Cowboys in the dock at Westminster as the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ makes his first appearance.

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On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.

Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.

Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.

He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.

Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:

The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded. 

Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.

A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.

As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?

[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

A Waterloo veteran is desperate to regain his medal, as a reminder of better times.

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Light Dragoons at Waterloo 

On the 24 June 1851 two young lads were brought up before the magistrate at Marylebone Police Court charged with having stolen property valued at over £100. Benjamin Lawrence was 16 years of age, and his confederate, John Jones, just 15.

The charge sheet presented by the police listed the stolen items (not all of which had been recovered) as follows:

‘a gold snuff-box, Waterloo medals, gold lace off cavalry jackets, two gold lace pouch belts, a cornelian ring, an opera glass, and other articles of much value in jewellery, gold lace, etc’.

The boys had worked as grooms for a Miss Walter at 9 Devonshire Place and the property, which belonged to Major Morse Cooper, had been stored in a room above the stables where the prisoners had worked. Miss Walter was not sworn at Marylebone but a statement was read on her behalf.

This explained that she had employed Lawrence as a live-in groom but had sacked if on the 8 April. Jones had replaced him but lasted only a few weeks. She reinstated Lawrence in May (‘after application had been made by him’) but he repaid her trust by absconding on the 19. It was soon after this that the theft of Major Cooper’s possessions was discovered.

The lady’s butler, informed that a robbery had been perpetrated, had been up to the storeroom to find the place ransacked, with a  ‘number of boxes and drawers had been broken open […] evidently […] forced by means of a chisel’.

This was no petty pilfering, the sort of thing that servants were often accused of. This was a serious robbery and the nature of the items stolen meant that the thieves would have had to dispose of them through a ‘fence’, someone acting as a receiver of stolen goods.

The first police witness, sergeant Battersby of D Division, said that he had been informed that the lads had sold some of the goods to ‘a Jew in Hounsditch’.

Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London and close to the large Jewish community in Spitalfields, was a well-established jewelry and second hand clothing quarter, and so an obvious place to try to exchange stolen goods for ready cash. The ‘Jew’ (unnamed) did not appear in court but the police sergeant had visited him and he had admitted buying (and the selling on) some clothes from Devonshire Mews. It seems the clothes (a ‘pair of hunting breeches and a blue frock coat’) had been sold on to an actor at the Surrey Theatre (now the Old Vic) and the sergeant had retrieved them and brought them to court.

Sergeant Battersby had tracked Jones down to another mews in Belgrave Square where he had found work with the Marquis of Ely. He denied any involvement and tried to blame the theft on his friend ‘Ben’. Battersby arrested him. Lawrence was picked up in Clapham Rise by PC Spice (47V), who recognized him from a description that had been circulated to police districts. Lawrence was clearly ‘known’ to the local police because PC Spice put his hand on his shoulder and said:

‘Ben I want you, you must go along with me, for you have absconded from your service, and a great deal of property has been stolen’.

PC Spice told Mr Broughton (the sitting magistrate at Marylebone) that the boy had denied stealing but admitted receiving one shilling, out of the four that the lads had received for selling the property.

Having heard all the evidence presented by the police Mr Broughton turned to the young prisoners in the dock to hear what they had to say for themselves. Lawrence admitted being ‘there when it was done’ but denied having anything to do ‘with the gold lace or the other valuable things’. Jones said he wasn’t there when the robbery was committed and denied knowing about the sale to ‘a Jew’.

This caused sergeant Battersby to interject: ‘Why, you told me you were present when the sale took place’. Jones was either confused, or was changing his story as the seriousness of his situation finally dawned on him.

Both boys were remanded for further examination where, the report suggested, it was hoped or expected that a ‘great portion of the stolen property will be produced’. This was because the police had told the magistrate that they were keen to pay another visit to Houndsditch, believing that ‘property of considerable value might be met with at the Jew’s premises’.

The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18 August. It probably took this long because the police were tracking down a third culprit, James Morton, who now appeared with the others.  Morton was also a groom and he admitted being present when the major’s boxes were forced open, but  denied being culpable.

The defense was that another lad – a ‘sailor boy’ – had carried out the robbery, they had simply profited from it, a lesser crime. They were also at pains to deny having anything to do with the theft of the gold lace or a gold snuff box, the ‘valuable things’ that Major Cooper had lost.

A local tailor testified that one of the prisoners had brought him a pair of trousers to alter. ‘I believe they were dark-blue trowsers—some stripes or braiding had been taken off the sides of them, and they were torn, as if in taking off the stripes’, he told the court. These sounded like part of a cavalry uniform.

Elias Moses (the ‘Jew’ mentioned the summary hearing) also testified at the Bailey. He was a secondhand clothes dealer from Sandys Row, Bishopsgate and he remembered buying a number of pairs of breeches from Lawrence for 4s. He couldn’t recall the date but it was in May at Devonshire Mews, and Morton ‘was with him’.  He said Lawrence had assured him that the goods were his to sell so whether he suspected they were stolen or not, he was covering himself.

The final witness in court was Major Leonard Morse Cooper himself. He was related to Mrs Walter by marriage (she was his mother–in-law) and had left his property there for safekeeping.  While everything had a value (‘one hundred guineas would not replace what I have lost’ he said) he was most concerned to retrieve his Waterloo medal.

Jones was acquitted of the robbery but the other pair were convicted. Benjamin Lawrence was sent to prison for six months, and it seems he had a short life, dying in 1866 at the age of 31. Morton was recommended to mercy by the jury, who clearly held him to be less culpable than his fellow defendant. He still went to gaol though, and for the same period.

According to Hart’s Army List for 1849 Major Cooper entered military service in 1814 as an ensign. He was promoted to lieutenant in the 20th Light Dragoons June 1819, rising to captain in the 11thLight Dragoons on 25 February 1831 and thence to major (which he purchased) in 1840. Cooper was cited in divorce proceedings in 1850 (so a year before this case). Cooper was said to have been a frequent visitor to Mrs Frances Cautley, the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley, who was serving abroad in India, and she to him. The accusation was that Mrs Cautley had carried on ‘an adulterous intercourse and criminal conversation’ with Major Cooper. The major had subsequently settled a court case by paying £1000 in damages to Lieutenant-Colonel Cautley.

So perhaps his reason for storing his property with his mother-in-law was to keep it out of the hands of any creditors he might have, especially his highly prized Waterloo medal.

There were 39,000 Waterloo medals created but not all were awarded. As a cavalryman Cooper was amongst 6,000 who were recognized for their service at the final battle of the Napoleonic wars. They were made of silver, had the prince Regent’s head on one side and the figure of victory on the reverse (with the words ‘Wellington’ and ‘Waterloo’ and the date – 18 June 1815).

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At Waterloo the 11 Light Dragoons ‘under the command of Lt Col Money were sent into action when it looked as if the enemy were breaking up. They broke a French infantry square and carried on with the pursuit of Napoleon’s fleeing soldiers’. If Cooper was part of that attack, and carried his troop’s colours, then it is understandable that he would want to get his medal back. It was, after all, a part of his life that was above reproach, unlike his more recent history.

[from Morning Post25 June 1851; Collection of Nineteenth Century British Divorce Proceedings, Volume 2]

I am very grateful to my colleague at Northampton, Dr Caroline Nielsen, who uncovered the Old Bailey case against the trio of boys while researching for her own work on disabled military veterans in the 18thand 19thcenturies. Caroline is currently finishing a book entitled Old Soldiers: The Royal Hospital of Chelsea, Military Pensions and British Society, 1660-1834.

The ‘irrepressible’ Tottie Fay, the ‘wickedest woman in London’.

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On 7 March 1887 the readers of the ‘occasional notes’ section of the Pall Mall Gazette were introduced to the ‘wickedest woman in London’, an epithet bestowed on a colourful character who went by several names. In the article she is referred to as Lily Cohen but also ‘Tottie Fay, Lilian Rothschild, Violet St. John, Mabel Gray, Maud Legrand, [and] Lily Levant’.

The writer goes on to add:

‘She is just thirty years of age. It would be interesting to have an accurate biographical and scientific diagnosis of this superlative specimen of human depravity’.

Well I’m not sure I can satisfy all of that request but I thought it might be possible to trace ‘Tottie Fay’ through the courts in the pages of the newspaper archive. And, I’m glad to say, she appears quite frequently.

In March Tottie (or Lily) had been sent to prison for a month, officially for being ‘disorderly’ but in reality for being one of the capital’s many prostitutes. Indeed ‘Tottie’ was described as the ‘wickedest woman in London’ by the magistrate. Millbank Prision, where he sent her, was an awful place to be incarcerated; damp, frequently flooded by the nearby Thames, and considered only fit to house short-term prisoners by this time.  It was closed just three years later (in 1890) demolished thereafter to make way for the new National  Gallery of British Art (now the Tate).

In her appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in March 1887 the sitting justice, Mr Mansfield, noted that she ‘had more than once perjured herself by making false accusations against men, and had for a ling time persisted in a life of vice and crime’. He regretted that he was only allowed to send her away for a month or fine her 40s. Since she didn’t have the money, off to gaol she went.

If that was supposed to teach her a lesson it failed. Not that we should be surprised by this. It seems Tottie had been in and out of prison on several occasions before 1887 and had probably been up ‘before the beak’ too many times to count. Offenders like her knew that the best strategy was not to be caught too many times in the same place and set before the same magistrate. If you became ‘known’ to the police and the magistracy your chances of avoiding heavy fine and/or prison were slim indeed.

In January 1889 Tottie was back at Marlborough Street but this time Mr Hannay was in the chair. He’d not encountered her before which gave her the opportunity to try and convince him that she was victim of a malicious prosecution and police brutality.

By this time the paper noted that she had acquired several new aliases, taking he rally past 20, and adding Blanche Herbert, Florence Larade, and Amy St Clair to those listed earlier. She was charged with being ‘drunk and riotous in Piccadilly’ on the New Year’s Eve. She was dressed smartly, if in a rather ‘gaudy dress’, suggesting that she looked like a ‘woman of the town’, a West End prostitute not one of her poorer East End sisters.

She’d been arrested at the Bath Hotel on Piccadilly after the proprietor had thrown her out for her disreputable behaviour. He testified that Tottie had been ‘running undressed all over the hotel’. When approached she locked herself in a room and refused to come out. The door was forced and she was dragged out and led away by the police. It seems she’d been using a room there to meet clients, on this occasion a West End gentleman (who didn’t appear in court).

She protested her innocence and complained about her treatment:

‘Even the chambermaids shed tears when they saw a lady like me being taken away by a rough policeman’, she told the magistrate. ‘I am truly innocent, although I have been here lots of times. Do give me a chance and I shall give up this unhappy life’,

adding

‘I will go into a servants’ home, a monastery, or even to America – anywhere in the world if you will let me go’.

She pleaded with the justice, imploring him that she was a ‘poor motherless orphan, a real young lady, whose mother lies in her grave’.

‘Do let me go, and you shall never see me again. Oh, do! do! do!’

She might have saved her breath because Mr Hannay fined her 40or another month inside.

It did no good.

In April that year the ‘irrepressible Tottie’ was back up before Mr Hannay. The court reporter noted that she’d been at Marlborough Street so many times that they had a special book just to record all her appearances.

Again the charge was disorderly behaviour, this time with drunkenness. She’d been arrested in St James’ Square after a large crowd had gathered to hear her tell a sad story about the death of her mistress. A policeman arrived having been alerted by a reports of a woman ‘misbehaving herself’.

She was dressed in her finery in court:  ‘a cream-coloured bodice trimmed with lace, a black shirt, and a large dress-improver’ (which was too large for the dock so became ‘much disarranged’). Over her gloves she wore five rings.

Again she claimed to be ‘a lady’ and complained about the rough way the policeman had treated her. She admitted to having a drink but only because she was so upset at the loss of a woman who had been ‘just like a mamma in every respect’. Hannay fined her 40with the option of prison if she couldn’t pay.

In June Tottie was back again. But now she gave her age as 22 (shaving a decade off if the other reports are accurate), and was calling herself Lily de Terry with an address in Grosvenor Square. PC Evans (316F) had arrested her on the 8th June 1889 after he found her  with a crowd around her protesting that someone had stolen her purse.

She was ‘very drunk’ and as he questioned her she tried to get away, saying ‘Oh, I have got it now, thank you’. When he stopped her she gave him a mouthful of verbal abuse and threw herself to the floor. He and another constable removed her and, the next day, she was brought up before Mr De Rutzen who questioned her. Tottie gave a very similar tale of being a lady, not being guilty, apologizing, and promising not to err in future. This magistrate took pity and gave her a small fine or a day in gaol by default . She tanked him with a ‘heaven bless you!’ and was removed.

By now she was so famous that the Illustrated Police News even included an artist’s impression of her arrest.

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In August the ‘stylishly-dressed’ and ‘so well known’ Tottie Fay was in court at Westminster accused, under the name of Mabel Granville (22) with using obscene language. PC Orebard (220B) was called to a pastrycook’s shop on Belgrave Street after she’d refused to pay for her purchases of ‘two pots of tea, four eggs, and a considerable quantity of bread’. She was drunk and her language was ‘shocking’. Mr D’Eyncourt ignored her (now well worn sob story) and fined her 14s or 14 days imprisonment.

I suspect she paid that fine because within a few weeks she was back in court, this time at Bow Street. A Mr Armstrong testified that Tottie had tried ‘to push into his house’ and was ‘otherwise molesting him’. Once again she was well dressed, with ‘a profusion of rings’, and presented herself in what one paper described as ‘her usual simpering semi-hysterical manner’. The court ordered her to find two sureties of £20 each for her ‘good behaviour for six months’. A tall order one imagines.

That was not the end of Tottie, in April 1890 she was back at Marlborough Street (as Dolly Leblane) where she was remanded on a charge of drunk and disorderly. Sergeant Brewer, the court’s gaoler, told Mr Newton that this was Tottie’s 31stappearance in court. She’d racked up well over 31 by May that year, appearing on a simailr charge having been arrested ‘amongst a lot of disorderly women’ in Piccadilly and telling the same story about her ‘mamma’ having ‘brought her out and lost her’. Sergeant Brewer not totaled her charges at 45 and gave Mr Newton (and us) some background to her story.

‘Her father was a costermonger’, the gaoler explained. ‘and for many years he resided in the Seven Dials, and was a member of the gang known as “The Forty Thieves,” ‘.

At this Tottie spoke up from the dock.

‘Oh, how can you say so? If I am a gay woman [i.e a prostitute] , you have no right to say that I am not a lady’.

She was remanded, as charges of theft were also alleged. He asked for a plain clothes officer to ‘see what he can find out’. On the 18 May she was up again charged with stealing clothes from a Mrs Green valued at £2. Her criminal career was catching up with her and Mr Newton was determined that ‘I must be stopped’. He committed her for a jury trial; things were getting ominous for Tottie.

On the 27 May 1890 Tottie (as Dolly Le Blanc) was tried at Clerkenwell Green in the London County Sessions on a charge of stealing with intent to defraud. She claimed to be an actress at the Alhambra Theatre but the manager appeared to deny this was the case. Her fantasies continued, and she wove an elaborate story of taking a train from Paris, having breakfast with her daughter, forgetting her luggage at Victoria and denying both charges of stealing clothes and food. Despite a ‘tearful appeal to the Court’ the jury convicted her and she was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

That ought to have been the end of it but she appears again, several times in 1891 (in April at Marlborough Street for example, charged with fraud and theft). This time a pen portrait of Tootie by the artists ‘P.I.P’  was reproduced in the Illustrated Police News alongside a lengthy account of her life and crimes. In May she was on trial for obtaining goods by false pretenses and sentenced to 12 months. She gave her name as Dorothy Le Blanc and the court recorded her age as 42. The papers referred to its as her ‘temporary retirement’.

In September, while the real Tottie Fay languished in prison a stage comedy focused on a police court included her as a ‘notorious’ character, ‘creating hearty laughter and applause’. I’m not sure Tottie would have liked that. She might have enjoyed the attention but I think she really did see herself as a victim of a hard life and a society which didn’t support her. She had a great sense of self-respect despite her drinking, evidenced by her desire always to look as glamorous as she could. As she went from being a high-class prostitute to a drunk reduced to stealing small amounts of food and drink, she also fell foul of the  criminal justice system.

1891 wasn’t the last time Tottie Fay appeared in court but, for now, it is where I am going to leave her. Not perhaps the ‘wickedest women’ in London but perhaps one of the most colourful.

It is hard not to like her.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 7 March, 1887; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 12 March, 1887; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday 2 January 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 9 1889; Illustrated Police News, 22 June 1889; Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 20 August 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 August 1889; Morning Post, 3 September 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 September 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 26 1890; Cornishman, 1 May 1890; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 11 May 1890; Sheffield Evening Telegraph19 May 1890; Morning Post, 28 May 1890; The Standard, 11 April 1891; Illustrated Police News, 25 April 1891; Daily News, 7 May 1891; The Vaudeville, 12 September 1891.

A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]

‘Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!’

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

This post first appeared in March 2017

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

‘Take that you _____!’: a pickpocket loses her cool

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Amongst the most common crimes that women were accused of at the summary courts was picking pockets. Female offenders appear in greater numbers (and larger proportions) for these property offences than nearly all others – shopflifting being the obvious other one.

Picking pockets is an indirect, non-violent crime, one that involves dexterity and stealth, rather than strength and bravado. It required the perpetrator to get close to his or her victim and, to some extent at least, to not seem like a threat. Pickpockets chose crowds or tightly packed spaces like omnibuses or train carriages,  and victims that were unsuspecting, like drunks in bars.

Female thieves were also often, like Elizabeth Smith, prostitutes who were well connected with the criminal networks they either needed to sell on stolen items or to retreat within to hide when the law was after them. Picking pockets was risky; if you were caught and it could be proved you’d stolen items of value you could be sent to prison. If you had previous convictions that could mean a lengthy sentence.

However, there was also a reasonable chance that you would get away with it, especially if you had an accomplice. It was pretty standard practice for a thief to ‘dip’ a pocket and pass the stolen items on to a nearby assistant who’d make away wit them. When the thief was apprehended a search would reveal nothing at all making it hard to gain a conviction.

Not all pickpockets were subtle however, and not all eschewed violence.

In late October 1860 Elizabeth Smith was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth Police court charged with robbery with violence, a much more serious offence than pickpocketing. By all accounts Smith had been picking pockets in a beer shop in Lambeth, Walker’s on the Marshgate.

Edwin Oliver, a master boot and shoemaker was enjoying a glass of stout after work when he saw Smith trying to separate a drunken man from his possessions. He strode over to the couple and intervened, getting a mouthful of abuse from Elizabeth for his pains.

Some time later he left the shop and was making his way towards hoe when he felt a blow on his head and was knocked to the ground. The blow was accompanied by a woman’s voice (Elizabeth’s he believed) saying:

‘There you ______, take that!’

Oliver passed out and when he was helped up later his head was bloody and his pockets had been rifled. He reckoned he had lost between 15 and 18 shillings in coin.

It took a day but the police picked up Elizabeth and she was remanded while Oliver recovered from his wounds. When she came before the magistrate she said little. The justice established from Oliver that she might have had a male accomplice, perhaps her ‘bully’ (or pimp), and so it may have been him that thumped the shoemaker. Elizabeth was committed for trial by jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 29, 1860]