Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: January 2016

How Victorian prisoners communicated

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story...

Robert Clibburn, a prisoner at Dorchester in 1898 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry). Sadly, probably not the Robert mentioned in this story…

In 1898, a conspiracy case came before the Westminster Police Court, involving two prisoners. One of the interesting details it recorded involved the methods prisoners used to communicate with each other, and how these methods could be used for nefarious aims.

The case was brought against Robert Cliburn, otherwise known as Robert Harris, Robert Collins, Robert Robertson, Robert Stephenson and Robert Carew – he liked a good alias. Robert was described as a well-dressed young gentleman, a former telegraph messenger in the West End of London, but who was currently of no occupation. He was accused of conspiring with two convicts who were currently in prison on robbery and blackmailing charges.

The two convicts in question gave evidence in the case – a Mr Allen and Mr Sanders. Allen had been sent to Pentonville Prison the previous September, and Sanders was brought from Portland prison to Pentonville the following January. It was noted that from his arrival, Sanders was not allowed to communicate with Allen, and to prevent him doing so, he was not allowed to go to the prison chapel (the defendant’s counsel, Mr Geoghegan, commented, “Is preventing a man going to chapel a punishment or a reward?” to which the Pentonville warder, Mr Parkes, admitted it was “not exactly a punishment”).

An extract from the debate about prisoners' means of communication, 1898

An extract from the debate about prisoners’ means of communication, 1898. It refers to a book written by William Hamilton Thomson, who had been confined in Millbank and Dartmoor Prisons, about his experiences of the prison system.

Parkes admitted that prisoners tended to communicate with each other a lot in chapel. In places like  Lincoln Castle, the chapel had separate booths for each prisoner, thus cutting them off physically from head other, but apparently this did not stop channels of communication. Where there weren’t separate booths, prisoners talked to each other by mouthing, and even if the warden tried to stop them, they could find other means of communication. In addition, in their cells, they could also communicate with each other, even though their doors were closed. Mr Geoghegan and Mr Parkes had the following conversation:

“In some of these patent prisons they communicate with a system of raps?”

“Yes, they do. I do not say they do it in chapel; of course, it is only spirit-rapping there.” Loud laughter in the court.

“I am speaking of the cells. They use a sort of Morse telegraphic code?”

“Yes, they do; but they must be located in the same corridor. And then they can communicate through a large number of intervening cells.”

“A prisoner in no. 1 can be heard in no. 12, nine or ten cells away?”

“It is so. If they understand the telegraphic system, they can communicate from one end of the ward to the other by knocking.”

“And whatever the warders do, they can’t prevent that? It shows the march of science?”

“No, they can’t stop it.”

The case showed the ingenuity of prisoners, and their basic human desire to have conversations and interaction with others. Speech was not necessary, but a creative approach was. Where they were visible to each other, they could mouth conversations; but where they weren’t, they created an alternative system of code, fostering a sense of identity among them, and separating themselves from their warders.

Although in this case, communication between Allen and Sanders may have been used to plan further offences, it was also a means of surviving in prison, of getting ‘one over’ on the authorities by being able to forge relationships with each other through alternative forms of communication.

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 - presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there...

Robert Clibburn was a prisoner at Portland in 1901 – presumably, he was able to communicate with other prisoners there…

Source: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 30 January 1898

Ancestry puts notices of wanted criminals online

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1831

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1831

Today, Ancestry has published more criminal records online. They are notices taken from The Police Gazette, which was used to pass on details of suspected criminals across the UK, and offered rewards for information.

The records include details of wanted suspected criminals, offenders in custody, and missing persons, and cover the periods 1812-1902 and 1921-1927. They can be searched by name, age, type, date and location of crime and will be of interest to anyone wanting to find out about a particular offender or even a victim of crime. Some also include police sketches.

The Police Gazette started publication in 1772, its full name being The Police Gazette; or, Hue and Cry. It dropped the last part of its title in 1839. The publication was produced by the Home Office and the Met Police until 1883, when the Met took on full responsibility for it. It was eagerly read, with cases used as the sources of newspaper reports. As far back as 1828, one regional paper noted that:

“The Police Gazette, or Hue and Cry, is absolutely entertaining.”

Michael Ostrog

Michael Ostrog

One of the offenders listed in The Police Gazette records released by Ancestry is Michael Ostrog (c.1833-1904), who was one of the suspects in the Whitechapel Murders – also known as the Jack the Ripper murders.

It was not surprising that Ostrog came under suspicion. He was a Russian-born con man, a thief who had claimed to have had surgical training and worked in the Russian Navy.

Ostrog had been charged with larceny, but failed to report to the police after being released from the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in 1888. The record noted his use of aliases – which included Bertrand Ashley and Claude Clayton – and described him as ‘a dangerous man’. His physical description is also given, noting moles on his shoulder and neck and ‘corporal punishment marks’.

Doubt has since been case on Ostrog’s involvement in the Whitechapel murders, as he may have been in jail in France during the period when the five supposed victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ were killed. He continued to commit crime long after his description appeared in The Police Gazette, and in 1894, when he was charged with obtaining jewellery under false pretences in Eton, he was described in the press as:

“a sinister-looking elderly man.”

Ostrog’s defence when he appeared before the Buckinghamshire magistrates was that he could not have committed the crime, as ‘he was in Banstead lunatic asylum’ at the time.

An 1829 edition of The Police Gazette (via the British Newspaper Archive)

An 1829 edition of The Police Gazette (via the British Newspaper Archive)

The Police Gazette for certain periods can already be searched via the British Newspaper Archive (the majority of its records come within the period 1850-1899, as far as I can see); this Ancestry release gives researchers a wider time period to search, and will also be useful for cross-referencing, as sometimes a search engine on one site can fail to find something but a different site’s search will get a result. In addition, if you have an Ancestry subscription but not a BNA one, you will now be able to access these fascinating records for the first time.

Sources: Nottingham Evening Post, 14 June 1894; Sheffield Independent, 9 February 1828




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