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.

‘I trusted her and she has robbed me over and over again’; one father’s lament over a daughter gone astray.

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If you follow this blog closely you may have noticed that I live quite close to the former Colney Hatch Asylum. Once the largest ‘lunatic’ asylum in Europe, it is now a private residential development with an onsite gym run by the Nuffield Health organization. The asylum was built in 1851 and the area I now live in grew up around it. Many of the occupants of houses in my street and those around it either worked in the asylum or its grounds, or were associated in some way with it.

In 1937 Colney Hatch asylum became plain Friern mental hospital (locals keen to lose the association with mental illness that the institution’s presence had implanted). A couple of decades later it was renamed Friern Hospital and in 1993 it closed its doors for good, and the developers moved in.

In 1865 the asylum was ‘home’ to the wife of John Nicholls, a Bromley based boilermaker. While his wife was confined in Colney Hatch John had to provide 4a week for her maintenance and continue to support their family. The couple had four children, and he looked to the eldest girl, Ann (17) to look after the younger ones and keep the home while he went out to work.

Unfortunately Ann didn’t seem inclined to accept her fate as a ‘housewife’ or unpaid domestic; like so many teenagers she craved adventure and independence.   And this got her into trouble with her father and eventually led to an appearance at the Thames Police court.

On 29 March 1865 a reluctant John Nicholls brought charges of theft against his daughter Mary Ann before Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate. He explained that she had been stealing from him for ages and despite his efforts to stop her, and her promises to reform, nothing had changed in the last few weeks.

Mr Paget asked him if he seriously wanted to prosecute his own child. ‘Would you not save her from a prison’, he demanded. John Nicholls answered that ‘she had robbed him so often that his complete ruin would result if he passed over her delinquencies any longer’.

‘I trusted her to look after my home and property, and she has robbed me over and over again and pawned my things’, the unhappy father told the justice.

‘I cannot keep a thing in place’, he continued. ‘She goes out when she likes and comes in when she likes. She went out last night and came in at half-past 1 o’clock this morning. I don’t know where she goes to or what company she keeps’.

On one occasion she took all his weekly earnings and spent it. The family had no fuel or food as a result. He showed the magistrate a series of pawn tickets as proof of his daughter’s offending. He gave her money he said, but she took everything else and he was now at his wits end, clearly struggling to cope with the loss of his wife.

‘I have lost her dear mother, and she has neglected me and the house, and I am afraid she is going to ruin fast’, adding: ‘What am I going to do, sir?”

Mr Paget was sympathetic. It was a sad case he said and he would remand Mary Ann for a week in the hopes it brought her to her senses.

I suspect that week in custody was enough to persuade Mary Ann that her father was serious about stopping her from descending into ‘ruin’. Whether it worked or not is impossible to discover. Mary Ann is not an uncommon name in the 1800s and there are several women of that name (though not that age) in the records held within the Digital Panopticon.

We might be able to find Mrs Nicholls in the records of Colney Hatch (which are held by the London Metropolitan Archives) and discover if she ever got out and went home to John and her children. It is a terribly sad story, as many of those I write about were. Support simply did not exist  in the 1800s for working class families which suffered as John Nicholls’ had. Even today mental illness can devastate families and seriously impact the lives of vulnerable young people like Mary Ann.

Who knows what she had seen  and heard as her mother deteriorated and was taken away to be effectively imprisoned behind the walls of a Victorian asylum. How can we begin to understand what effect it had on her own mental health and her relationship with her father and siblings?

Today I suspect we would be able to offer some professional help both to John and Mary Ann but in 1865 that help simply didn’t exist.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday 30 March 1865]

Housebreaking in Stokey and Hackney; slim pickings perhaps but poverty was relative in 1887

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In early September 1887 William Parker (an 18 year-old box maker) and James Hall (also 18 and described as a boot maker), appeared at the Worship Street Police court accused of breaking and entering.

The pair, both Bethnal Green lads, had strayed west, targeting three different properties in Stoke Newington. They’d been picked up by police from N Division (which covered Islington and included Stoke Newington) with a bag that contained ‘housebreaking implements’ and their lodgings in Hackney and Globe Street, Bethnal Green were raided.

Sergeant Helson and his colleagues Sergeant May explained that they had arrested the pair on suspicion that they were involved with burglaries at the homes of a Mr Cameron (at 102 Clarence Road), Mr Mears (62 Bentham Road) and Ernest Beckman (a commission agent who lived at 82 Rectory Road).

Mrs Beckman testified that she’d left her home at 3 in the afternoon on Saturday 20 August and came back and hour and half later to find that the front door had been forced open. The dining room had been left in a terrible state, and upstairs in the bedroom her jewelry box was lying open and empty.

She said she had lost ‘£5 in gold, a gold watch and chain, a gold ring, two pairs of earrings, two brooches, and a pair of solitaires’.

The solitaires were found on Hall’s person when the police arrested him and a witness testified to seeing him loitering outside the property earlier that day. Sergeant Helson told the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that the area had suffered a great deal from break-ins recently and requested that the men be committed for trial. Mr Hannay obliged and both men were tried at the next quarter sessions. Hall was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for 15 months, Parker got an extra three months.

In Charles Booth’s 1888-90 poverty maps Rectory Road (where the Beckmans lived) is solidly red in colour, marking it out as ‘comfortable’. Rectory Road had ‘many old houses’ Booth reports, with ‘old fashioned wooden palings round the front gardens’. Several were semi-detached and rents were £45 (around  £,650 today). There were shops on Rectory Road’s west side and at the corner with Amhurst Road there was a large red brick building ‘with a  boy in buttons at the entrance’. This was the ‘Amhurst Club’ which charged a 2 guineas a year subscription. I have to check this but I believe this might be the site of the Regency Club (at 240a Amhurst Road) – popular with the Kray twins in the 1960s (below right).

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However, I can’t find a Bentham or Clarence in the near vicinity so perhaps those break-ins occurred further east, in Hackney (where  there is a Bentham Road). In the notebook covering the wider area Booth mentions Clarence Road (and Terrace) as a street where the houses have workshops ‘in their back gardens’; he coloured these purple moving to light-blue as it reached Clarence Terrace. One wonders what Hall and Parker could find to steal here but if they came out of worse conditions in the East End perhaps even slim pickings were worth stealing.

I’ll look in more detail at the area around Rectory Road in the next post.

[from Morning Post, 2 September 1887]

‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ An ingenious defence from the dock

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Peter Chambers was determined to prove his innocence although his method suggested that perhaps he did ‘protest too much’. He’d been arrested on a charge of picking pockets at the Albert Hall at the end of November 1889.

In court at Westminster he described himself as an artificial florist and vehemently denied the charge. The police constable that arrested him said that several ladies had complained him that their purses had been stolen and he saw Chambers ducking under a horse and cart to escape the throng of lady choristers that surrounded the entrance to the convert hall.

Chambers took the stand in his only defense and, with a flourish, produced a piece of paper and called the constable to come and examine it.

‘Now, constable, I wish to introduce to your notice a little sketch or plan which I have prepared, because if you could see me from where you stood you must have had one of those double magnifying glasses we read about’.

As the laughter in court subsided the officer peered at the sketch but made little of it.

‘You will observe the dotted line on the plan?’ Chambers continued, but the policeman declared he didn’t quite follow his line of argument.

‘I am not surprised at you making nothing of it’, the defendant huffed. ‘Does you Worship see the dotted line?’ he asked Mr D’Eyncourt. ‘The cross’, he said pointing it out, ‘ is where the constable stood, and how could he see me – unless he can see round a corner!’

‘but what is your defence’, the magistrate asked him.

‘I am innocent’, Chambers intoned, melodramatically. ‘Am I not entitled to be believed as well as he?’ he demanded, pointing at the policeman. ‘It is blasting my reputation to be here on such a charge’.

There were doubts as to the evidence or at least the lack of it presented by the police but they asked for a remand and Mr D’Eyncourt granted it.

After all Chambers asserted that he could bring his brother in to testify that he was at the Hall on legitimate purposes, to assist him in his role as a linkman (showing people to their carriages).  The magistrate doubted this would prove anything, one way or the other, and the gaoler took him away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 03, 1889]

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

Charges of pomposity, adultery and theft are levelled at a couple from the East End, but little sticks

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Anne Ferrell (or possibly Varrell) had only a short interval between her twin appearances at the bar of the Worship Street Police court in 1844. On the first occasion she’d been accused of pledging the contents of a room she shared with William Smelt in Blue Anchor Alley in the parish of St Luke’s, east London.

On 1 November her partner abandoned her and the landlord, finding the room emptied of his property, took her to court. She admitted that she and Smelt had pledged the items but pleaded poverty. She said her legal husband (another William) had run out on her and their four year-old daughter some months previously and she was close to starving when she set up with Smelt.

This story had elicited considerable sympathy from the court and ‘several subscriptions’ were raised to help her. The parish officers were also asked to look into her circumstances to see he was eligible for their help.

They discovered that while William Farrell had indeed left her it was on account of her own behavior. He alleged (and others agreed) that she was ‘a woman of most profligate habits, who had pledged and sold every article belonging to her husband that she could lay her hands on’.

When she had finished with him she moved in with Smelt instead. The magistrate commiserated with Farrell and ordered that the monies that had been paid to her be repaid into the poor box. He’d not long finished with her when she was called back into court to answer a charge of conspiring with Smelt to rob their lodgings in Blue Anchor Alley.

Mr Broughton was told that the room was let by a poor shoemaker named Thomas Howes and once the pair’s guilt was clearly established he asked Smelt if he had anything to say for himself. He certainly did.

Smelt ‘with great pomposity’ declared himself to be ‘a socialist, and that he had been actuated by principles, the perfect rectitude of which would, he felt satisfied, be made truly manifest to the whole world’.

The justice asked him if his so-called ‘principles’ extended to ‘living in open adultery with another man’s wife?’

Smelt had an answer for this too.

He said that ‘on the day of resurrection there would be neither marrying nor giving in marriage; and that the ties of mutual attachment would be held as scared as any bonds sanctioned by mere human institutions’.

He had launched into his own sermon when Mr Broughton cut him short. Was he attempting to justify robbing a poor man of his property he asked.

Smelt replied that he was only ‘borrowing’ the items and fully intended to repay the ‘debt’ he accrued.  He followed this up with a long winded diatribe against everyone that had ever slighted him or done him wrong, saying that his talents and virtue had ‘utterly been lost’ as the country had gone downhill in recent years.

Mr Broughton had heard enough. Silencing him again he said his words were ‘utterly subversive of every principle of morality and religion’, and he committed them both to Newgate to face trial for the thefts.

They did face trial, on the 25th November 1844. Both were cleared.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 27, 1844]

A cunning thief who finally runs out of luck

Doctor examines the patient's state of health during home visits - 1896

Joe Jackson was a thief with a clever modus operandi. Operating in the late 1880s he perfected a ruse whereby he approached the houses of ‘well-known physicians’, knocked on the door, and claimed that his mother (or elderly aunt) was ill. In the days before GP waiting rooms he would be shown into the library or study.

He would then ask for a pen and paper, so that he could write known his relative’s symptoms for the doctor, and while this was fetched by the servants, he’d quickly steal anything of value he could and leave.

On the 22 November 1888 Jackson’s mini spree came to an end when he was brought up before Mr Shiel at Southwark Police court. There he was formally charged with stealing a silver salver from the home of Dr Taylor in Thomas’ Street, the Borough.

He’d taken the salver while the butler was out of the room but the servant had chased after him and nabbed him. Thereafter he was handed over the police, in the person of PC Greenwood.  Jackson commented to the officer that ‘it was rather hard that he should be given into custody, as the article he stole was not silver, ‘it was “only plated”.

He told Mr Shiel that his mother really was ill, he himself was ‘hard up’ and so he only stole to ‘get a little money’. Sergeant Hardy informed the magistrate that Jackson was wanted for at least 20 similar cases and that 16 pawn tickets, all traceable to items stolen in similar robberies, were found when they searched him.

The magistrate fully committed him to trial.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 23, 1888]

Doctors were very much in the news in 1888. North of the river from the Borough, in Whitechapel, a series of brutal murders had shaken Victorian Britain. The killer was never caught but in our recent book myself and Andy Wise believe we might have a new suspect to discuss. If you are looking for a good new read or  present for a family member that enjoys True Crime and Victorian history can I nudge you towards Jack and the Thames Torso Murders? Published by Amberley Books it is available on Amazon now, ideal for Christmas!