‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘He has been in the habit of knocking me about’, until one day he went too far.

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This is one of those frustrating cases where you really feel you should be able to find out more than you can about it. On Thursday 12 April 1883 a 45 year-old labourer named Thomas Ward was brought up before Mr Barstow for the second time, having previously been remanded in custody for an assault.

His victim was a widow, Mrs Elizabeth Wynn, who had been living with Ward as his housekeeper for the past year. Ward was evidently a violent man and was partial to knocking the poor woman about when he was drunk. Nothing about this would have surprised the late Victorian magistracy since domestic violence was endemic in working-class communities in the 1800s. It was probably more widespread in middle class homes than society was prepared to recognize but genteel ‘ladies’ were more accustomed to covering up the signs of it and more invested in keeping their husbands’ dirty secrets.

The assault had taken place on the 5 April and Elizabeth had been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to be treated for her injuries. It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to recover from the beating she’d sustained so the police secured a dying deposition which makes for difficult reading:

‘Yesterday afternoon I was at our street door, and knocked several times. The prisoner would not open it, but at last he did, and struck me on the nose and mouth with his fist. I was covered with blood, and do not remember any more. I feel very sore in the stomach, and I am black all over from falling. He was sober. He has been in the habit of knocking me about, and I have been in Highgate Infirmary with fractured ribs, which he did. I stayed away on that night because he swore he would do for me’.  

Elizabeth died on the morning of the 6 April.

The magistrate remanded Ward for another week but that is where he seems to disappear from history. I find no trace of a murder or manslaughter trial at the Old Bailey involving either Ward or Elizabeth Wynn, nor any entry in the Digital Panopticon.

The newspapers are equally silent on whether Ward was ever formally prosecuted for the killing of his housekeeper.  That leads me to suspect that the police had insufficient evidence to press charges and that, if anything, all Ward got was a short prison sentence for the assault, and I suspect that was unlikely as well (or he would have been recorded as being inside on the DP site). As ever, if someone else can enlighten me I’d be grateful (after all today is my birthday).

[from The Standard, Friday, April 13, 1883]

“For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off”: ‘Knocked’ in the Old Kent Road

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I find all sorts of violent acts being prosecuted at the Police courts of Victorian London but few were as savage and, at the same time, bizarre, as this one.

Patrick Kieffe was drinking with several workmates in a pub on the Old Kent Road when the beer got the better of them and they fell to arguing. All of them worked at the gasworks and one of them, John Baxter, had the task of stoker – which demanded strength and courage – had the reputation of the hard man in the group.

As the beer overcame any inhibitions Kieffe had he started to shout the odds and challenge all and sundry, but especially Baxter, to a fist fight. Baxter ignored him and dismissed the challenge as bravado; Kieffe was a young man, Baxter more mature in years. Enraged Kieffe flew at his co-worker as he stood at the bar nursing a pint, knocking him to the floor. He leapt on him and started to pummel him with fists and, before the others could intervene, he bit him and tried to tear off one of his eyebrows.

One of the group, John Montague, rushed in to help as Baxter called out:

‘For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off’.

Kieffe had Baxter’s eyebrow in his teeth and, like a dog with a bone, he was refusing to release him. Montague threatened to break his jaw and finally the younger man relented. The police arrived and PC  90P arrested Kieffe and took him away. Baxter’s wounds were dressed by a local doctor who later testified that ‘nearly the whole of the left eyebrow was bitten off’.

The case ended up before the Police magistrate at Lambeth, Mr Elliott, who was shocked at the violence of the act. He told Kieffe that he had acted ‘like a perfect savage’ and remanded him in custody until his father could be found.

The South Metropolitan Gasworks on the Old Kent Road were built in the 1830s and the old gasholder (now disused) stills remains. The Old Kent Road is synonymous with South-East London working-class life, as immortalized in the old music hall song, “Wot Cher! Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road”.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 20, 1862]

Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

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For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]

‘I can earn as much in a minute as you can in a week’, a pickpocket taunts a policeman

An Omnibus Pickpocket

By the 1860s the Metropolitan Police had been established in the capital for a little over three decades. It had been a fairly shaky start, with a large turnover of staff in the first year, and ongoing questions about their honesty, fitness, and value for money. However, once the public realised that the ‘bluebottles’ were here to stay they began to garner some grudging respect.

That respect was probably not extended to those of the so-called ‘criminal class’ who found themselves the main subject of the New Police’s attention. The men of the Met patrolled the city’s streets day and night, reassuring the public and preventing crime by their presence. Of course they couldn’t be everywhere at once and subtle thieves would always find a way to make a living. However, the police were soon able to be build up a picture of crime and its perpetrators which, when combined with later innovations – such as a list of recently released prisoners – made it harder for those ‘known to the police’ to get away with it.

Catherine Kelly was well known it seems. Using the alias ‘Margaret’ or ‘Mary’ Kelly, she had been arrested on many occasions for picking pockets. Her preferred targets were travelers on the omnibus. This allowed the smartly dressed thief to get close to her unsuspecting victims and her dexterity enabled her to filch items of value without them noticing. Kelly often worked the ‘buses with a partner; working in pairs was an effective ploy because you could pass the stolen goods to your mate meaning that if you were spotted she might get away, and when if the police searched you they would find nothing at all. It is still the way pickpockets operate in London today.

In January 1864 Catherine was arrested for picking pockets with her friend Sarah Williams while the pair were out in Regent’s Street. They had been noticed by an alert policeman, sergeant Charles Cole of C Division. He had seen them the day before on an omnibus and now watched them as they approached passers-by in Argyle Place. Kelly had tried to pick the pocket of a lady but had vanished into the crowd before the officer could catch her. Soon afterwards he found the pair again, mingling with the crowds and noticed that Kelly had her hand close to a woman’s side. He moved in and grabbed her, called for help and took Williams in as well.

The women knew the sergeant as well. ‘For God’s sake don’t take me Mr. Cole’ Kelly supposedly pleaded with him. They were both taken before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court to be examined where they offered little more than a flat denial of their alleged crimes. Sergeant Cole was keen to stress that these were known offenders. He said he’d brought Kelly in before but her victim, a lady in an omnibus, did not come to court to give evidence and so Kelly had been discharged. Her previous companion was currently serving six months in gaol for picking pockets on the ‘buses. He added that Kelly had taunted him previously, saying she ‘could earn as much in a minute as he could in a week’.

That was probably true and helps explain why women like Catherine chose crime over badly paid manual work like sewing, shop work, or domestic service. So long as you accepted that you might spend some time in prison the rewards of crime were considerably higher than the day-to-day drudgery of working-class lives in Victorian England. Arrest was an ‘occupational hazard’ (as ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ would surely attest).

The magistrate had nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on at this stage. One of the women was in possession of a small bag of money which the sergeant was convinced had been lifted from a passenger. Without proof that Kelly or Williams had been seen stealing it or a victim appearing to claim it there was little Mr Tyrwhitt could do at this stage beyond remanding the pair for further enquiries. It was noted that Kelly was the ‘companion of a notorious thief named Bryant’ so I expect he was keen to find something to ‘do her’ for but for the time being the women would be locked up while sergeant Cole tried to find some solid evidence against them.

Just as in the case of Jones and Johnson yesterday (two pickpockets arrested while working the crowd waiting for an execution) the evidence against Kelly and Williams was thin. If no victim came forward and nothing else emerged then sergeant Cole would have to hope that next time Kelly slipped up. Until then it was likely that both women were discharged, to take their chances once again.

Picking pockets on London’s omnibuses was risky but passengers were preoccupied and easily distracted, something modern thieves are well aware of. Keep ‘em peeled folks!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]

Transport woes mean a bad start to the week for one Victorian worker

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London Railways, 1899

In the 1800s increasing numbers of people commuted to work five or six days a week. Trams and railways were the preferred option for the working classes, as horse drawn omnibuses ran a little later and were a bit more expensive. Most working men had to be at their place of employment very early, by 7 o’clock, so they either needed to live close by (as the dockworkers in the East End did) or required reliable public transport to get them there.

Given that wages were low transport had to be cheap, which is why men like Alfred Shepperson took the train. Thousands used the workmen’s trains from the beginning of the 1860s, these usually ran early and charged just two pence return (instead of the flat rate of a penny per mile that was the cost of third class travel on the railways). It was an imperfect system however, some train services ran too late, others too early, and casual workers were particularly badly affected by this. Calls for better transport echoed down the century as the government recognized that this was crucial if they were to encourage migration to the developing suburbs north and south, and so clear the crowded slums of central, south and east London.

On Monday 27 July 1868 Alfred Shepperson had a bad Monday morning. He arrived at Walworth Road station at 7 am as usual, ready to start work nearby as a sawyer. He presented his ticket (a workman’s ticket) to Henry Ricketts at the gate but the Chatham & Dover Railway employee refused it. It had expired on Saturday he told him, and he’d need to pay 4d for his travel.

Shepperson growled at him declaring he see him damned first and an altercation seemed inevitable. Then a man stepped forward, smart and of a higher social class, who paid the sawyer’s fare. This might have been the end of it but Shepperson’s blood was up and he was in no mood to be reasonable. He continued to protest and was asked to leave the station quietly.

Unfortunately ‘he refused, made a great disturbance, calling [Ricketts] foul names, and threatening to have his revenge on him at the first opportunity’.

The ticket inspector was called and when be tried to steer the sawyer out of the station Shepperson’s rage intensified and he became ‘extremely violent’ assaulting both men and ripping the inspector’s coat in the process. Bystanders intervened before Shepperson could throw the man down some stairs. Eventually he was subdued and hauled off to a police station.

On the following morning he was up before Mr Selfe at Lambeth Police court where Shepperson claimed he didn’t know the ticket was out of date.

Can you read?’ the magistrate asked him.

Yes, sir

Then you must have seen the ticket was not available, for it is plainly printed on it’.

Shepperson had no answer for this so tried to deny the violence he was accused of, and hoped the magistrate would ‘overlook it’.

It is quite clear to me you have acted in a disgraceful manner’, Mr Selfe told him, ‘and I shall certainly not overlook such conduct. You are fined 20s., or 14 days’ imprisonment’.

The sawyer didn’t have 20(about £60 today, but 4-5 days’ wages at the time) so he was led away to the cells to start his sentence, one that might have had more serious repercussion if he had then (as was likely) lost his job.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1868]

Libel and crim.con as the ‘better sort’ are dragged through the Police Courts

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Sir Albert de Rutzen

Most of those appearing before the police magistrates of London were members of the working class. The vast majority were being prosecuted for all manner of petty and not so petty forms of crime and violence. When the more ‘respectable’ middle classes appeared it was usually as witnesses or victims (although there were plenty of these from the lower order as well – especially women) and the very wealthy rarely feature in the newspapers reports. T

here were exceptions however.

Crime was big news in the Victorian press and the daily ‘doings’ of the police courts are testament to the popularity of this amongst the reading public, of all classes it should be said. Alongside the police court news and the more sensational ‘murder news’ were the reports of adultery served up as scandal for public consumption. ‘Criminal conservation (or ‘crim. con’) cases offered readers a peep into the bedrooms of the rich and famous. This was where the ‘better sorts’ made the pages of the newspapers for reasons they would rather have kept to themselves.

Often linked eventually to divorce, crim.con proceedings were a legal procedure  whereby one man sued another for having an affair with his wife (on the basis that he could claim financial damages, as his wife was his property).

In February 1886 two wealthy individuals appeared at Marylebone Police court represented by their lawyers. Mr St. John Wontner was there to defend his client, Robert Bailey, against a charge of libelling the elaborately entitled Charles V. J. Frieden de Friedland and for assaulting him at the theatre.

The reporter is fairly careful to skirt around the issue at the centre of this case; namely that both men appear to have been having a relationship with the same woman, a woman that neither of them was married to. Her name was Mrs Astay and it isn’t clear whether she was married or a widow.

The magistrate, Sir Albert De Rutzen, was at pains to try and keep any of the details behind the libel accusation  out of his courtroom but, since some evidence had to be offered (so a formal committal could be made),  this was fairly difficult and ultimately impossible.

Prosecuting, Mr Lickfold explained that his client was a member of the Supper Club which had a premises in Paris and at Langham Place in London. Mr de Friedland was staying in London and had been receiving ‘communications’ from Mr Bailey.

These were quite unpleasant and contained ‘threats , and were written in a language quite unfit for publication’. Bailey and de Friedland had then met at the Alhambra in Leicester Square where they had argued.

Bailey had, he alleged:

‘knocked the Complainant’s hat of and abused him. In fact the conduct of the Defendant had been so bad that, unless restrained, the Complainant’s life would be insufferable’.

Wontner now cross-examined and this is where some of the detail that the magistrate presumably wished to keep hidden began to seep out. The readers would be able (as you will be) to fill in the gaps and make a judgement on what de Friedland had been up to and what sort of a man he really was.

De Friesland said he was a director of the Supper Club which was a respectable establishment and not a gaming club (as the lawyer must have suggested). He admitted that ‘baccarat was played there’ but refuted allegations of gambling. He admitted as well to being married, and that his wife lived in Paris but he wasn’t (as was suggested) in the middle of divorce proceedings with her. He also admitted knowing and visiting a ‘Mrs Astay’, but ‘refused to say whether he had been intimate with her’. He added that Bailey had been intimate with the woman, a libel itself if not true.

Mr Lickfold objected to his opposite number’s line of questioning but Wontner contended that his client’s defence in court would be that he was provoked and that he would counter sue de Friedland for libelling him. As such it was necessary to set his stall out at this stage.

The magistrate was not happy with this and told the defence lawyer to keep his defence for the senior court trial. He heard from several witnesses who confirmed seeing the trail of letters and cards sent to the complainant and fully committed Bailey for trial. He then bailed him on his own recognisances of £100 – a considerable sum – demonstrating the wealth associated with these two protagonists.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 25, 1886]

Sir Albert de Rutzen died in 1913 at the age of 84. An obituary noted ‘his patience and gentleness alike with the highest of criminals and the Suffragettes, with whom he had to deal of late, were remarkable’.