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.

 

 

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

An excess of zeal as a man tries to avoid the shame of a court appearance.

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This is one of those unremarkable cases, which, at the same time, serves to illustrate how the police courts of Victorian London actually operated. Most of the time the press does not discuss the various functions of the court. Partly this was because it is unlikely that the reading public were interested but also presumably because most people knew anyway. After all these were popular arenas for negotiating social issues and held few secrets for most of the people of Victoria’s capital.

On Thursday 24 June 1880 a number of people were brought to the Worship Street Police court charged with keeping dogs without paying for license to do so. We might have forgotten but until 1987 anyone owning a dog had to buy an annual license.  In 1880 this cost 7s 6d (equivalent to about £25 today) so while not a huge sum it was still a cost on the stretched income of the workingman. So it is not surprising that large numbers of people tried to avoid it.

This meant that periodically the capital’s police courts were filled with defaulters, most of whom were expected to pay up on the spot or face a possible fine and/or imprisonment if they couldn’t pay. Being sent to gaol for not having a dog license was not impossible but it was extremely unlikely.

On this occasion one man seemed keen to pay what he owed but then get out of court quickly and without drawing attention to the fact that he’d been there. This was understandable; no one wants his neighbours to know that he has been in court or in trouble with the law, it was potentially embarrassing. So he popped his 5fine on the ledge of the dock and tried to leave by the main entrance. A warrant officer stopped him and told him he had to go out by the door marked ‘prisoners’, which he was reluctant to do.

When the fellow refused point blank the officer picked up his coins and shoved the man towards the exit door. However, the poor man clung to the dock and continued to refuse to be expelled via the prisoners’ exit. Two more officers arrived, and a police sergeant, and a struggle ensured which ended in an unseemly wrestling match on the court floor.

Finally the man was dragged out of court by his collar and thrown into the street. If he wanted to avoid attention he’d failed quite spectacularly but it was the behaviour of the police and court officers that upset Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate.

In the afternoon he called the sergeant and officers before him and upbraided them. He told them that they had exceeded their authority and had shown too much ‘zeal’. Given the minor nature of the man’s offence there was no need for rough stuff. He was not supposed to leave his money on the ledge nor was the warrant officers supposed to pick it up from there. They should have told him to pay it to the ‘proper officer’ and, had he refused, they were required to let him leave. There was no requirement that he be imprisoned in default of payment and the proper procedure was for a distress warrant to have been issued if he continued to default on payment.

The man had been injured in the kerfuffle and Mr Bushby wanted it made clear to the officers that he didn’t want to see that sort of incident in his courtroom ever again, and he wrote a letter to the police inspector for K Division to place that on record.

So this uninteresting case becomes interesting (to me at least) because it shows how the courts operated when a fine was due to be paid. It also reveals that there was an exit designated for prisoners (or anyone presumably who had been charged, regardless of whether they came in from the street or from the cells). These were multi-purpose courts; they didn’t simply deal with ‘crime’ and we can all appreciate that some of those that found themselves there were hardly ‘criminals’ by any measure of that term. So making them walk out of a door marked ‘prisoners’ was probably likely to upset those that felt they had done little to deserve the blemish on their character.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 25, 1880]

A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

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 on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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:

A birching in Wandsworth as a killer opens his file in Whitechapel

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On 9 am on 4 April Emma Smith died in the London Hospital on Whitechapel Road. At 45 years of age Emma was just like most of the victims of the man, known only as ‘Jack the Ripper,’ who traumatized the community of the East End in the summer and autumn of that year. Although we know very little about Emma Smith it is believed that she lived in George Street, Spitalfields, that she was a mother but estranged from her family, drank frequently, and lived by prostitution.

On the night of the 2 April she was attacked by a group of men, beaten badly, and left for dead. One of the gang shoved a blunt instrument up into her vagina and it was this injury that brought about her death two days later.

Emma’s is the first name in the Metropolitan Police file containing what scant records exist of the so-called Whitechapel Murders of 1888-91, but few experts today believe that she was killed by the ‘ripper’. Instead Emma’s murder is more likely to have been the work of a gang of ‘roughs’ or ‘bullies’, such as the Nichol Gang, who attempted to control petty crime and vice in the area.

Emma’s murder hardly troubled the newspapers in April 1888; the murder of an ‘unfortunate’ wasn’t newsworthy until it became the only story in town by September that year. The Standard didn’t even report on the ‘doings’ of the Thames or Worship Street Police courts that day, only carrying stories from Hammersmith, Westminster, West Ham, Wandsworth and the two City of London courts: Guildhall and Mansion House.

It was the case at Wandsworth that caught my eye today. Harry Lucas and Thomas Wise, two teenage tearaways, had been remanded for a few days accused of robbing a small girl in Lavender Hill. Rose Calver had been sent out to run an errand for her mother when she ran into the two lads on Grayshott Road. They asked her where she was going and when they saw the money in her hand made a grab for it. To her credit little Rose struggled with them but they were too strong for her and threw her to ground.

They were captured soon afterwards and Rose identified them. In court they were asked their age and said they were 17. Mr Williams was skeptical:

‘You are no more seventeen than I am’, he told Lucas.

‘Yes he is sir’, interjected his mother, ‘he was seventeen yesterday’.

The magistrate said he was loath to send them to prison and dealt with them under the Juvenile Offenders Act (that of 1847 or 1850) which might have allowed him to send them to a reformatory school, but certainly gave him the power to remove them from the adult justice system if he deemed them to be under the age of 16. Perhaps they were, perhaps Williams was simply bending the rules to give them a second chance. Maybe he simply wanted to avoid the cost of institutional care. He discharged Lucas and ordered that Wise receive six strokes of the birch from a police sergeant.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 05, 1888]

A deserter has a change of heart after Isandlwana

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A police constable was on his beat one evening in the Borough, Southwark, when a man came up to him and asked to be arrested. It was a fairly unusual request and so the officer asked him what he’d done.

‘Take me to the station-house’, the man replied, ‘and I’ll tell you’.

The pair set off and when they reached the police station the man gave his name as George Gwilliam, aged 33. He said that wanted to surrender his liberty as a deserter from the Queen’s colours. Desertion was an offence that was prosecuted by the military courts and rewards were payable to those that brought in or gave evidence against absconders.

First of all, however, the desk sergeant had to establish whether Gwilliam was telling the truth. Fortunately all deserters reported to the police were listed in the Police Gazette (formally known as the Hue and Cry) which had been published in London since 1772. It had been the brainchild of Sir John Fielding, one of the Fielding brothers who had founded the Bow Street ‘runners’ in the mid 1750s.

While the Gazette fell under the editorial control of the Bow Street office it was a ‘national’ paper, printed by and for the Home Office. By 1879 (when Gwilliam handed himself in at Southwark) it was still being edited by John Alexander, Bow Street’s chief clerk. It finally passed over to the Met in 1883.

The sergeant at Southwark nick was able to trace George Gwilliam finding that he was listed as having deserted from the 6th Dragoons on 16 June 1874, meaning he’d been AWOL for four years and eight months. So why hand himself in now? The story Gwilliam gave was that he’d heard the regiment were being posted to Africa and he wanted to join them.

The Southwark magistrate, Mr Partridge, was willing to indulge him and so told the officer of the court to notify the dragoons and have George transferred to the house of the correction in the meantime until he was required by his regiment.

The 6th(Iniskilling) Dragoons were one of the most celebrated cavalry units in the British Army, famously involved in the charge of Union Brigade at Waterloo and that of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava (rather than the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade in the same battle). The regiment saw action in South Africa in the ‘Boer War’ but Gwilliam would have probably have been too old by then, since he was 33 in 1879. In 1879 it was deployed to fight in what became known as the Anglo-Zulu war and, if he went, that is where our reformed deserter would have seen service.

Gwilliam may have been reacting to the heavy defeat of British forces at Isandlwana (on 22 January 1879) and the heroic defensive action at Rorke’s Drift (22-23/1/1879) where no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses were won. The British eventually won the war and the conflict has spawned two movies, the best of which is Zulu (1964) featuring a young Michael Caine.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 13, 1879]