Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Clerkenwell Police Court

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EXTERIORLY, Clerkenwell Police Court presents a somewhat Imposing appearance in the not very fashionable thoroughfare in which it is situated ; but the "Court" is at the rear, and as far as the general public are concerned, the approaches to it are as unpretending as those to the kitchen offices of a third-rate dwelling-house. At the further end of a side gateway there is found a dingy back door, which opens on a small waiting-room, with an asphalted floor. Against the wall, on two sides, a form is fixed, and the walls themselves are adorned with playful exercises of artistic talent, the work of idle hands for which, for the time being, Satan could find no other mischief to do, and with pencilled notes and queries puzzling to the uninitiated, but possibly pregnant with meaning to those to whom they are addressed. Here by ten o'clock in the morning assembles a motley crowd, consisting by far the greater part of women, some who have come to see the "fun," [-93-]  just as they would go to any other public entertainment; but many with anxious faces and brimful of a story to tell, and the purpose of whose visit is to seek magisterial advice and counsel. These are admitted to the Court before the same privilege is allowed those who have merely their curiosity to gratify. At length, however, the public are free to enter. There is plenty of room for the Magistrate, and for counsel, reporters, and witnesses; but as much cannot be said as regards the accommodation provided for such of Her Majesty's loyal subjects as may choose to avail themselves of their right to be present. The space set apart for this purpose may be, perhaps, a little larger than the interior of an ordinary omnibus; and, if like the vehicle mentioned, it were decently provided with seats, would comfortably contain fifteen or twenty persons. As everybody is compelled to stand, however, with close packing and tight squeezing, the box will hold as many as thirty; but, should the fortunate occupiers of the front row chance to be tall people, the four and twenty behind them might as well be in the next street for all they can see of the Court's proceedings. But this is no time for discussing such matters.
    "Silence!" Justice occupies the judgment seat.
    A wonderful picture-gallery the mind of a metropolitan magistrate would be, supposing it retained an impress of all the odd types of civilised humanity that are constantly cropping up before him for his contemplation. The "drunk and disorderly" cases disposed of, a  gentleman in court whispers an usher respecting his own case, and is informed that it will be taken immediately after the one about to be brought on.
    "It won't take two minutes," says the usher; "it is only a pauper case."
    Whereon a burly, well-fed looking man enters the witness-box on the one side, while on the other comes limping and slouching in, a poor wretch of such extraordinary appearance that his coming on a stage as an actor in a farce or comedy would be the instant signal for shouts of laughter. The comfortable man in the witness-box, having kissed the Book, says:-
    "Last night, your worship, the prisoner applied for a night's lodging at our casual ward, and was admitted. This morning my at-[-94-]tention was called to him, and I found that he had torn up every article of his clothing to shreds, his excuse being that they were no longer fit to wear. So," continued the superintendent of casual labour, "I procured him a suit of clothes, and gave him into custody."
    And lo! the offender and the "suit" he was dressed in. Probably he would have proved a difficult subject to fit had he been taken in hand by the most accomplished tailor. He was so horribly thin that his naked body, in proportion with his enormous head, and the jungle of iron-grey hair that surmounted it, must have appeared almost as the knob of a walking-stick as compared with its length. But the "suit!" The outer garment that draped his upper part had seemingly once been a soldier's grey overcoat, now frayed and tattered, and as riddled with holes as though the soldier had worn it in a storm of bullets. Its long sleeves overlapped the pauper's hands, and hung on his lean arms loose as the coat-sleeves of a scarecrow hangs on the sticks that extend it. As the man wore it buttoned up to his chin his possession of a waistcoat was a matter of doubt; but with a little cutting and contriving, there was ample surplus material beyond the necessary length of his trouser legs to have furnished a double- breasted specimen of the article mentioned. As it was, the trousers were rolled up about each bony shank like a Turk's turban, and two clumps of shapeless clay-coloured leather, representing boots, completed his costume.
    His plea in extenuation - delivered in the hollow voice of one who is heard speaking from the depth of a well - was that the "old uns was too horful to wear any longer."
    "Twenty-one days' hard labour," remarked the magistrate.
    And the grey great-coat and what is encased in it slinks off to the cells - which is of not so much consequence as what such a poor wretch will do when his three weeks of treadmill have expired, and he is once more again thrown on his own resources. It is very proper, of course, to observe the strictest economy in such cases, and to give as little encouragement as possible to tramps, cadgers, and "casuals," who tear up their clothes; but what manner of use is there in discharging a man from prison in such an outrageous "rig" that the very dogs will bark at him, to say nothing of street boys. But he has a respite of three weeks from the odious "suit "- he certainly would never be able to keep step on the treadmill in that long-tailed coat - and there is no telling what may happen meanwhile. In less than a minute he is wiped from the memory of the magistrate and the Court as though, instead of a man, it were a mere smudge on the boards, and that a whisk of a wet mop had obliterated it.   
    But little time elapses between the escorting out of one prisoner and the appearance of another. Before the Clerk of the Court can fold a fresh deposition paper and settle to his desk, a woman stands in the dock-a mere girl, rather - bare-headed and poorly dressed, with an unwashed face and uncombed hair, and who carries in her arms a child of eight or nine months old. It is bare-headed too, and one need not be told that mother and baby have passed the previous night in a Police Cell. The eyes of the prisoner are [-95-] swollen, and it is evident that she has been crying. What is the charge against her? Steps into the witness box an officer of the Court with his arms full of odd- looking parcels, that look like large roley-poley puddings wrapped in dirty pudding cloths, and to each of which a little ticket is pinned. He ranges the parcels on the ledge in front, and, unpinning them, discloses several articles of bed clothing, to wit, one blanket, two sheets, and a counterpane, and a child's frock. A decent old woman appears to prosecute, and tremulously takes oath that she will tell the truth and nothing but it. Her story is soon told. She had let a furnished room to the prisoner and her husband, and one day, finding that they neither of them returned home, she made an examination, and missed from the apartment the property then lying on the ledge before her, and which was afterwards discovered at a neighbouring pawnbroker's. Call Mr. Pawnbroker's assistant. Does he recognise the prisoner in the dock? He does. He served her himself. There are four pledges, and she brought three of them, and a man brought the fourth, which was the blanket, and which he pawned for two shillings. The sum lent on the other three pledges amounts to five and threepence.
    "Have you anything to ask the witness, prisoner?"
    "No, it is quite true," says the miserable creature, in a dry voice and with a quivering lip.
    "What have you to say in answer to the charge?"
    "I've only got this to say, sir," and then for several seconds she could say no more for sobbing and crying, during which the child in her arms hugged her round the neck and tried to wipe her eyes with its pinafore, "I've only got this to say, sir," said the prisoner, trying again, through her tears, "he - my husband, I mean - ought to be here instead of me, or alongside me, anyhow. I'll tell you how it happened, sir. He had been out of work ever so long, and we was hard up, and didn't have a bit to eat all day, and he came home, and he sez, 'I've got a job, Mary; I've been at it to-day, and I'm goin' at it again to-morrow and all the week; so it won't be no harm to pawn something to get a bit of grub with, and you can get it out on Saturday, when I'm paid.' So he took the blanket. And after that, in the week, I took the other things, and gave him most of the money, making sure it would be all right on Saturday. But when I went to the public- house where he said he'd see me as soon as he was paid, he - he laughed at me and told me he hadn't had no work at all, and I must make the best of it; and he went off then, and I haven't seen him since. And I was afraid to go back and face it, though I have got to now, more's the shame, sir, and -"
    "It's no use your going on talking," the gaoler whispers to [-96-] her; "don't you see the magistrate has left off listening to you?"
    So indeed he had, and was consulting with the clerk.
    "I find you guilty of illegal pawning, prisoner," he presently remarked, "and you must pay a penalty of fifty shillings, and five and threepence the amount you pawned the goods for, or in default you must go to prison for twenty-one days."
    It was a lenient sentence, no doubt, but as regards the amount of a fine imposed, if a person is penniless, and the alternative is the same, it doesn't matter much whether she be fined 2 10s. or 250. The twenty-one days was all that concerned the prisoner with the baby.
    "It is a cruel shame that I should suffer all and him get off," she exclaimed as she was hurried out of Court. I know of at least one person present who was of the same opinion.
    It was a case that afforded food for sad reflection, but at a Police Court not the customary "ten minutes," nor even two, is allowed for that kind of refreshment, and, with jack-in-the-box celerity, two women had popped up between the rails of the dock where the weakly-confiding pawner had stood a few seconds before - creatures of an altogether different type - middle-aged, slatternly wretches, gin-foundered and morally wrecked beyond the possibility of repair. I had observed a tall policeman loitering about the lobby with a small parcel in a pocket-handkerchief tucked under his arm, and from which protruded the spout of a tin teapot and the end of a clothes brush. The same constable now entered the witness-box and revealed the whole of his trophies, consisting of the tea-pot, three pairs of men's stockings, three clothes brushes, and half a dozen penny memorandum books, the various articles being all new. Duly sworn, the policeman told his tale:-
    "I happened to be walking behind the prisoners while on my beat, your Worship, and I overheard one say to the other, 'If you don't let me have them books, I shall ruck on you.'"
    "Do what on her?" asks the clerk.
    "Round on her, she meant," the policeman explained; "on which, suspecting something wrong, I stopped them, and found the articles produced on the tallest one. I have made inquiries of the shops in the neighbourhood, but I can't find the owners of the goods."
    On this, the tall prisoner nudged the short one with her elbow, and both assumed a look of injured innocence.
    "Have you anything to say ?" the magistrate asked the short prisoner.
    "Me your worship? Why I never saw this other woman in all the born days of my life,"  was the brazen reply. "Never spoke to her. Don't know her from Adam. Ask her if I do."
    "And what have you to say?" This to the tall prisoner.
    "All my own property, your worship, bought and paid for honest," replied the virtuous creature, with a glance of withering scorn at the constable.
    "And where did you purchase the things?"
    "That I don't rightly remember, sir; I didn't think of taking particular notice."
    "You will both go to prison for one month with hard labour," was the magisterial decision, "for the unlawful possession."
    [-97-] On this the two petty plunderers exchanged glances of great satisfaction, and grinning openly, as the gaolor led the way to limbo, evidently rejoicing at their comparatively lucky escape.
    "Call the next case."
    A woman again, but not of the same sort. A widow, seemingly, decently attired, and matronly, but with a haggard and frightened expression on her face, such as is never seen on the countenance of one to whose feet the floor of the criminal dock is familiar. There walked in with her, and along with the policeman, a sickly-looking little boy, stunted of stature, and blind of one eye. He, however, was not a prisoner too. He took his seat in the compartment set apart for witnesses. The woman stood charged with stealing the sum of forty-two sovereigns, a five pound note, and a cheque for a small sum, contained in a canvas bag. But it was not a case of robbery from the person, or from a house, or a bank, or any other manner of building. It was simply a mis-appropriated "find," not by the widow-woman in the dock, but by the one-eyed small boy, her son, close at hand to bear witness against his parent.
    "I am a master butcher," said the prosecutor, "and on Tuesday morning I was at the meat market. I had in my trousers' pocket the bag now produced, with the sum mentioned in it. I live at Kentish Town, and, when I reached home at one o'clock in the day I discovered that there was a hole in my pocket, and that the bag and money had vanished. I went and made known my loss at the nearest police-station, and next day circulated handbills offering a reward of ten pounds for the return of my property."
    The white little one-eyed boy was put forward, scared and trembling, and eyeing the usher and the Testament he held in his hand, as the latter charged him concerning the oath, as though he was hearing some dreadful sentence that preceded his instant execution. He wore a wisp of flannel bound round his throat like a surgical bandage, and this, with his head and his uproarious hair and his white face, was all that appeared above the ledge of the witness box. He glanced guiltily towards his mother, and I feel convinced, had she frowned, or manifested any feeling of resentment or reproach against him, he would have fainted or fallen into a fit on the spot. But the woman nodded to him encouragingly, and that put a little heart in him and he spoke up. He was walking about the meat market at seven o'clock in the morning when he spied the money bag lying on the pavement. He knew that there was money in it becaused it jingled; but without waiting to open it to satisfy himself of this, he ran home with it and gave it to his mother.
    "To the prisoner, you mean," said the clerk?
    "No, to my mother," returned [-98-] the pale boy, innocently. But it was the same thing. He gave it to his mother, and if she had done as she ought she should there and then, only delaying just a minute to open the bag and see what was inside, carried it to the nearest Police Station. But she did nothing of the kind. It was a sore temptation, doubtless, but she should have mustered courage and resisted it. The law is the law, and it makes no allowance on the score of temptation. But at the same time, if she may not be forgiven, it does not seem so very wicked to pity that poor widow woman with six children to support, inasmuch as she failed in wrestling against the specious arguments her poverty provided her with. Six small children, mind; and supposing the widow to have been a charwoman, she could possibly, and by working early and late between Monday morning and Saturday night, earn twelve or fifteen shillings - enough, maybe, by scraping and pinching, to buy bread and an occasional taste of meat, and pay the rent of two rooms ; but with little or nothing left to buy clothes. It is only by sitting up hours after the small fry have shed their dilapidated jackets and trousers and skirts that the mother can patch and piece so as to render them at all wearable. And then there are the boots and shoes! Of almost a certainty there is not one of the six but would get wet-footed if he ventured out on a rainy day; and, then, what as to the handful of pawn tickets that represents so many domestic comforts long ago mortgaged and lying out at ruinous interest. Coals are owing for perhaps,. with a trifle at the butcher's, and a chandlery score. And, in the midst of it all, in comes Tommy and claps down on the table a bag full of gold!
    "What did she say when you gave her the bag?" the clerk had asked of the little pale boy.
    "She took it up and she didn't say anything," was his answer.
    No wonder.
    It is mentioned in the fairy story-book that when the good- natured goblin jumped out of the bottle and spread the naked table with a beautiful hot supper, served in silver dishes, that the hungry cottager and his wife and the whole famished family were for a time speechless with amazement. It is likewise recorded in the same veracious volume that they after a while recovered their faculties, and pegged away at the magic banquet to their hearts' content; and so it appears that the widow, in a somewhat similar fashion, proceeded by-and-by to make free with some of the gold pieces that were part of the lucky find. She soon grew frightened, however, and the very next day she hurried over to Holloway, where resided the landlord of the house she lived in, taking with her the bag with five-and-thirty sovereigns in it and the cheque, and says she to him-and the old gentleman in question testified on oath and in the witness-box to the exact words of the conversation that passed between them-said she, "Mind this money for me for a day or two; it has come to me out of a bit of property belonging to my late husband, and I know that it is as safe in your hands as in the Bank of England." But her estimate of her landlord's willingness to oblige her was scarcely justified by the result.
    "So she left the money with you," says the clerk; " and then what did you do ?"
    "I went and told the policeman [-99-] on beat all about it," replied the old gentleman, blandly.
    "How long was that after the prisoner entrusted you with the bag ?"
    " Well," returned the old gentleman, pausing to reflect and to make quite sure, "it might ha' been a matter of six or eight minutes afterwards." From that moment the "lucky find" assumed a grim complexion, and the gold pieces changed to stinging scorpions.
    "From information I received," commenced Mr. Detective, after he had been duly sworn in the witness-box, and straightway proceeded to narrate how that late the preceding evening he had knocked at the widow's door and desired to be informed if she knew anything about a bag of gold that had been lost and found. Confused and frightened, the widow confessed her guilt ere the astute officer had put a dozen questions to her. First she flatly denied any knowledge of a money bag. Asked if she had a boy about nine years old she admitted it. Where was he? He was abed and asleep.
    "I must see him," says Mr. Detective.
    The woman must have known that it was as good as all over then, but she led the officer to the room where the boy - the white-faced little lad, blind of one eye-lay asleep; and one can imagine his terror when, roused by the weight of a hand on his small shoulder, he opened his solitary optic to find a strange man and his mother, with her terror-stricken face, bending over him. To be sure, he might have been quite innocent, and really have forgotten all about the greasy canvas bag, with its chinking weight, he had run breathlessly home with, and delivered to his mother. On the other hand-and there is nothing like an intimate acquaintance with the gritty ways of poverty to sharpen children's wits-though not exactly in his parent's confidence, he could have given a shrewd guess at the source from which the new boots and frocks and jackets were derived, and what had brought about the miraculous event of hot baked beef for dinner on a Wednesday. All the worse for him if this latter were the case at that dreadful moment when he aroused, for his guilty knowledge enabled him to see through Mr. Detective's unofficial garb, as though it had been of glass, and discover the policeman beneath.
    "Are you the boy that found the money bag?"
    "Ye-a-as, sir,"
    "Where did you find it?"
    "In the Meat Market, sir."
    "And what did you do with it?"
    "I give it to her, sir."
    "I shall have to take you into custody for stealing that money," says Mr. Detective, to the widow.
    "How do you make it stealing, when he found it ?" blurts out the bewildered woman. "How can the boy's finding it and giving it to me be made out to be stealing."
    That was the gist of the evidence Mr. Detective gave in the witness box, and concluded the case for the prosecution. Committed for trial. Not, however, as the reader may be pleased to learn, to be tried, convicted, and sent to prison. A few days after, the Assistant Judge at the Middlesex Sessions having directed the Grand Jury that the charge of felony could not be sustained,, the bill against the prisoner was ignored, and she was discharged.