The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

‘Two fine candidates for the Reformatory’: a pair of ‘street arabs’ are sent to sea

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HMS Cornwall, a floating juvenile reformatory

As you may know if you are a regular visitor to this blog space, I teach a module on the history of crime at the University of Northampton. It covers the period 1700-1900 and looks at a variety of topics including different types of offending (from petty theft to murder), the evolution of the court system, development of policing, and the changing nature of punishment (from hanging to the prison). We also explore a number of themes – such as gender, class, continuity and change, and youth.

This week’s topic is youth crime and the suggestion that in some respects the Victorian’s ‘invented’ juvenile delinquency. Arguably ‘Victorian’ is incorrect but there is a persuasive argument that it was in the nineteenth century that commentators really focused their attention on youth crime and that it was then that the word ‘delinquent’ emerged.  The 1815 report of the ‘committee for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency in the metropolis’ followed its research into the state of youth crime in London.

In the post war period the fear of crime had risen, as it is always had at the end of Britain’s major European conflicts. Returning soldiers always occasioned a heightened tension around criminality and the tense political period after Waterloo lasted for several years. The creation of the Metropolitan Police (which some early historians attributed, in part, to this tension) meant that there was a more regularized police presence on the capital’s streets, and this directly impacted juveniles.

The Committee had focused on youth because many – believing in the reality of a ‘criminal class’ – felt the obvious thing to do was to nip offending in the bud by making efforts to reform young criminals to prevent them becoming older, more dangerous ones. The police, under pressure to justify the rates spent on them, focused on easy targets to boost arrest figures, and these were often the ‘urchins’ that ‘infested’ the city’s streets.

Charles Nye (14) and William Pincombe (13) were just such a pair of delinquents and in January 1878 they were set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court charged with theft. They were accused of stealing sixpence from a five-year-old boy, simply named as ‘Hunt’.

The thieves were already known offenders and were under police surveillance. Tow detectives from N Division (Vincent and Armstrong) had been following them at a distance for an hour and a half, watching carefully as they approached, stopped, and chatted to several children. They stopped to chat in a friendly way to the little boy called Hunt then suddenly snatched the bag he was holding and ran away. The police set off after them.

The pair were soon caught but detective Armstrong saw Pincombe discard a sixpence as he fled, trying not to be caught with any evidence. In court the police told Mr Hosack that the lads were suspected of committing a string of robberies and had previously been birched and sent to prison for six weeks for other crimes they’d been convicted of. On this occasion the magistrate was loath to send them to gaol, saying they ‘were too young to undergo a long term of imprisonment’.

Instead he was determined that they should go to a reformatory where they might stand some small chance of being rehabilitated. The Reformatory Movement, led by Mary Carpenter, had flourished from mid century and was founded on the principle that juveniles like Charles and William were better suited to an environment where they could learn some useful skills, alongside discipline and a sense of religious morality, to keep them out of trouble in the future, rather than being dumped into an adult prison where they would simply learn to be ‘better’ thieves.

The court clerk made some enquires and later that day Mr Wills, an Industrial Schools officer appeared in court to say that there were some vacancies on the Cornwall Reformatory Training ship. Happy with this option, Mr Hosack sentenced each lad to 14 days hard labour in prison; thereafter they were to be sent to the Cornwall for two years. Magistrates handing down a reformatory sentence had to include a period of hard labour, to soften up defendants and remind them that they were being given a chance at reform. Carpenter had argued against sending children to prison but society demanded that  they were punished, and so punished they would be.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 24, 1878]

A detective shows ‘promptitude, ability, and discretion’ and wins high praise indeed

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The detective department were a belated addition to the Metropolitan Police. When Sir Robert Peel created his ‘bluebottles’ in 1829 he modeled them on the existing watch and parish constabulary, rather than the Bow Street ‘runners’ and other entrepreneurial thief-takers.  Peel was careful not to offend public sentiment, which eschewed the idea of a ‘system of espionage’. That sounded far too much like the Napoleonic state police that had been run by Fouché from Paris.

So detectives (if not detection) was not part of the remit of the first police force to pound the streets of London. However, it soon became apparent that just such a body was necessary, even if it still remained undesirable. A series of high profile incidents (notably the murder of Lord Russell in his home and the initial failure to catch a notorious criminal named Daniel Good) led to the creation of the Detective Department in 1842.

It took a while for the detectives to establish themselves but by the 1880s they had survived one or two scandals and changed their departmental name (to CID) and were beginning to win some grudging acceptance in the hearts and minds of the British public. This was helped by the rise of the fictional detective in the works of Victorian novelists like Dickens and Wilkie Collins and then the first appearance in print (in 1887) of Sherlock Holmes, the professor of detection.

There are moments where we can see the impact of detectives in cases before the Police courts. Mostly any police involved are ordinary beat bobbies, and they do a fair amount of detection themselves. But in November 1882 at the Mansion House Police court detectives appear in two cases, while another is commended publically for his efforts by the sitting alderman magistrate.

Detective Constable Wright of the City Police had been keeping an eye on Mary Ann Jordan and Mary Ann Bassett after he’d received a tip off that they were up to no good. On the 20 November he was called to a warehouse in Queen Victoria Street which had been broken into. Seven rolls of cloth with a value of over £100 had been taken and DC Wright suspect that Bassett and Jordan were responsible.

Acting on this hunch and the intelligence he had acquired he and DS Downs went south of the river to The Borough and visited the address he had for the pair. It was about 8 in the evening and both women – who shared a room – were in bed. He asked Jordan if she knew anything of the robbery but she refused even to get up, let alone answer him; Bassett admitted to pawning to material but claimed not to know it had been stolen. He arrested both of them and, on the following day, Alderman Owden committed them both to trial.

Next up William Gough was charged, on evidence provided by another City detective, of obtaining 40 yards of silk using a forged document. Despite his denials the magistrate fully committed him to Old Bailey, another success for the detectives.

At the end of the report from Mansion House it was noted that Sir T Owden, the alderman sitting in for the Lord Mayor, had taken the time to heap praise on Detective Wright for his efforts in catching some thieves who had raided the premises of Mappin & Webb, the jewelers, on Oxford Street.

The owners of the firm wanted to present the detective with ‘some testimonial in recognition of the promptitude, ability, and discretion [he had shown] in arresting the right men at the right time’.

The magistrate was delighted to hear it and added his own vote of thanks to DC Wright. So, 40 years after the first detectives started work here was proof of their acceptance and appreciation from both business and the magistracy. Detectives continue to enjoy a mixed reputation amongst the public and police – sometimes seen as outside of the police, often as mavericks when represented in fiction and TV, but also as a necessary part of fighting organized crime.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 21 November, 1882]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

Plain-clothes police foil a jewel heist on Cheapside

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The City of London police were only created in 1839, a decade after the Met. This was partly because the square mile had resisted Sir Robert’s Peel’s (and other’s) attempts to include them in a London-wide system of police. The City authorities (in the person of the Lord Mayor and aldermen) believed with some justification that they already possessed an efficient organization for policing the City streets. In 1856 policing was extended to cover not only London but the entire country with the passing of the County and Borough Police Act (1856) and it is from then that we can really date the modern service.

Peel intended for his force to be visible and preventative; not to act as ‘spies’ (as Fouché’s French police did) but as ‘citizens in uniform’  to counter fears of a paramilitary presence on English soil. But it seems the City police were not above putting men in plain clothes on occasion, especially after 1842 when the Detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was created.

PC Legg (440 City) and a fellow officer (Evans 459 City) were watching two suspicious characters on Cheapside in late October. It was about 7 at night and PC Legg were in plain clothes when they saw Henry Smith and William Raymond looking in a number of jewellers’ windows. The two men waited for the beat bobby to pass by and then one of them (Smith) took a stone from his pocket and smashed a window. As they attempted to steal from Mr Mott’s  jewelers and watchmaker’s shop the two officers rushed them and took them into custody.

The jeweller’s assistant (Joseph Snowden) came running out and saw what was happening. He noted that they had picked the window which held the most expensive items, including several diamond bracelets. In total he estimated that there was upwards of a £1,000 worth of stock that the thieves might have carried away had it not been for the quick work of the police.  Smith quickly found the stone and the men were arrested and searched: each of them was carrying a knife and Smith had an empty purse on him as well.

At the Mansion House Police court the Lord Mayor heard conformation of the evidence from PC Evans who added that the men were laughing as the broke the window. He also said that Raymond had told him (when arrested) that he was a former soldier having serve din the Middlesex Militia and the Buffs but had been discharged on health grounds. If that was supposed to impress the police or the magistrate it failed. The defendants refused to say anything much in their defence except to ask for the Lord Mayor to deal with them summarily. That would have earned them a shorter sentence and the justice was not inclined to oblige them.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall never think of adjudicating in a case of this kind. It must go before a tribunal possessed of the power of inflicting a punishment proportioned to the serious offence’.

He committed them to the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey where they appeared on November 24th. After a brief trial they were convicted and sent to prison for nine months each, both men were just 22 years old.

 

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 01, 1856]

It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

Curtain Road, from the Corner of Great Eastern Street

Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]

The Great (Northern) Train Robbery

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

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

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

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

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

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