Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: March 2014

Gleaning, poor women, and the law

"Gleaning" by Arthur Hughes

“Gleaning” by Arthur Hughes

Gleaning was a right of the poor up to the late 18th century, under common law. After a farmer had harvested his crops, local people could gather any leftovers, providing a useful supplement to a family’s income or providing additional food.

As the local poor had the right to glean, it being a long established practice, Richard Burn made no mention of it in his legal handbook The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer.

It was so accepted that in villages, a church bell might be rung each day to signal the time period in which the gleaners could operate.

In a society where common pasture and fields were being steadily enclosed, restricting the land that labouring people could use to keep animals or grow their own small crops, gleaning was a much needed source of income.

This much needed right was substantially eroded in 1788, when the case of Steel versus Houghton was determined in the House of Lords. The case centred around a Suffolk woman, Mary Houghton, who was sued for trespass by a local landowner, James Steel, after she gleaned on his farmland. However, the case had followed increasing tension between landowners and farmers and the local labouring population in East Anglia.

The case’s verdict stated that gleaning was not a right of the poor, but a privilege – and so to glean was to trespass on another’s land. Lord Loughborough, who gave the judgement, argued that charitable acts by individual landowners should not be seen as legal obligations, and that the creation of any such obligation would make the poor more ‘insolent’.

In such a way did the gleaning case mark the gradual change in attitude toward the poor that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prior to the creation of the 1834 New Poor Law.

Yet gleaning did not die out altogether as a result of the 1788 case. The following year, in Northamptonshire, Mary Tebbutt, a married woman, appeared before local magistrate George Spencer – the 2nd Earl Spencer – to complain that another woman, Elizabeth Loucke, had taken some gleanings off her. Mary had been gleaning in a field belonging to local farmer George Buttons, when Elizabeth – believing she was entitled to glean in the field but Mary wasn’t – assaulted her and grabbed the gleanings.

Spencer was obviously aware of the 1788 precedent, and did not regard either woman as having the right to glean. Instead, he argued that George Buttons had the right to decide who – if anyone – could glean on his land, and that therefore, both women were wrong. He made them acknowledge this, and after they promised to behave better in the future, he dismissed them [1. The papers of the second Earl Spencer, British Library, Add MSS 76337-76340].

But even into the nineteenth century, in rural England, gleaning continued to be debated over in justicing rooms. Samuel Whitbread, dealing with cases in Bedfordshire, dealt with three cases – two in 1811 and one in 1813.

The first two cases again suggested some conflict between local people when it came to the individual’s rights to glean. In the first case, a local farmer came to Whitbread to get his advice on whether the local poor had the right to ‘glean on a farmer’s land without his leave’. Whitbread made clear that they did not. [2. Alan F Cirket (ed), Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 36]

In the second case, this time, a gleaner approached the magistrate. Elizabeth Kilby ‘complained of abuse in the field’ whilst she was gleaning, and Whitbread quickly dismissed the case. [3. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 44]. The final case, heard two years later, involved a Biggleswade woman, Ann Thomas, who complained that a local shoemaker, James Pope had not paid for her gleaning, owing her over three shillings. [4. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 89] This shows the value that gleaning had for poor people – often women.

Ann was reliant on selling her gleanings to improve her income, and the fact that she had visited Samuel Whitbread at Southill –  a four mile walk away – suggests that the owed money was an important part of this income. She got little satisfaction from the magistrate, though, with Whitbread simply referring her to the local constable for help.

These cases show the continued tension between landowners and the labouring poor after Steel v Houghton had been determined. The poorer members of rural societies clearly continued to glean, and to see gleaning as a valuable source of income and as their right. Conversely, landowners, encouraged by the 1788 case, believed that the poor no longer had such a right – but to ensure that they were within their right to stop them from gleaning, they would seek legal advice if necessary.

Long-established habits died hard, and gleaning took a while to die.

For more on gleaning and the Steel v Houghton case, see Peter King’s article, ‘Legal change, customary rights and social conflict in the late eighteenth century: the origins of the Great Gleaning Case of 1788’ (Law and History Review, 10:1, Spring 1992)

Detective Caminada and the Manchester Cab Mystery

UnknownToday, Criminal Historian is privileged to have a very timely guest post by Angela Buckley, author of new book The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada.

Here, Angela focuses on a particular case that needed the skills of Victorian detective Caminada…


125 years ago today, the perpetrator of the Manchester Cab Mystery stood trial for a sickening crime that had shocked the citizens of Victorian Manchester and tested Detective Chief Inspector Jerome Caminada to the limits. This was Caminada’s most baffling case and he would need all the brilliant powers of deduction of Sherlock Holmes to solve it and bring the killer to justice.

On the evening of 26 February 1889, a well-respected businessman hailed a cab on the steps of Manchester Cathedral with a young man. Just over an hour later the cabman found John Fletcher dead. His companion had vanished. As the shocking news hit the headlines the following morning, this puzzling mystery was placed in the capable hands of Detective Caminada.

There were no marks of violence on John Fletcher’s body and the initial report of the hospital surgeon suggested that he had died of alcohol poisoning (the paper merchant was a habitual gin drinker) due to a lethal, and probably accidental, mix with chloral hydrate, but the absence of money and valuables on his body indicated a far more sinister explanation.

Detective Caminada opened his investigation by interviewing possible witnesses, including the cabman who had discovered the victim, and the landlady of a public house where the two men had stopped for a drink. He gradually began to build a picture of the final movements of John Fletcher and a description of his elusive acquaintance.

Despite the fact that the post mortem was inconclusive about whether Fletcher had been deliberately poisoned, Caminada followed his instinct and deduced that there was a connection between the presence of chloral hydrate in the victim’s stomach contents and illegal prizefighting, as the drug was used to subdue opponents in the ring.

Using his encyclopedic knowledge of the criminal fraternity, he compared the description of his suspect with likely candidates and soon came to the conclusion that the perpetrator might have been Charlie Parton, son of a beerhouse keeper, who used chloral to drug fighters to rig the betting. The unravelling of this baffling case would bear all the hallmarks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Detective Caminada linked the murder with the theft of chloral hydrate from a druggist’s in Liverpool, Parton’s home city, and found two previous intended victims who had had similar experiences of being drugged and robbed.

In a startling twist, he located a key witness who had actually seen Parton pouring liquid from a vial into Fletcher’s beer on the night of his death. 18-year-old Charlie Parton was arrested and, on 19 March 1889, just three weeks after the crime, he was convicted of the murder of John Fletcher (his death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).

The successful and speedy resolution of the Manchester Cab Mystery was undoubtedly Detective Caminada’s finest moment and became his signature case after it was widely celebrated in the national press.

The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details, see Angela’s blog at


The Houndsditch Murder: Sex, Race and Prejudice in East End London

Nina Vassileva caught the public imagination just three years before Britain went to war. A striking image of a young woman is now the lasting impression of her – a forerunner of the iconic images of Bonnie Parker, staring defiantly at the camera.

Yet this woman, in the stylish Merry Widow hat, defied conventional perceptions of what a woman should be like. She lived in sin with a man who planned a burglary and, during a fight with the police during it, killed a policeman; she was seen as instrumental in the planning of the burglary and loyal to her criminal lover.

On 16 December 1910, an attempt was made to bore a hole through a wall into a jeweller’s at No 9 Exchange Buildings. The police, coming onto the scene, were fired at from No 11, and a man in that building, George Gardstein – referred to throughout the later trial as ‘The Russian’ –  was shot and later died.

Three policemen were also shot and killed – Sergeant Bentley, Sergeant Tucker and Constable Choat, of the City Police. Bentley died from wounds to the shoulder and neck; Choat from six bullet wounds; Tucker from gunshots to the heart and stomach.

Nina Vassileva was caught, with two men, helping her injured lover Gardstein out of Exchange Buildings after the gunfire. The focus was on her appearance from the start – she was ‘wearing a dark toque and carried a muff. Her height was about 5ft 4in, and she was rather good-looking’ [1. ‘The Houndsditch Crime’, 11 February 1911, 4]. One witness noted her habit of wearing black boots rather than shoes; another that she had naturally ‘flaxen’ hair and liked to wear a white hat [2. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].

Nina, also known as Lena, was 23 years old, a cigarette maker originally from Yekaterinoslav in Russia [3. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography], who had come to England around four years earlier. She claimed to be a political refugee. Her appearance resulted in excited descriptions in the press that were, at her trial, seen as influencing at least one of the witnesses. Isaac Levy was made to admit that ‘prior to my picking out Vassileva…I had read some descriptions in the newspapers.’ [4. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].

Zurka Dubof and Jacob Peters were charged with the murder of Charles Tucker; together with Nina Vassileva and John Rosen, they were also charged with feloniously harbouring Gardstein. All were also charged with conspiring to break and enter Henry Harris’s jeweller’s shop with the intent to steal his goods [6. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75].

At their trial at London’s Central Criminal Court in May 1911, the men were acquitted of all charges, but Nina was convicted of conspiracy in the burglary and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Her sentence was regarded as lenient; the jury took into account the fact that she had previously been of good character. But there was also disbelief that she could have acted independently; they noted that she had ‘come under the influence of Gardstein’ and that must have made her act as she did.

The judge, meanwhile, stated that without the jury’s recommendation to leniency, he ‘certainly would have deported her’.

This was not the end of the story, though, and Nina did not meekly accept her situation. On 20 June 1911, The Times reported [7. ‘Court of Criminal Appeal’, The Times, 20 June 1911, 3] that Nina had appealed against her conviction, arguing that the judge a the trial, Mr Justice Grantham, had misdirected the jury.

He had told the jury that all the accused had been ‘living under false names in order that their antecedents in Russia should not become known’ – Nina denied this –  that Nina had taken part in hiring premises for the purpose of committing the crime – she said there was   no evidence that she had done so – and that she had lived with Gardstein in order to conceal his preparations for the burglary. Nina argued that, in fact, she had simply lived with Gardstein as his mistress, and had not known what he was intending to do.

The Crown centred its arguments, in response, on Nina’s looks and domestic circumstances. They argued that although she may have lived with Gardstein at Exchange Buildings for ‘merely domestic purposes’, they were allowed to infer a conspiracy because all the other people implicated in the case ‘had homes elsewhere’, so why should she want to live so near the place where the crime took place?

At the original trial, a local pub manager, Richard Cohen, had stated that Nina’s hair had been ‘a lot darker’ when he had originally seen her [8. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75] – why had she dyed her hair, unless it was to make identification of her as being at the scene of the crime more difficult?

Despite these arguments, it was found that the judge had misdirected the jury; he had stated that there was ‘strong evidence’ that Nina was implicated in the burglary when this was not the case. As a result, Nina’s conviction was quashed [9. ‘Court of Criminal Appeal’, The Times, 21 June 1911, 3].

The case and its coverage shows how xenophobia and fears about immigration were key issues at the time. Press coverage of the murders noted how the coroner’s jury at the London Hospital had called the attention of the government ‘to the increase in the criminal element among the alien population of the East-end of London’ [8. ‘The Houndsditch Crime’, The Times, 11 February 1911, 4].

The Sidney Street Siege of 1911, which followed the Houndsditch Murder.

The Sidney Street Siege of 1911, which followed the Houndsditch Murder.

In the trial, too, racial and ethnic stereotypes were evident. A police superintendent, John Ottoway, noted that some four years prior to the trial, there had been a ‘large incursion to this country of Russian Jews’. However, although he was not aware of Russians being subject to political or racial persecutions, he grudgingly admitted that ‘no doubt the immigrants are of the respectable class as well as otherwise.’ [10. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75)

Ottoway’s evidence also drew attention back to Nina’s sexual life and the gap between people’s initial perceptions of her and their revised view on her ‘respectability’. He said, ‘I suppose she was just a poor girl without superfluous goods. I was not aware that she had been the mistress of a man.’ [11. Old Bailey Online, t19110425-75]

After her conviction was quashed, Nina went back to life in the East End. She died in Smithfield on 24 February 1963 [12. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. The event that she was accused of being involved in, the Houndsditch Murder, and the act that followed it, the  Siege of Sidney Street’, are not forgotten today. However, it is worth drawing attention to the sexual and racial stereotypes that were focused on during the trial and press coverage of the affair. It highlights the suspicion that immigration was viewed with, and the expectation that crime would follow if immigrants were allowed to settle in England.

It also highlights the inability of some to see women as human beings rather than as objects to look at; the focus with Nina was on her attractive appearance and the way she dressed. This, combined with her willingness to live ‘in sin’ with a man made her a fascinating creature for the press, and heralded the way that sections of the tabloid press today objectifies and portrays women.

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