The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

The celebrated ‘Soapy Fits King’ appears at the Lyceum

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When PC 64E reached the small crowd gathered outside the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand he found a man writhing around on the pavement, and frothing at the mouth. He whistled for help and PC 53E waited while his colleague took the man to hospital on an ambulance.

Once there however, the surgeon in charge declared that there was nothing wrong with the patient, expect that is that he had evidently been eating soap. Realizing that he’d been conned, the police constable arrested the man and took him back to the station before presenting him before the magistrate at Bow Street in the morning.

The man gave his name as Peter McDermott but Mr De Rutzen was informed by the gaoler (Sergeant Bush) that he was commonly known as the ‘Soapy Fits King’. McDermott was a beggar that had appeared ‘at nearly every police court in London’  and been sentenced numerous times as a rogue and vagabond.

Joseph Bosley of the Mendicity Society – the organization that took it upon themselves to police street begging – said that McDermott was well known to him as well. He’d watched McDermott for 18 years. He would appear at hospitals across the capital, sometimes twice in one day, ‘apparently suffering from fits, but he never had anything the matter with him’.

On the day in question McDermott had a glass of water in on hand and a brandy in the other and one wonders whether his audience genuinely believed him to be ill or were just amused by his antics. He denied using soap of course, and pointed to his extremely dirty face. ‘Do I look like it?’ he asked, to laughter in court.

‘I say it is not English’, he complained, ‘[that] I am not allowed to beg, and I have had nothing to eat for three days’.

He had a point of course. Society offered little for McDermott beyond the workhouse casual ward and that was in many ways worse than prison. This was a man who clearly had quite severe mental health issues that no one seemed to want to recognize. He was only a risk to himself and a more charitable society might have recognized his need for support. Mr De Rutzen decided to remand him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

A week later ‘the King’ was brought up again and more evidence as to his past misdemeanors was presented. Mr De Rutzen now ordered that he face trial as ‘an incorrigible rogue and vagabond’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 22, 1900; The Standard, Saturday, September 29, 1900]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations?’ Homosexuality in the dock at Guildhall

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We live in a liberal society, albeit one that is under attack from the forces of conservatism. Not only is it legal to form sexual relationships with persons of whoever gender we choose (so long as both parties are 16 years of age or more and consenting) but the rights of those who identify as homosexual are protected by law. Moreover in recent years this has been widened to include those that identify as transgender. For me, as a heterosexual male this is a very good thing. I enjoy living in a society where difference is not accepted, it is valued and championed. For me this makes us stronger, not weaker, as a nation and as a community.

However, it was not always like this – as the recent anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots in New York and LGBT helpline in central London testify. Gay and Lesbian rights have been hard one and when we see LGBT marchers heckled and verbally abused by other Londoners in 2019 it is a reminder that not everyone feels the way I do about diversity.

In the 1800s being different in this way was dangerous. After 1885 it became more dangerous, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost. Wilde was locked up as a result of his sexuality and until relatively recently being homosexual – and practicing that sexuality – could earn you a prison sentence and, in the case of Alan Turing, even worse.

I was interested by the following case heard at the Guildhall Police court in late July and August 1854. On 26 July two men – John Challis, in his sixties and George Campbell (35) – were set in the dock and ‘charged with being found dressed as women… for the purposes of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence’.

The pair were arrested by Inspector Teague of the City Police whose men had raided an illegal dance club in Turnagain Lane. The club was in the Druid’s  Hall and was packed with around 100 men and women, about 20 of these were men dressed as women. Teague had been watching the club for a while and had seen Challis there before. On this occasion he was dressed ‘in the garb of a shepherdess of the golden age’. He nabbed Campbell as he was coming out of the club, pulling him aside and decaling; ‘that is a man!’.

This alerted the other revelers who rushed to escape. The police were too few in number to arrest very many people and had to settle for the capture of Challis and Campbell. In court Teague also tried to bring a charge of pickpocketing against Campbell but the evidence was limited. It was enough, however, for the magistrate to agree to a remand. Challis is released on bail of £100 (£50 for himself and two sureties of £25 from others).  As the men were led away to the police van a crowd yelled abuse at them and struggled against he police line who tried to keep them safe. Homophobia is not a new thing after all.

On 1 August Campbell was back in court at Guildhall, but there was no sign of Challis, who had failed to surrender his bail as required. Sir Richard Carden was furious; he had only allowed bail out of pity for his age and apparent exhaustion’. Campbell claimed to have no idea where the older man was but assured the magistrate that he had been in ‘such a wretched condition in prison that another day’s confinement would, I think, have killed him’. He then asked for the court to cleared of the public while he told his own version of events.

Inspector Teague stepped forward to say that the only fresh evidence was that Campbell’s real name was Holmes  – the Reverend Edward Holmes to be precise, a minister in the Church of Scotland. He had apparently told the police that he had entered the club dressed as a woman to witness for himself the state of vice in London, all the better for warning his parishioners against it.

In court Holmes now claimed he was not priest but a lawyer instead. He had wanted to see ‘London life’ but without ‘mixing with its abominations’ he told Sir Richard.

‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations. I must say it was a very imprudent course’, the justice told him.

Campbell (or Holmes) agreed and said he was truly sorry for it. Yet he was at pains to say that he hadn’t robbed anyone and thankfully the magistrate agreed. He was a foolish man, Sir Richard continued, but he was willing to accept that there was nothing more serious to deal with than that. In fact Carden wasn’t in the chair on that occasion, he had presumably appeared to allow some continuity. The sitting magistrate at Guildhall on 1 August was Alderman Carter and he was just as disgusted by Campbell’s behavior, if not more so.

‘If it had not been for Richard’s closing remarks’, he told him, ‘I should have felt inclined to commit you to prison as a rogue and a vagabond. You may go now, and I hope I may never see your face here again’.

A day later a Mr Edward Holmes (of the Middle Temple) made a statement to the court to the effect that he was the only member of the bar with that name and he was certainly notthe person who was also known as ‘George Campbell’. As if a lawyer would ever be caught dressing in women’s clothes…

I don’t know what happened to John Challis (or even if that was his real name). Druid’s Hall was home to ancient order of druids but could be hired for events. The event that Challis and Campbell had attended was a masked ball and, according to witnesses, this was a fairly regular thing. This was London’s gay community coming to together as it had in the previous century (when Molly Houses were the locus for homosexuality).

The police may have wanted to suppress them but it was hard for them to do so without more resources. ‘It is very difficult to catch them in the act, as they have men placed at every outlet to keep a lookout’, Inspector Teague had told Sir Richard Carden. ‘Unless someone attending these parties made an accusation against another man, they remained private spaces’, and the police were limited in what action they could take.1

The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 effectively changed this. Sodomy was illegal in 1854 (and punishable by death until 1861, although prosecutions were rare because of this). But section 11 of the 1885 act made ‘gross indecency’ a crime and what constituted this was left deliberately vague. Oscar Wilde was sent to gaol for two years under the terms of the act and Alan Turing (the brains behind Bletchley Park and so someone directly responsible for Allied victory in the Second World War) was sentenced to chemical castration. He took his own life a consequence of this.

Intolerance of sexual difference is now a thing of the past, in legal terms at least. And that is where such intolerance belongs, in the past and not in the present.

[from Daily News, Thursday, July 27, 1854; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1854]

 

1.Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, p.76

A pair of well-read rogues at the Mansion House

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The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.

One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.

Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string.  The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.

The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.

It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8 a volume and had a set of them.  There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.

In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.

The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.

Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]

‘It is a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’.

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In September 1878 the police around Chelsea mounted a special exercise to clamp down on a perennial problem. Large groups of men and boys frequently gathered along Pavilion Road to play at cards in the streets. In doing they were causing such an obstruction as to block the road completely for other users.

On the 11th September the police swooped. They picked up five men who were presented the very next day at Westminster Police Court and charged with betting and causing an obstruction. John Gardiner (32) and Hermann Murray (42) were each fined £4 with the option to go to prison for a month if they were unable to pay.

There was a little more detail given about the arrests of John Jones, John Morley and James Magstow (though not their ages). The arresting police officers were detective sergeants Buxton and Bibby from B Division.  Jones was playing a game of cards with others and Morley was shouting the odds.

He called out ‘5 to 2 on the field’ to the onlooking crowd which prompted Magstow to step forward and make a bet. This was a serious game with high stakes and the detectives reported that upwards of 200 men were watching the game unfold. When they were sure they had evidence of betting activity (with Magstow’s bet presumably) they made the arrest, seizing the three men.

One imagine most of the rest of the crowd scarpered as quick as they could before the uniforms could move in and make further arrests. When searched ‘the usual cards and books were found on them’, and on Jones ‘a large sum of money’.

Inspector White explained that the nuisance was ‘intolerable’ and the magistrate (Mr Bridge) was satisfied that a charge of illegal betting had been proven against the men. Jones was the ringleader and Morley was his ‘clerk’. In some respects Magstow was also a victim (unless he was  dummy planted by Jones and Morley to temp others to stake their own bets).

Mr Bridge told the court that it ‘was a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’, but was clear that this sort of behaviour needed to be dealt with firmly. He deemed Jones to be a rogue and a vagabond and initially sent him away for a month at hard labour. He fined Morley £4 and Magstow £2 (warning them that if they could not pay they too would go to gaol).

Then, for reasons that are not made clear he changed his mind and reduced Jones’ sentence to a £5. Perhaps he thought a pecuniary punishment more appropriate. The prisoner was apparently ‘highly delighted at the alteration of his sentence’ and left court  poorer but still a free man.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 12, 1878]