The Great (Northern) Train Robbery

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When a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take him long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’ matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveller that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective fell in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’ and said his name was Robert Johnson. He emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds to be like someone that needed help not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

A befuddled old man ends up in the wrong bed

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It was about 10 o’clock at night and Jane Black was feeling unwell. Her husband worked in a nightclub and was often late home so she decided to take herself to bed. An hour later she work up, conscious that someone had joined her but as she moved to greet her partner she was instead shocked to find that she was in bed with a complete stranger!

Mary screamed and raced down the stairs in her nightclothes. The commotion woke the house and brought several other lodgers out of their rooms. The landlord went up to Mary’s room and found Edward Williams, an elderly man of 65 years, sitting on the edge of the bed in only his shirt. He was drunk and admitted:

‘I fancy I may have made a mistake. Well if I can’t sleep in the bed , let me sleep on the floor’.

The police were called and the uninvited ‘guest’ was arrested.

A prosecution for assault followed at Bow Street on the next morning and Mr Vaughan was told that Williams had been let in by the landlord. The landlord said he and his wife had retired to bed but later heard someone fumbling at the door, trying to get into the house. He had opened the door and asked who the person wanted. ‘Mary Ann Black, of course’, the stranger replied, so he’d let him in. It was dark, and he assumed it was Mary’s husband.

The magistrate decided that he needed to know more about Williams and so he remanded him in custody that enquiries could be made into his character and mental health.

This case really shows us that we have to be careful about how we read a newspaper report. What is written above is how the incident was recorded in Lloyd’s Weekly, and there is no real hint that this is anything other than an amusing and not very serious case of a drunken old man getting confused and finding the wrong door.

But on the 25 October Edward Williams, a 40 year-old labourer, was sent to Pentonville Prison for 12 months for indecently assaulting Jane Black. He was committed to trial by Mr Vaughan so we can sure this is one and the same man. Not a 65 year-old who lost his way but a would-be rapist that tricked his way into Mrs Black’s bed while her husband was at work.

That is quite a different story to the one the newspaper presented.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 14, 1888]

A man is told to beat his wife behind doors so as not to disturb the public peace

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If you want to know how gender biased societal attitudes towards domestic violence were in the Victorian era I think this case illustrates them perfectly.

PC Massey of the City Police was walking his beat in October 1871. It was the early evening and he was on Jewry Street in Aldgate when he heard a commotion. James Daley was laying into his wife, abusing her verbally and physically and so the policeman intervened.

He told Daley that if ‘he had any differences to settle with his wife’ he should ‘do it at home’. In his eyes then it wasn’t the violence that was the problem, buy the fact that the noise the pair were making was disturbing the peace.

Daley, a local tailor, was drunk and in mood to listen to the advice from a copper and pushed the officer to aside. The man then raised his fists and punched his wife hard in the face twice. Again the policeman merely asked him to take the matter off the streets. The tailor ignored him and proceeded to thump Mrs Daley even harder.

PC Massey had no choice now. The man wouldn’t go home quietly so he had to arrest him and so, with difficultly, he took both parties into custody and presented the tailor at the Mansion House Police court the following morning.

Mrs Daley refused to prosecute her husband, despite the beating she had received and the bruises that resulted from it. Her eye may have been blackened but she refrained from further blackening her partner’s reputation, keeping quiet. For his part Daley justified his assault on her on the grounds that she had been out drinking and he’d had ‘to fetch her home’. It was only when she’d refused to return that he had ‘slapped her face’.

Domestic violence like this was commonplace and magistrates were powerless to do much if anything about it. Wives and partners rarely prosecuted, or withdrew their prosecutions after an initial complaint. The police didn’t want to get involved, and society seemingly accepted that such abuse was acceptable so long as it didn’t go ‘too far’. Exactly how far was ‘too far’ wasn’t an exact science of course and most female homicide victims were killed by their lovers or husbands.

PC Massey wasn’t bothered by the violence Daley showed towards his wife, and nor, I doubt, was the Lord Mayor. What was a problem however, was the tailor’s refusal to comply with a direct request by a serving policeman to go home quietly. That, and not his abuse of his wife, earned him a 10fine or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 11, 1871]

The man who threw away 17 years of his life in a desperate gamble

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What motivates someone to commit a crime? It is one of the key questions that criminologists ask themselves and its often quite a hard one to answer. Policemen, probation officers and social workers can all question a culprit and try to see what underlies their offending but even then the cause can be complex and hard to pinpoint exactly. So imagine how hard it is for historians of crime to understand the causal factors behind individual acts of criminality in the past. After all, we can hardly ask the perpetrators, can we?

I really want to know what brought Thomas Hughes to decide to steal from his employer, the Bank of England. Thomas was 35 years of age when he stole £65 from the bank. He had joined when he was just 17 and so he had worked for the ‘old lady of Threadneedle Street’ for 17 years.

Perhaps he was frustrated at a lack of opportunities. As a lowly clerk he may not have seen a career path opening up in front of him. Maybe he resented his better paid colleagues, or thought the bank’s systems so lax it would be easy to steal and get away with it? Or he might have reached a pinch point in his life – another child to feed, or a daughter’s marriage perhaps? We can’t rule out the possibility of course that he was a gambler or had otherwise run up debts he could no longer sustain.

Maybe Thomas had been stealing from the bank for years, embezzling small but ever increasing sums that led him to grow bolder and attempt to take the significant sum of £65 (or £4,000 in today’s money) all in one go?

This time he was caught and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in early October 1875. The City’s chief magistrate committed him for trial at the Old Bailey and on 25 October he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. It was the end of his career and quite possibly the end of gainful employment for some time. He would lost is good reputation along with his job and the means to support himself and his family (if he had one).

I would really like to know why he took that risk at all?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 08, 1875]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

A sailor finds that he’s been sold a parcel of horses**t

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James Randall had bought a packet of what he believed to be tobacco from someone, possibly a dock worker, at one of the many pubs in and around the City of London. The vendor had torn open the package just enough to allow him to test a sample of the tobacco, and he had handed over 2for it. Later he discovered that instead a pound and a half of ‘baccy, all he had was a worthless mix of ‘sawdust and horsedung’.

The sailor had been ‘done’ but instead of accepting his bad luck he decided he would try to recover the situation. Later that day he was walking in the Minories in the City, close to its eastern edge, when he encountered a young lad named Thomas Watts. He offered him the parcel of ‘tobacco’ for 2s3d hoping to make a small profit from the deal.

Watts, a ‘respectable’ youth, was unsure, and said no. Randall immediately dropped the price to 19d, but Thomas still wavered. The sailor went to 16d  and Watts caved in. He handed over the money and was about to examine his purchase when a policeman ran up to the pair of them.

PC Hayton (588 City) had watched the transaction and knew Randall as a suspicious individual. He took the parcel and the plug sample of tobacco  fell out soon followed by the worthless mixture of sawdust and manure. The copper quickly established that the boy had been ripped off and instructed Randall to give him his money back. He demurred at first but then complied. As Watts thanked the policeman the seaman took his chance and ran off.

The officer chased him across the City and caught up with him in Finsbury Circus where he arrested him. On the way to the station Randall confessed to knowing his parcel was valueless and so to trying to defraud Thomas. Not surprisingly then when he was produced at the Mansion House Police court Sir Robert Carden committed him for trial.

Randall was tried at the Old Bailey on the 22 October 1855 and found guilty on his own confession, he was 25 years of age. The judge sent him to prison for three months.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1855]