The Courageous Annie Tofler

It must have been terrifying for the poor woman.

At around 4pm on October 5th, 1897, Annie Tofler, of 8, William Street St. George’s-in-the-East was walking along Cable Street with her purse in her hand, when she suddenly felt a hard punch to her back.

Before she had time to take full account of her situation, the purse was suddenly snatched from her hand.

Annie, had become another victim of the street robbers who preyed on the seemingly vulnerable of Whitechapel in the late 19th century.

The would-be robber, on this occasion, was nineteen-year-old William Downes, and he, no doubt, thought he had picked an easy target.


But, unfortunately for her would-be assailant, Annie Tofler was not the sort of woman who was going to give up her possessions to the likes of him without putting up a fight.

“I took him by the collar,” she later recalled, “and got my purse back – we struggled – he struck me in the face, gave me a black eye, my nose was swollen, my lips were cut twice, but I kept hold of him”

An illustration showing the attack on Annie Toffler.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 6th November, 1897. Copyright, The British Library Board.


At this point, one of  Downes’s companions in crime, twenty-year-old James Cronin, appeared on the scene and started hitting her hard on the back and shoulders, inflicting severe bruising on the poor woman’s person, in an attempt to get her to release her grip on Downes. But, the spirited woman held on tight, despite the repeated kicks and punches she received.

Suddenly, four other members of the gang appeared and forced her to release their companion.

“I had a good look at them, but I could only identify two,” she later recalled.


She was unable to find a constable to report the attack to – so she made her way to the nearest police station where she gave a statement as to what had occurred.

Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley (1865 – 1949), of the Metropolitan Police’s H Division, promptly headed out onto the streets, determined to track the attackers down.

At around 9 pm that night, he came across Cronin in Leman Street and arrested him. When told of the charge Cronin’s response was, “It was not me.”


Wensley later recalled the terrible injuries that the woman had suffered:-

“She was suffering from a black eye and another mark on her cheek, and she complained of feeling bruised about the body and arms – she was too ill to attend at the station to identify the prisoners the same night.”

However, the next morning she felt well enough to attend the police station for an identification parade and was able to pick Cronin out from a line up of fifteen or sixteen other youths without any hesitation.


It wasn’t long before Wensley had also tracked down Downes, albeit Downes was adamant that he had had nothing to do with the robbery.

“I know nothing at all about it,” he swore at his subsequent appearance before the magistrate, insisting that, “on Tuesday morning at nine o’clock I was outside the dock gates till 9.30 looking for work. From there I went to a coffee-shop in Cannon Street Road and had some dinner. I waited till one p.m., and then returned to the dock gates. I stopped there till 3.45 p.m., and then went on to Commercial Street until after 5.45pm. Later,  I was walking through Cable Street. I was going to have a drink with some chaps when Detective Wensley came to me and took me.”


In fact, Downes even tried to provide an alibi in the form of a lady by the name of Emma Shapfer, who testified in his defence at his subsequent trial at the Old Bailey:-

“On October 5th I went to Cannon Street, East End, with my little girl between two and three p.m.

I saw Downes standing at the top of Bed Street, which leads out of Cable Street, talking to a man. I wished him “good morning” and passed on. Coming back three minutes afterwards I saw him still standing talking with the man. I asked him to come and have a drink. He came with me into the Blue Anchor public-house.

I left him there with my sister’s little girl and went to call my sister, who had come to visit me that day – she lives at Hackney Wick, about half an hour’s journey by tram or train.

I went and called her to have a drink – she was in my room, which is about two minutes’ walk from the public-house.

She brought her other little girl, and we stayed in the public-house till between five and six – we had two or three drinks and were talking together – the prisoner was there all the time drinking too…”


However, the jury didn’t believe a word of the defence and, on the 25th of October, 1897, both James Cronin and William Downes were found guilty of robbery with violence.

It also transpired at their trial that both the defendants had previous convictions for similar offences.

They were sentenced to twelve months hard labour, and, in addition, they were both sentenced to receive twelve strokes of the lash.

The judge was also extremely impressed by the courageous conduct demonstrated by Annie Tofler, and she was awarded a reward of £1.