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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Stealing from the Early Victorian Railway

In September this year, The Guardian reported that the theft of copper from the line-side and railway property had led to the delay of 11,000 trains across the network. This was because thieves took advantage of copper’s soaring value in China and India to make profit.[1] Indeed, this problem has got worse since 2005. In 2006, the Evening Standard reported that passengers had been delayed by approximately 240,000 minutes the year before because of theft. However, in 2010 this number had risen to 500,000 minutes.[2]In response to the £35 million worth of losses since 2006, Network Rail set up a taskforce to prevent the estimated £20 million worth of losses that could occur by 2014.[3]

Unsurprisingly, theft from the railway companies is not a new thing, and was something that Victorian railway managers had to deal with regularly. A brief survey of the Old Bailey site, which gives the proceedings of many court cases in full, furnishes the reader with many interesting incidents in the very early railway where the companies lost their property; well, briefly anyway, as these were the individuals that got caught.

On the 21st April 1837 James Fisher, a police constable, found William Groves (aged 23) under a stack of hay in the yard of the Great Western Railway (GWR), presumably at Paddington. Fearing he had been found out in his thieving, Groves passed 8 of the bolts he had stolen from under his jacket to his ‘left side.’ The Policeman immediately realised what had occurred. “You have been robbing the Company, I saw you pass [the bolts]…from under your jacket.” Groves denied it, yet the Policeman marched him to the railway station. On removing his hat five more bolts and an iron bracket fell out, at which point he was arrested. In court, Charles Thirkettle, an obviously busy man given he stated he was a foreman, carpenter, and superintendent for the GWR, confirmed that the property was theirs. For the crime of attempting to steal 6 shillings worth of materials Groves was sentenced to transportation for seven years. His stated, ‘I am very sorry—I had got no friends, and no where to lie.’ It was quite possible that he was homeless and trying to steal to pay for something to eat.[4]

It wasn’t always outsiders that committed crimes against railway companies, and on many occasions it was company employees themselves. On the 2nd January 1840, Thomas Emmerson, a policeman in the employ of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), was on duty at the gates to the company’s Nine Elms yard. Between 6 and 7 pm noticed John Kelly, a 30 year old employee in the workshops, pass him with something very heavy on his shoulder. Following the man to the Vauxhall Road, he challenged him, asking him what was it was. “A piece of wood,” came the response. Emmerson demanded to look at it, at which point Kelly shouted “no for God’s sake don’t look” and tried to flee. Unsuccessfully it appears, and as iron was found in the basket he was carrying. He was then asked whether it belonged to the company. The response was that it was, and he was marched to the magistrate, to which he stated that the iron “does belong to the Company; I am very sorry for what I have done.” Such was the inconsistency of the Victorian legal system, that for attempting to steal 1 connecting-chain, 1 shackle and 1 iron bolt, the total value of which was 13s 6d, double what Groves had attempted to steal, he received the far lesser sentence than Groves of only 3 months confinement.[5]

Crime was on quite a few occasions committed by multiple persons. On the 3rd November 1838, at twenty past seven in the evening, Stephen Walter, a policeman, came across George Lincoln (aged 17), James Smith (aged 16) and Robert William Lock (aged 16) in Albany Road next to Regents Park. With his jacket on Lincoln appeared ‘very stout,’ and Walter proceeded to feel his pockets. On finding something heavy, Lincoln immediately gave up his accomplices saying "Stop them, they have something as well as me." On hearing this, Smith and Lock fled, discarding their spoils as they went. Lincoln was taken to the station house, and another police officer was sent to the scene. Lying on the floor he found some brass bearings and a saw. Combined with the brass and jacket found on Lincoln, the total value of the property recovered was £1 6s 6d. It was later discovered that all had been stolen from the Chalk Farm workshops of the London and Birmingham Railway Company. Smith defended himself in court stating that he and Lock had met Lincoln at Chalk Farm Bridge where he had given them the property. The defence was a failure, and all three were sentenced to seven years transportation.[6]

These are just a couple of the many cases that can be found on the Old Bailey website, I really recommend that you take a look. Many are much longer and more detailed (and more interesting) than these. What these, and others, show is that even though railway companies possessed their own police forces and guarded their own yards, they were still highly susceptible to thievery.








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