Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

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I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]

A close encounter at the theatre sends one ‘very old thief’ back to prison.

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As Daniel Vincer was pushing his way up the crowded stairs of the Victoria Theatre (the ‘Old Vic’ as we know it) he thought he felt his watch move. Reaching to his fob pocket he discovered it was half out and he pressed it firmly in again. Looking around him he noticed a man directly behind him but presumed the timepiece had just come loose in the press of people.

Just second later though he felt the watch leave his pocket. Turning on his heels he saw it in the hand of the same man who was in the process of trying to break it away from its guard. As soon as the thief realized he’d been noticed he fled, with Vincer in pursuit.

The odds favoured the pickpocket but Vincer managed to keep him in sight as they moved through the theatre goers and with the help of one of the venue’s staff, Vincer caught his man.  On Saturday morning, the 13 August 1864, Vincer gave his account of the theft to the sitting magistrate at Southwark Police court.

The thief gave his name as Charles Hartley but Mr Woolrych was told that the felon was an old offender who also used the name Giles. He was, the paper reported, a ‘morose-looking man’ but then again he had just spent a night in the cells and was facing a potential spell in prison, so he’d hardly have been looking chipper.

Had Vincer seen the man actually take his watch, did he have it in his hands? Vincer said he had. ‘He put his hand along the chain’, Vincer explained, ‘and [he] saw the prisoner break it off’. There were so many people on the staircase that Vincer hadn’t be able to stop him doing so, he added.

Hartley denied everything. He’d ditched the watch as he ran and so was prepared to brazen out a story that he was nowhere near the incident.

However, this is where his past indiscretions caught up with him. Stepping forward a police sergeant told the magistrate that Hartly was believed to be a ‘returned transport’. In other words he’d previously been sentenced to transportation to Australia and had either escaped or, much more likely, had served his time and earned a ticket of leave to come home.

‘That’s a lie’, declared Hartley, ‘I never was in trouble before in my life’.

This prompted the Southwark court’s gaoler to step forward and ‘to the prisoner’s mortification’ identify him as a ‘very old thief’. If his worship would just remand him, Downe (the gaoler) insisted he could prove at least 20 previous convictions against him. Not surprisingly then, that is exactly what Mr Woolrych did.

So, did Hartley (or Giles) have a criminal past?

Well the digital panopticon lists a Charles Giles who was born in 1825 who was frst convicted of an offence in 1846 (aged 21). He was accused of forgery at the Old Bailey and sent to Van Diemens Land for 7 years.  He earned a ticket of leave in September 1851 but this was revoked just one year later, on the 13 September.

Could this be the same man? By 1864 he would have been 39 but could have looked older after a life spent in and out of the justice system, and at least two long sea voyages in poor conditions. The gaoler had described him as ‘a very old thief’ but it might have meant he was an experienced offender not an aged one. There are various other Giles’ but none that fit well, and several Charles Hartleys but again none that dovetail with this offence.

When Hartley came back up before Mr Woolrych on the following Friday PC Harrington (32L) gave the results of his investigation into the man’s past. He told the court that the prisoner had indeed been transported and had been in prison several times. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the criminal justice system’s ability to track a criminal’s life history had improved significantly even if it hadn’t developed the forensic tools that modern police investigations depend upon (such as fingerprints and DnA tests).

Sergeant William Coomber (retired) said he recognized Hartley as a man he had helped put away several years ago. According to him the prisoner had been sentenced (at Surrey Assizes) to four months imprisonment in 1851 for a street robbery, before being transported for 7 years in July 1853. He had earned his ticket of leave in January 1857 but attempted to steal a watch and got another 12 months instead.

Mr Woolrych committed him for trial. By 1864 he wouldn’t be transported again so the unfortunate, if serial, offender was looking at a long term in a convict prison.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 15, 1864]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

An unhappy drunk ‘falls’ out of a window

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Amelia Glover was a woman of her word and not someone to mess around with. Unfortunately for Thomas Norris he ignored the former and committed the latter and after a brief encounter with Glover, found himself face down in the street outside her lodgings being stared at by a number of bemused and concerned passers by.

It was about midnight on Saturday 29 July 1848 and Norris was drunk. He’d met Amelia in the street and she’d agreed to take him to her rooms for sex. This was a financial transaction not a casual date however, and Amelia was an experienced prostitute. When she got Norris upstairs to her first floor room – at 10 Old Kent Road – she demanded money up front probably knowing only too well that some clients lacked the money to pay for her services, especially when they’d been out all night drinking.

Norris refused to cough up the necessary money however, perhaps either regretting his decision to engage her or simply hoping he could wheedle his way out of paying for it. It was a bad move on his part because Amelia got cross. She told him to pay up or she would throw him out of the window.

When he refused again she pushed table in front of the door, blocking his escape and manhandled him to the open window. Since he still seemed reluctant to empty his pockets she tipped him over the windowsill and he fell on his face in the street. Several witnesses apparently saw what happened but were reluctant to intervene: Amelia Glover was clearly well known in the area as someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

PC Lewis Bray (105P) realized what had happened and on the Sunday, after making some enquiries, he arrested Amelia, taking her before a magistrate at Lambeth on the Monday morning. There she denied the assault, suggesting Norris had fallen out the window in his attempt to evade paying her. Unfortunately apart from Norris (who appeared in court with his face ‘awfully disfigured’) there was no one to challenge Amelia’s alternative version of events. PC Bray said there were witnesses but they were too scared to testify.

The justice, Mr Elliott said it was clearly a case that needed to go to trial and he instructed the constable to enter summonses for the witnesses. He remanded Amelia in custody in the meantime.

A few days later Amelia was brought back to Lambeth Police court as at least one witness had been found. Henry Humphries was a shoemaker who lived close by and had heard the disturbance that night. He heard Norris fall and ran to help, throwing water over him to revive him. He looked up and saw Glover at the window, but he hadn’t seen her push or throw him out. Norris was unconscious for at least 10 minutes and he feared he was dead.  A doctor testified that the injuries were serious and Amelia was fully committed for trial.

In the end however this was probably one person’s word against another and while Amelia’s reputation was hardly exemplary, Norris’ was compromised by admitting to having been drunk and to visiting a known prostitute at her lodgings. If the case did go to trial I cant find a record of it in the newspapers or in the Digital Panopticon, so perhaps it was quietly dropped. Without solid witnesses it was unlikely to succeed and Norris may have decided it was better if he withdrew and put it the whole affair all down to experience.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 01, 1848; The Morning Post , Thursday, August 03, 1848]

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

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I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]