‘Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’; a desperate attempt on a defenceless woman.

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Prisoners quarrying at Portland Prison c.1880s

Celia Harrison was having tea with her aunt and her grandmother, Emma Harrison, on 22 July 1895 when there was a knock at the door. It was 6 o’clock the 10 year old recalled and when her grandmother answered the door it was father who stood in the doorway. The visitor (William Harrison) demanded to know if his brother Jack was at home. He wasn’t and the elderly woman seemed nervous and wasn’t inclined to let her son in.

William seemed angry and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol. Celia heard him say: ‘I mean doing for him when he does come home’ and she saw that he was holding a knife. Celia, in fear, ran out into the garden.

Charles Rattison was a tram driver who lived upstairs from the Harrisons at 6 Salisbury Road, Highgate. Just after 6 o’clock he heard raised voices coming from below. When he heard a cry of ‘murder!’ he leapt up from his chair and rushed downstairs. To his horror he saw Emma Harrison flat on her back on the floor with her son William sitting cross-legged on top of her, slashing at her throat with a knife.

Rattison acted swiftly, wrestling the man off of her. In his rage William, who couldn’t see who his attacker was, growled at him: ‘Are you Jack?’ ‘No’, Rattison replied, ‘I am Charley’. William Harrison now said:

Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’.

Fortunately he didn’t get the opportunity because another neighbour arrived and managed to take the knife from him. Harrison fled before the police could get there but PC Thomas Russant (637Y) caught up with him as he tried to escape. The copper was threatened by the would-be assassin who told him:

Where is my bleeding knife; I wish I had a sharp-shooter, I would put some of your lights out’.

On the 23 July Harrison was in court before the North London Police magistrate. Detective Sergeant Godley testified that the victim was too ill to attend but that she was thankfully recovering well in the Great Northern Central Hospital. He added that Emma was the widow of a policeman who had been pensioned off in 1876 after ‘many years service’ to the force. I imagine Y Division viewed this attack as if it was perpetrated against ‘one of their own’.

William Harrison stood impassively as others, including his daughter, gave their evidence. The magistrate remanded him for a week so that his victim had more time to mend in hospital before giving her version of events. This took some time, she was, after all, 68 years of age and so the case didn’t come before a jury until September that year where William Harrison was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm. The jury rejected his plea that he was drunk at the time, not that it was an excuse anyway. Harrison had form as well, having previously been prosecuted for wounding his wife. On that occasion he’d gone down for 11 months. This time the judge sent him away for 7 years of penal servitude.

William Harrison, who was simply described as a labourer, served five years and three months of his sentence, much of it at Portand Prison. He was released on 1 December 1900 at the age of 44. Thereafter he seems to have escaped trouble with the law but whether his wife and family were happy to have him back is less clear.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 24, 1895]

Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]

One of the ‘most expert pickpockets in London’ is caught red handed

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What! Eighteen Stone! Oh, you’ll do; – here’s your Ticket-of-leave!” (Punch, 13 December, 1862)

Michael Welch – who also went under the name of John Hunt – had already had several brushes with the law. He had served time in Portsmouth Prison and had previously been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Fortunately for Welch his sentence had come at a time when Britain was bringing the process of transporting felons to Australia to an end.

Transportation to New South Wales had been resisted (by the inhabitants) from the 1830s and in 1840 it ceased (although between 1788 and then some 150,000 Britons had been sent there). Convicts continued to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) until 1853 and to Western Australia from 1850 onwards (albeit in small numbers), but the reality was that after 60 or so years of dumping her unwanted criminals and some political prisoners in the new colony Great Britain was forced to look at alternative ways to deal with crime.

The answer was imprisonment at home, in the hulks (which also served as embarkation off points for transportees) and in the national prisons (such as Pentonville or Portland) where convicts could be set to building sea defences or other public works, or ‘broken’ on the treadwheel and crank.

Adopting a system pioneered with transported convicts in Australia those sentenced to long spells in prison could earn a ticket-of-leave (effectively parole) whereby they might be released early so long as they behaved themselves thereafter. Welch was one such ‘ticket-of’leave’ man.

Unfortunately for Welch he was unable to stay out of trouble.

In October 1854 he was spotted on Fleet Street attempting to pick the pockets of passers-by. Inspector Daniel May of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective force was mingling with the crowds on Fleet Street at around half past seven in the evening when he saw Welch.

‘I watched him for about half an hour’, he told the magistrate at Guildhall; ‘at length I saw him put his hand through a hole in his coat where his pocket should be, and take a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket’.

He informed the victim of what had happened and soon afterwards seized Welch and took him into custody.

When he was searched he had no less than 14 other silk hankies. The magistrate was amazed:

‘I suppose they are the product of a whole day’s work, are they not? he asked the detective.

‘Oh no sir’ the policeman replied, ‘I believe it was only two hours’ work’.

‘He must be a very clever fellow to get so many handkerchiefs in two hours’, said the Alderman. ‘He is one of the most expert pickpockets in London’ confirmed Inspector May.

Now the magistrate turned his attention to the accused and, having established his history of imprisonment and recent release, upbraided him for his lack of gratitude to the criminal justice system.

‘Did they give you a ticket-of-leave to rob people of their handkerchiefs?’ he asked the man in the dock. ‘No sir’.

Welch was remanded in custody so that the owner of the handkerchief could appear to prosecute him.

Postscript: On 23 October 1854 a John Hunt was sentenced to four years penal servitude at Old Bailey for stealing a handkerchief valued at 2s belonging to a George Pullen. Hunt had ‘before been convicted’ and pleaded guilty. There are no details (because of the guilty plea) but I suspect it is the same man.

Four years for the theft of a handkerchief worth about £2 in today’s money.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, October 11, 1854]