A late garrotting in Chelsea as the panic endures

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In 1862 there was a moral panic about street robbery.  I’ve covered it elsewhere on this blog and it has been well-documented in the work of Jennifer Davis. The so-called garroting panic began July of that year when a member of Parliament (Sir Hugh Pilkington) was attacked in the street in London. In modern language Sir Hugh was ‘mugged’: thieves used a choke hold from behind to disable him, then rifled his pockets for valuables and left him gasping for air as they ran off.

Within days and over the next few weeks the newspapers carried reports of similar attacks in the capital and across the country. It was as if a generation of criminals had been inspired by the events of the 17 July and had taken to the streets to garrote each and every suitable victim they could find.

Of course, this was not what was happening at all. Rather it seems that the press were exaggerating the extent of the problem (whilst moralizing on the state of the nation and pointing fingers at those they held responsible) and seeing hitherto fairly ordinary robberies as garroting.  The effect was fairly dramatic however; within weeks the public was on edge and started to report otherwise minor incidents as potential attacks. Newspapers carried adverts for anti-garrote technology such as studded metal collars and this was, in turn, parodied in Punch which showed groups of Londoners marching through the streets and armed to the teeth like some band of medieval questing knights.

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All histories tell us that the panic only lasted for a few weeks or months before fading away. This is the nature of moral panics – they burn brightly while the media and public is interested, but die fairly quickly once the novelty has worn off. But in December 1862 it seems the residual panic was still newsworthy as this case from the Westminster Police court shows.

On 3 December Michael Murray had been collecting the entrance money at a ‘teetotallers’ entertainment’ in Chelsea. Just before he reached his home in Simmond Street he was jumped by four men who used ‘most serious violence’ and robbed him of the takings (18s) and his pocket watch. The case before Mr Paynter was all about whom was responsible and who could be put on trial. In the end he determined that James Hurley would face a trial at Old Bailey for the robbery, the case against the (unnamed) others involved was ongoing.

Hurley, whose lengthy criminal record was read out in court, was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. A decade or so earlier he would have been transported and the decline of this option was one of the causal factors behind the panic about street robbery in the early 1860s.

Hurley was followed into the dock at Westminster by Daniel Turnham and Henry Welham where they were charged with a garrote attack on William Toy, and old cavalryman who had served with the 9th Lancers. He was attacked on his way home and choked from behind and hit on the hand with a metal object. The two men ripped his waistcoat pocket to get at the 17sand 6dhe was carrying in it. The police were quickly on the scene and set off in pursuit, catching the Welham who was already wanted for another robbery some days before.  Turnham was picked up soon afterwards. Mr Paynter remanded then in custody so a case could be built against them. They don’t appear in the Old Bailey records so perhaps on this occasion they got lucky, many others did not.

There were real consequences to this media constructed crime panic. The police arrested many more ordinary people for street crime than they had in previous years, redefining simple thefts and assaults as ‘highway robberies’. The courts played their part too, handing down much stiffer penalties for those the police brought before them. Parliament passed the Security Against Violence Act the following year (1863), which reintroduced whipping for some violent offences (although it was rarely used). In 1864 the Penal Servitude Act meant that second offenders were hit with five year minimum sentences as Parliament determined to be ‘tough on crime’ (if not on the causes of it).

[from The Standard, Monday, 15 December, 1862]

No sign of the garrotting panic but a Victorian ‘Wonga’ scam is exposed

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Prompted by a facebook post from the Police historian Neil Bell I decided today to go back to 1862 to see if there was any hint of that year’s big crime story in the Police court reportage. 1862 was the year that Sir Hugh Pilkington MP was attacked by robbers on his way home from the Houses of Parliament. He was attacked from behind, throttled (‘garrotted’) and robbed. It was a form of highway robbery (‘mugging’ we would probably call it) but it sparked a moral panic about returning ‘ticket of leave’ criminals and the perceived ‘softness’ of the criminal justice system.

The panic died done fairly quickly and historians have shown that in reality street crime was no more prevalent in 1862 than it was in years either side of that; it was the reaction of the police, public and government to the press coverage that was the real story, not the incidents of ‘garrotting’ themselves.

Plus câ change.

Meanwhile over at Worship Street Police court things were a little more mundane. No garrotting or otherwise dangerous street crime here, just a case of unlicensed pawnbrokers. It’s still interesting however, as we learn much more about the everyday life of the Victorian city through these snippets of ‘real life’.

William Murray and James Spriggs were both brought up as offenders against the Excise Act. The prosecution – led by officers from the Inland Revenue – alleged that the men had been carrying out the business of pawnbrokers without have the required license to do so. The pair were trading as chandlers (sellers of all sorts of cheap goods) rather than pawnbrokers, but were proven to have extended loans to local people in the East End in exactly the same way as ‘brokers operated.

It was a well executed investigation and both men were duly convicted. The magistrate, Mr Leigh, handed down fines of £12 10plus costs to each man, the minimum he was obliged to levy. Each was warned that a failure to pay would result in them going to prison for a month.

The excisemen reported that they had been investigation many more instances of this sort of offence in recent months, and mostly in East London. These two shopkeepers were ‘ostensibly’ chandlers in Bethnal Green – hardly a well paid occupation – but both could afford to employ a lawyer to defend them. They were doing very well out of this sideline to the day job.

The court was told that there were plenty of ‘leaving shops’ in East London where the poorest could get short or medium term loans at very high interest by pledging their possessions as security. The magistracy were aware of it and two justices in particular, Mr Beard and Mr Abbott, condemned the practice and assured the public that they would be prepared to inflict the maximum penalty of £50 on offenders.

It strikes me that leaving shops were operating very much like the high interest pay day loan companies like Wonga, which today offer (or used to offer in Wonga’s case) much needed cash but at huge cost in terms of interest. These companies profit from the very poorest in society and the same practice, albeit a less sophisticated version, was taking place in the 1860s.

Plus câ change, eh?

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1862]