A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

A sailor finds that he’s been sold a parcel of horses**t

Victorian pipe smokers

James Randall had bought a packet of what he believed to be tobacco from someone, possibly a dock worker, at one of the many pubs in and around the City of London. The vendor had torn open the package just enough to allow him to test a sample of the tobacco, and he had handed over 2for it. Later he discovered that instead a pound and a half of ‘baccy, all he had was a worthless mix of ‘sawdust and horsedung’.

The sailor had been ‘done’ but instead of accepting his bad luck he decided he would try to recover the situation. Later that day he was walking in the Minories in the City, close to its eastern edge, when he encountered a young lad named Thomas Watts. He offered him the parcel of ‘tobacco’ for 2s3d hoping to make a small profit from the deal.

Watts, a ‘respectable’ youth, was unsure, and said no. Randall immediately dropped the price to 19d, but Thomas still wavered. The sailor went to 16d  and Watts caved in. He handed over the money and was about to examine his purchase when a policeman ran up to the pair of them.

PC Hayton (588 City) had watched the transaction and knew Randall as a suspicious individual. He took the parcel and the plug sample of tobacco  fell out soon followed by the worthless mixture of sawdust and manure. The copper quickly established that the boy had been ripped off and instructed Randall to give him his money back. He demurred at first but then complied. As Watts thanked the policeman the seaman took his chance and ran off.

The officer chased him across the City and caught up with him in Finsbury Circus where he arrested him. On the way to the station Randall confessed to knowing his parcel was valueless and so to trying to defraud Thomas. Not surprisingly then when he was produced at the Mansion House Police court Sir Robert Carden committed him for trial.

Randall was tried at the Old Bailey on the 22 October 1855 and found guilty on his own confession, he was 25 years of age. The judge sent him to prison for three months.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1855]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met

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Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]