A routine mugging reveals a Freemason connection

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John Palmer was an ordinary sort of bloke. He gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (frequently a default term for those appearing before the courts in Victorian London, suggesting he was a casual worker). He certainly wasn’t a rich man, by any stretch of the imagination and, as he walked home one late evening in March 1870, he only had a few shillings in his pocket.

This didn’t stop him falling victim to violence and robbery however. Palmer may have enjoyed a few pints after work, which would have made him more vulnerable to being attacked. He was hardly a prize though, but to James Tyson and John Sadler that didn’t matter. Tyson was a trained boxer – a pugilist to give the contemporary term – and so was well suited to a bit of ‘rough stuff’. Sadler was a betting agent, so also probably quite able to mix it when he needed to.

The pair fell on Palmer as he made his way home; Sadler jumped him, knocking him to the ground before Tyson used his weight to hold him down. They rifled his pockets and extracted 7 shillings and ran off. Palmer reported the incident to a nearby policeman who took descriptions and set a search in motion. The culprits were caught just a few hours later, one of them by a detective.

When Sadler was searched he was found to have quite a haul. The police discovered  a number of pawn tickets (often evidence of theft) all for ‘valuable gold and silver watches’ as well as gold Albert chains and some broken watch-bows. Some of these might be able to be identified but even more significant a find was a gold locket ‘with a ruby heart at the centre’ and a Freemason’s gold medal. The medal was inscribed:

The Most Noble Augustus Frederick, Duke of Leinster, Grand Master of the order in Ireland, 3rdJanuary, 1848’.

Augustus Frederick, the Marquess of Kildare (right, below pictured in 1859) was an old man by 1870. Born in the previous century by the time his medal turned up in the pocket of a petty thief in London he was close to 80 years of age and would only live another three. He became head of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1813 and apparently kept a tight rein on how all Freemasonary operated on the Emerald Isle. 2911106-09

In court at Marlborough Street the police reported that both James Tyson and John Sadler were well known to them. Mr Mansfield, the sitting Police Court magistrate, was told that there were ‘frequenters of racecourses’ and known to be ‘magsmen’ and ‘welshers’.

Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld defines a ‘magsman’ thus:

‘Swell mobites’; ‘a fashionably dressed swindler’; or ‘fellows who are too cowardly to steal, but prefert o cheat confiding persons by acting upon the cupidity’. It included ‘card-sharpers, confidence tricksters, begging letter writers, and ‘bogus ministers of religion’.

Perhaps by 1870 ‘magsmen’ was being used more broadly to apply to a member of the more fashionably dressed ‘criminal class’. As for ‘welsher’, Partridge lists:

‘passer of counterfeit money’ or (in the USA) an informer.

However the terms were being applied Mr Mansfield was pretty confident that he had two ‘bad eggs’ in his dock and he acquiesced to the police request to remand them in custody while they continued their enquiries.

Whatever results these enquiries yielded we are, sadly, in the dark about. I can find no record of either man in the higher courts in the immediate aftermath of their appearance before Mr Mansfield. This suggests the police’s evidence was thin or that they were able to buy off Palmer as a potential witness against them. They might have argued they’d ‘found’ the items discovered in their possession at the racecourse they ‘frequented’. Who knows, but like so many of the stories of the police courts carried by the London press this one lacks a conclusion.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Thursday 31 March 1870]

Today I have started work on my next book, which is a history of these courts, provisionally titled Nether World: Crime and the Police Courts in Victorian London.  My most recent book (Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper), is available on Amazon and the next one in the pipeline, Murder Maps, will be published by Thames & Hudson later this year. I’ll keep you all posted.

Take care of yourselves in these difficult times.

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

swellmob

Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

Recently acquired wealth attracts the wrong sort of customers to a Bermondsey pub

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Bermondsey in a contemporary map (Map of London, by W=Edward Weller, 1868)

This blog has discussed the Australian gold rush in previous post (see One drink led to another… for an example) and despite the distance it seems many people were prepared to make the long journey in the hope of seeking a fortune in mineral wealth. Frederick Palmer was one such man and in September 1856 he was recently returned from ‘the gold diggings’ to his pub in Bermondsey, south London.

Palmer’s wealth was in the form of a £102 exchequer bill and a £20 bank of England note. This was a considerable  amount of money, – £140 in 1852 is equivalent to about £8,000 today. On the 3rd September Mrs Palmer ran the establishment, the Bricklayers Arms at number 11 Webb Street* while her husband was out an about on other business.

At around 1 or 1.30 that day two men entered the pub and drew Mrs Palmer’s attention. Both were well-dressed and to her eyes had the look of members of the ‘swell-mob’, a contemporary descriptor for ‘professional’ criminals that liked to flaunt their relative wealth through a conscious display of fashion.

Having drunk some ale one of the pair approached the landlady and asked if they might use the private ‘club room’ upstairs to ‘contract some business’. Before she let them upstairs Mrs Palmer made sure she had secured the valuable paper money her husband had left in her care inside a locked drawer in the bedroom. She also locked the bedroom door just in case.

Having taken the two men more beer upstairs Mrs Palmer’s brother (a Mr Willis) was surprised to see the pair return to the saloon and quickly leave the premises within fifteen minutes. Suspecting foul play he immediately told his sister to run and check that all was as it should be upstairs. It wasn’t and she was soon back downstairs declaring that the bedroom door had been forced and all her drawers turned out – not surprisingly the cheque and £20 note were missing. Good news travels fast and I wonder if the Palmers’ sudden acquisition of wealth had attracted some unwelcome local attention.

Willis rushed off in pursuit of the men and soon overpowered one of them, William Granger, in Bermondsey Street. The other man escaped but the police were looking for him. Appearing in Southwark Police Court three weeks later they had still not managed to catch the other suspect, nor had the police succeeded in finding the missing money. However, PC 155M told the presiding justice (Mr Coombe) that if Granger were to be again remanded if was confident that their enquiries would eventually bear fruit. He added that Granger was ‘well known as connected to with a gang of the swell mob who had recently plundered taverns and public houses all over the kingdom’. Presented with this ‘evidence’ Mr Coombe was quite happy to grant the request for a remand.

Whether the money or the other man was found is not clear. Granger was remanded until the following Tuesday (23 September) when three cases were reported (a ‘smoke nuisance’, a case of juvenile theft, and the robbery of ‘an old countryman’) but there was no mention of Granger. As with so many of the people mentioned in the police court reports William Granger disappears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 18, 1856]

*on the corner with Tower Bridge Road – the pub is no longer there.

‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

‘Limping Bill’ and the case of the stolen armadillo

 

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London Zoo in 1837

Two cases for you these morning, both from the Marylebone Police Court in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. The first features a fair of ‘fashionable’ young men and a street trader, the second involved a theft from London Zoo.

Captain Ferguson (alias Collegian Fred) and Lieutenant Grant (also known as the Lady Killer) were summoned before the magistrate by a stall holder who operated at the corner of Paradise Street in Lambeth. The complaint was brought by Billy Bucket (commonly known locally as ‘Limping Bill’) and he alleged that while he was selling his wares the two came along and whilst play fighting with each other they managed to knock over his stall of seafood.

The Morning Post‘s court reporter rendered Billy’s testimony in dialect, for maximum comic effect and I think this demonstrates one of the functions of these early reports from the metropolis’ police courts, that of entertaining a middle-class or elite audience. To give you a sense of this I shall simply set it down as it was printed in 1837.

‘Please your vorships (said the little bandy-legged complainant) I vos standing at my stall last night in the hact of sarving a customer with a harpeth of pickled heels of the best quality, when up comes these regular swells well primed with lush [he meant the worse the wear for alcohol] , and one of un shoves the other right bang against my stall, not was not strong enough by no means to stand such a heavy “swell” and over it goes’.

The result was that the street was scattered with ‘shrimps, periwinkles, welks, pickled eels, and other delicacies’, Billy’s stock and any chance he might have had to make his living that day was either ruined or stolen as the jars of eels broke and the local children rushed in and picked up and ate whatever they could lay their hands on. Billy estimated the cost of the collision as ‘at least 10s‘ and so he came to court to get compensation.

The two ‘swells’ then negotiated a price with the costermonger, settled their account and left.

Next up was a ‘well-dressed middle-aged’ hairdresser and perfumer named Joel Lazarus. Lazarus gave his address as 20 Upper Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square. If the first case at Marylebone was amusing because of the characters involved (a cockney costermonger and ‘a couple of swells’) then this one entertained because it was quite bizarre.

While Lazarus stood in the dock the witness stand was occupied by an armadillo, ‘a remarkably fine specimen of its kind’, which the hairdresser was accused of stealing from the zoo.

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The magistrates (there were two in attendance, Mr Shutt and Lord Montford) were told that at seven o’clock the previous evening the gate guard at Regent’s Park Zoo had noticed Lazarus leaving the zoo and was suspicious. John Henry White stated that he observed him ‘making his egress from the grounds carrying before him his hat, around which was tied a handkerchief’.

White stopped him and asked him what he had under the ‘kerchief. Lazarus told him to mind his own business and seemed ‘in a  great hurry to reach his gig, which was standing in the road’. Before he could get to the waiting transport however, White called for help and the man was swiftly captured.

He was searched and an armadillo was found concealed in his hat. This was identified then and in court by Mr Alexander Mullins the ‘superintendent of the gardens’. He told the bench that the animal was valued at £5 and that it had recently been imported from South America.

When questioned Lazarus admitted taking the animal but would say no more. A surgeon appeared to testify that he was aware that the hairdresser ‘occasionally suffered from an aberration of mind’. There was no proof of madness at the time of the theft, the magistrates declared, and  regardless it was the ‘duty of his friends to look after him’ if he was indeed suffering in the way described.

However, they felt a fine was a sufficient punishment in this case and they imposed one of £5 for the theft plus another £5 to reflect the value of the armadillo. The monies were paid and Lazarus was free to go. The armadillo was taken back to the zoo, and was probably the subject of greater close attention than it had been previously. After all ‘bad’ publicity is better than no publicity and I imagine Londoners would have been quite keen to see the armadillo that a hairdresser had tried to steal.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 10, 1837]

Dickens has a close encounter with the ‘swell-mob’

Dickens

Charles Dickens had some experience of the law. As a young freelance reporter he had covered the civil law court of Doctors’ Commons before working for a number of other papers in the 1830s. His familiarity with everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain is one of the strengths of his novels and his writings feature characters drawn from the world of crime, such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Magwitch.

It would seem, however, that Dickens not only visited the courts of London (including, of course, the police courts) but the gaols and houses of corrections as well. In addition, as we shall see, on at least one occasion he was a witness himself in an attempted robbery that ended up in a summary hearing before a magistrate. In fact he was himself cheekily declared to a a member of the criminal underworld.

In 1849, when he was at the height of his fame and writing David Copperfield, Dickens was strolling along the Edgware Road with his friend Mark Lemon. Lemon was a celebrated actor who wrote hundreds of melodramas, was a joint founder of Punch magazine and so a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. A young man came close by them and Lemon felt a hand at his pocket. He swung up his cane and delivered a quick rap on the would-be thief’s knuckles who then swore at him and ran off.

The two friends set off in pursuit and were soon joined by a policeman in plain clothes. They caught up with the thief and he was arrested. There was some trouble on the way to the station as the youth hit out at his captors and tried to escape, but eventually he was taken back to the station and thence to court the next day.

Appearing in the Marylebone Police Court Dickens must have attracted a good crowd eager to hear the famous story teller describe his experiences, and they were not disappointed. The author explained how he and Lemon had chased after the man – now named as Cornelius Hearne (aged 19) –  and helped capture him.

We pursued him, and when he was taken he was most violent; he is a desperate fellow, and he kicked about in all directions. There was a mob of low fellows close by when he tried Mr. Lemon’s pocket, and we were determined he should not effect his escape, if we could prevent it‘.

PC 229D deposed that he had been on duty in plain-clothes (no reason is given but he might have been looking for known criminals whilst undercover). He confirmed the evidence of Dickens and Lemon and he described how Hearne tried to escape custody. The policeman told the justice, Mr Broughton, that the prisoner threatened him and kicked out at Lemon (who had hold of his arms as they marched him the police station).

While they walked Mark Lemon said the prisoner had spoken to him, asking him not to ‘say my hand was in your pocket’. The burden of proof for pickpocketing when nothing had actually been stolen – as Lemon admitted it hadn’t – fell on the intent. If the theatre man was adamant that he had felt Hearne’s hand inside his pocket, there could be no other explanation than that he intended to rob him.

Another policeman informed the magistrate that Hearne was well known to them and to the courts, having been convicted of several petty crimes like this in the past. Now the justice turned to the prisoner for his version of events. Hearne tried to bluff his way out, saying that he was innocent and that Dickens and Lemon had picked on him, called him names and struck out at him. That was why he had run away, he was no thief.

Now the exchange became more amusing for those watching in the courtroom (and for the readers of the newspapers). Charles Dickens declared that when he was at the police station he said he thought he recognised the prisoner, having seen him in the house of correction. This suggests that Dickens took his characterisation seriously and not only frequented courtrooms for literary reasons but also the prisons of the capital.

However, this seemed to be  lifeline for Cornelius Hearne. He looked from the dock to the bench and spoke to the magistrate:

Now your workshop, he must have been in “quod” there himself, or he couldn’t ‘ave seen me. I know these two gentlemen well; they’re no better than swell-mob men, and they get their living by selling stolen goods‘.

This provoked peals of laughter in the courtroom.

That one (pointing to Mr. Dickens) keeps “a fence”, and I recollect him at the prison, where he was put for six months, while I was there for only two‘.

Dickens and Lemon were described as being ‘highly amused’ by the suggestion but denied the accusations amidst all the laughter. Dickens said he had never traded in stolen goods and was not on speaking terms with that ‘highly respectable body – the swell-mob’. The swell-mob was a contemporary term for petty thieves and pickpockets who liked to dress fashionably and ape the manners of the middle classes, and were a popular vehicle for satirists and commentators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Dicken’s characterisation of Toby Crackit draws heavily on popular portraits of the swell-mob.

Hearne was unlikely to have been able to read and while he may have heard of Oliver Twist he may not have recognised its author. Not surprisingly the magistrate was much more familiar with Charles Dickens and his friend Mark Lemon than the young man in the dock was. Mr Broughton told him that he had demonstrated ‘consulate impudence’ in trying to wriggle out of his crime by defaming the character of two gentlemen, and that if he had actually stolen anything then he would undoubtedly be facing a trial  at Old Bailey and could expect to be transported. However, since there was only an attempt to steal he would deal with him summarily.

Cornelius Hearne was sent to the house of correction for three months; ‘”Boz” and his friend then left the court’.

[from The Era, Sunday, March 25, 1849]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

swellmob

Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]