‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

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In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)

‘A Reckless Blackguard’ in the dock for a murder on the Isle of Dogs

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Today’s case took up almost the entirety of the Morning Chronicle’s  crime news coverage when it was published in April 1838. The story concerned a murder and, if that was not sensational enough for the paper’s readers, a murder that had taken place nearly a year earlier. The case had surfaced on the previous Monday when it had been brought before the magistrates at Greenwich, but when it was determined that the victim had been murdered by the banks of the River Thames, they transferred it to the Thames Police Court.

The victim was an engine smith named Duncan Crawford and he had met his death opposite Greenwich, on the Isle of Dogs on the 9 April 1837. His killer had remained unknown and at liberty ever since but on 10 April 1838 Thomas Paul (alias Scott) was placed in the dock at Thames to be formally examined by two justices: Mr Ballantine and Mr Greenwood.

Paul looked rough but the paper wanted to show him as suitable murder suspect. He was bruised and battered from some recent scuffle (suggestive of his violent tendencies) but he still cut a ‘tall, athletic’ figure in the courtroom. However the reporter was at pains to point out that the prisoner at the bar had the appearance of ‘a reckless blackguard’. He was clearly agitated by his public examination:

‘he betrayed considerable emotion, and his legs and arms frequently crossed and re-crossed each other, and his countenance underwent several changes’.

Here was a man ill at ease with himself, was his failure to control his emotions and sign of inner turmoil and his guilt? I think that is what the writer wanted his audience to think. Murderers had to look different from the rest of civilised society; a monster amongst us and Paul’s inability to keep control over his own body was surely a sign of his animalistic nature desperately trying to break out.

The arrest had been made by PS Benjamin Lovell (15R) who’d picked him up at his lodgings in Deptford. He had given the name Paul but apparently this was  alive, his ‘real name was Scott’ and he went by the nickname locally of ‘Scottey’. It seems as if ‘Scottey’s downfall was that after attacking Crawford and robbing him, he sent a female friend off to pawn the gold watch seals he’d  stolen. She took them to a pawnbroker but this had been discovered by the police and the watch identified as the victim’s. When sergeant Lovell arrested Paul/Scott he admitted giving a woman a watch to pawn.

Mr Ballantine wanted to be sure that Lovell had not tricked his man into revealing what he’d done. He hadn’t the policeman assured him. He had arrested him (on a tip off from a woman – the woman who pledged the watch perhaps?) and when he’d searched him he’d found a number of suspicious items including one or two more duplicated for items pledged at Mr Perry’s pawnshop in Flagon Row.

All of this evidence was backed up by James Cooper (191R) another police officer who’d been present at the arrest and presumably involved in the Greenwich police’s investigation. The court now heard from Anna Philips who lived in the same street where Paul had lodged, Dock Street.

Anna recalled that a year earlier a young woman named Jane McCarthy had popped in to ask her advice. Jane had three gold watch seals and she wanted to find out if they were genuinely gold, of just fake. Jane was Thomas Paul’s lover, the pair cohabited Anna explained, and so it must have been her (Anna Philips) who’d given the information that led to Paul’s arrest.

Why had it taken her a year though? Well it seems she had quarrelled with Thomas Paul a few weeks after the seals were brought to her house. Paul had thrown a jug at her and in her rage she’d said she knew that the watch seals were stolen and had heard they came from a  man that had been murdered. Paul then seized her and ‘swore he would murder her if she said so again’, so she said she’d keep her thoughts to herself.

Two other women had been involved with Paul: Mary Davis had taken the watch to Perry’s (where the pawnbroker had ‘stopped it’ – in other words seized it because he thought it to be stolen). She reported this to Paul. Elizabeth Tiller had lived with Jane McCarthy and so knew her side of the story. Paul had told her he’d found the seals in the river, she had nothing to do with the robbery. Not that it mattered much anyway, since Jane had died four months earlier, how or of what Elizabeth didn’t reveal in court (although we do discover this later).

Possibly the most dramatic moment in court was when the next witness came forward. She was Mrs Charlotte Johnson, a respectable woman that lived in Rotherhithe Street with her elderly father. Duncan Crawford had lodged with them for seven months, so she knew him well. Mr Ballantine handed her a silver watch case inscribed with the initials ‘J.R.K’.

‘Now look carefully at this watch-case’ the magistrate told her, ‘and don’t let me mislead you. Tell me whether this is the deceased’s watch-case or not’.

The case produced was that detained at the pawnbrokers and so it could be traced back to Paul and the murder. The public in court must have held their collective breath.

‘That is it, sir’ replied Mrs Johnson, ‘He had it on the day he left my father’s house’.

She was handed several other items found at the ‘brokers and believed to be Crawford’s. She identified some of them but couldn’t swear to everything there. There seemed to be enough evidence though that these things were Crawford’s, but that didn’t mean that Paul/Scott had killed him. He had claimed he’d found the items in the river and Crawford had ben found dead in a pond by the river, maybe Paul had simply robbed an already dead body? Callous yes, but criminal? Not clearly.

The magistrate asked what the coroner’s verdict had been. After some hesitation he was informed that the victim had ‘been found drowned, with marks of violence on his person, but how or by what means they were caused was unknown’. This was long before effective forensics remember.

Mrs Johnson’s father had identified Crawford’s body in the Poplar dead house. He aid he ‘had no doubt he’d been robbed and murdered’.

‘He had received a tremendous blow under the left ear, another on the forehead, and the legs were bruised from the ankles up to the knees, as if they had been trodden upon’.

Mr Ballantine thanked him and turned to the prisoner. Did he wish to say anything at this stage? The matter was serious and ‘affected his life’. Paul was well aware of that and declined to offer a defence at this point. Mr Ballantine remanded him to appear again, with all the witnesses and the pawnbroker Mr Perry, on the following Wednesday.

It was left for the reporter to paint his readers a picture of the discovery of Crawford’s body and reflect on what was known about the murder (if that’s what it was, and the Morning Chronicle had no doubt it was). Crawford’s body had been found ‘in a lonely spot’ on the island, covered in mud close to the muddy pond.

‘It was extraordinary’ the report continued, ‘that the facts relating to the murder of Crawford have not come to light before’. Scott (Paul) had many quarrels with his neighbours, and with Jane McCarthy and it was said that his violent outbursts ‘hastened her death’. Two days before Jane died she told one of the women who gave evidence that day that Scott had confessed to the murder.

In the end however, the magistrates must have decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Paul with Crawford’s murder. He was indicted instead for simply larceny and tried at the Old Bailey in mid May of that year. The jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years. He was 36 years old and, if the records are accurate, he did ok ‘down under’ living to the ripe old age of 88. As for Duncan Crawford, he must go down as one of thousands of murder victims in the Victorian period whose killers escaped ‘justice’ as contemporaries would have understood it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 11, 1838]

Huge numbers of special constables are sworn in London. Why?

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We all love a mystery don’t we? When you dip into a newspaper that was published 170 years ago sometimes things just don’t make sense on their own. Take this report from April 1848 at Marlborough Street Police court for example. The report is headed ‘Special Constables’ and starts by declaring that:

‘The swearing in of special constables continued throughout the day, without intermission, in consequence of the large numbers of persons of all ranks that presented themselves at this court’.

Historically special constables were sworn in to police particular events (notably public executions) or at a time of crisis (during riots for example). The practice both preceded the introduction of the New Police in 1829 and continued afterwards. You can still serve as a ‘special’ today so long as you can give four hours of voluntary service a week.

In April 1848 the press reported that hundreds of men had come forward in London to swell the ranks of the professionals: ‘There could not have been fewer than twelve or fourteen special constables sworn in yesterday’ the The Morning Post noted. Men were joining en masse from businesses that employed large numbers – not unlike the ‘Pals’ battalions later raised during the First World War.

‘Messers. Cottam and Hallam’s men, to the number one hundred, were sworn in. About 120 men in the employ of Messers. Dowbiggin, the upholsterers, were also sworn in; and Mr. Lumley, the lessee of the Opera, furnished 63 able men’.

But it was not just the working men of London that were signing up in their droves to represent their communities and employers, ‘men of rank’ were also volunteering for action.

‘Lord Colchester, Lord Wharncliffe, Lord Cawdor, Lord Sondes, the Marquis of Blandford, B. Neville Esquire, Sir Moses Montefiore, Mr. Fox Maule, the Hon. F. Baring, Colonle Sir E. Cust, Colonel C. Hutchinson, Hon. C. Hardinge, Colonel Wood, Henry Agar, A.E. Lockhart MP, etc..’ all signed up.

A tradesmen approached the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street with a query. He said he had men who were keen to serve but were concerned that they would not, as he believed was the principle of specials, be used to support policing in their own community, but instead be deployed elsewhere. Mr Bingham thought to reassure him:

‘It was perfectly well understood’ he said, ‘that special constables were for the protection of their own immediate neighbourhood only, and so long as they assisted to preserve the peace of their own locality, they need be under no apprehension of being called elsewhere’.

This calmed the tradesman who said he now suspected many more of his employees would be presenting themselves at the court in due course. The paper reported that Mr Bingham would now sit in tandem with his colleague Mr Hardwick tomorrow, so they could get through the numbers of men wishing to be sworn.

Nowhere, however, does it explain why so many specials were being called for or were volunteering. For this you need to know your history, particularly the political history of Britain in the mid 1800s. 1848 has been described as the ‘year of revolutions’ because of events in Paris, Sicily, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and elsewhere. Everywhere the desire for liberal democracy clashed with autocracy and in Britain, a nation more ‘democratic’ than some, we had our own taste of a popular movement for change: Chartism.

This is not the place for a careful analysis of Chartism but it was both a democratic movement and a revolutionary one. The Chartists wanted to extend the vote to all men, by secret ballot, and the abolition of the property qualification that effectively excluded all but the wealthy from standing for parliament. Indeed of the six demands they made only the call for annual elections has come into being. At the time however, these were radical demands and while Lord Russell (the sitting Prime Minister) was sympathetic to an increase in the franchise Britain wasn’t ready for one-man-one-vote (and wouldn’t be until 1918).

Chartists were split internally, between those that believed change had to come from persuasion and rhetoric and those that agitated for direct action to force change. The most extreme example of this would be the Newport Rising in November 1839 the failure of which which led to arrests and the transportation of the ringleaders to Australia. By 1848 Chartism was on its last legs but one of its leaders, Feargus O’Connor, decided that the best way to achieve their aims was by a combination of public demonstrations and a petition to Parliament.
He called a mass meeting of Chartists at Kennington Common, south of the river Thames, to rally his supporters and then a march to Parliament to present the petition. It echoed the events of 1780 when Lord George Gordon summoned his rag bag of anti-Catholic protestors to the Common to rail against attempts to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. In the end his supporters ran riot for a week burning down several prominent buildings (including Newgate Gaol) and attacking the Bank of England.

This may have been in the minds of the government and public in 1848 (as would Newport of course) and a call went out for volunteer constables. Lord Russell pleaded with O’Connor not to address the rally and agitate the crowd, nor to march on Parliament. He also arranged for 8,000 troops to be on hand and 150,000 special constables.

chartistsThe meeting went ahead on the 10 April 1848 without trouble, the Chartists claimed 300,000 turned up by other estimates put the numbers at a more conservation 20,000 – 50,000. O’Connor also claimed he had gathered over 5,000,000 signatures but in reality the petition contained just 1,975, 496 many of which were fake.

 

The whole thing did little for the cause and Chartism died a death after that.

So now we know why there were so many men signing up to be specials in April 1848, but without this little bit of historical knowledge (which I remember studying as a schoolboy) nothing in this newspaper report would make sense.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 08, 1848]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the 1800s

On Sunday the 4th February 1855 Mary Ann Falconer was preparing dinner in her home just off the Ratcliffe Highway. There was a loud rap at the door and the sounds of people in the street outside. Mary described the crowd as a ‘mob’ and noticed one woman stood out from the crowd.  Her name was also Falconer (Jemima Falconer) and she demanded that Mary hand over her husband, whom she believed was inside, or let her in. When Mary refused Jemima smashed five of her windows.

The police were called and soon Jemima was in custody, arrested by PC Joseph Duble (95H) and taken to the nearest police station. On the Monday Jemima Falconer was up before Mr Yardley, the Thames Police Court magistrate on a charge of criminal damage.

Given that Mary and Jemima shared a common surname the magistrate wanted to know if they were related, they were not he was informed. So was Mary living with Jemima’s husband as the prisoner suggested?

‘She claims him’ said Mary ‘but she has no right to him, for she has another husband living’.

At this point an ‘elderly weather-beaten sailor’ stepped forward and announced that he was Mr Falconer and was ‘lawfully married’ to Mary. Jemima now piped up to complain that he was also married to her. ‘You married me first’, she insisted.

‘What business had you to have two wives?’ Mr Yardley asked the old seaman. Falconer now tried to explain that he’d known Mary was some years and she’d told him she was a widow. While he was at sea she’d posted the banns for their marriage and on his return he’d felt pressured (by her and some of the community) to go through with it.

He soon regretted his decision however:

‘She helped me spend all my wages, and then another man claimed her as his wife, and I found out she had another husband, to whom she’d been married 8 or 10 years before’.

It was now a scandalous case of bigamy, and Mr Yardley warned Mary she could face a sentence of seven years’ transportation if she was convicted. Mary tried to protest that the sailor had taken her from her husband against her will and ruined her but the old seaman denied this vehemently, pointing out that it was her who had put up the banns for their forthcoming marriage, not him.

‘Plenty of people can prove what I say’ claimed Mary but the magistrate’s patience was running out. He was trying a case of criminal damage, not a complex affair of bigamy and he wanted to no more lies in his court. Why had she smashed the Falconer’s windows ?

‘I wanted bread sir, and where could I go but to my husband?’

‘He not your husband, woman’, said the justice, ‘You have no claim on him whatever’.

The gaoler said he knew the woman to have been in court before and the policeman confirmed it. ‘I believe she has three husbands living’ PC Duble added, ‘I known her to be a most desperate and disorderly prostitute’.

‘I thought so’ commented the magistrate, ‘A very pretty character we have of you, woman. I sentence you to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 14 days, as a disorderly prostitute’.

At least she avoided the more serious accusation of bigamy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 06, 1855]