Long before Jack the Ripper cast a menacing shadow over the streets of the East End of London, the district had become synonymous with crime, and Victorian society, in general, had come to look upon Whitechapel, the docks area and Spitalfields as the haunts of all manner of rogues, vagabonds and ne’er do wells.
THE HABITUAL CRIMINALS ACT 1869
In 1869, Parliament passed the ‘Habitual Criminals Act’, which ruled that any person who had been released from prison on a ticket of leave could be summoned to appear before a magistrate be asked to prove that they were earning their living by honest means, If they failed to do so, they could be sent back to prison, and before a magistrate. If they could not prove that they were making an honest living they could be sent back to prison.
CRIMINALS KEPT UNDER SURVEILLANCE
Following the passing of the act, a system was duly set up for centrally recording details of criminals and better ensuring better supervision, mostly by the police. Officers would get to known felons in their jurisdiction, and would, wherever necessary, keep a close eye on them and their activities.
However, as the Act was being debated by Parliament, arguments were presented that the type of police surveillance that the ‘Habitual Criminals Act; flew in the face of the basic rights of the individual
In March, 1869, The Times published a letter from a correspondent, signing himself “N.A.W”, in which he outlined why the Bill was necessary and gave details of his own experiences in the criminally inclined neighbourhoods of the East End of London.
The letter was reproduced by several regional newspapers, the following article appearing in The Cardiff Times on Saturday, 13th March, 1869:-
THE HAUNTS OF CRIME IN LONDON
A correspondent, signing himself “N. A. W, writes a long letter to The Times under the heading, “The Haunts of Crime in London,” which will materially strengthen the hands of Lord Kimberley in his conduct of the Habitual Criminals Bill.
The argument of “N. A. W.” throughout the letter is that power should be put into the hands of the police to arrest those who are known convicted thieves when they are evidently up to mischief.
THE POLICE ARE CHECKMATED
Referring to the grumblings against the inefficiency of the police, “N. A. W.” says:-
“The police are far less to blame than it is the fashion to suppose or assume. Their hands are tied up with legal difficulties in every direction.
Of course, there are culpable and negligent members in such a large body of men, and these are exactly the ones who can plead excuses under the present laws.
It is the active and energetic members of the force who are checkmated.
Such as one who may see two notorious burglars going along a street at midnight.
He can’t stop them.
All he can do is to follow them as secretly as possible, and watch them try door after door with skeleton keys.
He waits till he meets with the regular constable, whom, of course, the burglars have watched off his beat, and makes his arrest sometimes easily, sometimes not without desperate resistance.
THE OLD STORY
Then follows the old story.
Housebreaking implements are found upon the prisoners, previous convictions are proved against them, and they get three months imprisonment, with hard labour!
Before they are out of prison two days, the same detective who made their capture may again see them late at night lurking about villas, but if they go away as he comes up he has no power to touch them. If they persist in loitering he can, of course, arrest them, but this the thieves never do, but walk off, merely balked by one night or so of their intended booty.
THIEVES HOUSES IN LONDON
In the same way, there are recognised haunts and thieves’ houses in London, which are as well known to the police as the Bank, and which are in fact visited by the police every night.
Some are occupied only by convicted thieves – men whom the police know to live by robbery every day, and who will go out on their chance of larceny each successive morning.
Yet, unless there is a specific charge against an individual, or a suspicion amounting to an almost legal certainty of his having committed a recent crime, the police have no power to ask these vagabonds a single question.”
With his introduction, N. A. W.” goes on to describes some visits which he paid under the guidance of two inspectors and a police-sergeant to some well-known thieves’ houses In the metropolis.
A NIGHT IN CRIMINAL LONDON
In one night he went to penny theatres, music halls, casual wards, refuges, thieves’ haunts, low beerhouses, leaving shops, and cheap lodging-houses.
The most interesting parts of his letter are his descriptions of the thieves’ beershops.
Under the present system, a known thief may get an Excise license to sell beer. The police have no power over him, and so he goes on and flourishes. He cannot sell spirits; the Magistrates can prevent that; but anyone who puts his money down may take up his leave to open a house for selling malt liquor.
A HIGH-CLASS HOUSE
“N. A. W.” describes his visit to a high-class house where the elite of the thieves congregated:-
“It is near an East-end road. It is brightly lighted, clean, and comfortable.
The landlord and landlady are behind the little bar. Both are known to be convicted thieves, both are known to be lucrative receivers and expert disposers of stolen goods.
Under a magisterial system, these people could not hold their license for a day.
Let us pass into the parlour. It is a very wide, well-furnished coffee-room, the walls of which are simply garnished with glaring pictures, and, at the tables in it, some eight or nine well-dressed men are sitting over their cigars and beer.
These were the elite of the swell mob.
There was nothing about them externally to distinguish them from the ordinary frequenters of Pall Mall or St. James’s-street, yet there was not one who, as our inspector and sergeant assured us, had not been convicted of ‘robberies from the person’ over and over again – indeed, our sergeant rather markedly pointed out a ‘gentleman’ who had only just come out from six months’ imprisonment on his (the sergeant’s) own arrest, and against whom many convictions had been proved before.
Our entry, I am sorry to say, seemed to throw a general damp upon the company.
There was an utter silence, and then, at intervals of a few seconds, one after another went out to get a cigar or a glass of old and bitter, all of which they must have found it particularly difficult to find, as none of them came back, and our sergeant laughed at the idea that his coming among them would be likely to keep the house quiet and scatter its customers for a day or two.
The landlord, who had evidently arrived at the same conclusion, was not in so jocose a mood, and scowled at us fiercely as we passed.”
A LOW-CLASS THIEVES HAUNT
A low-class thieves’ haunt is also described:-
“The low beerhouse for the worst class of thieves is generally in an ill-favoured slum, ill-looking and worse smelling, with a group of tawdry women choking up its narrow entrance, and half-naked children playing about barefooted on the slimy flagstones, hiding amid the dust-heaps, from among which they only sally out when the older inhabitants of the court have come forth to look upon the phenomenon of a respectably-dressed stranger venturing into their district.
At the upper end of the court is a broad dim light, to which our party at once made their way, and passed through a low bar into a small taproom.
Quick as we were, however, we were not quite quick enough to prevent the large party there secreting the cards with which they were practising. I use the word practising advisedly, for most of them were only occupied in attaining perfection in the three-card trick or in ringing the endless variations of the cards with a view to a certain and future profit at the racecourses and country fairs.
An ill-looking bulldog, but by no means the most ill-looking of the company, came towards us as we entered, but was at once called on by his master, and then, as in the better class of thieves’ house, we sat down in our corner amid a dead silence, broken only by a few muttered words of slang. or an occasional spitting on the table to efface the chalk marks by which they had been practising some gambling game.
ROGUES, VAGABONDS AND FIGHTING MEN
When we had time to look around, we found ourselves in a curious place and in curious society.
The room was low, ill-smelling, very full – full too, of the lowest description of broken-down fighting men, card and skittle sharpers, and thimble riggers.
One is known at over half the country fairs and racecourses in England as the very prince of successful swindlers.
The others were all known rogues and vagabonds, who had been convicted as such over and over again.
As with the swell thieves’ beerhouse, so with this infamous haunt, as soon as our party came in, its regular occupants instantly and silently departed, with the single difference that while the first-named class affected gentility in their departure and wished ‘Good night,’ the latter did not Conceal their fear, but slunk away, as much as they could unnoticed.
Yet both classes were equally criminal, both were known as having lived by crime only, and as certain only to live by crime while they were at large.
Yet to neither one class or the other could the detectives say a single word, for there was no specific charge against them, and they went out as usual from their beershops to prey upon society at large.”
Whether rich or poor. “N. A. W.” further tells us that the police know every face in these houses, and instantly detect a man whose own district has been made too hot for him.
THE RECEIVERS OF STOLEN GOODS
He goes on to speak of receivers.
“Among the worst class of beerhouses are those which combine beer-selling with some other trade.
These are always able to elude the vigilance of the police, and in these the regular receivers of stolen goods wait for the boy thieves, from whom they will purchase anything – a single shoe, a pewter pot, a waggoner’s whip, a horse’s nosebag, a piece ot bacon, a brace of pheasants, a watch or handkerchief, anything and everything, in fact, on which these insatiable young vagabonds can lay their hands.
The amount they receive for each article is almost nominal, probably not more than a tenth of its value, so that a young thief has to pilfer to the value of some 30 shillings before he gets three shillings or four shillings to pay for his dinner, his place in the gallery of a cheap theatre, and his supper and bed at a cheap lodging-house.
These receivers, under the present law, it is almost impossible to get hold of, for the boys themselves will not tell of them – they dare not – and it need hardly be said that the receivers don’t tell of themselves.”
THE THIEVES PAWNBROKERS
He also draws attention to the “leaving shops,” the thieves’ pawnbrokers.
“There is hardly a street in the lowest districts of the Borough, of Ratcliff Highway, or Spitalfields which has not one or more of them.
The pledges are kept for a month, and interest is charged on advances at the rate of a penny for every sixpence, whether redeemed the same day or at the end of the four weeks.
What this rate of interest is I must leave others to calculate, though it really matters little. It is the system of which I complain.”
THE HABITUAL CRIMINALS
The Times commenting on this letter says:-
“We have been all perplexing ourselves with the possible fate of some contrite convict disposed to become respectable, but thwarted in his efforts by the intervention of the police.
Why, among the real, genuine representatives of crime – among the people described by our correspondent – there is not a man who dreams, or ever would dream, of an honest calling.
Doubtless, in this metropolis there arc reclaimed men leading, as far as they can, reformed lives, but the malefactors of whom the police speak – the habitual criminals’ of whom we read -the enemies of society of whom we wish to rid ourselves – these people, with all their belongings, exist in a perfect blaze of notoriety.
Now, are we to be told, and must we really conclude that this state of things is to continue, because we find no way of empowering the police to put a stop to it without encroachment on the liberties of the subject?”