A ‘John Major’ in court: The Bermondsey Fortune Telling Case of 1880

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I do enjoy it when historical research throws up well-known modern names in unconnected situations. The ‘John Major’ who is the subject of this story has probably no connection whatsoever to the former Conservative Prime Minister, but who knows? After all ‘our’ John Major was born in Surrey (in 1943) to relatively humble parents (one of which had been a music hall performer).

The John Major who found himself before the magistrate at Southwark Police court in 1880 hailed from Ambrose Street, Bermondsey, on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was a 36 year-old print seller but in early April 1880 he was charged with fraud.

In fact he was accused of ‘obtaining sums of money from various persons in different parts of the country, by pretending to tell their fortunes’. John Major then, was a fortune teller and it seems he styled himself,

‘Methveston, the Great Seer, Philosopher and Astrologer’

And he promised to:

‘reveal your future complete, with fate and marriage, family, friends, etc.; what part to travel or voyage to, and other particulars to buyers of three prints, [price] 31 stamps’.

In addition Major advertised ‘Talismanic charms’ at 17 stamps, ‘Direction for making a red magnetic present, causing the visit of lovers’ for 31 stamps.

It was quite a comprehensive service Major was offering and one suspects that there were plenty of people gullible enough to believe that a love charm or a promise of a fortune being told was worth sending the print seller a parcel of postage stamps for (today’s equivalent of using PayPal one presumes).

Sadly, it seems that when Major’s claims failed to materialize some of those dupes by his advertisements complained, and some went directly to Scotland Yard. Since he’d included his address on his adverts (48 Ambrose Street) it wasn’t hard to track him down, and the detective division launched an investiagtion.

A genuine seer might have foretold the involvement of the police and have taken suitable action but a charlatan like John Major was no Nostradamus. Inspector Fox duly investigated, and set a trap. Sergeant Wells (M Division) sent Methveston 31 stamps and received ‘three worthless prints of his “Nativity”, all of which were false and complete rubbish’.

The police arrived at Ambrose Street and searched his rooms. They found ‘nearly a cartload’ of  “Books of Futurity” and evidence that he’d spent almost £30 buying advertising space in regional newspapers.

Major was represented by a lawyer in court, a Mr Ody, who said his client ‘was no fraud’ and only sold prints. Mr Bridge, the sitting magistrate, was advised by the police that they had identified a number of witnesses and would like time to bring them to London. The magistrate granted them four days to do so and remanded Major in custody till then.

It must have taken the police longer than this and so Major was remanded on more than one occasion, but on 24 April he was back in court to face his accusers.  There more details emerged as to the material he was selling, and what the ‘complete rubbish’ was that sergeant Wells had received for his 31 stamps.

This was in fact:

‘a letter containing three pictures, telling him he would get married to a rich woman, and lead a happy life’ as well as ‘other matters concerning love, etc.’

In total Inspector Fox and the sergeant removed all sorts of ‘circulars, books, and papers’ from Ambrose Street, which they brought to court. These included papers ‘inscribed with texts form the Bible, 9,000 handbills, postcards, and letters addressed to various people in the country’, ‘a large number of stamps;’, and ‘fortune-telling books’.

A police inspector from Northampton – Thomas Swain – appeared in court to testify to knowing the man as a convicted rogue and vagabond at Daventry in 1870, where the magistrate there had given him a month at hard labour. He had also attended the Old Bailey in October 1877 to see Major sent away for 18 months for obtaining money by false presences. This was enough evidence for Mr Slade (who was on the rota instead of Mr Bridge that week). He committed Major to take his trial at the Surrey Quarter Sessions as a rogue and vagabond.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Saturday 4 April 1880; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Friday 24 April 1880]

NB: I’m not doubting Inspector Swain’s testimony but I can find no John Major appearing at the Old Bailey in 1877 (or indeed any year) for fraud. In fact no one in the October sessions for 1877 comes close to Major in terms of his MO. However it may be that his trial record was not printed and so has not survived, or that Swain was talking about the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, not the Central Criminal court. I don’t have access (not from home anyway) to the Surrey sessions so I cannot (in lockdown) find out what happened to Major hereafter. I suspect however, that if convicted (as seems likely) he would have served another couple of years at most for his offending.

 

 

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]