Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 9 - Well known to the police

[ ... back to menu for this book]




SCATTERED about my district are a number of the "well known to the police" class. Of these it may, of course, be said with literal truthfulness, that the better they are known the less they are liked. But the feeling towards them indicated by this saying varies in degree of intensity. With the rich and refined it is strong; among the poorer and rougher grades of society it is comparatively mild - and my district is essentially a poor and rough one. In it members of the well known to the police, and of the poor but honest classes, are apt to get socially mixed; while even the more pronounced types of the former class, with whom the poor but honest will not mix, are not regarded with the horror or terror they usually inspire in the minds of classes farther removed from them. Where habitual criminals are concerned distance generally lends fear rather than enchantment to the view. As a body the "habituals" are no doubt rightly labelled dangerous; but individually they are, as a rule, contemptible beings. Scorn rather than fear is the feeling entertained towards them by those whose fate it is to have to live near them, and who, moreover, have the negative, but in this case important advantage, of having little or nothing to lose by them.
    [-128-] A man or woman may be well known to the police without having been "through their hands," without being actually, or at any rate technically, a criminal. They may be known simply as "suspects," as having no visible means of support, as being associated with thieves, or labouring under suspicion of "fencing" - that is to say, of  "receiving goods, well knowing them to be stolen." Or they may have only been convicted of drunkenness, or crimes of personal violence arising out of drunkenness - offences which, unfortunately, are not held to cast any very deep stain upon the characters of those committing them. It is with such as these latter that the honest, well-disposed poor, to whom a low rent is a greater consideration than a choice of neighbours, are to be found mingling - the police, however, well knowing "which is which" of the two classes.
    These relatively milder-mannered sections of the well known to the police class are, as just said, scattered all over the district. But the "habituals," those who are best known to the police, and with whom the "force" have the greatest trouble, are, as a body, congregated together in one particularly warm little street. As a thieves' quarter this street is an admirable instance of natural selection. It runs "endways on" between the broad general high-street of the district and the narrower special high-street of the "low" quarter, but stands "blind" to both of them, access to it being gained by cross-cuts from an adjoining and parallel street, only a few degrees less warm than itself. The houses are let out in rooms by superior landlords, so that each tenant can profess not to know anything of the business or [-129-] movements of the others. A still greater advantage - from the "habituals'" point of view - lies in the fact that a tolerably active person who knows the "runs" can, without resort to the cross-cuts - which in an emergency might be blocked - make his way into either of the high-streets, or some other of the network of back streets lying between them. Outsiders do not care to venture into this warm spot, and the dwellers in it are more than content that it should be so. That the street is particularly dirty, dilapidated, and miserable-looking, goes without saying. Your ordinary thief, if he have a slice of luck, may "do the heavy" while the luck lasts. He may, after his own fashion, dress himself "up to the knocker," live " high" in the matter of eating and drinking, and lord it in the public-houses he "uses;" but at all times, alike when flush of money as when hard up, his home is a scene of the direst wretchedness.
    The adult denizens of the particular street here referred to are, to a man and a woman, "well known to the police," and in this case the knowledge is reciprocal. The habituals are not better known to the police than the police are to them. They know every "copper" - including the plain-clothes men who come upon the beat - know them not merely by sight, but know their individual characteristics, if they have any. They could probably tell better than the authorities which of the police are the really "active and intelligent officers." Here it may, perhaps, be worth while to mention that it is a common boast among the criminal classes that even where they do not know a plain-clothes man as an old acquaintance they can always "spot him at sight."
    [-130-] These officers are promoted from the ranks, and, say the criminals, can never shake off the policeman manner and bearing, or the "cook's-march" tramp which characterises the force not only when on but also when off duty. This fact is by many people held to place the English detective at a great disadvantage as compared with Continental detectives. If such is the case, the position has, at any rate, one counterbalancing advantage. "Rounders" - that is, informers - who would not go to a police office and make a formal statement to be "took down," will quietly give "the tip" to a detective who they know from experience will stick to the "from information received" line, and not bring the informer "into it."
    In the street of which I am speaking time plain-clothes men of the division are frequently to be seen engaged in hunting up evidence or witnesses, or in executing search-warrants in connection with cases that are coming off at the courts. But they very seldom venture on to the ground merely "on the prowl." Most of their work is effected through information received from "pals" or paramours of offenders, who, either from motives of revenge or as a means of playing for safety, "round" upon associates. Whatever proverb-mongers may say or think, thieves do not believe that there is honour among thieves, and their disbelief is founded upon experience. The man who, in their profession, can work single-handed is esteemed fortunate. That to pull off a good thing it is generally necessary there should be a number in it, is regarded as a great evil under the sun, not on account of the dividing of the spoil which it involves, but because of [-131-] the danger of "rounding" that invariably lies in there being more than one "in the know."
    That the police can tell some curious stories of those who are well known to them is certain, and, if the latter class is to be believed, it is no less certain that some of them could strange tales unfold about individual members of the "force." The police and other persons and things connected with the administration of justice are naturally common subjects of discourse among the criminal classes, most of whom are in a position to speak feelingly upon such topics as the idiosyncrasies of magistrates, judges, juries, and the more notable barristers practising in the criminal courts. Upon the practical details of prison discipline, and the moves by which its rigours may be softened or evaded by the old birds, or those whose friends are willing and able to resort to "palm-greasing," they speak with all the authority of experts.
    The "school" occupying this thieves' quarter are a fairly all-round set. To use a phrase current among them, they are good for anything, from robbing a church to killing a man As a matter of fact, they have through some of their number been "in" almost every variety of crime, from petty larceny to downright murder. Even to catalogue the whole school would require more space than is here at command, but one may take a glance at a few who are visible as I make my way through the street on business purpose bent. I can look openly and without fear. I am free of the street. It is known that I am there on business, that my business is not "thief-taking," and that I make a point of abstaining from interference in what is not my business.
    [-132-]  Among those out of doors this morning is one of the chief notables, a fallen Lucifer of the local pandemonium. A few years back he reigned supreme among his fellows. He hectored it over all and sundry in the " snug little pubs" of the neighbourhood, drinking uninvited out of other people's pewters, and none daring to say him nay. He had "done twelve months' hard" for crippling for life the "chucker-out" of one of these pubs, and two years for a nearly successful attempt to "corpse" a policeman. He was "big-dog" to a disorderly house, and when called upon in virtue of his office to turn out of the establishment those who had been robbed in it he did not do his spiriting gently. He figured in the police reports as the Terror of -----, and a terrific personage he certainly was, and more terrific in word than even in deed. Few who knew him cared to encounter him, and when any with whom he sought a quarrel were keeping out of his way, he would go about announcing in the most horrific phraseology that he would "woller" in their blood at the earliest opportunity.
    Apart from his occupation of bully, his line was robbery from the person, generally accompanied with violence. When garotting became the mode with gentlemen of his stamp he adopted it, and thereby began his fall. One of his exploits in this line was brought home to him. He was sentenced to a term of penal servitude and a flogging. An account of the administration of the latter punishment appeared in the newspapers, and from this account it became known that the Terror of ----- had made the most abject appeals to be let off, and [-133-] howled dreadfully under his castigation. From that hour his glory departed, and in the forcibly expletive style of the locality he was denounced as a cur for having borne himself so lubberly over his "back-scratching." In due course he was liberated upon a ticket-of-leave, and made straight for his old haunts. The woman with whom he had been living at the time of his committal was at the date of his release cohabiting with another and younger bully, Having ascertained this the "ticket-of-leaver" went to her lodgings, and, finding her standing in the doorway, "floored her like a shot." Hearing her screams, her young man rushed out, asking "what was up," to which the returned convict replied by recommending him to say his prayers if he knew any, as he had not five minutes to live, for he, the speaker, was going to "woller in his blood up to the elbows."
    The younger man, however, proved himself the better tactician. He answered not in words, but going upon the principle that the first blow is half time battle, instantly felled his man, and in the "rough-and-tumble" fight that ensued he had the best of it. As a consequence, the Terror came among his old acquaintances, not only as a chickenhearted fellow who had given tongue under a flogging, but also as one who had been "lad-licked." Others whom he had formerly insulted or assaulted now went for him and whether it was that flogging and penal servitude had broken his spirit, or that he had always been a coward and was now only being found out, certain it is that he generally sustained defeat in his pugilistic encounters. From being regarded with fear he has come to be looked upon with contempt by the "sloggers" of the quarter.  [-134-] But that is known only in the quarter, and, though there he is without honour, he is still a success in his old occupation of bully. His ferocious appearance and language are quite sufficient to terrify any who may be lured into the den to which he is attached.
    A young fellow of about two-and-twenty stands out rather conspicuously by reason of a general wholesomeness of appearance, which is in decided contrast to the sallow and sodden look of most of those around him. His look of health is attributable to the regular living of prison life. He has just worked out a sentence of two months' hard labour for fowl-stealing, which is the line of business he more particularly affects. He is accounted a first-class hand at it, but, like the fowls, he occasionally gets caught, having now had three "little lots" in the way of "doing time." Other men are lounging about who might be worth description did space permit. Here are a couple of "finger-smiths" - pickpockets - engaged in a rather warm discussion as to the best ways and means of reaching a certain suburban race meeting. A little lower down a "pewterer" - that is to say, a thief whose speciality is the purloining of publicans' and milkmen's cans - is exchanging jokes with a wiry-looking customer, whose line is stripping empty houses or new buildings of their metal fittings. A number of other special artists, including a reputed burglar, are also on view. Most thieves do profess to be specialists, but as a matter of fact they are generally ready to turn their hands to anything that may crop up in a dishonest way.
    With the male criminals and loafers numbers of women are associated; and, rightly considered, this is the [-135-] most gruesome phase of the matter. There is no more saddening spectacle than that of women who have fallen from, or never attained to, the high estate of pure womanhood. The women here in question are such women as one would naturally expect to find mingling with such men - women who have themselves become brutalised under brutal treatment and in brutalising environment. Some few among them have not as yet altogether outworn the appearance of youth, and these affect a tawdry finery of attire and forced gaiety of manner. For the most part, however, they are a haggard, ragged, wretched-looking set of creatures; and no wonder. Their male companions rule them with an iron hand. For them the burden of life is made painfully heavy. They have to work while their lords and masters take their ease in their pothouses, or loaf about their favourite "lurks;" they are often half-starved, and habitually ill-treated. In a certain apathetic fashion they are resigned; they take it that for them "such is life," and seek consolation in drink. The remedy is, of course, worse than the disease, and the last state of these women worse than the first.
    It would be hard-hearted not to believe that these poor outcasts have some redeeming traits of true womanliness in their nature, the character of their life and surroundings notwithstanding. Still it must be admitted that, speaking broadly, but little good can be said of them, therefore perhaps the least said the better. Poor things! where they are transgressors most of them find that even in this life and in a material sense the way of transgressors is hard.
    [-136-] All these people are well known to the police, and in one way or another they prey upon society. They are but types of a class that is to be numbered by tens of thousands. Society has to support them. how it might best deal with them in its own interest is a problem that I must leave to others to attempt to solve. My province for the present is to assist others by offering some description, founded upon prolonged opportunities for personal observation, of the character of the people and haunts to be dealt with.