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

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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]

The prisoner who violently refused to accept her fate

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Although this story is not from one of London’s Police courts it does involve the magistrate system in London. It seems as if when crimes were committed inside prisons by serving prisoners it was possible for these cases to be heard (or at least assessed briefly) by visiting magistrates. Today we have a system whereby those held on remand in prisons or custody suites can be questioned by video link, so perhaps this was an early form of remote inquisition.

Elizabeth Heydrick was recidivist who had been in and out of court and the prison system on a number of occasions. None of her brushes with the law had any effect at all, unless it was to harden her resolve to be as obstreperous as possible.

In June 1870 she was in the Westminster house of correction serving a nine month sentence for assaulting the matron of the Bethnal Green workhouse. On that occasion as she’d left he dock she had turned to matron and vowed to kill her when she got out. As a result the magistrate ordered her to find sureties to ensure her good behaviour towards the woman on her release. This proved impossible however, so when her time was up she was kept inside and told she’d not be released until she did so (up to the period of sureties which was 12 months).

After three months Heydrick rang the bell of her cell, summoning a warder named Elizabeth Warwick to her. Heydrick told Warwick that she wanted to go to the exercise yard and the warder took her there. After about 10 minutes she said she wanted to return to the cell, but asked for some water first. She then turned on the taps but didn’t drink, just letting them empty into the yard. For this nuisance the warder rebuked her and told her to get back to the cell.

As they climbed the stairs to the level of Heydrick’s cell the prisoner turned around and punched Warwick in the face, blackening her eye, and then again twice to the chest. Other warders rushed to assist their colleague and so prevented Heydrick’s assault from being even more serious. As it was Elizabeth Warwick was badly injured and shaken up. The prison surgeon feared she’d broken two ribs and she was not fit to return to her duties – of even to leave her room – for nearly a month.

The magistrates that visited the prison fully committed Heydrick to stand trial for the violent assault at the next sitting of the Middlesex Sessions. On July 7 Heydrick appeared in court before a judge and jury who were told that when she had been taken to a ‘refractory cell’ (by which I presume they meant something like the ‘darks’ at Millbank, a solitary cell designed for punishment) she was searched. Male warders had helped subdue her after the assault on Warwick but only female warders could search her. As Amelia Newton was doing so she found a long pin in her jacket and was removing the potential weapon when Heydrick struck out and hit her in the face, cutting her lip and drawing blood.

The jury duly convicted her and the judge handed down an additional one-year sentence. Again this seemingly had little effect on Elizabeth who was led away from the dock laughing to herself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 08, 1870]

If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

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Daniel Risbey was in East London to visit his wife, who was an inmate at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street. The fifty year-old fisherman from Essex was unfamiliar with the capital and certainly a stranger to the dodges and pitfalls that often befell the unwary. He must have stuck out like sore thumb.

As he left the hospital and was making his way along Mile End Road a man stopped and chatted to him. As they conversed he noticed another person just ahead stop and appear to drop some pieces of paper on the street. The first man, who had introduced himself as Thomas Windsor, picked them up and showed them to Risbey.

‘Why’, Windsor declared, ‘these are £5 notes!’ and he called the other man back. He now joined them and said his name was George Boyce and that he’d recently come into money following a payout for an incident on the railway. Boyce had received the princely sum of £300 and declared that ‘he meant to do some good with the money, and would lend to any deserving man’.

What a stroke of luck then, for Risbey to run into two such generous chaps on his visit to London. The pair now said that they trusted him enough to have some of the money up front while they sorted out the ‘usual arrangements’ of a loan and suggested he wait in a local pub while they did so. This proved, they said, that they had ‘confidence’ in him. To show them that he was worthy of that confidence they asked him to hand over his purse and money while they sorted things out. He had several £5 notes, they had his money – which only amounted to about 5s anyway.

The fisherman took out a few pennies for a beer, handed over his purse and walked over to the nearest pub to wait. After an hour they hadn’t returned and he was about to leave when a police sergeant appeared and asked him to accompany him to the station. When he got there Boyce and Windsor were in custody and Sergeant Rolfe explained the situation.

The officer had seen the two men talking to Risbey, knew them as ‘sharpers’ (or confidence tricksters) and watched them. He followed them after they left Risbey and, with some assistance, arrested them. When searched all they had was three pence, the notes, a few Hanoverian medals, and the Essex man’s purse. Both were charged with theft and presented at Worship Street Police court on the following morning, Thursday 6 July 1882.

The whole episode was related to Mr Hannay the sitting magistrate. The notes were fake – from the ‘Bank of Engraving’ Sergeant Rolfe explained. The medals were used to represent sovereign coins and the two men were well known to the police. On this occasion Daniel Risbey was lucky, thanks to the sharp eyes and wits of the local police all he lost was his innocence and he left London a little wiser than he arrived. At least on the next occasion he visited his wife in hospital he’d have a tale to tell, if he chose to tell it at all. As for the two ‘sharpers’, Mr Hannay committed them for trial.

I think we’ve all heard of the confidence trick but it isn’t often that it is so clearly described in those terms. The paper was reporting this as news, as a warning to readers, and as gentle dig at the expense of the ‘country bumpkin’ come up to town and taken for a fool. We might nod sagely at how gullible he was (as many of those reading the Standard in 1882 would have done) but how many of us have fallen, or come close to falling, for internet scams that have promised us easy money or other benefits that have few strings attached. Remember folks, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 07, 1882]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A desperate life which is no life at all

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Clerkenwell Prison 

Margaret Raymond was someone who needed help. Unfortunately for her she lived in the late Victorian period where support for people like her was extremely limited. As a result she existed on the margins of society, alternating from periods of imprisonment and spells in the parish workhouse.

When she appeared at Clerkenwell Police court in late June 1871 it was about the 50th time she’d been there. Most of her arrests had been alcohol related: drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable, resisting arrests, assault, abusive langue and so on. She was an alcoholic but there was no effective social care system to help her off her addiction so she continued to spiral between different forms of incarceration.

On this occasion she was charged with bring drunk and disorderly and assaulting the landlord of the White Swan pub in Islington High Street. Margaret had entered the pub in the evening, already drunk, and demanding he serve her. When he refused she became violent and he tried to throw her out. In the process he got hit about the head and body and his coat was torn. Eventually Margaret was frog-marched away to the local police station to sober up.

In the morning before Mr Baker at Clerkenwell Police court she had no memory of the incident, it having been carried out in a drunken haze as always. The magistrate listened as her previous convictions were read out. These included no less than 31 charges at Upper Street Police station and two years imprisonment for criminal damage. That was for breaking the windows of John Webb’s shop at a cost of £8. She pleaded guilty, gave her age as 42 and her occupation as a ‘washer’. That was a casual trade at best so may simply have been her attempt to avoid saying she was unemployed.

The magistrate looked down at the drunken women in his dock and could see little else to do with her but fine her 5s that she almost certainly didn’t have. Instead Margaret would go back to prison – this time the Middlesex House of Correction for a week with hard labour – and continue her cycle of desperate existence. I’ve no doubt she would have continued to appear before the London bench or at the gates of the workhouse until the inevitable happened, and she she succumbed to her addiction and died, probably destitute, homeless, and on the streets.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 1, 1871]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

 

‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

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 on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

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 on 15 June this year. You can find details here: