A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

Sleeping angel statue, Highgate Cemetery AA073906

Yesterday I visited Highgate cemetery. This is the first time I’ve been to the West cemetery – the oldest part – which you can only access as part of a guided tour. Myself and about a dozen others avoided the royal nuptials by spending a fascinating 90 minutes or so with Stuart, one of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery’s volunteers. He showed us around the cemetery, up into the catacombs and around the Egyptian style tombs, pointing out some of the famous people buried there (like Michael Faraday) and telling us about the history of site.

I was most touched by the stories of ordinary people like Elizabeth Jackson – the very first burial at Highgate after it opened in 1839 – whose husband must have saved every penny he had to ensure his wife was interned in a crowded graveyard in central London but instead was buried in the quite peace of the suburbs. He later died of cholera but his second wife made sure he was interred with his first love, and possibly their daughter who died (as so many did) in infancy.

The tour costs £12 but is well worth every penny and includes the £4 admission to the East cemetery, where you can visit Marx, Elgar, Douglas Adams and my early historical hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

Today I’ve picked a tragedy from the Police Court in the year Highgate opened. As Charles Aymer drove his butcher’s cart along Old Bailey in May a young woman stepped out into the traffic. London was as busy then as it is today, although where we have cars, vans and buses, they had coaches, cabs and carts.

Aymer saw the woman – Jane Lang – and reined in his horse, but couldn’t stop in time. The horse knocked her down and the wheels of the chaise cart ran right over her stricken body. She died where she lay.

The butcher was brought up before the alderman at Guildhall Police Court where he gave his evidence. The alderman accepted that it was mostly likely to have been an accident but said he would have to remand him in custody until an inquest had taken place the following week. The court was also told that Jane had been due to get married that week as well. It was an awful thing to happen, but there was probably little the butcher could have done to prevent it.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 20, 1839]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

A ragged individual with a curious hobby

An unequal match.

John Tenniel’s cartoon of the battle between the police and the ‘criminal class’,

(Punch, c.1881)

When PC 585E discovered William Roast sheltering in a doorway he was understandably suspicious. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, the perfect hour for burglars, and Roast appeared to be peering through the door’s keyhole. So the policeman touched him on the shoulder and demanded to know what he was up to.

Roast explained that he’d been unable to sleep so had gone for a walk. He’d actually been listening at the door for the sound of a clock chiming inside, so he could tell what hour it was. The copper was unconvinced and took him into custody. On searching him he unearthed a ‘a long piece of thick wire, with a hook on the end’.

At Bow Street the magistrate asked the officer what he thought the wire was for. The constable replied that he believed it was created for the purpose of unlocking doors. Roast had been charged with loitering ‘for a supposed unlawful purpose’ (loitering with intent in other words) and there seemed plenty of substance to that charge but the justice gave the man the chance to explain himself.

Roast’s defence was punctuated by ‘a series of short coughs every time he hesitated’ (which I think the reporter notes as way of suggesting the prisoner was allowing himself time to think up his excuses, when in reality he had none).

‘The reason I was out at that early hour is because I didn’t go to a place of worship on a Sunday, when I always stay in doors’ [it was Monday, so this was vaguely plausible].

‘But I felt rather restless, and found myself sitting up in bed, so I thought I would take a little exercise, and so I went for a walk at about one o’clock’.

He then added his explanation about wishing to know the time. The magistrate wanted to know about the wire, and why he had it.

 ‘Well sir, I suppose that’s my hobby. But I will be careful in the future, sir’.

If he thought that was the end of it he was to be disappointed. The magistrate said he hoped he would be more careful in future but told him that he would be remanded in custody while some more enquiries were made to see ‘what you were in the past’.

He clearly suspected Roast was a burglar or otherwise a thief, and probably one with a previous record of convictions. The burglar was the quintessential Victorian criminal and the papers were full of stories about their robberies and adverts for anti-burglar traps and alarms.

Roast (who was described in the press as  ‘a ragged looking individual’) was probably aware that even if he was ‘done’ for loitering with intent, unless other offences could be proved against him or his previous convictions earned him something worse, he was looking at a brief spell inside at worst.

The only William Roast I can find in the archives is from 1865 when a 29-year-old man of that name is listed as being in prison. The Digital Panopticon doesn’t tell me what he did and there are no William Roasts at the Old Bailey. So quite possibly he gave a false name or he was a very fortunate thief, and kept out of the arms of the law.

Just possibly of course, he was telling the truth, but I doubt it.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, May 03, 1870

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

Primrose Day 1885 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899

‘He is a good son and I have done no more than any mother would do’.

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When William Bennett was first brought before a magistrate at the Guildhall Police court he was remanded in custody for a few days. The justice, Alderman Stone, had wanted to hear from a key witness who had failed to turn up to give evidence. He remanded Bennett and issued a summons to bring the witness to court.

On Monday 8 April 1872 Bennett was brought up from the cells and once more faced his accuser, a shopkeeper named Mr Edgar who traded from premises on Fann Street, off Aldersgate Street. Bennett was charged with stealing a swing mirror which, according to Edgar, he had brazenly stolen  on the 25 March. Bennett, in company with another man had simply walked into Edgar’s shop  at two 2 in the afternoon and walked out with the mirror.

There was a shop right opposite that of Mr Edgar, run by a woman named Emily Hollingsworth. She was supposed to come to give her evidence but had not appeared. Now she was in court because of the summons and testified that she had seen Bennett and another man take the mirror as Edgar alleged.

The alderman magistrate demanded to know why she hadn’t appeared when the case was first heard. Emily replied that she had in fact come to give evidence before but had met Bennett’s mother in the  courtroom. Mrs Bennett asked her:

‘to throw doubt on the identity of the prisoner, and she refused to falsify her evidence, but said she would rather leave the court altogether than tell a falsehood’.

Next to appear was one of the warders from Cold Bath Fields prison who identified Bennett as someone who been previously convicted. Herbert Reeves said that Bennett had served a two year sentence recently with hard labour and added that a gaoler at the City prison would attest to him being in there on more than one occasion as well. This probably sealed the man’s fate and Alderman Stone fully committed him to take his trial before a jury.

He then turned his ire on Mrs Bennett, reprimanding her for ‘tampering with the witness’. She was unrepentant, telling the magistrate that her boy was a ‘good son to her, and she had done no more than any mother would do’.

When it came to the Old Bailey William pleaded guilty as charged. His previous convictions did count against him and he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude by the judge, for stealing a mirror valued at 5s 6d (about  £17 today).

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 09, 1872]

A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

LambethPrincesRoadMap1875-2500

Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]