Three bad apples are locked away at Clerkenwell

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There had been a spate of burglaries in February 1861 in the Clerkenwell area and the police were on heightened alert. Burglary was the quintessential Victorian crime and burglars the apogee of the ‘criminal class’. Newspapers often reported burglaries and carried adverts for anti-burglar alarms and devices; towards the end of the century there was a notable growth in the insurance business to offset the losses from home thefts.  In short then, burglary and burglars were a menace and this put pressure on police chiefs to make arrests and reassure the public that their properties were safe.

Police sergeant Robinson (4E) and PC Blissett (106E) had dispensed with their uniforms and adopted ‘plain clothes’ to keep watch for any unusual activity on the street near Mecklenberg Square (where a number of incidents had been reported). They were keeping watch on Doughty Street at about 8 in the evening when they saw three men ‘loitering about in a very suspicious manner’.

As they watched the officers saw one of the men trying doors on the street, to see if any would open. The other men were ‘piping’ (cant for keeping watch) and when they clocked the policemen they made a run for it. The bobbies followed and quickly overtook them, and attempted to make an arrest.

Unfortunately for sergeant Robinson and PC Blissett the trio decided not to come quietly but instead attacked them. One of the men broke away and threw something into the gutter, another tried to get rid of set of skeleton keys but the sergeant recovered them. The policemen struggled with their prisoners and called for help that soon arrived. Finally the would-be burglars were safely locked up in the station house.

Sergeant Robinson returned to the scene and recovered a chisel that one of the gang had discarded and this was matched to marks made on doors in nearby John Street. The chisel was presumably there to enable them to force locks open if they couldn’t gain access without doing so.

The men were stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr D’Eyncourt. They gave their names as William Green, James Higgins and William Smith. They were all well known to the police who clearly suspected them of being the men responsible for the mini crime wave in the district but on this occasion they hadn’t actually broken into anywhere. There was some strong circumstantial evidence however. A local man, named Abrahams, explained that his property had been burgled and the culprits had gained using a set of skeleton keys.

Mr Abrahams said thieves had broken into his house on Bedford Row and had stolen property valued at £50 from him. ‘What made the matter worse’, he continued, was that ‘his servant’s savings, amounting to over £11, besides some of her clothing, were stolen’. This wasn’t simply stealing from those that could afford it, it was the plunder of the life savings of some poor domestic, someone everyone in the court (and reading the report) could empathize with.

The three men denied doing anything wrong, yes, they said, they had picked up the keys (but innocently, without intent to use them) and as for the chisel ‘they knew nothing of it, nor did they wish to’. This drew a laugh or two from the court which was probably quickly stifled by the magistrate.

Mr D’Eyncourt told them that had they managed to break into a house that evening he would have had no hesitation in committing them for trial at the Old Bailey where, if convicted, they might have face several years of penal servitude. As it was they were lucky that he could only punish them for the attempt and the assault on the policemen that had arrested them. They would all go to gaol for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 15, 1861]

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]