A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

A woman pulls a gun in court

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It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]

‘What business do you have in kicking my boy and ill-using my wife?’ An Eastender’s challenge to a local bobby.

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Who’d be a policeman? Especially in mid Victorian London, and in the East End at that. There a policeman’s lot was most certainly not a happy one, as the song goes. In 1847 the Metropolitan Police had been established for less than 20 years and while they may have ridden out the crisis of the first decade, where allegations of corruption and drunkenness had meant that many of the early recruits had to be replaced, they were still very far from being popular or respected.

The working class resented them for interfering in their day-to-day lives and for being ‘class traitors’, while the middle classes were unhappy at having to pay for them and disliked being told what to do by an ‘inferior’. The upper classes had no more time for time for them either, having effectively lost the control they had over policing to the home office.

So pity poor PC Edward Jessop (215H) who had Thrawl Street as part of his beat in 1847. Thrawl Street was a very poor street in a very poor area, populated by the residents of low lodging houses who lived a precarious hand-by-mouth existence. Thrawl Street was to be home to several of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s but its reputation for poverty went back much longer than 1888.

On Sunday 10 October 1847 PC Jessop approached Thrawl Street proceeding as he was obliged to do, at a steady walking pace. It was half past eight in the evening and, as he later reported, he saw a group of young men playing a game of chance under a street lamp. He moved in to stop them (gambling was a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine) but as he did a lad scaled the lamp for the purpose, he believed, of turning it out and making it impossible for him to see what was going on.

He grabbed at the boy and pushed him away, the lad fell over and yelped. The gathered crowd let out a chorus of insults and threats, and suggested he might have killed the child. A man – who turned out to be the boy’s father – raced out of a nearby house and started hitting the constable, who did his best to resist. As he tried to arrest the man the boy’s mother appeared and now he was assailed on two fronts. Since she scratched his face he retaliated and hit her about the head with his truncheon.

That was the version of events that PC Jessop told the inspector back at the station when he and a colleague had managed to capture the father and mother and charge the former with assaulting a policeman. However, when the case came before Mr Hammile at Worship Street Police court an alternative story was laid out for public consumption. I doubt very much that 20 or 30 years later, when the police were more widely accepted (and the idea of the ‘criminal class’ had gained greater purchase in Victorian society) this would have played out in this way, so this case is interesting from a police history perspective.

Mr Hammile was told, by the defence’s solicitor (and this in itself is interesting because it suggests that a poor community had somehow clubbed together to defend one of its own) that the real villain was PC Jessop himself.

PC Jessop told the court that he was assailed by a crowd of up to 150 persons, many of whom were throwing stones and brickbats but he seemed to have escaped injury while the boy’s mother, Mrs Hurley had been left ‘bleeding in the arms of a neighbour’ and was still too weak to give evidence in court the next day.

Witnesses (several of them) testified that PC Jessop had been the aggressor. He had had seized the boy while he was playing with some others and had kicked him, knocked him to the floor and then hit him about the head with his open hand. This had brought Mrs Hurley out to remonstrate with the officer who had struck out at her in return. She was punched in the face, the justice was told, and later beaten with a truncheon. As she cried for help her husband arrived and demanded to know ‘what business [the constable] had to kick his boy and ill-use his wife’.

At that the policeman had attacked Patrick Hurley and the whole scene descended into a brawl. Hurley resisted arrest until another officer arrived and he went willingly with him but refused to be led by PC Jessop. A number of witnesses claimed the policeman was drunk and was staggering along his beat and leaning against the walls to steady himself. This was denied by PC Jessop and his inspector who said he was ‘perfectly sober’ and not one to take liquor. ‘He was a remarkably well-conducted young man’.

So now it was left to the magistrate to determine who was telling the truth and whom he should believe. In the end he sided with the Hurleys, which might seem surprising. He discharged Patrick Hurley on the grounds that he was provoked by PC Jessop’s attack on his son and wife. He instructed Inspector Ellis to report the matter to the police commissioners for them to investigate as they thought fit and gave Mrs Hurley leave to bring an assault charge against the constable if she wished.   PC Jessop wasn’t reprimanded but I doubt he would be so keen to return to Thrawl Street in a hurry.

By 1888 it was reported that streets like the nearby Dorset Street were so dangerous for the police that they would only patrol them in groups of four; I rather suspect that this would also apply to places like Flower & Dean and Thrawl Streets and policeman would have been more careful to at least be assured that a colleague was nearby.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1847]

A real life ‘Long Susan’ is booked at Marlborough Street

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In 1864 Parliament passed the first of three Contagious Diseases Acts (the others were enacted into law in 1866 and 1869). These were the result of a two year investigation into the causes and spread of sexually transmitted infections in the armed forces. In the aftermath of the Crimean War the British state had been shocked by the state of soldiers and sailors and the high levels of disease amongst them.

This prompted attempts to curb prostitution, or at least regulate the trade. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) allowed local authorities to take women off the streets and forcibly examine them for signs that they were carrying an STI such as syphilis or gonorrhoea. The women could be kept in lock hospital for up to three months to ensure they were ‘clean’ before they were released. This was later extended to one year.

In effect then this amounted to medical imprisonment, without trial, for working class women who were deemed to be prostitutes (which in itself was not a crime). It was only applied in garrison and port towns and this, and the obvious fact that men were not forced to be examined and treated (although they were encouraged) meant the acts had limited effect.

The CDA were not applicable to London in 1864 and the capital was synonymous with vice and crime. Prostitution was a problem, particularly around the theatre district and Haymarket, where prostitutions mingled with respectable women in their attempts to attract business. Street prostitution was often tolerated by the police so long as it was not overt: operate quietly and you would be left alone – make yourself too visible (i.e being drunk and disorderly) and you could expect to be ‘pinched’.

A safer and more comfortable option was a brothel. Here a small group of women could ply their trade under one roof and be afforded some small protection from violence and police interference. Of course the police raided brothels but those in the West End, which catered for a higher class of client, were often protected and paid for that protection.

From time to time however, even these felt the touch of the long arm of the law. In October 1864 Anne Melville – a ‘stylishly dressed female’ – was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street charged, on a warrant, with keeping a bawdy house (a brothel). The case was brought by the vestry of St Martin’s and conducted by a solicitor, Mr Robinson. Anne, who clearly had the funds, was defended by her own legal representative, Mr Abrams.

A policeman (Sergeant Appleton 26 C) gave evidence and the court quickly established that 32 Oxendon Street was indeed a brothel. The warrant against Anne had two other names on it and Mr Robinson explained to Mr Tyrwhitt that they had both been before the Sessions of the Peace the day before but Anne had been hard to find. In absentia the Sessions had decided that Anne also had a case to answer. He asked that the prisoner be sent directly to the Sessions to take her trial.

Mr Abrams objected to this course of action. He said the Sessions would be over by now and he asked for bail, saying there was no reason to suppose his client would not give herself up. The brothel was now closed up, he added. His intention was to keep Anne out of prison if he could possibly help it. The prosecution and police were unhappy with this suggestion: Anne had led Sergeant Appleton a merry dance thus far and they had no confidence that she would respect bail in the future.

Mr Tyrwhitt was persuaded by the defence however, although he opted to set bail at a very high amount. Anne was obliged to stand surety for herself at £80 and find tow others at £40 each. In total then her bail amounted to £160 or nearly £10,000 in today’s money. Prostitution at that level was evidently a lucrative business.

He also commended the vestrymen for pursuing a prosecution against one of the larger brothels and not simply concentrating on the ‘smaller ones’. I imagine he meant he was keen to see action being taken against the sort of premises often frequented by ‘gentlemen’ of the ‘better sort’ and not simply the rougher houses used by the working classes. At the quarter sessions Anne pleased guilty to keeping a brothel and was sentenced to six months at Westminster’s house of correction. She was 26 years of age and reminds me of Susan from the BBC’s Ripper Street.

The CDAs were finally repealed in 1886 after a long campaign by Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts . Butler’s campaign politicised hundreds of women and gave them an experience which they would later take into the long running battle for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile madams like Ann continued to run brothels which were periodically the  target of campaigns to close them down. Notably there was just such a campaign in the late 1880s which resulted in women being forced out of the relative safety of East End brothels and onto the streets, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ was waiting for them.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 06, 1864]

 

A man just wants to have Fun, but forgets you always have to pay.

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William Helps was standing watching the concourse at Ludgate Hill railway station when a gentleman attracted his attention. Helps was a station inspector and the man explained that he’s just seen respectably dressed individual appear to steal a book from a book stall. Helps asked where the man was now and the passenger pointed him out as he boarded a third class carriage. The inspector followed him and noticed him hide the book under his coat.

Helps went back to the  stall (W H Smith’s no less) and asked the lad serving there if he’d lost anything.

‘Yes, a shilling number of Fun’, William Robinson replied.

Fun was a humorous, satirical magazine that rivaled the more famous Punch. It had launched in 1861 and offered prose and verse alongside travel writing and reviews of popular theatre and music hall.  It cost just a penny per edition so this must have been a compendium of covers, entitled ‘Essence of Fun’ which sold for a 1s.

Mr Helps approached the man who’d taken the book and confronted him:

‘What have you done with the book?’ he demanded.

‘What book?’

‘Do not misunderstand me – the book you took off the book stall’.

‘I do not know what you mean’ said the man, getting up from his seat and heading off towards W H Smith’s. He started to fumble around under his waistcoat where the book was hidden but Helps was losing patience with him.

‘It is of no use putting it down on the stall again’, he said, ‘you had better give it to me’.

Sheepishly, the man handed it over and said he would happily pay for it but the inspector had him arrested and consequently, a few days later he was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court charged with theft.

The man’s name was Henry White and he worked for Pontifex and Co as a coppersmith. He’d previously worked for Price’s candles and he had never been in trouble before in his life. White’s solicitor (Mr Buchanan) assured the court that his client had never intended to steal the copy of Fun but the lad was busy serving customers and he was worried he would miss his train.

It was a poor excuse but the policeman who took him into custody said he was searched and he plenty of money on him so doubted theft was the intention. White had given a correct address, and ‘bore a very respectable character in his neighbourhood’, and so Alderman Whetham was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The magistrate found him not guilty of stealing but instead treated the case as one of unlawful possession. White was fined 10s, which he paid, and walked free from court, poorer but hopefully wiser.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1872]