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

586085db65363bea5a87cc0307fd55e7

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.

 

 

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

115970

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 suspected murderer captured and a fatal accident exposed

victorian-crime-magazine

In a break from the daily ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts I thought I’d take a look at ‘other news’ on the same page of the papers this day in 1873. Following the reports from Guildhall, Mansion House, Westminster, Marylebone and the Worship Street Police courts came the story of the ‘Coram Street Murder’. This reported the killing of Harriet Buswell, a London prostitute, found dead in her bed, and the arrest of a suspect in the village of Pirbright near Guildford, in Surrey.

The man, named Joveit Julien, was a Frenchman and had raised suspicion while drinking in a pub. On being searched he was found to have ‘three napoleons and several other pieces of money’ along with papers suggesting he had tickets to travel to New York but hadn’t made that trip. Despite claiming he couldn’t speak English he was more than capable of reading a wanted poster issued by the police which offered a £200 reward. He was arrested and an interpreter found so that the police investigating the murder could question him. However, the report continued, when two witnesses failed to identify him the authorities were forced to let him go.

Perhaps this was an all too common example of suspicion falling upon a foreigner? However, later in the month a German – Dr Gottfried Hessel – was formally charged with Harriett’s murder at Bow Street Police court. Hessel was discharged for lack of evidence but no one else was ever prosecuted for the murder of the woman.

Meanwhile in London and on Lambeth side of the Thames the paper reported that a ‘fatal accident’ had occurred. A builder named Bass had visited a wharf belong to a Mr Beaumont. Darfield Wharf, was close by the Lion Brewery at Charing Cross Bridge, and the builder had gone there in search of mouldings. The wharf manager West took him to see his stock that was held below a loft used to store oats.

Another man, the foreman Harris, was about to go along with the pair when his wife called him back to fetch her the key to a coal cellar. Her domestic request saved his life.

The loft was old and probably creaking under the weight of oats stored there. With a sickening creak the ceiling gave way and 50 tons of oats landed on the wharf manager and his customer. Harris shouted for help and all hands rushed to try and clear the rubble from the stricken men.  The men from Bennett’s hay and straw wharf nearby also downed tools to come and help and within moments there were ’40 men engaged in clearing away the mass of rubbish’.

One small boy was pulled from the wreckage, miraculously unharmed, but the two men trapped under the fall were not so lucky. West had been hit on the head and died instantly, Bass had suffered a broken leg, snapped just above the knee and must have passed away in considerable agony. Mr Bass’ pony had also been under the loft when it collapsed and it too was dead.

It was a terrible tragedy which today would have provoked an investigation into health and safety. The Victorians however, were no so big on H&S so one can only hope the parish did their best for the families of the men that died.

[from The Morning Post,  Friday, January 10, 1873]

An editor’s dream as a lover’s quarrel is aired in court

GBE0153_2_l

This case is quite unusual and barely qualifies as a case the London magistracy could hear at all. Indeed Mr Hardwick, the incumbent justice at Marlborough Street, was clearly annoyed that it had come before him at all, and this certainly influenced his decision making. Most all though, it shows how rich a source of stories the police courts were for the London press.

At the end of June 1842 a young man by the name of Frederick Isambiel appeared at the Marlborough Street Police court to ask Mr. Hardwick to issue a warrant to arrest a young woman for assault. Isambiel was tall, respectable and well dressed. He told the magistrate that eight months previously he’d traveled to Surrey with ‘a gentleman of fortune’ and there he’d met a young lady who was under the care of her guardian. According to his account she had fallen madly in love with him but he didn’t return her affections.

This didn’t put her off however, and even when he returned to London she found out where he lived, sent a spy to watch him, and then, just a few days ago, she contrived a meeting with him in the Haymarket. There, ‘not wishing to be besieged with her unfortunate affection, he tried to get away, and this led to his coat being torn’. Since she had now returned to Surrey with her friends he required a warrant to bring her to court.

At first the justice tried to put him off, suggesting he had no power to send a warrant into Surrey. But pressed he agreed he did have that power, ‘recollecting that he could act in all the metropolitan counties’. However, his advice was to seek a summons instead. A summons had less legal power as it wasn’t executed by a police officer and Frederick was sure his ‘stalker’ (as we might describe her today), would ignore it.

He added that she had also threatened him: she was ‘so resolute that she had already threatened to write to a friend to “call him out,” if he did not meet her advances in a hymeneal spirit’.

In other words agree to marry her.

Eventually Frederick was persuaded to apply for a summons, which was posted to the young woman in question. Three days later, on the last day of June, the young woman’s representatives answered the summons by appearing in Mr. Hardwick’s court to rebut the charge of assault. What followed was acrimonious and arguably served no good but to amuse the readership of the London papers as they digested their toast and marmalade.

Miss Thyrza Sumner lived at Oatlands farm, Surrey under the care of her guardian, Mr Haynes. Haynes and a solicitor were there to represent Thyrza who had remained at home. This upset Isambeil who felt she should be present so he could defend his good name which he ‘felt had suffered in consequence of the violence of the young lady’s passion for him’.

Mr Hardwick refused his request saying that he was here to try the assault, nothing more, and that if Frederick wished to pursue a civil case of character assassination he’d have to do so elsewhere. He hoped then that Mr. Haynes and his lawyer were prepared to answer for Thyrza. They were, and were perfectly happy to settle the matter there and then if the young man refrained from further statements in court.

Unfortunately for all concerned Frederick Isambiel seemed to have wanted his moment in the spotlight. He produced a bundle of letters and declared he was going to read them and set out his version of events.

He started by explaining why he’d traveled to Surrey in the first place, and was immediately challenged by Mr. Haynes. He said he went to Oatlands with a gentleman.

You went as [his] valet’ interrupted Haynes.

Silence’, was Isambiel’s ‘furious’ response.

Haynes persisted: ‘You were valet to the Hon. Mr. Littleton, who turned you off on his marriage with Lord Beverley’s daughter’.

Frederick tried to carry on, ignoring Haynes’ attempt to undermine him. He recounted his meeting with Thyzra and how she’d fallen for him and read aloud a letter (from him) in which he had tried to let her down gently. In it he explains how he is an unsuitable match for her, not possessing the means to keep her in a manner fitting ‘for a lady who has, and always will have the comforts of a good home all her life’.

He then proceeded to read Thyzra’s reply which included some ‘unintelligible poetry’ and a lot of heartfelt sentiment. Another letter expressed her ‘grief at your cold farewell’ and said that she ‘had no hope left for the future’ signing the letter ‘your distracted Thyrza’.

This public airing of deeply personal feelings was entirely unnecessary to prove an assault accusation and the magistrate was keen to close it down as soon as he could. Nevertheless it was manna from Heaven for the journalists scribbling down the story in court. Most cases before the courts got a few paragraphs at most, often much less, this one ran for over a column.

Mr Hardwick told Frederick to stick to the point. He said he’d been assaulted at Dubourg’s Hotel on the Haymarket, so what were the circumstances? In Isambiel’s version he’d met Thyzra and they’d gone into a private room. As soon as they were alone she’d locked the door and threw herself into a chair and began to declare her love for him.

He insisted of being allowed to leave at once but she refused. He threatened to call the police and she insisted she would only open the door if he kissed her.

I will not kiss you,’ he said, and rushed to the window to summon a constable but, as he described in court, ‘she ran to me and caught me about the neck, and tried to kiss me. I held my hand up, and being much taller than she is, she could only kiss my breast, which she did, till I threw up the window to call the police’.

At that point a voice in the next room – clearly someone listening through the keyhole called out ‘Thyzra, its no use!’ The door opened and Isambiel left, in the struggle his coat was torn.

The defence offered an alternative version saying that Thyzra had wanted her letters back, presumably so that they couldn’t be used against her as Frederick was doing today. It was deeply embarrassing and quite understandable that she would wish them destroyed and certainly not printed in the newspapers, as now happened. Haynes and his solicitor admitted the assault and the damage to the coat, but not the version of it that Frederick had given. In fact they said this had occurred a month ago and in Surrey. This annoyed Mr. Hardwick as he felt it could have been dealt with down there.

Mr Haynes suggested that there was a darker motive to Isambiel’s actions. He hinted that the young man was hoping for a settlement of £50 per year from the young lady and her family. Was this to buy him off and make the complaint go away to save her good name? The magistrate was at a loss as to what to do with the case, and said so.

Frederick said he had ‘proved the assault’ and now charged her with trying (in her earlier threat) of trying to provoke him into fighting a duel with her (unnamed) champion.

Mr Haynes dismissed this: ‘I don’t think you are a person very likely to fight, so there is no danger about the duel’.

The magistrate seems to have agreed as he dismissed the assault charge and said that if Isambiel wanted to pursue any further hurt against his good name he’d have to do so at his own expense and in a civil court. As an out of work valet with little more wealth than he stood up in, that was hardly likely so this would be an end of it all.

Frederick must have recognized this but he was determined to have the last word and sought out the men of the press as he left court. They helpfully published three of the letters between the ‘lovers’, including some doggerel poetry and the threat of the duel.

The press always know a good story when they see one.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 27, 1842;The Morning Chronicle , Friday, July 1, 1842]

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

Hungerford_bridge

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]