‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’: a policeman fights for his life

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PC James Baker (127E) was on duty in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road, one late evening in early April 1863. As he walked his beat he noticed a man acting suspiciously so he kept his eyes on him. Following at a distance he saw the man disappear into nearby Bedford Square, where he lost sight of him.

Baker looked around and then found the man, in the company of two others, leaving 60 Gower Street. The policeman was sure they had just committed a burglary so rushed across to apprehend them. Two of the men managed to evade him altogether and ran off, but the other he nabbed. PC Baker told that if he came quietly he wouldn’t hurt him, and the man stopped resisting arrest.

If must have a been a common problem for beat bobbies unless they could quickly call for back up. Baker was on his own and could hardly be expected to collar all three suspected burglars. It seems unlikely that PC Baker carried handcuffs as these were initially at least, only issued under special circumstances usually being held at police stations.

Even if he was carrying a set they would have been of limited use. A pair of barrel handcuffs, D shaped and opened with a key, were hardly on a par with the efficient snap shut device modern officers can use. Moreover police in the 1800s were cautioned to only use handcuffs when the prisoner was deemed to be violent, and PC Baker had extracted what he believed was a sort of promise from his prisoner not to be.

Sadly for him the promise wasn’t worth the candle. Soon after the officer and his captive had set off for the nearest station house the suspected burglar whipped out a life preserver 111130b5-5592-46b7-c288-8b3979db59d4(right) and thumped the constable over the head with it. As the officer shouted ‘stop thief!’ and tried to call for help the man cried:

‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’ and beat him again. More blows rained down on the officer as he lay on the ground and the burglar escaped leaving PC Baker lying in a pool of his own blood and severely concussed.

Fortunately for Baker he was found by a fellow officer not long afterwards and helped to University College Hospital where he was treated for his injuries. Tow men, named simply as Egan and Sinnett, were rounded up and charged – both with burglary and Egan for attempted murder – and brought to the Bow Street Police court in late April when PC Baker had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. The policeman was better but far from well. He still suffered from his injuries and may well have sustained long term brain damage. He hadn’t returned to duties yet and may not have been able to continue in the force.

Egan and Sinnett denied any involvement and given the circumstances there has to be some doubt that they were the men responsible for the crimes of which they were accused.  I can find no trial for the attempted murder of PC Baker or any record of a trial or imprisonment of men fitting their identities in 1863 at all. However, they were described as ticket-of-leave men, former convicts released early from previous sentences of imprisonment (for previous burglary offences). This suggests that while they may have been the guilty parties (and the report states that the magistrate committed them both for trial) they may also have been rounded up as ‘the usual suspects’ by local police determined to get someone for the near murder of a colleague.

It reminds us that the Victorian police were vulnerable to violence from desperate criminals. They were lightly armed and hardly armored (no stab vests in 1863, no helmet even) and usually patrolled alone equipped only with a rattle and a lantern (whistles and torches came later). It was no picnic being a bobby in nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, April 27, 1863]

‘We got a little list’:’SmartWater – nineteenth-century style – foils a burglar

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A news report last week suggested that Londoners were up in arms because the police had concentrated so much of their attention on knife crime that burglars were able to loot properties with impunity. Of course the police refuted this but it does seem that given the huge cuts that the Home Office have made to the Met’s budget over the past decade have impacted the force’s ability to fight crime in England’s capital. Quite obviously the police can’t be everywhere all at the same time, and so they have to prioritize. However frustrating that might be for victims of burglary (and having been burgled in the past I can appreciate how they feel) tackling record levels of knife crime must come first.

The solution, some say, is in preventing burglary and much of that responsibility lies with the homeowner. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century burglar alarms (which were advertised in the national press) have been on the market for those than can afford them. Now we are also being urged to use ‘smart water’. According to the website of the leading manufacturer of this anti-theft technology:

SmartWater contains a ‘unique code within the traceable liquid [which] provides an irrefutable forensic link back to the owner of stolen goods and also links criminals with the scene of their crime’.

So if thieves do break in to your home and steal your stuff you stand a reasonable chance of getting it back and seeing them caught and prosecuted.

Wind back to the 1880s however and no such technology existed. If the police wanted to catch burglars they had to do so through traditional policing methods (such as information gleaned from informers, surveillance, and the alertness of ‘bobbies’ on the beat) and a good deal of luck.

Fortunately thieves weren’t always that ‘smart’ themselves. Having stolen goods they then had to get rid of it, usually via a ‘fence’ (a receiver like Fagin in Oliver Twist) or at a pawnbrokers. Some pawnbrokers probably turned a blind to a watch or bracelet’s provenance, happy to make a bit of money themselves.  Others were much more honest, tipping off the police when something (or someone) ‘dodgy’ turned up.

And it seems the police also had a list of stolen items, which they circulated amongst the trade (‘brokers, jewelers, chandlers, and other dealers who might be offered stolen property for resale). This was the undoing of one burglar, Henry Moore, who was charged at Bow Street with the unlawful possession of an aluminum watch.

Moore had gone to a pawnbrokers in Broad Street, in Bloomsbury, and tried to pawn the watch which had a resale value of 10s. The ‘broker quickly identified it as being on the ‘Police List’ and called out for an officer.  The watch belonged to a haul of 120 watches that had been stolen from John Lock’s jewelry shop at 78 Tottenham Court Road on 10 January 1884. Moore was arrested and taken before Sir James Ingram at the Bow Street office on 26 January, a little over a fortnight after the raid.

The police couldn’t prove that Moore had carried out the burglary but he couldn’t explain how he had come to have one of the missing watches in his possession. Unlawful possession was an offence in its own right, albeit a lesser one than burglary. It came under the jurisdiction of the magistrate, meaning he didn’t need to test Moore’s guilt before a jury. Instead he sentenced him to three month’s imprisonment and the gaoler led him away.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly, Sunday, 27 January 1884]

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street

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Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]

Rossini’s ‘cat song’ provokes uproar at the theatre and medical students threaten to give the police the Bartholomew “touch”.

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Medical students have a long established reputation for high jinx and drink related antics. They study hard, so the saying goes, and play hard so it is no surprise to see a number of them appearing before the London magistracy in the 1800s. This case involves several medical students from St Bartholomew’s Hospital but in particular a young man named Charles Astley, who lived in Ealing.

Astley was charged before Mt Knox at Marlborough Street for assaulting a man at the Oxford Music Hall on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Mr Knox’s court was packed with Astley’s fellow students, some of whom were also charged with a range of less serious offences related to Astley’s arrest and the circumstances of it. As a result the magistrate had to continually insist they behaved themselves or he would have them all ejected.

The complaint was brought by a Mr Freame (or possibly Freene), an employee of the theatre, and prosecuted in court by his counsel, who had the suitably festive name of Mr Sleigh. He explained that on several occasions large numbers of students had turned up at the music hall and had caused a disturbance. Their behaviour was riotous, disorderly and drunken. In the end the proprietor, Mr Syers, had been obliged to call on the police for support in keeping order.

On the night in question there were no less than 18 police constable deployed at the venue (which held around 1,800 paying customers. All was well until just before 11 o’clock at night when Signor Aldine took to the stage and began to sing. He sang the ‘Cat Song’ (which may well have been Duetto buffo di due gate or “humorous duet for two cats”, sometimes attributed to Rossini). I’m no expert on opera but it appears to be a song about two cats meowing to each other. At this point the medical students started to make a lot of noise, Astley ‘principal among them’. The musical director asked for quite but they ignored him, carrying on their commotion and shouting out things like ‘splendid’.

The Oxford Music Hall had undergone a rebuild after a fire in 1872, reopening in 1873 not long before the medical students caused such a fracas there.* So perhaps its not surprising that the owners were keen to avoid too much disturbance as they established themselves as a major nighttime venue when there was plenty of competition in the 1870s.

As the police moved in blows were thrown and abuse was shouted. Mr Freame said he made a grab for Astley, who he saw as a ringleader, and the medical student grabbed hold of his collar and manhandled him. Eventually Astley was whisked away to the nearest police station but about 500 students gathered outside the music hall threatening to ‘give the police the Bartholomew “touch” [and shouting] ‘let the bobbies have it’. Four of them were subsequently arrested and also appeared in court with their chum.

One of the Middlesex hospital’s teaching fellows, a lecturer on physiology, appeared to speak up for the young men and to say that if the charges were all dropped he had been assured that there would be no further instances of bad behaviour at the music hall. Mr Knox was not minded to take this case lightly however. He had, he said, already warned about excessive disorderly behaviour and drunkenness at the hall and would now carry through on his threat to deal harshly with offenders.

Ashley would go to the Central Criminal Court to face  a trial by jury and he insisted the other young men keep the peace in the meantime. One of them, John Pogose, he fined 40s (or one month in prison) for his part in the disturbances that followed Astley’s arrest. The other three were bound by their own recognizances to appear in January. Ashley appeared at the Old Bailey on 10 January on a charge of wounding but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and he was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 21, 1875]

*Those of you of a certain age you will be familiar with the site of the music hall, which was where Virgin Records stood on Oxford Street from the 1970s. If you are a little older you may recall the same premises as belonging to Lyon’s Corner House (which opened in 1927).

Tough on crime…

When Caroline Wright came before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she pleaded poverty and blamed her actions on ‘distress’. This week I have been looking at the causal factors of property offending in the 18th and 19th centuries with my 2nd year undergraduates at Northampton, as a part of wider module on crime and punishment from 1700-1900.

We have explored contemporary attitudes towards theft and the way that prosecutors and jurors were sometimes prepared to understand theft as a reaction to times of dearth and economic hardship. Simply put there is some evidence that juries were less likely to convict when prices were high and wages (or employment) low. They also seem to have practised ‘pious perjury‘; downgrading the value of goods stolen so as to reduce the maximum sentence a convicted person could receive.

I suspect juries were often more likely to show this discretion than magistrates, and for London justices faced with thousands of petty thieves each year I doubt how much sympathy was on offer – especially after 1830 when the death penalty had been removed from all property offences.

Caroline Wright was, by the account given by a policeman at her hearing, a drunk. Sergeant Miles said she ‘was a confirmed gin drinker’, who was ‘frequently drunk’. On this occasion she had helped herself to a piece of velvet plush from outside a shop at 111 Tottenham Court Road.

The velvet had been displayed with other goods, draped over a chair outside the shop (which shows us that practices have changed somewhat – its is unlikely that such a valuable item would be left outside a store today). But Ann Cumley, the shop woman, was watching Caroline. When she saw her grab the velvet and hide it under her shawl she ran out of the shop to stop her.

A short chase ensued before Ann caught up with the thief. As a policeman came to help Caroline dropped the plush at the shop assistant’s feet. In court she told Mr Bingham the magistrate that she was in desperate distress and that was why she stole the cloth. The justice was not convinced: ‘it was a strange thing to talk of distress driving her to commit a theft, it was more likely the gin she had a propensity for’.

Wright was probably hoping to sell the velvet (a useful material for drapes or cushion covers) but we can have no idea what she wanted the money for. Gin is likely but that might well have been a symptom of her poverty and ‘distress’. Like drug addicts today, stealing might well be to feed a habit but that habit might equally have been a product of a deeper personal descent into poverty, mental illness and desperation.

Mr Bingham sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, November 19, 1859]