‘Getting away with it’ in Victorian London: two cautionary tales from Marlborough Street Police court

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Here are two theft charges, heard at the Marlborough Street Police court in 1889, neither of which resulted in convictions or further action. There must have been huge numbers of pre-trial hearings which were resolved at summary level and yet we have very few surviving documentation about this important tier of the criminal justice system. There are a handful of late nineteenth-century minute books for the Thames Police office, a few for Bow Street a little earlier, and then most of what survives is for the early twentieth century.

Which means, unfortunately, that historians of crime are perhaps overly reliant  on the reporting of the summary (magistrate) process by the Victorian press. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the newspapers were, understandably, selective. In each of the daily reports from Thames, Bow Street, Marylebone or the several other metropolitan police courts the editors pick one, perhaps two cases out of dozens that came before them. In a week a police court magistrate would hear hundreds of cases but only a dozen or fewer would be written up for the newspapers’ readership.

Historians of the eighteenth-century justice system are well aware that for some periods of the 1700s the publishers of the Old Bailey Proceedings (which recounted trials that took place at what was to become the Central Criminal Court) often omitted cases which ended in acquittal for fear of demonstrating to offenders that there were successful ways to avoid conviction. One of the purposes in reporting trials of criminals was show that crime did not pay so anything that suggested you could ‘get away with it’ was unhelpful at best.

So I wonder why these two cases were the ones chosen by the editor of the Standard newspaper in April 1889 to represent the business of the Marlborough Street court?

First Clara Newton was accused of stealing £3 and 3from a man she’d met in Oxford Street. Clara appeared in court dressed fashionably and wearing a red hat with a green feather. One imagines she cut quite a dash, and this might explain the reporter’s interest in her. She described herself as a barmaid, 21 years of age, who lived on the Euston Road. On April 22 1889 she met Captain Torry in the street and he invited her to have a drink with him.

The pair sat in a public house enjoying each other’s company until it was time to leave. Torry (rather ungallantly) ‘declined to see her home’ but did give her the money to take a cab. Now, I wonder whether he was hoping to extend the evening or perhaps even thought Clara was something other than a barmaid. Who knows?

She accepted his offer of a cab and asked to be shown to a waiting room where she could rest comfortably before the cab arrived. The captain told her where to go and was about to leave himself when she asked him to wait in the pub, presumably to ensure that she caught the cab safely. He agreed.

However, some moments afterwards he happened to ‘peep out of the bar door’ and saw her walking quickly away from the pub, and not towards the waiting room. Instinctively he checked his pockets and found his purse was missing. He grabbed his hat and followed afterwards, losing her briefly and having to ask a cab driver where she’d gone.

Torry caught up with her on Hanover Street and handed her over to the police. It was about 12 at night and the constable that took her into custody told Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street that she’d been searched at the station but the captain’s purse was not on her. She did have money – 2 sovereigns and 4s in silver to be exact – but none of the coins matched those that the captain thought he’d lost.

While there was a clear suspicion about Clara there was no real proof and so she was discharged. This result brought a smattering of applause from the court so either her friends were there to support her or the public felt that the captain was a ‘blackguard’ who had got what he deserved.

Next up was John Helmslie Hunt who was charged with trying to defraud a Piccadilly saddler named Garden. Hunt, using the name ‘Captain J.H. Hunt’ and giving an address in Wotton-under-Edge  (in Gloucestershire) had entered the saddler’s workshop in August 1888 and asked to purchase a holster flask. He was given the flask on credit since he appeared genuine and promised to pay the following day.

He never came back however. Not long afterwards inquiries made by Mr Garden ascertained that Hunt had pawned the flask on the Hampstead Road and had then disappeared. In fact he’d traveled to Canada where he’d stayed for several months before returning to London in the spring of 1889. In his absence a warrant had been issued for his arrest and in April the police caught up with him and thus he too was put in the dock before Mr Hannay on the same day as Clara.

It took a while for the magistrate to hear the case against Hunt but in the end he came to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to send him for trial. Quite simply he doubted whether a jury would convict him so there was no public interest in sending him to the ‘Bailey. He too was released.

Both cases were unusual or at least ‘interesting’ but both showed that con men and women could defraud the unwary or steal from the distracted. Perhaps that was why the editor of the Standard deemed them suitable material for his daily review of the business of the police courts: they were there to warn his readership to take more care of their property and not to be fooled by people who looked genuine but were anything but.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 24, 1889]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books in June this year. You can find details here:

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

A defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

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The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

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]

It is often the mistakes crooks make that get them caught

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Curtain Road, Shoreditch in the late 1800s

Sometimes it is the small twists of chance that mean that crimes are discovered. On a grand scale it was the sighting of a parked car with false number plates that led to the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe (the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) In January 1981. Sutcliffe had evaded police for years, despite being interviewed by them on more than one occasion. It is quite likely that his inspiration – the nineteenth-century killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ – was also questioned by the men of H Division and the City as they hunted London’s most notorious serial killer.

What this shows perhaps is that the police need an element of luck to add to their forensic knowledge and information gleaned from intelligence (informers etc). That luck often comes because criminals make mistakes, or someone becomes suspicious.

Mr Stevenson wasn’t looking for a thief when he asked his co-worker for a light for his cigarette. He and Frank Neski worked for William Cutting & Sons, a firm of upholsters in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Frank (a lad of just 18) told his mate that he had some matches in his coat pocket and he could help himself to them.

However, when Stevenson fumbled in the man’s pockets he found more than a packet of lucifers: there were several pawn tickets and he quickly realized that they were for parcels of satin. It seemed that Frank was stealing cloth from the firm and pawning at local ‘brokers. He might have kept quiet but it was well known on the factory floor that satin had been going missing and suspicion was falling on several people, but Frank Nevski wasn’t one of them.

No one suspected him.

With accusations (false ones at that) flying around Stevenson did the ‘right thing’ and told his fellow workmates and then Mr. Cutting. Nevski was arrested and brought for a committal hearing at the Worship Street Police court. This was serious and could easily end up as a trail at the Old Bailey meaning young Frank faced a long spell in gaol.

In court the magistrate heard from Stevenson and two pawnbokers who testified to receiving the satin from Nevski. Faced with overwhelming evidence against him Frank didn’t try to wriggle out of it, he confessed to the crime but said he never intended to steal, only to borrow the cloth to get much needed money. It was a old excuse – one I heard more than once when I worked in retail – he fully intended to redeem his pledge and put the satin back when he got paid.

The magistrate was sure that Frank Nevski had stolen the material but he accepted his guilty plea and agreed to deal with the case summarily. Frank would go to prison for six months, the maximum sentence the bench was able to hand down without sending him before a jury. He would serve that with hard labour but perhaps more importantly he would almost certainly lose his position at Cuttings’ factory. That would impact his young life every bit as much as the half year behind bars.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 27, 1879]

Drug dealing in Rotherhithe, an age-old problem

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Most of the drugs that are prohibited by law today were legal in the nineteenth century but contemporaries recognized that there was a problem with drug use. Opium eating and smoking was widely condemned and attempts were made to restrict its use after 1868 by only allowing its sale by registered pharmacists. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that opium, morphine, cocaine, and some morphine derivatives were classified as ‘poisons’.

Most of the concern was with alcohol, not recreational drugs, and the real moves against cocaine, cannabis, psychedelics and heroin came well into the twentieth century.  Cocaine was prohibited in 1916 amid concerns about its use in the armed forces, and after the First World War Britain had to take steps to introduce a dangerous act under the terms of the Hague Convention in 1920 and later when we became a full member of the League of Nations. Amphetamines were not controlled until 1964, heroin three years later, while cannabis (which had been banned as an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928) use grew in the 1960s and many prosecutions followed.

Nineteenth-century London didn’t have a problem with drugs but there were prosecutions in relation them. In June 1883 William Dell, a druggist’s assistant, was brought up at the Guildhall Police court accused to stealing over £25 worth of drugs from his employer. In today’s money the amount he’d stolen (£25-30) would be around £2,000, so it was not an inconsiderable sum.

We have no idea from the report exactly what drugs Dell was supposed to have taken from Messrs. Evans, Lescher, and Webb at 60 Bartholomew Close, or whether he was planning on selling them around Rotherhithe where he lived. His lodgings on Ilderton Road were raided after he was searched by the pharmacy manager as he left work.

Mr. Forsyth (the manager) said all employees were subjected to a search after a stock take revealed that chemicals were missing. Dell was clean but he hadn’t got his usual bag and when that was brought down about £2 worth of drugs were discovered inside. Much more of the company’s property was discovered when lodgings were searched.

In court Dell pleaded guilty and asked the magistrate to deal with him summarily, so he could avoid a jury trial and a stiffer sentence. Alderman Fowler acceded to his requests and sent him to prison for four months at hard labour.

Everyone will have their own opinion of drug prohibition. Today there is a well-established drug culture in Britain which has survived 100 years of attempts at restricting it. While many young (and older) people die of drug-related conditions and many more suffer from the mental health related effects of non-prescription drugs, the main consequence of 100 years of prohibition has been to criminalize tens of thousands of drug users and to allow a criminal network of drug pushers to develop. Just as the 18thamendment to the Constitution of the United States in effect created the Mafia, the banning of recreational drugs has created the gang culture and levels of organized crime in the UK (and abroad) that we see today.

People will take drugs, and people will be damaged by taking drugs, but there is nothing the state can do to prevent this happening by prohibition. Education and a safe (or safer) environment for drug use is the only way that society can hope to beat addiction and the crime that flows from it.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 21, 1883]

The polite thief and her ‘have-a-go’ victim

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Female prisoners in Tothill Fields House of Correction 

Mary Driscoll was well known to the establishment at Southwark Police Court. A ‘powerful -looking female’, she was in the dock for ‘highway robbery’ before the sitting magistrate, Mr Coombe.

Her victim was a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Samuel Hunter and he gave his evidence without the need for a lawyer. Hunter alleged that at about midnight on Friday 9 April 1858 he was crossing from London Road to Borough Road when a hansom cab turned the corner fast, and knocked him to the ground.

A woman (the prisoner Mary) ran over to help him up but as she did so she took the opportunity to pick his pockets. Unfortunately for her he felt her dip into his pocket and seized hold of her. They struggled and a man ran over and got involved. Hunter thought she had passed something to this man, who then ran off.

It was plausible, palming stolen goods to an accomplice was a common practice then and remains so today. The woman was violent he said and several other ‘well-known thieves’ arrived on the scene to try and help her escape or, which seems as likely, steal his other effects including his hat and a handkerchief.

He held on to Mary and soon enough a policeman was on hand to take her into custody.

Mary’s defence was fairly straightforward; she denied everything and said that Hunter was drunk (which he probably was). Suggesting her victim was not in command of his senses was also a sensible tactic. It undermined the validity of his evidence (or at least introduced an element of doubt) and he gained him in a poor light.

Hunter retaliated by saying he was far from drunk and delighted in telling Mr Coombe that Driscoll (and the army of petty thieves that had joined in the assault on him) had failed to discover the £20 in gold and silver he had concealed on his person that night.

Mr Coombe offered Mary the opportunity (under legislation passed just a couple of years earlier) to have the case determined by him or to take her chances with a jury. Mary opted for the summary process and admitted the theft. Mr Coombe sentenced her to four months’ hard labour which she accepted gracefully, thanking the justice before she was led away.

For a practised thief like Mary Driscoll arrest and imprisonment was a calculated risk. She’d be out before long and in the meantime she got board and lodgings for free, at Her Majesty’s expense. Samuel Hunter had his day in court and a story to dine out on for year – how he’d thwarted a notorious ‘highway robber’ and protected his valuables.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 12, 1858]