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]

A far sighted optician thwarts a spectacle thief

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When Mr Anderson, an optician who traded from premises at 151 High Holborn*, finished his dinner on a Thursday in October 1859, he went through to check on his shop. As he cast his eyes over his stock he immediately noticed that a string of spectacles was missing. He had left these on his counter the night before but now they were nowhere to be seen.

Fortunately for the optician these were marked ‘with a number on the glass’ (rather than on the rim) and so he hoped they would be ‘easily identified’. Anderson now set about advertising the loss amongst his fellows in the trade and this quickly brought results.

On the next day an ‘elderly man, of shabby appearance’ walked into an optician’s shop at 2 Cranborne Street, near Leicester Square. He approached the owner, Mr Whitehouse, and offered him ‘half a dozen eye-glasses for sale’.

Whitehouse recognised the numbers on the glass as those listed on the handbill Mr Anderson had circulated the previous afternoon and secured the goods and the old man. The police were called and he was taken into custody.

Back at the police station the thief was searched and more glasses were found on him. Now he admitted selling to other opticians in and around the area and officers were despatched to retrieve the goods. All of this was revealed at Bow Street Police Court and the unnamed ‘elderly man’ was fully remanded for the theft of over £6 worth (over £250 in today’s money) of spectacles.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 22, 1859]

The US have a Museum of Vision with a  large collection of spectacles (many online) – its fair to say that these were a world away from the designer pairs we see (no pun intended) today.

  • in 1860 (a year later than this case, these premises are listed as being occupied by a ‘brass letter and glass letter cutter’  called Nicholas Flogny. Whether he and Anderson were connected or shared a premises is unclear. Cranbourne Street is at the heart of London’s West End, close by the busy Leicester Square (there is no sign today of Mr Whitehouse’s shop.