A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

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

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

The red mist descends as a coachman gets tangled with an Italian organ

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It was half past five on a Friday afternoon in May 1876 and George Athersford, who was employed by Lady Scott of Cromwell Road, South Kensington, was driving the empty family brougham along Westbourne Place in Pimlico. As he turned into the road he came suddenly on a pair of musicians playing a street organ.

It was a common enough sight in London and a not inconsiderable nuisance to some people, but for whatever reason the coachman didn’t see the pair until he was upon them. The brougham was about the collide with organ when one of the musicians, Pietro Cordani, grabbed hold of the footboard to try and slow the coach down.

At this Athersford brought his whip down on the head of the poor Italian and hit him until he let go. The coachman drove away leaving two angry organ grinders in his wake.

Soon afterwards however, Athersford was back, this time with two lady passengers – Lady Scott and her daughter – on board. Seeing the driver that had attacked his colleague the other musician, Giacomo Malvicé, made a grab for the halter on the horse’s head and tried to pull the coach to a halt.

Again the driver reacted violently, lashing down at the musician and his friend. But this time a policeman was nearby and quickly intervened. Athersford was pulled down from his seat and the ladies got out of the carriage. George was clearly quite drunk, certainly too drunk to be driving in the officer’s opinion, so he summoned a cab for the ladies.

Athersford was taken into custody and brought before the magistrate at Westminster charged with assaulting the musicians and with being drunk and incapable whilst driving. In his defence the coachman said that he’d had a few beers and no food with them, but ‘he knew what he was about’. He admitted hitting Cordon but only lightly, so as to get him to let go of his vehicle. He asked Mr Arnold (the magistrate) to remand him while he called for some witnesses to support his version of events.

The case came back a few days later and the same evidence was repeated by the two musicians and by Lady Scott. Her husband gave the driver a good character reference (he’d worked for them for six months and had proved himself to be ‘steady and sober’ so his behaviour was a surprise to him).

Mr Arnold, the magistrate, said that Athersford had no right to use the force he had but said if he was prepared to settle the matter with the two Italians (by apologising and paying then some compensation I presume) that would be the end of the assault charge. The driver agreed which just left the small matter of the drunk driving. Here Athersford was fortunate to have an indulgent employer. In consequence of his previous good conduct (as testified by Mr Scott) the justice only imposed a small fine of 5s (or seven days in prison) which Athersford paid at once.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 29, 1876; Daily News , Saturday, June 3, 1876]

Exposed – a profitable trade in stolen dogs in Victorian London

 
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In June 2016 the BBC reported that the theft of pet dogs was on the rise. Figures showed that over 100 dogs were being stolen in England and Wales each month, an increase in the past two years of around 22%. The loss of a pet is distressing and the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that this is taken into account by the courts, presumably in sentencing. Like many things of course, there is nothing new in animals being pinched, nor in the close relationship between the British and our pets.

In April 1873 the editor of the Morning Post chose to feature two dog thefts as part of his paper’s coverage of the metropolitan police courts.

At Marlborough Street a young man named Walter Handley, who said he was  a poulterer, appeared in court accused of stealing a French poodle. The dog belonged to Captain Randolph Stewart, who had a fashionable address at 85 Eaton Place, Pimlico. The dog was a pedigree and valued at the princely sum of £50 (or over £2,000 today).

The captain told Mr Knight, the sitting magistrate, that the dog had gone missing on the 17 March. He had reported it stolen to the police at Vine Street but 10 days later it had come home on its own. Meanwhile Sir John Sebright, a broker in Bond Street was sold a dog at Leadenhall Market. The man selling it was identified as the prisoner, Handley, who had asked £20 for it. Sir John paid him just £10 and took the dog home with him, giving it into the care of his butler.

That was on the 21st March but in less than a week the animal had escaped and made it way back to its original owner. The captain then visited Sir John to explain that the dog was his and that it had returned home. The mystery of how Captain Stewart came to visit the man that had bought his dog is explained by the actions of the police.

Today it is very unlikely that the police will give over much if any time to investigating the theft of family pets unless it is connected to a more serious case of dog smuggling. In 1873 however a detective was assigned to look for the captain’s missing poodle. Did the fact that this was an expensive pedigree dog belonging to a bona fide ‘gentleman’ influence their actions? Or was it because the theft of digs was often connected to an illegal dog fighting and betting circle that involved more serious forms of criminality?

Detective-sergeant Butcher of C Division investigated the theft and presumably introduced Captain Stewart and Sir John. When the latter explained how he had come by the dog he accompanied him to Leadenhall Market and they found Walter Handley. Sir John told him he had sold him a stolen dog and asked him for his money back. Walter panicked and tried to run off, unsuccessfully.

In court he told Mr Knight that he had bought the dog himself from another man (who, of course, he could not identify). The poor animal had been shaved to make it harder to trace, and when Handley was searched at Vine Street the police had found a piece of liver on him. This was termed ‘pudding’ DS Butcher told the magistrate, and was commonly used to tempt dogs into the clutches of thieves. The detective added that Handley had been seen ‘in the company of dog-stealers, one of who had only just come out of prison after being their for 18 months’. Dogs were often stolen to be used in fights or for rat baiting, he said. This one was not destined for the pits however, its value was as a luxury pet.

Captain Stewart had been determined to prosecute he said, because several of his friends had lost animals to thieves in recent months, and he wanted to stop the trade in stolen dogs. So did the magistrate, he found Handley guilty and sent him to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Westminster Police Court another serial offender was produced, but he had a much better outcome than Walter Handley. Charles Burdett was well known to the police and the courts; the court reporter even described him as ‘an old dog stealer’.  Burdett, who was from Bethnal Green, was accused of stealing a ‘valuable Russian retriever dog’ from a gentleman in South Kensington.

A few days after the dog disappeared a note was delivered to the owner’s house at 7 Cromwell Road. The missive was opened by the butler on behalf of his employer, Mr Reiss, and he followed the instructions which were to pay £10 for the safe return of the animal. Accordingly the butler went to a pub in Bishopsgate Street, met with Burdett and handed over the money. Burnett vanished almost immediately while the dog just as miraculously appeared.

The police soon caught up with Burdett and he was, like Walter Handley, accused of theft. The court was told he had a string of convictions and had served time in prison. This time, however, the magistrate was uncomfortable with the procedure. He suggested that the previous convictions appeared to be suspect, and he could not proceed against Burdett under the charge that had been laid. He decided to convict him under the Police Act which allowed him to level a fine £20 or 3 months imprisonment. Burnett ‘heartedly thanked his worship’, paid his fine, and ‘left the dock smiling at his lucky escape and rubbing his hands’.

It would seem then, that dog stealing was just as prevalent in the 1800s as it is today and that it was a lucrative industry; so lucrative in fact that a criminal like Burdett could afford to pay the odd hefty fine.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 18, 1873]