I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.
William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.
Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.
The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.
Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.
Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century. Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.
When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.
[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]
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]
The Royal Exchange and Bank of England
(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side)
PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.
He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.
The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.
However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.
The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:
‘Setting fire to the Bank of England’.
The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]