An old hand plays to the gallery

the_new_cut_at_evening

Samuel Owen was (like Norman Stanley Fletcher) an ‘old hand’ in terms of the law. The 56 year-old Owen had a string of convictions reaching back to his first in 1863 (when he must have been 24 or younger), its quite likely he had brushes with the police before then as well. Owen had served ‘a total of 26 years imprisonment’; almost half his life had therefore been spent ‘inside’.

It doesn’t seem to have have taught him anything much and certainly didn’t deter him from further offending.

In October 18995 he was up before the magistrate at Marylebone charged with stealing a pair of trousers and trying to pawn them back at the very shop he stole them from. His victim, John Davis, kept a pawnbrokers’ shop on Hampstead Road and he brought the prosecution against Owen for goods valued at 4s and 6d.

It was an ordinary case but Owen decided to make it newsworthy but behaving ‘in an outrageous manner’ in court. The Standard’s court reporter wrote that he ‘flung his arms about in the air and shouted ‘at the top of his voice’. He demanded the gaoler bring him his glasses: “I want my glasses.. and I won’t be quite till I have them”, he exclaimed. “How can I see the prosecutor, or how can I read my Bible or Prayer-Book” (this provoked much laughter in the public court).

The gaoler stepped forward to restrain him but Owen shrugged him off declaring: “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. I’m a crack-pot and won’t stand being played with!”

Eventually Owen was reunited with his spectacles and he turned to survey the court. Identifying the pawnbroker in the witness stand Owen said:

” Ah yes, he’s the bloke. Now I am ready, come on!”

The case against him now preceded and the evidence, such as it was, was read. Owen had been suspected and was followed by a police constable who arrested him. The copper was crossed examined (with Owen adding:

“Ain’t he innocent? I told him I got the trousers from the New Cut and he said ‘Do you mean the canal?’ (laughter) He don’t know the New Cut…is he from the country? It makes me roar” (more laughter).

Owen was alluding to the reality that many of the Met’s finest hailed from outside the capital; former agricultural labourers who had swapped the fields for the streets and a uniform. They were not often credited with great intelligence but were good at following orders; a rather unfair stereotyping it has to be said.

Finally the prisoner added that he had actually been ‘caught’ by a little girl (who had presumably seen what he had done) who he described as a ‘mite of a girl, alleluiah, alleluiah!’

Owen had little to say in his defence and pleaded guilty but at the same time demanded a jury trial, and the magistrate duly obliged him.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 02, 1895]

A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

2b3b3776e72b4e98485a917c64096f6d

One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

‘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]

One of the waifs and strays that Barnardo’s couldn’t help

barnardo2

There were very many prosecutions for begging heard at the Victorian Police courts. Begging was an offence that fell under laws that had been amended over the centuries but had been in place in some form since at least the Tudor period. In the nineteenth century you weren’t supposed to beg, you were supposed to present yourself at the workhouse gates if you really had no means of supporting yourself, and take the consequences.

The consequences (as contemporary writers like Jack London or George Sims discovered) were grim. On admittance to the workhouse causal ward the newcomer would be stripped and washed in cold water. His  possessions would be bundled up and taken away, he was given a token with a number on for safe keeping. It was assumed that if a pauper kept anything of value (even his clothes) they would be stolen by his companions.   A member of staff (or fellow inmate) would dole out a lump of hard bread and the new arrival would be shown to the ‘shed’ – a cold unlit room where the poor slept. Bedding was minimal and the mattress token; London found that his was blood stained for the warden turned it over.

If they managed to sleep at all it was either a miracle or a result of being so exhausted they could do little else. In the morning they were rudely awakened and their clothes etc were returned. Now they were led out into the yard to be fed and to pay for their keep. Food was basic: a swill that vaguely resembled oatmeal porridge. Work was backbreaking and usually involved smashing up rocks. Paupers were treated much like criminals and the stain attached to poverty followed them around for life.

No wonder then that people would rather beg, or even turn to crime. A little boy known only by his surname (‘Hall’) had been arrested by the police in central London. He was presented at Marlborough Street Police court to face Mr Mansfield. The magistrate heard that the boy had turned to begging after his father had taken him out of a Barnardo’s Home. Mr Hall inferred that he would rather have the lad with him than in one of the charity’s institutions but we are not told why.

However Mr Mansfield seemed to suggest that this was the fault of Barnardo and other similar ‘public institutions’ that had closed ‘their doors to those [children] who lame or in ill-health’. The consequence of this policy was that they had to return to their homes ‘or their haunts of vice, to be more neglected and cruelly ill-treated than before’.

He thought it ‘monstrous that those little waifs and starts should be cast aside in that matter’. Having said his piece he discharged little Hall into the care of his father.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 20, 1886]

A practised thief accepts prison as ‘an occupational hazard’.

Any Gentleman Oblige A Lady Cassells Family Mag 1885

Public transport brought people of all stations of life together in the crowded Victorian metropolis. Contemporaries worried about the collapse of the natural barriers of class, particularly on the railways where women travelling alone were vulnerable to unwanted male attention. The London omnibus also provided the city’s thieves with plenty of opportunities to prey on the unsuspecting or careless commuter and practised pickpockets could hope to avoid detection most of the time.

Occasionally however they weren’t so lucky and risked an appearance before a Police Court magistrate, or worse – a sessions or Old Bailey jury – and the very real prospect of prison. I suspect many of them – like the fictional ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ of BBC’s Porridge – accepted this as ‘an occupational hazard’. If you chose to ‘pick a pocket or two’ then every now and then you would get caught.

This is what happened to one ‘respectably dressed’ woman named Jane Clark. Jane was riding on an omnibus in Oxford Street and keeping her wits about her for her next opportunity to ‘dip’. This arrived in the person of Mrs Amy Massy, a resident of Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia.

Mrs Massy was seated on the ‘bus and probably didn’t even notice the unremarkable woman sat beside her. Something moved her to become concerned however, and she reached into her pocket to ‘see if her purse was safe’. To her horror she discovered that the elastic band she used to keep it secure had been forced off and ‘two sovereigns had been taken from it’.

Amy called the conductor and accused her neighbour on the ‘bus of stealing them. She claimed she’d seen Jane’s hand ‘in her pocket’ but I doubt she did. If Jane Clark was a practised thief then it is highly unlikely anyone saw anything untoward. However, in order to secure a conviction it was imperative that someone witnessed the ‘private theft from the person’ that the law defined.

Jane denied the theft and no coins were found on her or, at first at least, on the omnibus. Later though a young lad named Henry Taylor found two sovereigns on the floor of the bus when it reached Islington. He handed them in and they were eventually traced back to Mrs Massy after a police investigation.

On the following day Jane Clark was set before the Police magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Tyrwhitt, where she was defended by Mr Lewis, a lawyer. Jane again denied the theft and Mr Lewis tried to suggest that Mrs Massy had dropped the coins when she took out her handkerchief to wipe her face. The magistrate said he was minded to send the case for a jury to decide; there was considerable doubt here as to whether Jane was guilty after all. But this wasn’t at all popular with the defendant.

It is quite likely that Jane Clark was a known offender and would be exposed as such at the Middlesex Sessions. If a jury convicted her she might face a lengthy spell inside and that was to be avoided at all costs. Mr Lewis pleaded with the justice to deal with the case summarily. Tyrwhitt was reluctant at first and even offered to bail Jane in the interim.

In the end Jane agreed to plead guilty (as was her right after 1855) and the magistrate sentenced her to two months in prison with hard labour, not ideal but not penal servitude with all that included. Jane would be back on the streets by the summer, and able to go back to ‘work’ on the thousands of tourists that rode the ‘buses of the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 23, 1865]

An old hand plays to the gallery

the_new_cut_at_evening

Samuel Owen was (like Norman Stanley Fletcher) an ‘old hand’ in terms of the law. The 56 year-old Owen had a string of convictions reaching back to his first in 1863 (when he must have been 24 or younger), its quite likely he had brushes with the police before then as well. Owen had served ‘a total of 26 years imprisonment’; almost half his life had therefore been spent ‘inside’.

It doesn’t seem to have have taught him anything much and certainly didn’t deter him from further offending.

In October 18995 he was up before the magistrate at Marylebone charged with stealing a pair of trousers and trying to pawn them back at the very shop he stole them from. His victim, John Davis, kept a pawnbrokers’ shop on Hampstead Road and he brought the prosecution against Owen for goods valued at 4s and 6d.

It was an ordinary case but Owen decided to make it newsworthy but behaving ‘in an outrageous manner’ in court. The Standard’s court reporter wrote that he ‘flung his arms about in the air and shouted ‘at the top of his voice’. He demanded the gaoler bring him his glasses: “I want my glasses.. and I won’t be quite till I have them”, he exclaimed. “How can I see the prosecutor, or how can I read my Bible or Prayer-Book” (this provoked much laughter in the public court).

The gaoler stepped forward to restrain him but Owen shrugged him off declaring: “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. I’m a crack-pot and won’t stand being played with!”

Eventually Owen was reunited with his spectacles and he turned to survey the court. Identifying the pawnbroker in the witness stand Owen said: ” Ah yes, he’s the bloke. Now I am ready, come on!”

The case against him now preceded and the evidence, such as it was, was read. Owen had been suspected and was followed by a police constable who arrested him. The copper was crossed examined (with Owen adding: “Ain’t he innocent? I told him I got the trousers from the New Cut and he said ‘Do you mean the canal?’ (laughter) He don’t know the New Cut…is he from the country? It makes me roar” (more laughter).

Owen was alluding to the reality that many of the Met’s finest hailed from outside the capital; former agricultural labourers who had swapped the fields for the streets and a uniform. They were not often credited with great intelligence but were good at following orders; a rather unfair stereotyping it has to be said.

Finally the prisoner added that he had actually been ‘caught’ by a little girl (who had presumably seen what he had done) who he described as a ‘mite of a girl, alleluiah, alleluiah!’

Owen had little to say in his defence and pleaded guilty but at the same time demanded a jury trial, and the magistrate duly obliged him.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 02, 1895]