I came across a seasonal tale recently, one that Charles Dickens if he’d been alive at the time might have woven into one of his stories about the metropolis. It’s a tale with a lesson, one that warns against greed during the festive season. It also goes to show that as today Christmas to some Victorians was all about material possesions.
The tale centres around the shop premises of Messrs Brookes and Company, Fishmongers and Poulterers of 47 Old Broad Street, EC2.
The business was managed by Thomas Weight who employed a number of staff who either dressed the poultry, fish and game birds, or were employed to fetch and deliver stock. Besides Weight’s managerial role, he was also an excellent butcher and took a hands on approach to the preparation of the poultry. He had a particular way of preparing the birds for display and it was said that Weight’s birds could be spotted at ten paces and these were always the first to be sold. He also had a trait of pinning the sales ticket to each bird in the exact same spot.
Towards the back end of October and into early December 1881 Weight was made aware by the company’s book keeper of several discrepancies regarding the amount of stock purchased against the amount of stock sold or wasted. These losses gradually grew to six dressed geese and ten brace of pheasants per week, roughly costing £4.00 (about £280 today). Weight came under pressure from the owners to nip these disappearances in the bud, but no matter how much he kept his staff under surveillance he never managed to find anyone helping themselves to the stock.
At his wits end and possibly fearing for his position he decided to ask the advice of a fellow poulterer and one afternoon in December when trade had slowed he set off on foot to visit his friend’s shop. Deciding to take a short cut he walked through Leadenhall Market, also satisfying his commercial curiosity as to how the poulterers trading there were doing at such a busy time of year and also probably to check out the quality of their goods and displays. He was just about to exit the market into Gracechurch Street when he passed the stall of Thomas Poole an itinerate poulterer from Brixton.
Poole had no shop premises and made his living from buying and selling poultry from wherever he could to turn a profit, the implication being that the quality was not always first rate. Casting a critical eye over Poole’s display Weight was struck by the appearance of several birds which stood out from the others by the way they had been dressed, also the price ticket was in exactly the same position as he would have pinned it, so he realised that they were his birds!
For several nights after, Weight would shut up his shop and wait for Poole to pack up for the day. He would then follow the man to see who he met with, but it proved to be a fruitless exercise as he didn’t speak to anyone who Weight recognised. He eventually made up his mind to confront Poole about the birds, but the proceedings were about to take a turn.
On the day, he planned to take a local constable with him in order to witness the confrontation, but midway through the day he found a roughly scribbled note on his workbench, the note read “From one what wishes you well look in next doors Kazi” (the word is actually spelt Kharzi meaning toilet and is a cockney corruption of the Italian casa meaning house). It appears that the poultry shop had no toilet facilities of it’s own, and so an arrangement had been brokered with the adjoining chemist shop to allow the staff at the poulterers to use it by means of an adjoining door in the basement wall.
On descending the stairs to the basement and crossing into the chemists cellar Mr Weight found tucked away in the corner two wicker baskets, one with two prepared geese and the other with several brace of pheasants, some still bearing the sales label in the position that Weight’s always attached it.
He had to pause for a while why he thought about his best course of action. Obviously he wanted to catch the culprit red handed but how to achieve it? A while later a delivery boy returned to the shop and Weight took him to one side, asking him to cycle to the nearby police station in Bishopsgate street with a note which asked for a plain clothes officer to attend the shop acting as a customer.
Duly a member of 6th Division entered the shop perusing the goods and made himself known to Weight, who recounted the situation. The officer told him to continue as normal and he would arrange surveillance. Several hours later, Weight returned to the basement to find the birds gone and he was slightly annoyed that he had heard nothing from the police.
Unbeknown to Weight a plain clothes detective, William Towsey had been watching the shop from the opposite side of the road and had seen the comings and goings of the the staff. Most of the deliveries were made using a small hand cart and he had seen two employees make several trips with a fully laden cart during the day. His suspicions were aroused when the same two employees emerged from the shop carrying two small baskets and he decided to follow them along Broad Street into the nearby Britannia public house. By the time he had entered the premises the men were sat at a table but there was no sign of the baskets.
Towsey decided not to take things further, but the following day stood on the opposite side of the road and watched the scenario of the previous day play out, but this time he had a fellow officer stationed in the Britannia. The two employees, George Knight and William Cecil were seen to enter the pub and hand the baskets over to George Lepine who was the Britannia’s pot man. Immediately Towsey blew his whistle and several coppers that had been hiding in the pub leapt out and arrested all three men. In the cellar they found a dozen geese and twenty five brace of pheasant along with several game birds and other poultry.
During their trial at the Old Bailey it transpired that Knight who earned thirty five shillings per week and Cecil who was on twenty seven, both well over the national average wage of £55 per year, had been supplementing their income by occasionally knocking off birds which they sold to the pot man George Lepine who was well placed to sell these on to traders who frequented the Britannia, but as Christmas approached the triumvirate got greedy and stepped up the frequency and number of birds stolen. Knights lodgings were raided and here were found several birds that he had taken and was selling without the knowledge of his co defendants, so much for honour amongst thieves! The money had been spent on fast living, but as a pay off Knight had ordered himself a new eighty shilling suit and the large haul found in the pub was intended to pay off the tailor prior to the Christmas holidays. It also came out that the younger man Cecil who was only nineteen had not been paid his share of the ill gotten gains for a number of weeks, knight telling him that Lepine was slow in paying him when in fact Knight was pocketing all the money. All three men were found guilty of theft with Lepine also being convicted of receiving stolen goods. Cecil received twelve months hard labour, while Knight and Lepine both got eighteen months.