‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

‘Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’; a desperate attempt on a defenceless woman.

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Prisoners quarrying at Portland Prison c.1880s

Celia Harrison was having tea with her aunt and her grandmother, Emma Harrison, on 22 July 1895 when there was a knock at the door. It was 6 o’clock the 10 year old recalled and when her grandmother answered the door it was father who stood in the doorway. The visitor (William Harrison) demanded to know if his brother Jack was at home. He wasn’t and the elderly woman seemed nervous and wasn’t inclined to let her son in.

William seemed angry and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol. Celia heard him say: ‘I mean doing for him when he does come home’ and she saw that he was holding a knife. Celia, in fear, ran out into the garden.

Charles Rattison was a tram driver who lived upstairs from the Harrisons at 6 Salisbury Road, Highgate. Just after 6 o’clock he heard raised voices coming from below. When he heard a cry of ‘murder!’ he leapt up from his chair and rushed downstairs. To his horror he saw Emma Harrison flat on her back on the floor with her son William sitting cross-legged on top of her, slashing at her throat with a knife.

Rattison acted swiftly, wrestling the man off of her. In his rage William, who couldn’t see who his attacker was, growled at him: ‘Are you Jack?’ ‘No’, Rattison replied, ‘I am Charley’. William Harrison now said:

Let me finish mother off, and I will do for you’.

Fortunately he didn’t get the opportunity because another neighbour arrived and managed to take the knife from him. Harrison fled before the police could get there but PC Thomas Russant (637Y) caught up with him as he tried to escape. The copper was threatened by the would-be assassin who told him:

Where is my bleeding knife; I wish I had a sharp-shooter, I would put some of your lights out’.

On the 23 July Harrison was in court before the North London Police magistrate. Detective Sergeant Godley testified that the victim was too ill to attend but that she was thankfully recovering well in the Great Northern Central Hospital. He added that Emma was the widow of a policeman who had been pensioned off in 1876 after ‘many years service’ to the force. I imagine Y Division viewed this attack as if it was perpetrated against ‘one of their own’.

William Harrison stood impassively as others, including his daughter, gave their evidence. The magistrate remanded him for a week so that his victim had more time to mend in hospital before giving her version of events. This took some time, she was, after all, 68 years of age and so the case didn’t come before a jury until September that year where William Harrison was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm. The jury rejected his plea that he was drunk at the time, not that it was an excuse anyway. Harrison had form as well, having previously been prosecuted for wounding his wife. On that occasion he’d gone down for 11 months. This time the judge sent him away for 7 years of penal servitude.

William Harrison, who was simply described as a labourer, served five years and three months of his sentence, much of it at Portand Prison. He was released on 1 December 1900 at the age of 44. Thereafter he seems to have escaped trouble with the law but whether his wife and family were happy to have him back is less clear.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 24, 1895]

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]

A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

Ice cream, pears and a tram ride: stealing from the church ears five lads a trip to a Reformatory

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Highgate United Reformed Church

In early October 1873 five young lads appeared before Colonel Jeakes,  the magistrate at Highgate Police Court in North London, accused of stealing from the church. Specifically the five were charged with stealing the contents of missionary boxes (collecting boxes we’d call them today) from the Congregational Chapel on Southgrove, Highgate*.

Benjamin Woodward had discovered the loss about a week before the case came to court. He found that 12 missionary boxes had been been taken from a drawer in the school room of the chapel. The bottom of the drawer had been cut out in order to remove the boxes, so this suggested that the thieves knew exactly where to look. It took the police  a little time to track down the culprits but after one of the ‘gang’ turned informer the five were eventually dragged into custody.

William Alcock told the magistrate that he had been out with Frederick Taylor (13) on the previous Sunday and saw him take some money out ‘of a heap of dirt on Holloway-hill’. When he asked him where it had come from and who had hid it, Taylor told him it ‘was his week’s wages’.

A little further on down the hill Taylor unearthed some more and when pressed by Alcock admitted he’d got it from the Congregational Church. Later that day Alcock and Taylor were joined by John White and Alfred (both 13 and described as labourers), an errand boy of 10 named Herbert Warr, and Herbert Tuck who was just 9 years old. The little group of lads took their ill-gotten gains and hopped on a tram towards Moorgate Street. When they got into town they blew some of the money on ice cream and pears.

The police, in the person of Henry Webb (a detective with Y Division) investigated the case and apprehended the lads, with Alcock’s help. In court the youngest boy (Tuck) confessed to having entered the chapel via a window while the others stood watch outside. They had made the thefts over two nights it seems, their fear at being caught being overcome by the thrill of doing something illegal and the delight of finding such a bounty of ‘treasure’. Mr Woodward told the court that each boxes has contained upwards of £5 so in total the lads might have got away with nearly £60.

All five lads were remanded in custody so that places could be found for them in Reformatory schools, their criminal escapades (as adolescents at least) were at an end.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 09, 1873]

*now the Highgate United Reformed Church

Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]