Picking pockets under the eyes of God

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The interior of St Stephen’s Church, Westminster in the nineteenth century 

I think we imagine Victorian Britain as a much more religious place than our current society. That may be true, but as with many of our assumptions or impressions of the past it doesn’t always stand up to examination. In 1851 a religious census was taken which included Jewish and Christian non-conformist and Catholic chapels alongside the established Church of England churches.

It showed that on average that year 10.8m people attended some sort of religious service, about 69% of the population (of nearly 18,000,000). The census itself has been criticized as being inaccurate and therefore worthless as a statistical exercise but we can read in a number of ways. About half of the number attended CoE services, but there were nearly 400,000 Catholics in a country where Catholicism had been under extreme pressure for centuries. There were also very many more non-conformists (Methodists for example) despite the Anglican Church being the official church of the crown and state.

Yet even in such a supposedly religious country almost a third of Britons did not attend church at all, which should cause us to question its supposedly dominant role in shaping Victorian society and morality. And some of those attending church were not there for their spiritual enlightenment either, as this report from April 1853 (just two years after the census) shows.

James McMachlin and George Wilson were practiced pickpockets. They infested the crowds that gathered at any event in mid Victorian London and a church service, especially a prominent one, was as good a place as any for them. In April the Bishop of London was presiding over a large conformation ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in Rochester Row, and the locals filled the venue. It gave the two thieves ample opportunity to mingle with the congregation and ‘dip’ the pockets of the unwary.

Among those targeted were Jane Elizabeth West and the Honorable Miss Georgina Colville, but they were not alone. Mr Childerson the churchwarden was robbed, as was an unnamed lady who lost the huge sum of £25 from her purse. Miss Burdetts Coutts was not so naive however and managed to keep an eye on her valuables as she attended another service (this time conducted by the Archbishop of York at St John’s, Smith’s Square, Westminster)  where the same pair of crooks were operating. smith-square-18282

Unfortunately for McMachlin and Wilson Sergeant Loom of B Division, Metropolitan Police, was on duty in the church in plain clothes. He was on the look out for thieves (which suggests a church service was a not uncommon place for crime) and he noticed the pair. Wilson had a coat draped loosely over his arm, to cover his actions. He watched as the other thief (McMachlin) got close to Miss West and placed his hand near her pocket. He rushed over and grabbed him and the young woman soon realized she’d been robbed (although she’d not felt her purse get lifted).  He removed McMachlin with some difficulty and then went back into the throng to search for Wilson, who was in the process of robbing Miss Colville. When cornered he dropped her purse and protested his innocence.

Both men were brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court and a crowd of churchgoers, including Rev. Tennant from St Stephens and two of his curates, were present to witness the hearing. McMachlin and Wilson denied the crimes they were accused of and denied knowing each other but they were still fully committed for trial by a jury. I doubt that they were ever tried though, gaining convictions against such operators was notoriously difficult unless the victims could swear that they had seen the theft happen. Not surprisingly then neither man appears in the published records of the Old Bailey or in the Digital Panopticon.

Today less than half of the UK’s population describe themselves as ‘belonging’ to a religion. This number has been rising as well. In 1983 65.2% people identified themselves as Christian, by 2014 this had fallen to just 41.7%. Moreover, only 16.3% of the population were declared as members of the CoE in 2014. Where worship is up is in the Catholic Church and in other churches where immigrant communities gather.

I am an atheist but I attend a Greek Orthodox church at important points in the year out of love and respect  for my wife’s family. Every time I go – regardless of whether this is Easter or ‘just a Sunday’ – it is packed, with standing room only. Strangely then it is the immigrants to this country that are upholding its Christian ‘tradition’, despite ‘Christianity’ being waved as a symbol of Britishness by some of the discordant voices of the Far (and not so far) Right.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 25, 1853]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

Ghostly goings on in Westminster : everybody needs good neighbours.

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The act of going to law was often a last resort, a necessary act to put an end to a problem that had resisted all attempts resolution. While it was sometimes suggested that the poorer classes enjoyed their ‘day in court’ it was equally observed that the middle classes feared the taint by association of appearing before a magistrate.

Mr Henry Payne seems to have been one of those who would rather not have resorted to law, and who was keen to avoid a repeat appearance. The respectable dyer was not in trouble with the police, instead he was the victim of persistent and escalating intimidation. The cause was unknown but the middle aged dyer, who lived in Rochester Row in Westminster, was pretty clear who was the culprit.

He blamed his young well-to-do neighbor, George Champion. For several weeks Mr Payne had been ‘annoyed by mysterious stone throwing’. When he tried to find out who was responsible his neighbour muttered darkly about his house being haunted, and this rumour soon spread amongst the other nearby occupants of Rochester Row.

Payne’s house was sandwiched between Champion’s and that of Mr Cocks, an undertaker. He too had suffered from stones and broken bricks being tossed into his back yard or small items hitting his windows. Both men had complained to the police who sent an officer to keep watch.

Payne had boarded his yard to protect his family from the missiles that sailed over, mostly during the night. His wife and children didn’t dare set foot out there, and poor Henry was going out of his mind with ‘the annoyance’.

Finally, when a large stone broke a skylight in his roof he had enough and opted to take legal action. He applied for a summons to bring Champion before the magistrate at Westminster Police court where he appeared, smartly and fashionably dressed, on the 28 November 1890.

Mr De Rutzen questioned all of those involved. Payne gave his evidence in a rush, clearly perturbed by the whole affair. Inspector Webber for the police, said that his men had seen nothing thrown but had felt one! This brought a moment of levity to the court as everyone imagined the poor policeman being struck by a ‘ghostly’ missile.

In the end, and probably because Mr Payne was reluctant to take it further and since Champion was clearly a member of the wealthier class, the justice opted for a ‘common-sense’ approach. He suggested that so long as the nuisance stopped there was no need to do anything else. Mr Payne was not asking for compensation for the skylight, he just wanted some peace from ‘the ghosts’. Champion walked free from court but with a reminder that if the stone throwing restarted Mr De Rutzen was very open to issuing a second summons, and then the dyer and his neighbours might not be so reasonable.

[from The Standard , Saturday, November 29, 1890]

Upper-class rough stuff at the Aquarium

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The Royal Aquarium & Winter Garden, Westminster

The 1890s were infamous for the creation of the ‘hooligan’ menace. The papers reported the antisocial behaviour of working class boys and young men, and their fights with rival gangs across the capital. These gangs of youths came from the poorer areas of London, like Lambeth (where Clarence Rook’s character Alf hailed from) or from Whitechapel or the rougher bits of Marylebone.

While they were dubbed ‘hooligans’ in London in the 1890s these sorts of youth gangs were not a new phenomena; there had been an ongoing public concern about ‘roughs’ since the 1870s if not earlier. In Liverpool ‘cornermen’ terrorised passers-by, in Salford ‘scuttlers’ had running fights in the streets. In 2015 I published an article about a murder at the gates of Regent’s Park, which arose out of a feud between two groups of ‘lads’ that claimed territorial ‘rights’ along the  Marylebone Road.

What marked out most of the public furore and moral panic about anti-social youth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century however, was that it was entirely focused on young working-class men. The behaviour of the elites was rarely considered to be a concern, at least not a concern that reached the pages of the London and national  press.

So this story, published in Lloyd’s Weekly, gives us an interesting and unusual example of balance. Lloyd’s  was a broadly Liberal paper by 1890 although it did have more radical political roots, if not the radical beliefs of its early rival Reynold’s. It was a paper for the masses, not for the upper classes or well-to-do however, and these might help explain why it took this opportunity to point out the bad behaviour of those nearer the top of the social ladder.

The court reporter at Westminster Police Court chose, as his story for the day, to focus on the case of James Weil and Simon Skockock. Weil was a 23 year-old ‘dealer’ and his colleagues a diamond broker aged 29. Weil lived in St John’s Wood while Skockock resided in Compton Road, Highbury.

Neither were your typical ‘roughs’ or ‘hooligans’. They found themselves before a magistrate however, for causing a disturbance at the Royal Aquarium and acting in a ‘disorderly’ manner.

By 1890 the aquarium had been open for 14 years and was an interesting London attraction. It was built to stage plays and other theatrical productions but also to house art exhibitions, almost as a rival to the Crystal Palace built in Sydenham. As this interesting item from ‘know your London’ describes it was quite a different sort of venue:

The main hall was 340 feet (104 m) long and 160 feet (49 m) wide. It was covered with a roof of glass and iron and decorated with palm trees, fountains, pieces of original sculpture, thirteen large tanks meant to be filled with curious sea creatures and an orchestra capable of accommodating 400 performers. Around the main hall were rooms for eating, smoking, reading and playing chess, as well as an art gallery, a skating rink and a theatre (see Imperial Theatre below). The Aquarium adopted an expensive system of supplying fresh and sea-water from four cisterns, sunk into the foundations. This quickly ran into operating problems. The large tanks for fish were never stocked and they became a standing joke. The directors did display a dead whale in 1877.*

One Saturday evening in  June 1890 up to a dozen young men, including Weil and Skockock, were ‘perambulating the Aquarium’ in an aggressive and drunken manner. According to the report of Police Inspector Bird of A Division, they were seen to be:

‘pushing against people, flourishing walking sticks, and knocking hats off’.

Police and security at and around the venue warned them about their behaviour but were ignored. Finally some of them were ejected and the trouble spilled out into the streets. Some of them started to wander off, as instructed by the police, but Weil refused to nom home quietly. As a result he was arrested and as he was being marched off to Rochester Row Police Station his friends followed boisterously after him.

Skockock was the most vociferous  and when the police got fed up of listening to him he was also charged with being disorderly. The pair thus ended up in court before Mr Shiel the sitting magistrate.

Shiel waived away their attempts to say it was all something about nothing and that they had simply been arguing over the amount of bail that should exposited to gain their mate’s release. Nor was he sympathetic to the suggestion that they were simply ‘larking’ about. They were, he told them, ‘too old for that sort of folly’.

‘It is extraordinary to me’, the magistrate declared, ‘that the amusement and pleasure of other people should be interfered with by well-dressed roughs like you’, before binding them over in surety of £20 each for their good behaviour over the next six months, and asking them to produce others who would stand surety for another £10 a head. A failure to produce either would land them in prison for 14 days.

I doubt that it would have been hard for them to find the sureties or produce evidence that they themselves were ‘good for it’, but it was dent in their reputations. Had they been working-class roughs they might have gained some status amongst their fellows, but then again working class hooligans wouldn’t have been given the option to pay their pay out of gaol time.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 8, 1890]

*https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/royal-aquarium-westminster/