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.

 

 

An unlikely jewel thief who is not as clever as he thinks he is

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Paul’s Wharf by Joseph Pennell (1884)

Very many of the crimes prosecuted at the police courts were easily dealt with by the magistracy who handed down fines or short spells of imprisonment. However, the courts also acted as filters for the jury courts – the Middlesex sessions and Central Criminal court at Old Bailey. When a very serious case – like today’s – came before the justices their task was to stage a pre-trial hearing and commit the defendant to take his trial later.

Samuel William Liversedge was a commercial traveller. The 33 year-old worked for a City jewelers based at 44 St. Paul’s Churchyard, Goddard & Lawson.  He enjoyed the full confidence of his bosses, being trusted with thousands of pounds worth of jewelry each week, which he took around the various shops in the capital to sell. He was paid on commission but with a retaining salary, and this was always topped up to 50a week so Samuel was well remunerated for his work.

At some point in 1877 things began to wrong for him it seems. Whether he simply succumbed to the temptation that carrying around a small fortune in precious stones and gold and silver presented, or perhaps because he was in debt despite his generous salary. Either way as early as April that year he began to steal from the firm.

Things came to a head in November when Liversedge left St. Paul’s Churchyard with £1,000 worth of items in his usual black leather bag. When he got back, that evening, he was excitable and somewhat the worse for drink. The bag was missing and he told his Mr Goddard and Mr Lawson that he’d been robbed on a train whilst traveling between Edgware Road and King’s Cross. By his account he’d entered a carriage in which there were three men and a woman and as they left they brushed past him and must have pinched the bag containing all the jewelry. He called the guard who was unable to stop the train and so the thieves got away.

That was his story but it didn’t hold up in court, either at the Guildhall (before Sir Andrew Lusk) or later at the Old Bailey in March 1878. The guard testified at Liversedge’s trial and said he had looked for the three men and a woman and had seen no one leave his train carrying a bag such as had been described.

The bag did reappear at about 6.30 the same evening, ‘floating off Paul’s Pier, with the empty jewel cases and the cards attached to them’. William Barham found them. Barham was a Thames lighterman and he saw the bag in the water and fished it out. Lightermen knew the river intimately and was sure that it hadn’t been in the water long. The bag was closed and there was hardly any water inside, so someone had thrown it in not long before.

Goddard and Lawson had taken a cab to Scotland Yard as soon as their traveler had told them he’d been robbed. They had been told to make a full inventory of the missing items and came back to tell Liversedge. He suggested they all go to Bow Lane police station to do this, which they objected to. Samuel ignored them and rushed off to the station where he gave a list of the missing items, but a very short and partial one. Crucially Bow Lane Police station was close by Paul’s Wharf, where the bag was later found.

Sir Andrew Lusk heard from the prosecutors that at first they’d wanted to deal with this carefully and without prejudicing any future court case. Fundamentally they wanted their goods back though and hoped that some publicity might lead to the identification of items that they expected  that LIversedge had pawned. They asked for a remand which the magistrate granted.

It took a while for this to all reach the Central Criminal Court but in March of the following year Samuel Liversedge was formally tried and convicted of stealing ‘three watches, one pendant, nine pairs of earrings, and other articles’ belong to the City firm. Several pawnbrokers turned up to give evidence that they had received items from Liversedge over the course of the last six months or so. The jury found him guilty and the judge sent him to prison for seven years at penal servitude.

Whatever motivated Liversedge to steal from his masters and jeopardize a pretty well paid career is a mystery; his voice – if he spoke at all – is not recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. At 33 he was probably fit enough to survive 5 or so years in gaol before he earned his ticket of leave but his chances of returning to that level of trusted employment were slim.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 10, 1877]

A ‘perfectly honest’ man is cleared at Woolwich

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Today we move south of the river and up to Woolwich, home of the Arsenal (the ordnance factory that is, it would be another three years until the football club of that name was founded). Henry Rollings, a tramcar conductor, was charged at the Woolwich Police Court ‘for neglecting to deposit an article of lost property within 24 hours’.

The charge was brought by a tramway inspector, a Mr Naudi, and he appeared in court to press the case while Rollings was supported by a number of people who spoke up for him as being an honest man.

On the 18th January 1883 Agnes Brookes was riding on Rollings’ tram as she often did. Rollings knew her well but not well enough to know where she lived. When Agnes got off to her rooms in Thomas Street, Plumstead, she was upset to discover that she had lost her brooch. It must have fallen off as she traveled on the tramcar, and thinking this she later applied to the Woolwich and Greenwich tramcar company’s office to see if anyone had found it.

She was in luck. The clerk told her that it had been handed in and sent to Scotland Yard, as was their standard procedure. The brooch had been found by another passenger, Eliza  Payne, who gave it to the conductor, Rollings. However, Rollings thought he recognised it as belonging to Agnes and so hoped to be able to return it in person, rather than simply sending it off to lost property as he was supposed to. He told Eliza this and she believed him.

So how did this case of lost property end up before Mr Balguy, the Woolwich Police magistrate?

Well it seems that when Miss Brooks first went to the office to enquire about her missing brooch Rollings hadn’t told anyone he’d got it, nor did he say that he knew her. It was only when he heard she was looking for it that he handed it over at the office. This was the story that Mr Nuadi told at least, and it placed Rollings in a difficult position. He was effectively being accused of keeping the jewellery for himself and only owning to finding it when forced to.

A police inspector explained that the tramway inspector had deposited the brooch with him on Sunday morning (three days after Agnes lost it) and Rollings turned up a few hours later to sign the record sheet. The brooch was then sent on to Scotland Yard to wait for its owner to claim it.

Luckily for the conductor the magistrate chose to believe his version of events. The man had acted foolishly, but not criminally and he doubted Mr Nuadi’s testimony. In fact he said that the tramway inspector was ‘famous for his incredulity in the honesty of people’. Rollings would have been liable to a penalty of £10 or even a term of imprisonment but he would only impose a fine of 10s on this occasion.

The traffic manager (possibly Rollings’ boss) was in court and Mr Balguy hoped that this incident and his appearance in court would not cost the conductor his job. No, said Mr Huddlestone, it would not. Rollings was, in his view, a ‘perfectly honest’ man. Which seems like the sensible outcome. Agnes got her brooch back, Rollings was fined but kept his job, and the tram company protected their reputation as a safe means of transport in public.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 31, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

A cheeky bit of fraud from a former police clerk goes unpunished

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Henry Thomas Spooner joined the Metropolitan Police in August 1874. He was assigned to V Division  but resigned from the force just two years later. In October 1876 he was prosecuted at Bow Street Police Court for stealing a form from Scotland Yard. So what caused Spooner’s fall from grace?

Spooner was employed as a ‘clerk under witness’ in V Division but ‘owing to indifferent conduct’ he was demoted back to constable. On 28 August he resigned, presumably because he resented the return to beat duty and perhaps a drop in salary.

When Spooner left the police he was given a certificate that confirmed his 16 months of employment but ‘was spinet as to his character’. In other words he had a minimal reference; the sort that simply said that he had worked for the police and nothing more. Any potential employer could have read between the lines and formed a negative opinion of the former police clerk.

As a result Spooner decided that he needed something more than this and according to the police’s prosecution counsel at Bow Street, Mr Poland, he returned to Scotland Yard to steal a blank reference form from the Commissioners of Police. He then filled this in and forged the signature of a senior officer before sending it to the Newcastle Police in his attempt to find employment with them.

Unfortunately for Spooner the Newcastle ‘authorities prudently communicated with the London police, when of course it was discovered that the certificate was a forgery’. PC Samuel Gibbs arrested Spooner and charged him with the theft. At Bow Street Police Court he was committed to trial.

This seemed like a fairly obvious case of fraud and all the evidence seemed to point to the dishonesty of the former policeman. After all the police had the certificate (on which the Commissioner’s signature was clearly forged), they knew Spooner had left under  cloud (and his conduct not been considered ‘first class’ as the certificate suggested). Yet when the case came before a jury at Old Bailey Spooner received a ‘good character’ and he was acquitted. Whether the Newcastle force then employed him is (to me at least) still a mystery.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 16, 1876]

Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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In the light of this weekend’s terrorist attack in London I was reminded of a graphic I saw recently detailing the state of terror in Britain in the 50 odd years I’ve been alive. This graph is for Europe not simply the UK but it quite clearly shows that we have been through worse times than this in terms of numbers of people killed and wounded. I am not in the business of belittling the current state of emergency, I live in London and have friends all over the country. We need to vigilant and we need to carry on and show solidarity and strength; this sort of extremist terrorism is a real threat to our lives and our beliefs.

However, its not new, even if it comes in a new form.

In the 1970s and 80s terrorism at home came from Ireland in the guise of nationalists. Abroad it was middle-eastern or closely related to organised political crime. But even seventies terrorism wasn’t a new phenomena; we had terrorism in the 1800s as well.

In Europe political extremists (to use a modern term) committed terrorist ‘outrages’ with alarming regularity. They planted bombs, through bombs, and stated assassination attempts. In 1881 three bombers attempted the life of Tsar Alexander II. The first failed (Alexander was protected by his bullet-proof carriage), the second succeeded, and so the third assassin didn’t need to use his improvised suitcase bomb.

The killing didn’t achieve anything useful, it merely brought about a crackdown on extremists and put back the cause of political reform in Russia many years.

From the 1860s onwards Irish nationalists engaged in what was termed the ‘dynamite war’ with the  British State. In 1867 bombers attempted to blow a hole in Clerkenwell prison to allow their fellow nationalists to escape. Twelve people were killed and many more injured. In the end one man was convicted and held accountable, even though he may have been a fall guy for the Victorian state. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged publicly in England as a result of the bombing.

In the wake of the bombing at Clerkenwell Karl Marx recognised that the Irish national cause was not helped by blowing up innocent civilians in London. In fact he suggested that he actually helped the government. His 1867 comment is eerily prescient in 2017:

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government”. Karl Marx (1867)

In the 1880s the war led to several terrorist attacks in the capital, none of which were very successful or had the effect of Clerkenwell. At the end of May 1884 the  Pall Mall Gazette reported a number of related incidents in London under the headline, ‘Dynamite outrages in London’.

Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, was attacked. A bomb was left in a toilet block behind the Rising Sun pub, and when it went off it knocked out all the lights in the pub and the nearby police lodgings. Several people were hurt, mostly by flying glass and other debris, no one seems to have been killed. The target was said to be the Detective Division HQ nearby or (and this is more likely) that of the Special Irish Branch.

Almost instantaneously another explosion rocked Pall Mall. A bomb went off outside the Junior Carlton Club, in St James’ Square, a smart gentleman’s club which was a favourite of London’s elite. Nearby however, were the offices of the Intelligence Department of the War Office who may have bene the real quarry of the bombers. Again, there was lots of broken glass and superficial damage but few casualties.

A second bomb, in St James Square seems to have had similarly limited effects. Several people were treated for cuts but no one died.

The paper also reported that a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square had been foiled:

‘While all this excitement was going on , some boys, passing close to Nelson’s Column, noticed a carpet bag reclining against the base of the pedestal.’ The bag was seized by a vigilant policeman (who I believe thought the boys were trying to pinch it). He saw one of the boys aim a kick at the bag and probably thought they were about to run off with it. When the bag was examined it was found to contain ‘seventeen and a half cakes of what is believed to be dynamite, and a double fuse’. The boys had a lucky escape.

Earlier that year there had been similar attacks at Victoria  Station and other London termini, on the London Underground and later, in 1885 at the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. In 1884 a gang of Irish republicans blew themselves up on London Bridge, but not deliberately, they were trying to set a fuse which detonated accidentally. They were intent on sending Westminster a message and an attack on the iconic heart of the capital (note, Tower Bridge was not yet completed), would have made that message very clear: we are here and we can get to you.

Ultimately Irish Republican (or ‘Fenian’) terrorism was not successful in the 1880s or the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement which ended the decades (if not centuries) of war between nationalists and the British State was the result of negotiation by diplomacy, not a forced surrender of the British state. Indeed there was recognition that the Republican movement was not going to force the British to agree to ‘freedom’ through the armalite  or the bomb, and that’s why they agreed to talks.

I doubt we can hope that the current crop of terrorists will come to the same conclusion anytime soon but we can at least demonstrate to them that we won’t be cowed, or beaten, or surrender to their vicious brand of hate. In the meantime they will keep trying to terrify us and we will keep carrying on with our lives, knowing this is the best way to show them that they can’t win.

Meanwhile, in 1885, some of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London over the previous year were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. James Gilbert (alias Cunningham) and Harry Burton were convicted after a long trial, of treason, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. For those of you with a fascination for the Jack the Ripper case you will be interested to know that detective inspector Frederick Abberline (along with two others) was mentioned by the judge for his efforts in bringing the case to court.*

If you want to read more about Fenian ‘outrages’ in 1880s’ London then a section of my 2010 book London Shadows: the dark side of the Victorian City, deals with it in more depth.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 31, 1884]

*MR. JUSTICE HAWKINS  called attention to a presentment by the Grand Jury, expressing their strong approval of the conduct of the Police in this case, and particularly mentioning Inspectors Abberline, Jarvis, and Hagan, and desire that the attention of the proper authorities should be called to the same.

A fake vicar at Bow Street

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Eyebrows were raised when George Stanley appeared in the dock at Bow Street in May 1877. He didn’t look like your average thief, in fact he closely resembled a vicar, so what was he doing there?

Stanley, an ‘elderly man’ having ‘the appearance of a shabby-genteel clergyman’ was charged with loitering in and around Charing Cross with the intention of stealing from passers-by. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, thought he seemed familiar and Sergeant Kerlay of Scotland Yard confirmed that he was a ‘known criminal’, and had been convicted several times before.

The habit of a cleric was a disguise, the sergeant explained, that allowed him to go about the crowds unsuspected. He usually had an accomplice, a woman, and he always carried an umbrella. He held the ‘brolly point down and slightly open, so that when his assistant had stolen something she could drop it in ‘without exciting the slightest suspicion’.

A prison warder from Holloway also testified that Stanley was a former inmate, he knew him well despite his ‘disguise’. The prisoner however, said, in a voice ‘that belied his aspect’ that the whole thing was ‘a pack of lies, and no magistrate should listen to such nonsense’. Mr Flowers clearly disagreed, as he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour.

 

[from The Standard, Monday, May 14, 1877]