The Great (Northern) Train Robbery

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When a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take him long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’ matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveller that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective fell in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’ and said his name was Robert Johnson. He emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A hero of the Peninsula and Waterloo meets the ‘terror of Chelsea’: who comes out best?

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I’ve just been revisiting the rise and fall of Napoleon in case I need to step in and provide some teaching cover for a colleague who is temporarily unwell. We all need to be prepared to teach outside of our specialism from time and as long as its not too far removed most jobbing historians can do it.

While Napoleon and the French Wars might seem a long way removed from my research area he is someone I have studied and be interested in for most of my reading life. As a child I quickly went from a love of Nelson to the man Nelson dedicated almost his entire career to thwarting. I saw Bonaparte as a brilliant mind, flawed by vaunting ambition, and ultimately let down by those closest to him and his inability to recognize when he had overstretched himself.

Of course while most of France adored him in the early 1800s much of the rest of Europe hated and feared him, most especially the English. He represented a challenge to British dominance and to the institution of hereditary European monarchy; he was a child of the revolution for all his abandonment of democracy. Most of all he wasn’t an aristocrat, he was – like so many of the men that rose through the ranks of the Imperial Army – a self-made man and the crowns of Europe had little time for that sort of success story.

The wars against France left a deep scar on Europe and on Britain and so those that served at Napoleon’s final defeat in Flanders were held in high esteem. Charles Miller was one such veteran of Waterloo – he had served throughout the whole of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain and Portugal, a war that did so much to undermine Napoleon’s grip on the European continent.

In 1838 (twenty years after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo) Charles Miller was serving with the Royal Veteran Battalion in Chelsea. He was quartered at Chatham and on Friday 12 October he had traveled to the Chelsea College to pick up some money that was owed to him. As he looked around for somewhere to spend the night he ran into a man named Thomas Ivey who promised to guide him to a suitable lodging house.

Unbeknown to the old soldier however, Ivey was a crook. He was well known to people in Chelsea as a thief and a rogue and Miller was exactly the sort of easy ‘mark’ he preyed upon. As Miller drew out his purse to buy some apples from a street seller Ivey pounced, snatched it, and ran off.

Miller raced after him but Ivey knew the streets and alleys around Jew’s Row much better than the outsider and he easily avoided him. The solider was persistent however, and eventually, with the assistance of the police, Ivey was captured and brought before the magistrates at Queen Square Police court.

Ivey tried to pretend that while he had met the veteran of Waterloo he hadn’t robbed him; there had been a misunderstanding and he ‘make it all right’. For his part Miller was at pains to say he’d not been drinking (often a charge leveled at those that had their purses lifted when visiting the capital). He had lost everything he had – a sovereign and four half crowns – and so was on his uppers.

The magistrate was determined that Ivey should face trial for this offence but was informed that the man had only recently bee released from Clerkenwell prison for a similar crime. That would surely count badly against him and the justice wanted to make sure they had all the details before sending him in front a judge and jury. So Thomas Ivey was remanded in custody for two days to get the report on his previous conviction.

Ivey paid dearly for his actions that day and I’m sure his choice of victim played a part. On 22 October he was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to transportation. He remained in England until February 1840 when he sailed for Van Dieman’s land to start a 10-year term of exile. Thereafter he seems to have kept his nose clean and in 1846 he earned his ticket of leave. He was freed three years later on the 9 April 1849. He was still just 29 years of age, (being born in 1820, just a year before Napoleon died on St Helena).

What did he do next? Sadly the records don’t tell us that but perhaps he embraced his new start ‘down under’ and put his past life as ‘the terror of Chelsea’ behind him. Nor do we know what happened to Charles Miller, the old soldier that Ivey robbed. I doubt he got his purse back (certainly not the contents) so his immediate circumstances were difficult. Hopefully his regiment supported him because in 1838 he must have been at least in late 40s if not older, and it is likely that in all those years of service he would have picked up one or more injuries.  There was no ‘help for heroes’ in early Victorian England and precious little state support for veterans, despite the supposed affection in which the victors of Waterloo were held. Not for the first time I’m left wondering whether the criminal, in being transported to Australia had the better outcome here?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 15, 1838]

The man who threw away 17 years of his life in a desperate gamble

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What motivates someone to commit a crime? It is one of the key questions that criminologists ask themselves and its often quite a hard one to answer. Policemen, probation officers and social workers can all question a culprit and try to see what underlies their offending but even then the cause can be complex and hard to pinpoint exactly. So imagine how hard it is for historians of crime to understand the causal factors behind individual acts of criminality in the past. After all, we can hardly ask the perpetrators, can we?

I really want to know what brought Thomas Hughes to decide to steal from his employer, the Bank of England. Thomas was 35 years of age when he stole £65 from the bank. He had joined when he was just 17 and so he had worked for the ‘old lady of Threadneedle Street’ for 17 years.

Perhaps he was frustrated at a lack of opportunities. As a lowly clerk he may not have seen a career path opening up in front of him. Maybe he resented his better paid colleagues, or thought the bank’s systems so lax it would be easy to steal and get away with it? Or he might have reached a pinch point in his life – another child to feed, or a daughter’s marriage perhaps? We can’t rule out the possibility of course that he was a gambler or had otherwise run up debts he could no longer sustain.

Maybe Thomas had been stealing from the bank for years, embezzling small but ever increasing sums that led him to grow bolder and attempt to take the significant sum of £65 (or £4,000 in today’s money) all in one go?

This time he was caught and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in early October 1875. The City’s chief magistrate committed him for trial at the Old Bailey and on 25 October he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. It was the end of his career and quite possibly the end of gainful employment for some time. He would lost is good reputation along with his job and the means to support himself and his family (if he had one).

I would really like to know why he took that risk at all?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 08, 1875]

An open window is an invitation to thieves

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Ellen Dunn was sitting at her desk in the evening, doing her household accounts. She had her receipts and an account book open in front of her, and a bag containing around £12 in cash on the floor beside her chair. The widow lived at 68 Warden Road in Kentish Town and her daughter was in a room upstairs.

At about eight o’clock Mrs Dunn heard a noise in the room. Looking up she watched with horror as the window ‘was thrown open’ and someone entered the room. Ellen ran out of the room to the front door to see who was breaking in but couldn’t get out; someone or something was preventing her from opening her own front door.

She went back into the room and leaned out of the open window and yelled ‘police!’ This brought her daughter running downstairs to see what the matter was. There was no one visible in the street but Mrs Dunn’s bag of money was missing. The next morning the empty bag was found in the front garden – Mrs Dunn realized had been burgled.

Fortunately the police had a witness from within the Dunn’s own household. Amy Sefton was a 14 year-old serving girl, probably very junior, but she proved to be a very capable young woman. She said she had seen a group of lads watching the house just before the robbery had taken place. She saw a boy she recognized as someone who lived locally run away from the house clutching a bag that seemed very similar to the one found that morning.

He took the bag to his mates who were clustered around a lamppost. Using the light it offered the boys peered inside. ‘Here is a go: there is some money!’ one of them cried, clearly delighted with the prize.

Then they removed the cash, stuffed it in their pockets and dashed off. One of them was dispatched to throw away the bag and this is when they spotted Amy watching them. They swore at her but she held her ground and made sure she got a good look at them. This resulted in the police picking up a lad one 17 named William Hine, who was produced at Marylebone Police court on the following day.

Hine was charged (along with several others in absentia) with entering a dwelling house and stealing £12. It was a serious property crime and the magistrate remanded William in custody so the police investigation could continue. The justice made a point of commending Amy for her quick thinking and bravery.

This would be a hard case to prove however; Amy said she would be able to identify William and one or other of the lads but without forensics or any of the money being found on them the police may have struggled to build a case against them. Hine doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey records or in the Digital Panopticon. His absence from both doesn’t mean he wasn’t prosecuted further but without a clear trail I wonder if, on this occasion, the lads got away with it. On thing is likely however: Mrs Dunn would have been careful not to leave her windows open in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 28, 1893]

A man just wants to have Fun, but forgets you always have to pay.

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William Helps was standing watching the concourse at Ludgate Hill railway station when a gentleman attracted his attention. Helps was a station inspector and the man explained that he’s just seen respectably dressed individual appear to steal a book from a book stall. Helps asked where the man was now and the passenger pointed him out as he boarded a third class carriage. The inspector followed him and noticed him hide the book under his coat.

Helps went back to the  stall (W H Smith’s no less) and asked the lad serving there if he’d lost anything.

‘Yes, a shilling number of Fun’, William Robinson replied.

Fun was a humorous, satirical magazine that rivaled the more famous Punch. It had launched in 1861 and offered prose and verse alongside travel writing and reviews of popular theatre and music hall.  It cost just a penny per edition so this must have been a compendium of covers, entitled ‘Essence of Fun’ which sold for a 1s.

Mr Helps approached the man who’d taken the book and confronted him:

‘What have you done with the book?’ he demanded.

‘What book?’

‘Do not misunderstand me – the book you took off the book stall’.

‘I do not know what you mean’ said the man, getting up from his seat and heading off towards W H Smith’s. He started to fumble around under his waistcoat where the book was hidden but Helps was losing patience with him.

‘It is of no use putting it down on the stall again’, he said, ‘you had better give it to me’.

Sheepishly, the man handed it over and said he would happily pay for it but the inspector had him arrested and consequently, a few days later he was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court charged with theft.

The man’s name was Henry White and he worked for Pontifex and Co as a coppersmith. He’d previously worked for Price’s candles and he had never been in trouble before in his life. White’s solicitor (Mr Buchanan) assured the court that his client had never intended to steal the copy of Fun but the lad was busy serving customers and he was worried he would miss his train.

It was a poor excuse but the policeman who took him into custody said he was searched and he plenty of money on him so doubted theft was the intention. White had given a correct address, and ‘bore a very respectable character in his neighbourhood’, and so Alderman Whetham was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The magistrate found him not guilty of stealing but instead treated the case as one of unlawful possession. White was fined 10s, which he paid, and walked free from court, poorer but hopefully wiser.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]