Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: crime (page 1 of 7)

Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.

 

NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

Mr Dumpig the butcher and his New Year murder

With a surname like his, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Dumpig would grow up to be a butcher. There was no reason, though, why he had to be a butcher of people – and, in particular, of his baby son.

However, in January 1904, Mr Dumpig, a 28-year-old German immigrant to London, was charged with the murder of eight-month-old Walter Dumpig. On the evening of 2 January, he appeared – flanked by two warders – in Islington Coroner’s Court, to hear the inquest into his son’s death. Unable to speak English – or not well enough to understand the coroner – a German-speaking Met Police officer, Constable Schneider, acted as his interpreter.

The records indicate that the Dumpigs were recent immigrants to Britain, for less than a year before the awful events of New Year’s Eve, 1903, they had married back in Berlin; Adolf Otto Louis Dumpig, aged 27, had wed Selma Ida Antonie Knobel (known as Antonie) on 2 February 1903. Antonie was then just 21 years old.

11 months after that happy even, Walter Schroeder’s poor, mourning, mother, Antonie Dumpig, was called on to detail what had happened on New Year’s Eve, 1903. She said that Adolf was generally a sober man, but on New Year’s Eve, he had been out drinking, ‘to keep up the New Year’. Antonie had been left at their home at 295 City Road to celebrate on her own, as she had to look after the baby – obviously, Adolf had not thought to stay with her and mark the night together.

The couple rented just two rooms in the building on City Road, from a clerk named William Woods. One room was on the first floor, and the other in the basement. Woods lived in other rooms in the same building.

Adolf returned home just after midnight, and made some hot rum for the couple to drink together. Combined with his earlier drinking, though, this made him very drunk – and he rapidly became violent, scaring Antonie so much that she ran from the kitchen into another room. Adolf followed her and locked her in that room, before returning to the kitchen. Their baby son Walter – asleep in a bassinet – was left in that room with his drunk, violent father.

Imagine Antonie’s desperation. She was locked in a room, unable to get out and get to her child. Meanwhile, she could hear Adolf drunkenly breaking windows, shouting, and heard signs of violence. The noise was so great that at one point, around 1am, their landlord William Woods ventured out of his room to see what the matter was; he saw Antonie crouching in a corner of the hall, outside the door, with dripping-wet clothes, while her husband stood over her, talking to her angrily in German, before hitting her as she stood to go into the room.

Woods had the courage to try and intervene, but was then himself hit by Adolf. Instead of trying to reason with this drunk, angry, butcher, he did the sensible thing and ran out to fetch a policeman (other reports, however, state that it was Antonie who herself summoned the attention of a passing policeman, by shouting out from her locked room).

Antonie managed to get out of the room before the police arrived, and headed straight back to her kitchen. There, she discovered the body of her son. His throat had been cut.

The policeman who attended the scene, Sergeant Walter Lane, said that on approaching the backyard, he had found Adolf Dumpig sitting on a wall, so drunk that he appeared asleep. His hands had been covered in blood, and Sergeant Lane’s fears had immediately been roused (apparently, he was suspicious as soon as he noticed that Dumpig was not wearing either a hat or an overcoat…). Dumpig was not coherent; he was still very drunk, vomiting, and reeked of rum.

Soon after, Inspector Laban Lynes of G Division discovered a butcher’s knife in the yard. Adolf Dumpig – a journeyman butcher, but who had been unemployed for some time – had killed his own son with his work tool. He was taken to the City Road Police Station and charged with murder; his reply, which was translated by the Worship Street Police Court’s interpreter, Aaron Lichenstein [sic] was to his wife:

“Did I do this, or did Antonie? Speak the truth, say what you did to the child; I was out last evening, I never done it; should it come that I should murder my child that I love so dearly?”

By this time, it was 4.45am, and although he was still a little bit drunk, it was thought that he had ‘recovered’ a lot from earlier, to the extent that he could understand what was being said to him.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Dumpig the Butcher, and he was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. On 11 January 1904, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, the jury ‘strongly recommended’ him to mercy. This may have been because of contemporary concerns about how drink could affect even the most law-abiding of people; or sympathy towards his unemployed status, which may have led to stress and therefore a desire for drink.

Yet this remained a man who abused his wife; who tried to shift the blame for his son’s violent death onto her – the ultimate betrayal of trust by a man towards his spouse. Dumpig was a butcher in more than one way; he killed animals for a living, his son because he was drunk; and he tried to hang his wife by accusing her of killing her child.

 

Sources:

Portsmouth Evening News, 4 January 1904, p.1; The Salisbury Times, 8 January 1904, p.2 (both via British Newspaper Archive); Berlin Marriages, 1874-1920 on AncestryOld Bailey Online, ref number t19040111-131. CapitalPunishmentUK does not list Dumpig as having been hanged in 1904, and, as this suggests, the jury’s plea for mercy was successful. The 1911 census for Dorset shows that Adolf Dumpig, born 1876 in Berlin [and described as a stone dresser], was at that time a prisoner at Portland Convict Prison.

 

Rogues Gallery – Faces of Crime

Highly recommended this month is the free exhibition Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime, 1870-1917, which is at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh until 1 December.

The centre of the small, but perfectly formed, exhibition is five photograph albums that survived from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, detailing some of the many Scottish criminals who were photographed after committing offences. Alongside these are historical trial records from the NRS.

Individuals whose stories are covered in the exhibition include Eugene Chantrelle, the French-born teacher who poisoned his wife Elizabeth in Edinburgh in 1878, and who is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Mr Hyde, as well as lesser-known characters such as Margaret Reid, a servant convicted of theft and fraud in 1899, and thief George Anderson, who worked as a miner and watchmaker but who was convicted in 1901, at the age of 36.

More details can be found here; visit the exhibition Monday to Friday, 9.30am until 4.30pm, at the NRS, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. There is also a great-sounding series of talks arranged to tie-in with the exhibition, and details of these can be found online here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

Reckless turnip throwing – a Hallowe’en crime

A seasonal turnip, by Geni at Wikipedia

It was Hallowe’en – 31 October – in 1899, and a group of men and boys were celebrating the night in Yell – one of the Shetland islands in the north of Scotland. They were full of the joys of autumn – and possibly alcohol – but one man was not enjoying the pumpkin season, and had no desire to join in the fun.

This was Gilbert Tulloch, who lived at New House near the Yell Sound. He had no wish to be annoyed by the lively individuals outside, and so remained obstinately in his house, bolting his door against intruders. However, he had forgotten to bring his dog in, and the poor animal, stuck outside, started to bark.

Something then struck the door, and Gilbert, reluctantly, opened the door to quickly let the dog back in. However, he immediately saw a group of youths around 60 feet away, with one, Arthur Robertson, near the door. Gilbert spoke to him, presumably to ask him to keep further away from his house, or to request that he not strike his door. Robertson took offence and threw the nearest thing to hand at Mr Tulloch. That thing turned out to be a turnip.

The turnip struck Gilbert full in the face, and it was so heavy that it broke his nose, loosened five of his teeth, and struck him deaf in his right ear. Blood coursed down his face, making him appear as though he was a Hallowe’en creature rather than a persecuted householder.

Arthur Robertson was prosecuted, and duly convicted of a rather unusual-sounding offence: that of recklessly throwing a turnip. Because Gilbert had been so badly injured by it, the local sheriff decided that although Robertson had no prior convictions, he could not be convicted of this offence under the First Offenders Act. The sheriff further said that although he had ‘no objection to boys having larks’, in this case, it had led to both annoyance and injury to another man.

Robertson was fined 10 shillings – if he couldn’t, or refused to, pay, he would have to go to prison for four days instead. The sheriff noted that he hoped this punishment ‘would be taken as a warning by the youths of the county, and prevent them carrying their larks beyond the degree of moderation.’

 

Source: Shetland Times, 16 December 1899, p.5

Review: West Indians – Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police?

The Museum of London at Docklands

This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit –  and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.

However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.

The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,

Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.

A map of the Port of London, focal point of the display

The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.

There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).

I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.

Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames Marine Police

The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.

The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.

West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Locating Lydia: Tracing the life of a female convict

An 1879 image of Lydia Lloyd

I’ve been spending a bit of time delving into the Digital Panopticon’s many cases recently, and trying to find out information about them outside of their criminal records, to see how much of a life can be reassembled from this distance in time.

These men and women were more than their criminal career – what did they do outside of this, who were their families, who were their friends?

Unfortunately, of course, you can find out more about some individuals than others. With women, matters get more complicated – they might state that they were married, but you can’t locate a husband; they might go by one name, but was this their maiden name or married name, or even an alias?

They might claim to have been born in a particular place, in a particular year – but they may have had reason to fudge this to the authorities, perhaps not wanting to be traced, or for their families to face ignominy.

In some cases, most of what you know about them is from their criminal record – and it serves to remind us how that criminal record might actually be all that prevents them from becoming forgotten.

A small part of Lydia’s long record on the Digital Panopticon website (although the top entry appears to be for a different individual)

One such case is that of Lydia Lloyd. Her presence in the Digital Panopticon is an extensive one; she was regularly recorded as a criminal from 1865, when she claimed to be 22 years old, to 1886, when she was released from Woking Women’s Convict Prison, aged 43.

She is certainly present in the 1881 census, as an inmate of Woking Prison, and she is also present on the Old Bailey Online website. But outside of her criminal record, and that one census, I’ve struggled to locate her – or locate her with any confidence.

Lydia Lloyd claimed to have been born in 1843 in Wolverhampton. During her criminal career she described herself as a widow, a laundress, who had one child – in 1873, this daughter was said to be aged 15, so born around 1858.

No censuses prior to 1881 list a Lydia Lloyd born at around the right time in the Wolverhampton district. There seems to be no marriage of a Lydia to a Mr Lloyd; she would have been 15 when she had her daughter, so the marriage – if it had, in fact, taken place – presumably couldn’t have been much earlier than that, although it could, of course, have been later.

The births of seven Lydias were registered in the Wolverhampton district between the first quarter of 1842 and the last quarter of 1843. None, that I can find, married a man by the name of Lloyd. The 1861 census has no Lloyd family that could be Lydia’s.

In July 1873, Lydia Lloyd was charged with being drunk in Banbury, Oxfordshire, on the evening of 14 July, a local police constable stating that she had been so ‘very drunk’ that ‘quite a crowd’ had started following her round.

She was fined 5s and 6s costs, but failed to pay, and so was sent to prison for a week, according to the Banbury Advertiser of 17 July 1873. The Oxford Journal of two days later described her as being a widow, living in Calthorpe Street, in the centre of Banbury.

In October 1873, described as a laundress, she was charged with stealing a sack and skirt, worth 4s, from Oxford on 23 July and on the same day, also stealing underwear from a man on the Woodstock Road.

As with the previous offence, she was described as having been drunk at the time, and she had also struck a man across his back with the sack. When she had been questioned by police, she claimed to have ‘brought the sack and its contents from the Potteries in Staffordshire’.

The record of two charges against Lydia, from Ancestry

Lydia’s defence was described as ‘rambling’ – she said she had gone to a public house to get some drink, and afterwards went to sleep.

On waking up, ‘she was told to be off and take the sack with her’. She was convicted of one of the offences, and when sentence was passed, she was described as ‘an old offender’. She was given five years in prison, and a further five years under police surveillance (Oxford Journal, 11 October 1873).

Her most serious offence was heard in March 1879 at the Central Criminal Court. She was described as being aged 36, of no fixed abode, and a laundress. She was charged with stealing a shawl worth £1 from the Railway Hotel in Finchley, having been found hiding under a bed.

The press noted that she had several previous convictions, and was currently on a ticket-of-leave; she was convicted of theft and sentenced to ten years in prison (Hendon & Finchley Times, 8 March 1879).

Asked to explain the theft, all she could say, according to the papers, was “I came down from London and was drinking at the bar with a man, but how I came in the house, I don’t know.” She did not say where she had come to London from (Hendon & Finchley Times, 1 March 1879).

The Old Bailey Online records her as saying she had lost the train home from Finchley ‘and a young man gave her some whisky, stating that his father was the landlord of the hotel, and offered to pay for a bed for her; she drank several times, and remembered nothing till she found herself on the bed next morning’.

After her release from prison in 1886, Lydia disappears from the record. Searching for her both on ancestry websites and in the press leaves names but no corroborating evidence that it’s her.

Is Lydia the same Lydia Lloyd who ran a coffee house on Walsall’s High Street in 1893, and who prosecuted a 16-year-old for obtaining 6s by false pretences from her? Another newspaper disproves it, describing her as the wife of the coffee or cocoa house’s manager – not a widow, and not a previous convict who had made a new life for herself (Walsall Advertiser, 25 February 1893).

Perhaps she married again; perhaps she had never been married in the first place, but adopted a name and a marital status that made her daughter a respectable legitimate child. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that this was a Midlands woman who had problems with drink; she stole, not just once, but frequently, as her numerous trials for theft attest. She was around 5 feet 2 inches; she was Catholic; she had grey eyes.

We can see her photograph; although she was convicted of thefts, the Digital Panopticon team record that she engaged in prostitution as well as thieving.

As a prisoner, she fought with others, was regarded as quarrelsome and insolent, struck an officer, refused to do what she was told, and spent time in solitary confinement. She slammed her cell door in a fit of temper;  she laughed in chapel; she disliked the rules of prison life.

She moved around; she caught trains; she lived not only in Wolverhampton, but in Banbury – a provincial market town in north Oxfordshire – and in London.

Was she moving in search of work, or had she moved to live with a partner? Could she not make a living as a laundress, and had to seek money by stealing, or was it her drink that ended her legitimate work?

What seems clear is that if it wasn’t for her unsuccessful but fairly extensive criminal career, Lydia Lloyd would be forgotten about, like so many other Victorian women from the lower echelons of society. Thanks to the Digital Panopticon and other online sources of criminal records, however, a timeline of part of her life, at least, can be assembled and remembered.

 

 

When female prisoners helped create a museum

The V&A Museum of Childhood

Many of us know that prisoners were often put to work on meaningless, soul-destroying tasks, from the treadwheel to picking oakum- but did you know that they also created beautiful things on occasion?

Next time you visit the architecturally lovely V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, don’t just look up and around – look down, too.

For the floor you walk on – featuring marble fish-scales – was made by female convicts at Woking Prison in the 19th century.

They might not have been able to see their finished handiwork, but you can: and it’s good to see that the Museum acknowledges their contribution, too. See my slideshow below for a look at the prisoners’ floor…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tracing convicts with the Digital Panopticon

The DP homepage

A few days ago, I was in the grand surroundings of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall to be at the official launch of the Digital Panopticon. This huge project has been undertaken by researchers at the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania over the past couple of years.

The team has gathered together over four million records, aimed at letting users of its free website find out how punishment affected the lives of 90,000 individuals who were convicted of offences at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1925. These include people who were transported to Australia.

St George’s Hall – former home of crown and civil courts, and so an appropriate venue for the DP launch and conference

The website is invaluable for crime, social, and family historians – it contains a huge amount of information about individuals, which can include not only their basic details and criminal record, but also their eye and hair colour.

In many cases, a ‘life archive’ has been assembled that enables users to see how an individual’s criminal career progressed, and what happened to them. This takes in data from other sites, such as Ancestry, Findmypast and The National Archives, as well as from Australian record collections.

At a more general level, researchers have found out that British convicts who were transported to Australia tended to refrain from offending once they had married and become parents; and that children born to transported convicts tended to be healthier and taller than those born to convicts in British prisons.

The website includes a ‘life of the week’, where an individual case study is looked at. One example is Mary Ann Hall, who was born around 1840. Like many other female offenders who can be found in the Digital Panopticon, she was first mentioned in terms of offending in her late 20s, but came before the courts on several occasions for both thefts and assaults. Her varied jobs, physical state (including syphilitic welts!) and relationships with family members can all be ascertained – as well as her criminal record and the places where she was incarcerated.

I can see this website being a much-used resource for many historians and researchers, and look forward to seeing what research comes out of it. Its launch came during the three-day Digital Panopticon conference this week, where several of the DP team gave papers looking at various aspects of crime and punishment, and it was clear just how much fascinating research is being done into this area.

Professor Robert Shoemaker officially launching the Digital Panopticon at St George’s Hall

Some is looking at ‘big data’ – such as Richard Ward‘s paper on the misrecording of prisoner ages, where several sources were compared to see just how accurate (or otherwise) ages were in written records, and Sharon Howard‘s analysis of the speech of defendants at the Old Bailey (where it seems that the less you said, the better your chances were – unless, conversely, you were articulate and spoke A LOT).

Others, however, are focusing on micro-histories from which we can gain an understanding of law and order at a particular time, and how it impacted on certain individuals. Several are looking at juvenile crime, and I’m following this research with interest.

The study of the history of crime is clearly thriving, and both the packed conference and the launch of the Digital Panopticon website are evidence of this. It will be interesting to see what research now follows from users of the site, now it has been launched. Watch this space!

 

Dr Lucy Williams, from the Digital Panopticon team, has written a great feature on the Digital Panopticon – an intro to the website, what it contains and how to use it – for Your Family History, the magazine I edit . This will be in the October issue, published on 26 September.

 

 

 

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

Thieving at the theatre doors

London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1840

In his memoirs, the famous, Glasgow-born detective Allan Pinkerton noted that in his adopted America in the 19th  century, there were very few thieves who worked ‘in all fashions and in all places’ – instead, they tended to specialise, focusing in on a particular type of theft, or a preferred location.

He noted that one class of thieves were mainly juveniles, and known as ‘theatre thieves’. They would hang around outside the doors of theatres, and pickpocket theatre-goers – undetectable in the ‘ingoing and outgoing rush’.

Allan Pinkerton, photograph from the Library of Congress

These young pickpockets knew that the risks were relatively small; if their victims noticed their losses, they would be reluctant to report them to the police, because they might have to appear as witnesses in subsequent trials, and this was not something they wanted to do. In addition, the generally young age of theatre thieves meant that their punishment, if caught and convicted, might be more lenient than that meted out to older thieves.

Although Pinkerton had been referring to the situation in the US, the congregation of pickpockets outside theatres was common on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1892, the Illustrated Police News commented on the ‘gangs’ of pickpockets who hung around the theatres on the Strand, particularly at the time when shows were ending, and audiences would be coming out of the theatre doors – usually between 11pm and midnight.

They took advantage of the crowds, and of the weather, for when it was raining, cabs could take some time to reach the theatres to take theatregoers home, and they would be forced to huddle outside the theatres. They tended to work in groups, surrounding individuals and ‘hustling’ them until a watch, chain or purse had been snatched from a pocket.

Men were particularly at risk if they were escorting a female relative or friend along the road towards a cab; thieves would assume that his attention was distracted by looking after his companion, and mark him as a ‘fit victim’.

The police were constantly on the alert for these offenders, but they were reactive rather than proactive, and this caused complaint; it was suggested that they should monitor the local area prior to the shows ending, and ‘warn off obviously suspicious characters’ who were hanging around the exit doors.

A depiction of the Strand in the 19th century

The prevalence of these characters, standing around on the Strand, was described not only as a scandal, but also ‘a disgrace to London, a danger to residents and visitors, and a matter of wonder to the foreigner from every other civilised capital in Europe.’

However, the thieves were not to be deterred by the police, because theatre-goers were seen as easy targets. They were dressed up; they had money; they were easily distracted not only by the performance but by the company they were with – friends, relatives or partners who they were either deep in conversation with during intervals or on leaving the theatres, or busy escorting home on foot or to a cab. They weren’t looking out for the thieves, and the thieves knew it.

Plays about thieves might be popular in both the metropolis and the provinces – but the reality wasn’t as entertaining…

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that newspapers continued to report cases of theft relating to theatre audiences, such as when 23-year-old bookbinder William Brown, a ‘notorious’ West End theatre thief, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1906, and even in 1930, theatre-goers were still being singled out by pickpockets.

One ‘new ruse’ reported that year involved thieves dressing up in evening clothes and attending the theatre during intervals. They would follow an audience member to the cloakroom, where they would squirt flour and water onto his coat, and then call his attention to the mark left.

The victim would take off his coat, find a clothes brush and try to clean off the mark – it would only be when he put on his coat again that he would find his wallet missing from it. Several identical thefts were reported to Scotland Yard, and it was said that pickpockets were making ‘good hauls’ from the theatres every night.

Therefore, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the theatre was a place of entertainment – but also of criminal activity. The targeting of theatre-goers by thieves was just one example.

You can read more about crimes relating to the theatre – as well as about the professional and private lives of Victorian entertainment professionals – in my new book, Life On The Victorian Stage, which is out now, published by Pen & Sword.

It is available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, and all good booksellers.

 

Older posts

© 2018 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑