Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]

 

 

A Dickensian tale of two drinking buddies who confound the ‘old bill’.

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There are moments of genuine comedy in the newspaper reporting of the police courts that offer a clear and (I expect) deliberate palliative to all the domestic violence, callous villainy, and desperately sad tales of poverty and attempted suicide that otherwise filled the daily columns. You can also see the influence of Charles Dickens and indeed the inspiration for many of his characters. Dickens was an observer of life as his saw it on his long walks around the capital and the crowded courtrooms of London must have been a rich source for the writer.

I’m sure that the readers of the Chronicle on Monday 23 August 1858 were well aware that the previous sitting at Bow Street Police court had heard the cases of 50-100 or more drunks, thieves, disorderly women, wife beaters, fraudsters and juvenile delinquents, let alone the ‘jumpers’, ‘crazies’ and numerous homeless beggars, but the first story they saw was one designed as ‘light relief’ from the grim reality of criminality and poverty in mid Victorian London.

Mary Ann Glover was brought up from the cells at Bow Street to answer a charge of stealing a watch and chain. The victim was Charles Johnson, and the two were apparently well acquainted. The evidence against Glover was presented by the arresting officer, PC Rook of F Division, Metropolitan Police.

PC Glover described how he was on beat near Clare Market at about 5 or 6 in the morning when he heard cries of ‘police!’. Hurrying towards the sounds he entered a house in Plough Court and found Glover and a man (Johnson) locked in an embrace and it appeared that she was trying to remove his watch and chain from his neck.

When the policeman intervened Mary said she was only going ‘to mind it’ for him but PC Rook grabbed it from her and said he would look after it and arrested Mary for the attempted theft.

In her defence Mary told Mr Hall (the Bow Street magistrate on duty) that she and ‘Charley’ were old friends, and called across for Charley’s confirmation:

‘Haven’t we Charley?’ ‘Yes’, said the victim (‘in a sleepy tone’) ‘we have’.

‘And I should never think of robbing Charley any more than I should you, please your worship. But I was out in St. Paul’s Churchyard* last night with the woman as keeps the house where I live, and she, poor thing, suddenly dropped down dead, and I ought to be at the inquest, please your worship, at this very moment, I did’.

Mary then began to recount the full events of that night and how she, with Charley, went on a drinking spree around several of the local pubs.

‘we went and had some drink at the Dark House, and then a little more at the Green Dragon; and after that…’

Here Mr Hall cut her short.

I don’t want to know the names of all the places where you drank. No doubt you drank at every public-house that was open’, he grumbled.

Mary went on to explain that Charley had got so drunk she thought she’d better look after him (‘there being so many bad characters in the district’) which was why she was helping back home and relieving him of his valuables. She would have continued to defend herself with a blow-by-blow account of her life and times but the justice had heard enough.

‘Stop. Stop. Hold your tongue for two minutes’ he told her and turned to the supposed victim.

Do you think she meant to rob you’, he asked.

Lord, no sir; she wouldn’t do it’.

Then what did you give her in custody for?’ Mr Hall demanded.

 

Charley started at him, amazed: ‘I did not give her into custody’ he spluttered.

The policeman had of course, and whether Mary was actually robbing her old acquaintance’ or protecting his valuables was moot; they saw themselves as fellow travellers on one side of the law and in their world the police were most definitely on the other. The last laugh then was on poor PC Rook who had effectively wasted the court’s time by bringing a charge ‘that never was’.

Mary was discharged and the pair waddled off together towards the inquest which with another little story to tell their chums down the Green Dragon (or wherever) later. Dickens might have written it himself.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, August 23, 1858]

‘Why, that is the old, old game, they all deny they are the father!’ Paternity and the working classes

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In the eighteenth century provincial magistrates spent a lot of their time adjudicating on cases of illegitimacy. While it wasn’t exactly a crime to have a child out of wedlock it was still considered a disgrace to be avoided. More pressing for the parish authorities was the  fear that if the father of a newborn was not identified, and then held responsible for the mother and child, a financial burden might fall upon the ratepayers.

This seems to have continued well into the Victorian period but bastardy cases (to use the terminology of the law) are not as frequently reported as I thought they might be. This may mean they didn’t occur that often or, that they were so mundane and everyday as not to be worth reporting.

In late July 1878 one case did make it into the pages of the weekly Illustrated Police News, perhaps because it seemed to shine a light into working-class lives and allow readers to chuckle at the loose morals of the labouring classes.

Edward Bellett was summoned before the magistrate at Clerkenwell to ‘show cause why he should not contribute towards the support of an illegitimate child’. Bellett didn’t bother turn up, hardly surprising perhaps since his given address was the Monarch Public House, on Hornsey Road.

Instead it was left to the complainant, Alice Martin (of Canonbury Park) and her sister-in-law (Ellen Martin), to present the case against him. They told Mr Hosack, the justice, how Alice and Edward had met while they both worked as servants more than a year ago.

The pair got on famously from the moment they met and it was felt by everyone that saw them that they ‘are going to make a match of it’. I suspect that while this may have been how Alice saw it she may also have been laying the foundations of her suit against him, and also preserving her reputation by initiating that she fully believed their courtship would lead to marriage.

It didn’t however, but ‘improper indecency’ certainly did and, on July 15 1877 she gave birth to a little boy. Before then she’d already had to leave service; few servants could continue to work once the household had discovered they were ‘enciente’ (as the reporter put it). She didn’t see Edward at all once she left and he refused to acknowledge his paternity when they did meet, declaring that she would have to go to law if she expected him to support her.

Ellen Martin had accompanied her sister-in-law to meet with the reluctant father and she took centre stage in the hearing at Clerkenwell to describe how such things were conducted. The couple had met in a private bar of a public house (perhaps the one that was cited in the summons), with Ellen standing nearby, earwigging their conversation.

She merely went to see fair play‘, she insisted, and ‘at first stood on one side, but, woman-like, wanting to to see a little of what was going on, she went nearer and nearer and heard all that passed.’ She explained that Edward ‘did the usual thing on such auspicious occasions‘.

What was ‘the usual thing’ Mr Hosack enquired.

Why, to go to the private bar of some public-house to talk the matter over quietly and for the father to stand some refreshment, which he did, and it was a drop of gin. After a long “conflab” [Edward] told [Alice] to meet him on the following Sunday fortnight’ (as he only got every other Sunday off.

Edward told Alice to come alone, insisting that ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’. He clearly didn’t want Ellen along to back her sister up and stiffen her resolve. He said he would pay something towards the child’s upkeep if he was forced to but no money ever materialised, hence the official summons.

Mr Hosack was dubious. He wasn’t convinced that Edward was the father of Alice’s child (which in itself suggested he wasn’t too impressed by her character, or that of her sister-in-law) but nor was he sure it could be proved that he was.

Well ‘they all say they are not the father’, Ellen quipped, ‘that is the old, old game’ and he shouldn’t fall for it. After all, she added, the baby looked ‘just like him’ and so she was sure, having met the man, that he must be the father. The magistrate played for time, saying that while he doubted much could be done he would at least insist that Edward was brought to court to speak for himself.

I dont know the outcome of this case but suspect Alice was not able to persuade Edward to undertake his responsibilities towards her baby. Curiously in early August an Alice Martin was brought before the magistrates at the Shire Hall in Nottingham and charged with leaving her employment in May of the previous year. This Alice was a maid of all work to a Nottinghamshire publican. He sued her for breach of contract and wanted to recover damages against her. Alice claimed she left because she’d been mistreated. The bench dismissed the case and let her go.

If she’d had a baby in mid July then she would have been fairly ‘big with child’ in May or at least showing, so perhaps this is our Alice Martin after all. Having left her paid employment and with a child on the way perhaps she headed for London to seek out her brother and his wife, perhaps knowing that her lover lived in the capital as well. Otherwise this is quite the coincidence.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 27, 1878; Nottinghamshire Guardian , Friday, August 02, 1878]

‘Tis good enough for such as thee’: one landlord’s resistance to a billeting order

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The Royal London Militia dept, Finsbury, 1857

Thomas Cole ran a pub on Shoreditch High Street called the Star and Garter. No doubt it was a fairly rough and ready establishment, popular with the locals but nothing special. Cole’s business was in selling drink (and some food) and providing paying accommodation for those that needed it. However, under the law he was also obliged – when required – to provide beds for soldiers for the militia.

This was a much resented obligation because it cost landlords money; in food and drink, laundry and candles, and of, in lost revenue as they couldnt let theses spaces to paying guests. It had caused problems in the American colonies in the preamble to the War of Independence and had been initially banned under the terms of the 1689 Bill of Rights. It was clearly still happening in 1855 however because three militia men turned up at Cole’s pub with the paperwork that said he was to put them up for a few nights.

Cole accepted the charge with bad grace and showed the trio from the Royal London militia upstairs to a ‘miserable room’ which he’d prepared for them. It wasn’t exactly 4 star accommodation, as two of them later explained at the Worship Street Police court.

Nothing could exceed the discomfort of the apartment, which was destitute of a chair, stool, table, washing stand, or a single peg to hang their clothes on‘.

At least there was a bed, just one however, but the mattress itself was rotten and

torn down the middle, and the framework so dilapidated that it would inevitably have broken down under their weight‘.

The men companied, but to no effect as Cole said the room was ‘good enough for such as they’, and so they returned to their headquarters to inform their officers who billeted them elsewhere.

That was on the 10 July and a few days later Captain Connor and Sergeant Brooks visited The Star and Garter to see the situation for themselves. They also received a rough welcome from the landlord who seemed determined that all soldiers were ‘a set of thieves and rogues’ , regardless of regiment or rank. Cole was very reluctant to let them inspect the room but eventually they did, finding it just as their men had described it.

Cole tried to say that the trio had exaggerated so that they could extort one from him to buy their silence but the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, didn’t buy his half hearted excuse. He said he understood he was unhappy at having to provide accommodation for the militia but the law was the law and he was obliged to. He fined him 40s and warned him about his future conduct.

Cole was adamant he wouldn’t  pay a penny and was prepared to go to gaol for it. Mr D’Eyncourt didn’t offer him that alternative though, telling him that unless the money was paid by the following day a distress warrant would be issued for the debt. In other words, pay up or the bailiffs would turn up and starting taking his possessions away.

The 1850s were a time of international tension for the British Empire with war in the Crimea and, two years later, the Indian revolution (or ‘Mutiny’) in 1857. Soldiers, and the militia, were very much a part fo the fabric of Victorian life but clearly not welcomed by everyone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 21, 1855]

A prisoner who failed to learn his lesson

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When a young woman turned up at Mr Gilson’s fishmongers on New Bond Street asking if he would cash a cheque for her master, the Earl of Bective, he readily agreed. Despite the cheque being for the princely sum of £79 (about £5,000 in today’s money) the earl was a regular customer, and Gilson didn’t want to offend him. He handed over the money and his accountant presented the cheque at the Hanover Square branch of the London and County bank, where his account was.

Unfortunately, the cheque (which was from the National Provident Bank of England, St. Marylebone Branch) bounced, there was no such account he was told. Gilson soon discovered that the signature was a forgery and contacted the police. The case was given to Inspector Peel of the Detective Department (G Division) to investigate and within a few days he had arrested two suspects and was looking for a third.

The two men were presented at the Clerkenwell Police court on the penultimate day of June 1878 and some of the details of the case were disclosed. The court heard that George Farrell, a financial agent living in Leatherhead, and George Hopper, who had been working in Hatton Garden, had met in prison. Both had received a ‘ticket-of-leave’ (early release or parole) and had continued their friendship on the outside.

Prison was (and is) a well-established hatchery for criminal activity; thieves learn from each other and plots and dodges are designed behind bars if men are allowed to associate with one another. This was one of the reasons that the Victorian prison system favoured the silent regime since it was supposed to prevent all communication between convicts.

Hopfer had stolen a blank cheque from his employers, Mendlestam & Co. button manufacturers, of Ely Place, Hatton Garden and it was he who had forged the earl’s signature and had written out the cheque. He was picked up first and detectives were sent to track down Farrell. Detective Wakefield’s enquiries led him to a pub in Leatherhead where he found the fugitive. Farrell turned violent and attempted to escape him but with the help of the local police he was secured and brought back to London.

Farrell’s lodgings were searched and the police found a number of pawn tickets ‘relating to valuable gold articles, diamond rings’ and clothes. They also found two bills of exchange, one for £115, the other for £50, both drawn by Farrell and ‘made payable and accepted by Mr Hatfield Thomas, of 36 Royal Exchange’.

Both men were remanded for further enquiries and the case came to the Old Bailey in August 1878. The duo’s names were given as Hopper and Farrow, not Hopfer and Farrell and there were few other minor differences, but it is the same case. A number of other frauds were cited but the evidence against both men was weak and the jury acquitted them. The police weren’t able to catch the mysterious servant woman who presented the cheque to the fishmonger, and seems to have done a similar task for the gang in other frauds.

Unable to get Farrow for the deception the police were able to bring up his previous conviction. He admitted being convicted of forgery and uttering  in 1871 and so the judge sent him back to prison, this time for 10 years of penal servitude for the offence of receiving the blank cheques (found at his lodgings) from Hopper.

Farrow was born in 1846 and first came up at the Old Bailey in 1871 when he was 25. When he was given a ticket of leave he had served 6 years of a 7 year stretch. He came out of prison on the 30 April 1877 and was back inside by August 1878. He next touches the records in 1901 when he is recorded as having died, in Ipswich at the age of just 55. The prison system was unforgiving, both in its capacity to render convicts unable to find legitimate work on release, and in physically breaking the men and women who were incarcerated.

[from The Morning Post – Monday 1 July 1878]

A sailor narrowly avoids having his drink spiked in Tower Hamlets

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The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.

So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.

As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example.  But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.

One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).

However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.

Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.

This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.

Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.

‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.

William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.

He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.

The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]