A detective uncovers smuggling by Horsleydown, but a much worse discovery is made there in 1889

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Detective sergeant Howard was watching the comings and goings of ships and sailors by Horselydown Stairs on the River Thames. Situated near to what is now (but wasn’t then) Tower Bridge and opposite St Katherine’s Docks. In 1881 this was a busy stretch of the river with shipping bringing in goods from all over the world. Now, of course, it’s mostly a tourist area, but it is just as busy.

As DS Howard waited he saw a man he recognized go on board a steamship which had a Hamburg registration. He was sure the man was John Michael, someone he knew well as a smuggler, so he kept on watching.

Sure enough, about 30 minutes afterwards Michael reemerged and made his way on to the docks. The officer followed and then stopped him nearby. When he searched him the detective sergeant found seven pounds of tobacco and ¾ lb weight of cigars. The duty alone on these amounted to nearly £3 and so he arrested him.

When questioned Michael denied all knowledge that the goods might in any way be dodgy. He merely stated that a man on board had asked him to carry the goods ashore and was going to meet him in Tooley Street later. It was a weak defense and he probably knew it, but what else could he say?

When he was up before the Southwark magistrate he said very little at all expect to confirm his name, age (42)  and occupation (labourer). DS Howard was also there and told Mr Bridge that the man was well known as someone who earned money by carrying goods ashore to help seaman avoid the excise due on it. He got paid sixpence for every pound he smuggled, so he stood to make about 3-4s  for the haul that DS Howard confiscated.

He was ordered to pay £1 149d for his crime but since he didn’t have anything like that money he was sent to prison for two months instead.

On 4 June 1889 a human a parcel was found floating in the river just near St George’s stairs, Horsleydown. Some small boys had been lobbing stones at it but when it was recovered it was found to contain a decomposing lower torso of a woman. A leg and thigh turned up days later by the Albert Bridge and the upper torso was found soon afterwards by a gardener in Battersea Park. It was quickly linked to the Whitehall and Rainham torso mysteries that had been overshadowed in 1888 by the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel murders. Fig 2.1

For most of the last 130 plus years researchers have concluded that there were two serial murderers running amok in late Victorian London but was this really the case? A new book, penned by Drew with his fellow historian Andrew Wise, sheds new light on the torso and Whitechapel series and argues that one man might have been responsible for both.

Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper is published by Amberley Books and is available to order on Amazon here:

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 21, 1881]

A fatality avoided as race goers clash with an ‘honourable member’ on Wimbledon Common

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Richard Sims Donkin MP (c.1895)

On the day of the Epsom Derby 1888 (30 May) Richard Donkin was exercising his horse near Wimbledon Common. Donkin, a Tynesider, had made his wealth in shipping in the north of England and in 1885 he stood for parliament and was elected as the Conservative Party member for the new constituency of Tynemouth.

As he rode along a path that adjoined the common a waggonette approace din the opposite direction. The vehicle, a sort of large open cab capable of carrying several person, was driven by Frank Flint. Flint was carrying several passengers, taking them to the races at Epsom. As they passed Donkin there was jeering from the wagon and Flint raised his whip and struck out at the horse and rider.Unknown

The MP struggled but he was a good horseman and managed to prevent his beat losing it’s footing and sliding into a ditch at the side of the road. Had the animal fallen he feared it might have broken a leg and then have had to be put down. He made enquires and found Flint’s name and had him summoned before the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court.

The prosecution was directed by Donkin’s solicitor, Mr Haynes while Flint was defended by a Mr Hanne. The prosecution case was that this was an assault and a deliberate attempt to unseat the parliamentarian. In defence it was argued that it was all a mistake and an accident. Flint testified that his own horse had shied on seeing the other animal and that he was trying to control it when is whip accidently connected with the MP’s mount.

It was a cab driver’s word against a respected member of parliament and I think we know how those encounters were likely to play out.  For Montague Williams, the sitting magistrate, the issue was not simply who was to blame it was whether this constituted an assault. He consulted the clerk who consulted Justice (James Fitzjames) Stephen’s volume on the criminal law and decided that Flint was guilty of an indirect assault, and fined him £5.

Richard Donkin lived in Wimbledon until his death in 1919 at the age of 82. He served Tynemouth as MP until 1900 but made little impression on parliamentary history. Most of his interventions were concerned with shipping, something he knew a lot about. I’ve no idea what happened to Flint or his unruly passengers but if they had backed Ayeshire, the three year old stallion that won the Derby in May 1888 they might at least have won enough money to pay the hefty fine that Mr Williams handed down.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 13, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

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What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]

‘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 chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark

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We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

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Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]