gather.

I am an atheist but I attend a Greek Orthodox church at important points in the year out of love and respect  for my wife’s family. Every time I go – regardless of whether this is Easter or ‘just a Sunday’ – it is packed, with standing room only. Strangely then it is the immigrants to this country that are upholding its Christian ‘tradition’, despite ‘Christianity’ being waved as a symbol of Britishness by some of the discordant voices of the Far (and not so far) Right.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 25, 1853]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]

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]

Plain-clothes police foil a jewel heist on Cheapside

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The City of London police were only created in 1839, a decade after the Met. This was partly because the square mile had resisted Sir Robert’s Peel’s (and other’s) attempts to include them in a London-wide system of police. The City authorities (in the person of the Lord Mayor and aldermen) believed with some justification that they already possessed an efficient organization for policing the City streets. In 1856 policing was extended to cover not only London but the entire country with the passing of the County and Borough Police Act (1856) and it is from then that we can really date the modern service.

Peel intended for his force to be visible and preventative; not to act as ‘spies’ (as Fouché’s French police did) but as ‘citizens in uniform’  to counter fears of a paramilitary presence on English soil. But it seems the City police were not above putting men in plain clothes on occasion, especially after 1842 when the Detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was created.

PC Legg (440 City) and a fellow officer (Evans 459 City) were watching two suspicious characters on Cheapside in late October. It was about 7 at night and PC Legg were in plain clothes when they saw Henry Smith and William Raymond looking in a number of jewellers’ windows. The two men waited for the beat bobby to pass by and then one of them (Smith) took a stone from his pocket and smashed a window. As they attempted to steal from Mr Mott’s  jewelers and watchmaker’s shop the two officers rushed them and took them into custody.

The jeweller’s assistant (Joseph Snowden) came running out and saw what was happening. He noted that they had picked the window which held the most expensive items, including several diamond bracelets. In total he estimated that there was upwards of a £1,000 worth of stock that the thieves might have carried away had it not been for the quick work of the police.  Smith quickly found the stone and the men were arrested and searched: each of them was carrying a knife and Smith had an empty purse on him as well.

At the Mansion House Police court the Lord Mayor heard conformation of the evidence from PC Evans who added that the men were laughing as the broke the window. He also said that Raymond had told him (when arrested) that he was a former soldier having serve din the Middlesex Militia and the Buffs but had been discharged on health grounds. If that was supposed to impress the police or the magistrate it failed. The defendants refused to say anything much in their defence except to ask for the Lord Mayor to deal with them summarily. That would have earned them a shorter sentence and the justice was not inclined to oblige them.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall never think of adjudicating in a case of this kind. It must go before a tribunal possessed of the power of inflicting a punishment proportioned to the serious offence’.

He committed them to the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey where they appeared on November 24th. After a brief trial they were convicted and sent to prison for nine months each, both men were just 22 years old.

 

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 01, 1856]

A ‘good citizen’ or a man ‘with felonious intent’? Unpicking the truth on the late Victorian Strand

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This is one of those cases where the truth is very hard to get at. On the surface it involves a deception but one in which the motive is far from crystal clear. It also turns on perceptions and appearances, and contemporary assumptions of what one sort of behaviour and circumstances implied.

Let us start with John Tattershall. He was walking on the Strand late at night when he saw a crowd of people surrounding a young woman in her twenties. The woman was sobbing and being held by a man (also in his twenties) who explained that  he was a detective and had just seen her take money from someone. The woman was denying it and Tattershall was suspicious and challenged the officer. At this the detective said he had to go after the victim, and ran away.

The young woman was Amelia Willis and she had been walking on the Strand at 12.30 on the  2 July 1875. It was a Friday night and it would seem odd that an unmarried woman was walking out so late at night on her own. Quite by chance she met someone she knew, or rather someone she had known from her childhood. The two fell in together and chatted for a while. Her old friend gallantly gave her enough money to get her bus home. She was walking away to find one when a man grabbed her arm and told her he was a detective and was arresting her for robbery.

Henry Williams (25) was on the Strand when he saw a woman and a man close together. He said something to her and gave her some money. It was very late and the Strand was a notorious spot for prostitution and street robbery. Williams suspected that a crime had taken place and decided to intervene. Pretending to be a detective officer he ‘hoped to prevent ‘a drunken man from being robbed’ by a prostitute.

Police constable 363 E saw the crowd of people on The Strand and a man run away from them. There were several shouts and the copper went after the suspect, catching him within yards. The man he arrested refused to give his address and a satisfactory explanation so the officer took him back to the station and left him to cool off in the cells over night. In the morning the man, Williams, was taken before the sitting justice at Bow Street Police court.

Sir T. Henry was as confused by the case as we might be. He suspected that the ‘evidence rather pointed to some felonious intent’ but what it was if couldn’t pinpoint. However, Williams’ continued refusal to give his address was an offence and he warned him that he could either oblige the police and the court or he would pay a fine of £10. Williams still objected to telling the court where he lived and so the magistrate said he would pay the money or go to prison for a month.

So, was Williams a citizen with a sense of duty, or a charlatan who had some ulterior motive? Perhaps he was suffering from a mental illness and was  deluded? Was Amelia telling the truth? And if so, what was she doing all alone on the Strand at midnight on a Friday? This case presents more questions than answers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 03, 1875]

‘I don’t give a damn who drinks here, so long as they spend plenty of money’.

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Hungerford Stairs, c.1822

1830 was the first full year that the Metropolitan Police patrolled the streets of the capital. They received a mixed reception and often concentrated on the sorts of offences that were easy to clear up, as this made it easier to justify the ratepayers’ expense in paying for them. This involved policing street crime (pickpockets, shoplifters, robberies) as well as moving on traders, vagrants and beggars, drunks and gamblers, and keeping an eye on licensed  premises (pubs and beer shops for example) to ensure they were were training out of hours or illegally.

Sometimes they took proactive action, watching public houses and even donning plain clothes to catch out unsuspecting landlords; on other occasions they relied on tips off from the public or informers, or simply reacted to complaints.

In May 1830 a Thames waterman had lost his apprentice. The lad had gone out and not come back but the master had a pretty good idea where to look. He made his way over, at three in the morning, to the Cannon public house, by Hungerford Stairs. There he found his apprentices and another boy ‘playing at cards, and in a state of intoxication’.

He collared them, dragged them home and, on the next day, brought them before Mr Minshull the Police magistrate at Bow Street.

The waterman said that the Cannon was notorious for being open all night but when he’d companied to the landlord there about allowing the two apprentices to drink and gamble he’d got short shrift.

The landlord said he ‘did not care a d____ who came to his house so long as they spent plenty of money‘.

The magistrate told the boys the off and warned them to behave in the future, and then discharged them into the care of the two watermen they were apprenticed too. If they hadn’t been disciplined already  they could expect a thrashing when they got home. As for the landlord well Mr Minshull was determined he wouldn’t escape the law and so he instructed the New Police to investigate. It was against the terms of the Police Act for the landlord to suffer ‘card playing and other prohibited games’ in his house and he could expect the ‘heaviest penalty’ if prosecuted.

Following this the superintendent of police appeared to request and receive permission to prosecute seven similar establishments for breaches of their licenses. They could all expect large fines and regular visits from the police.

Not surprisingly then the relationship between the police and the landlords of the city got off to a bad start from the New Police’s inception  and didn’t improve much thereafter. Some police could be bribed to turn a blind eye, others probably thought there were bigger fish to fry and found pubs a useful source of information. Others were incorruptible. Either way, pubs were ‘easy pickings’ for a new police force determined to prove its value to the community it served.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 05, 1830]

A ‘bully’ is seized; a case of mistaken identity in Leicester Square

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Stagg & Mantle’s store on Leicester Square

One of the things that fascinates me whilst reading the reports of the Victorian police courts is the changing use of language, especially slang. Language is always evolving of course; one only needs to spend time around young people to see how they create new words and adapt old ones. Slang (like underworld cant or Cockney rhyming slang) effectively excludes those that don’t understand it and allows conversions to occur in the hearing of those we’d rather didn’t understand what we were saying.

However when we look back into history to read about the people from the past through their own words the changing use and definition of words can be quite confusing. For example ‘gay’ which has changed its meaning considerably over the centuries. Now it almost universally refers to homosexuality but this probably only dates back to the 1930s, and only to men (and possibly only in the US). For most of the twentieth century in Britain it means happy, cheerful and it still is used like that.

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In the late 1850s (a period of concern about sexual health following revelations about the disastrous state of British troops in the Crimean War) ‘gay’ was a slang term for female prostitution (as seen in a famous cartoon from the time – shown on the left).

Another family word today is ‘bully’ which I think we would all understand to mean someone who uses their strength or position of power to intimate or exploit someone else. Bullying is rightly at the top of school and work agendas as something that needs to be dealt with and that vulnerable people should be protected from.

So would you be surprised to discover that in the 1800s (and indeed earlier) ‘bully’ was a slang term for a protector? It seems strange until we unpack it a little more and find that ‘a bully’ in Victorian terminology meant a prostitute’s protector, or in modern language, her ‘pimp’. Victorian bullies profited from the money made by street prostitutes and ‘protected’ them from other bullies or competitors for their territory.

Once you know that this report from the mid 1870s makes more sense.

Detective Leader of C Division (Metropolitan Police) was standing at the corner of Leicester Square watching a crowd of people outside Stagg and Mantle’s department store. Some of the more fashionable London streets attracted prostitutes and thieves and the police often watched for well-known or suspicious characters to catch them in the act of committing crime. Detective Leader was in plain clothes and looked like an ordinary member of the public.

Looking across Leader suddenly noticed a man, possibly drunk, wade into the crowd and start an altercation with a small group of women. He quickly intervened to separate them only to find that the man seized him by the collar and then declared that he was under arrest. The man, who was a recently discharged soldier named William Corrington, told the policeman that he (the soldier) was a detective and that he was arresting him (the actual detective) and would take him to the nearest police station. His explanation was that Leader was a ‘bully’ and so he must have believed he was trying to protect the women from the former solider.

The detective tried to explain  that the man was mistaken; he was the copper and he had been watching these women, but Corrington was too drunk to understand. A nearby uniformed officer saw what was happening and came to his colleague’s assistance and the man stood aside. But this was only temporary, when he saw that the detective wasn’t going anyway the ex-army man lurched forward again declaring:

‘You are loitering here again, and I shall take you to the station’.

Since Corrington could not or would not see sense, Leader and PC Harding (28C reserve) hauled him off to the nick and he was presented before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street in the morning on a charge of ‘annoying’ the detective in the course of executing his duty. The magistrate fined him 20(or 14 days imprisonment if he couldn’t pay).

Poor Corrington. He’d been discharged from the army only a few days earlier, we don’t know why. He was clearly drunk but possibly suffering in other ways. Prostitutes were exploited themselves of course, but they also preyed on drunk men and maybe William had fallen victim and had had his pocket pinched in the past. It is often remarked that the police (in plain clothes) can look remarkably similar to the criminals they are pursuing so maybe this was an honest mistake. This story does tell us as well, that the West End of London was considered a ripe spot for petty crime and vice in the 1870s, and little has changed there today.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 09, 1875]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk