Thefts of harp strings in early Victorian London 2: William Groom, August-September 1843
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
This is the second of two accounts, drawing on the online transcripts of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, of thefts of small quantities of strings, as they were heard in the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales.
On 18 September 1843 William Groom, who had served a carpentry apprenticeship with William Reeve, was tried for stealing several small items from his master, John Norman, a
cabinet-maker and auctioneer living in Badge[-]row, Castle-court (off Birchin Lane, Cornhill), in the City of London. Groom had started to work for Norman after his apprenticeship. Apparently because there was more than one date of theft, the trial was conducted and reported in two stages, the first involving a panel of Spanish mahogany, and the second a miscellany: a window blind, account books, a table cover, several cabinet-making items and, perhaps unexpectedly, 62 harp strings.
Although Norman lived in a business district of the City, he had at least a cellar in Cloak Lane (to the south of Cannon Street, about 400m south-west of Castle Court), and perhaps grander premises in Judd Street, in the more recently developed St Pancras area (about 3km west-north-west), from where a window blind had been stolen. Some of Norman’s auction business was conducted at Tottenham Court Road (nearly a further 1km west of Judd Street), in the Fitzrovia district, bordering on the West End. Groom, as befitted an artisan in the furniture trades, lived much further to the east, on Cambridge Road (now Cambridge Heath Road in the Borough of Tower Hamlets).
The trial proceedings were, according to the transcript, complex and convoluted, and while it seems that some items had indeed been stolen, Groom’s right to have others, with Norman’s consent or according to custom, was asserted. The testimony of the five witnesses (Groom’s wife and her mother, in the case of the mahogany panel; and his next-door neighbour, the carpenter to whom he’d been apprenticed, and a former co-worker for the rest) often contradicted Norman’s, tending to favour the accused. Norman claimed to have found in Groom’s house ‘some harp-strings’, with whose theft he had previously charged a servant girl, dismissing her. He stated that he should not have prosecuted had he not already dismissed ‘both servant girls and every man I had’ for dishonesty on account of Groom’s testimony. After the first part of the trial, Groom was found guilty but no sentence was recorded; and after the second part he was found guilty again and sentenced to confinement for one year. Although the first part does not directly concern the strings, it is appended here to give the context of the second part.
That it is implied that Norman’s ‘box containing 120 or 140 harp-strings’ had been taken from his house, where ‘the prisoner had access to it’, rather than from his other business premises, might be taken to indicate that they were associated with his household rather than his auction trade. There is no suggestion that Norman manufactured musical instruments or that he was connected with the music trade, and 140 would be a very small stock of strings for even a minor retailer. The indictment specifies only 62 strings, presumably the number actually recovered, suggesting either that Norman misremembered or exaggerated in court, or that Groom had already disposed of some by the time they were found. As 120 or 140 harp-strings – or even 62 – is a suitable number to have kept in a box to maintain an instrument in playing order, it is reasonable to conjecture that Norman owned a harp for a member of his household to play.
2017. WILLIAM GROOM was indicted for stealing, on the 2nd of Sept., 1 wooden panel, value 10s., the goods of John Norman.
JOHN NORMAN. I am a cabinet-maker, and live in Castle-court [Castle Court is off Birchin Lane, Cornhill, in the City of London], Badgerow. The prisoner worked at my place—I saw a piece of mahogany framing at Mr. Griffiths's last Saturday fortnight, which was mine—after the prisoner's wages were paid I watched him [William Groom], and saw him go into Griffiths’s shop, and remain there a very short time—he then brought out the mahogany panel—I let him carry it as far as Cannon-street [a distance of, depending on the route, about 300m], then stopped him—it was mine—I brought him back to my shop, gave him a reprimand, and let him go—I searched his premises on the Monday, and found a number of pieces of mahogany veneers, rosewood and other wood, and other things; in consequence of which, I charged him with stealing this panel, which I had bought three or four days before.
Cross-examined by MR. JONES. Q. What are you?
A. A cabinet-maker and auctioneer—I am not a furniture-broker—the prisoner was fourteen months in my service up to the 24th of June [i.e. three months earlier], he then left, till within three days of this robbery—I had no character with him—his nephew asked me to give him work, and I knew he knew nothing about his character—he assisted me at sales [i.e. auctions] at times—I never had a sale where there was this description of wood [i.e. wood of the kind recovered]—I never allowed my men to take what is called the clearance of sales [as a perquisite, a customary practice in some businesses], or refuse of property sold—I never give them anything, nor take anything myself—I leave three or four blank lots in a catalogue for any thing that may be omitted—everything is sold—when I let the prisoner go I told him I had found out the thief, though he had been accusing other men—I had discharged other men on his account—I had not a man but what he taxed with robbing me—he said it was true, and he was very sorry for it—he did not say he took it for firewood, as he considered he was allowed [contrary to Norman’s normal policy, as stated above]—I had seen the panel between twelve and four o’clock that day—it is worth about 10s.—it is Spanish mahogany—I went to the prisoner’s house, and saw his wife [Norman had a long-standing association with the family of Groom’s wife]—I said, “I would do anything for you, Betsy, as I have done for the family for years; but for him, never let me see him”—I did not say, “if the prisoner is got rid of,” nor “The sooner you, or we, get rid of him the better,” nothing of the sort—I believe I shook hands with his wife—this was before he came in—I believe I never spoke to Betsy after he came, except “Good bye”—I always call her Betsy—I said nothing about getting him transported, or getting rid of him—I do not think I shook hands with her more than once—I did not say, “I will do anything for you;” [this, apart from change of tense, contradicts ‘I said, “I would do anything for you, Betsy”’, above] “but let us,” or “when we get rid of him”—his wife was formerly in my service, and I knew her when a child—she came to my house, I think, the day after he was given into custody—I swear I have not seen her more than twice at my house since he was taken into custody, or elsewhere, except in this Court—she came to my house, and asked me not to appear against him [her husband], to speak in his favour, and have mercy on him—I told her they [the authorities] had put things out of my power—she was a year and a half or two years in my service—she is about thirty years old—she is not related to me—when she came to my house I saw her in my shop, never up stairs [he protests the propriety of their relationship]—she was there five or ten minutes—she came to fetch her husband’s tools—I did not see her more than once—I did not say I would assist her with money, nor tell my son to say so—I have not been to the prisoner’s house since he has been in custody—I do not think I should have prosecuted him, if I had not found at his house the very things he charged a servant girl with stealing—that was some harp-strings—I discharged both servant girls and every man I had, on his account—he [had previously] taxed every one with dishonesty—I cannot suppose his wife knew the [stolen] things were at the house, from the respectability of her family—the mother was present—I said I must get rid of him, not to have any more to do with him—I did not use the word “first” [quoted by Pamela Morris, below]—I have known the family thirty years, and felt an interest for them—I believe his wife to be a virtuous woman.
HENRY MONTAGUE (policeman). I took the prisoner in charge, and produce the piece of wood which was brought from the prosecutor’s house.
[For the court] MR. JONES called
PAMELA MORRIS. I am the prisoner’s wife’s mother—her name is Sarah—I have known Mr. Norman many years, I remember his coming to Groom’s house on Monday afternoon, the day he was taken into custody—Norman shook hands with my daughter and with me too, and said, “I will do anything for you, Mrs. Morris, or for Betsy, or any of the family; get rid of him first” [this final phrase contradicts Norman, above].
COURT. Q. How long have you known the prosecutor?
A. About twenty years—he always professed to be friendly to us—I do not know that ever I received any friendship from him—when I have met him he has professed friendship—he was always friendly, except in this case—my daughter is thirty years old—she has one young child, and is near her confinement—I never thought the prosecutor and her were on an intimate footing—she had no family till she was married—I had no suspicion of the prosecutor—I cannot tell what he meant by the word “first”—I do not live with my daughter—Norton [sic, meaning ‘Norman’] said he had turned one servant away on the prisoner’s complaint [Norman, above, implies two servants]—I was there when the things were found—he did not say he could not show the prisoner any favour, because he had found those things Groom had charged others with [having stolen]—I do not recollect his saying so—he said he had discharged one man [‘every man’, according to Norman, above] through Groom’s complaint, and found the very wood on the prisoner’s premises.
(The prisoner received a good character.)
GUILTY. Aged 31.
2618. WILLIAM GROOM was again indicted for stealing, on the 30th of Aug. [i.e. three days earlier than his taking the wooden panel], 1 window blind, value 4s.; 4 account books, 4s.; 1 glue pot, 1s.; 62 harp strings, 10s.; 1 table cover, 1s. 6d.; 5 boards, 3d.; 2 wr[a]ppers, 1s.; and 200 pieces of wood called veneers, 3s.; the goods of John Norman, his master.
JOHN NORMAN. I searched the prisoner’s premises last Monday fortnight, and found a window-blind, some account-books, a gallipot [i.e. glue pot], harp-strings, table-cover, a wooden board, some wrappers, pieces of veneer, and solid wood—I can speak to some from their general resemblance, and I can positively swear to [being the owner of] the account-books—I had lost one [window] blind from Judd-street [in St Pancras, about 3km west-north-west of Norman’s Castle Court premises], and one out of my cellar in Cloak-lane [Cloak-lane is immediately south of Cannon Street, to which Norman had followed Groom]—I believe the blind produced is mine, and the wood at the bottom of it is the wood that was on the blind in my cellar, but the canvas belongs to the one stolen from Judd-street—to have done that [i.e. to have combined parts from two blinds] he must have taken both—I missed a box, containing 120 or 140 harp-strings—the prisoner had access to it—I asked him if he had seen it—he said no—some time after I inquired about it, and he said he should not wonder if we lost all the things in the house, if we kept that [servant] girl Elizabeth in the house—I spoke to the girl; her boxes were searched, but nothing found—a week or two after we lost two or three napkins from up stairs, and discharged her—this table-cover [the one listed in the indictment] was in my care, and was lost from a sale [one of Norman’s auctions] at Tottenham-court-road—I had an allowance to make for it [presumably by way of compensation to the vendor]—the prisoner told me he was sorry to say he had taken it from there—here are a quantity of pieces of mahogany and veneer—this is a parcel of mazephyr, or unrated wood [zephyr wood, a class of imported hardwood, listed in London Dock Company reports alongside ebony]—it was not in the tariff, and escaped the duty [normally payable on other imported materials] at the docks—I am not aware of any parcel of this wood imported into this country, except what I had—I never sold any of it [for use by others], only as [used in Norman’s own] manufactured [items]—I missed veneers from time to time—I have upwards of a hundred pieces of this [unrated] wood, some of it very small—I have every reason to believe all these articles are mine—the account-books were warehoused with me by Parrington and Co.—they were in a large cupboard, which he [the defendant] had access to at times—I found some of the veneers and mahogany in a box under the prisoner’s counter—he has a small shop in Dog-row, Bethnal-green [Dog Row, Bethnal Green, is now part of Cambridge Heath Road]—I know some of this wood as well as I should know the features of a person—here is a box made out of them, a zephyr wood—it has only been polished with wax—this is the wood I first missed, and discharged a man [other than the defendant] for—it is valuable, and is called snake wood—I lost eleven veneers of it, and it was said my foreman had stolen it.
Cross-examined. Q. What articles do you positively swear to?
A. These three account-books—I have another, which I can swear to the writing on, but have no memorandum of the number of it, being in my possession at the time—I have sold about two cwt. [the British Imperial hundredweight (112 pounds), also known as a ‘long hundredweight’, is equivalent to 50.8kg] of books, by private contract, to one Joel, but neither of these four, I am certain—the last sale to him was about two years ago—these ledgers are never parted with—I had a man named Bruce [Peter Bruce, a witness in the trial] in my employ—I swear the veneers on this box are mine, but not the [wood used] inside nor the [decorative] banding—I swear to the [wood used to make the] sides, and believe the two ends are mine—here are a number of pieces of wood I can swear to—I missed veneers of snake[wood], and think I may venture to swear to these—the bark is the same width as a piece I have brought [showing that the stolen veneer was cut from the same log or board]—the top of the box is mazephy[r], but it is in three pieces fitted in—it is uncommon wood—the prisoner did not say the table cover was the refuse of a sale—he might—I allowed 2s. for it—the sunblind is worth 5s. or 7s.—I missed part of the blind the day the prisoner left—I discharged him for that, but did not tell him why, I only said he had been doing what was very wrong—I found it in the passage of his house.
HENRY MONTAGUE (policeman.) I took the prisoner in charge.
Witnesses for the Defence.
WILLIAM REEVE. I am a carpenter. The prisoner was apprenticed to me, and worked for me afterwards—he left me thirteen months last April—while with me he had two pieces of wood similar to the two long sides of this box [Norman, above, swears that the sides were his]—it was pieces of wood my son bought in London—he brought a great lot home—he is now in America, and I gave the prisoner what was left, as I should not use it—if I must say, I believe this to be the same; it is much like it—he made it into a little work-box like this—it is more than two years ago, and I should think this box has been made that time.
COURT. Q. You only speak to the sides?
A. Only to the sides—I do not know the name of the wood at the ends, but there was some in the bundle I gave him similar to it, and like some that is down here; I mean this (the snake wood)—there was some of almost all sorts of fancy wood—there was some like this; I do not know what you call it—I have not seen the prisoner since he left me—both my sons are in America, and have been there three years and a half—they had the wood a little while before they left—I never made fancy boxes myself—there was not so much wood as is here—the prisoner’s father works for me now—we are not related—I cannot swear to any one of these pieces, it is so long back—I did not examine them closely, or work any up—I cannot swear there was a single piece of this mazephyr wood in England three years ago—my sight is not good—I cannot see this wood well—not having spectacles, I thought it was mahogany (the mazephyr.)
PETER BRUCE. I have been employed by the prosecutor—I was there at the same time as the prisoner, off and on, and attended sales which Mr. Norman had—after every lot is cleared we sweep up the premises, and if there is a bit of wood or old phial we reckon it our perquisite [a benefit conventionally enjoyed on account of one’s employed position], and master never said a word against it—I saw a sun-blind at the sale in Judd-street—the prisoner had that—he had worked at the sale as head porter—he asked if I would take the blind home for him—he made no secret of it—I remember a quantity of books being sold to Joel eight or nine months ago—I heard the prisoner tell Joel he should like to have a book or two, and Joel handed over to him four or five books of this description as near as possible—this is one of them; I know by the writing inside, belonging to Mr. Parrington, it is the very book that Joel gave the prisoner—I do not think there was a dozen with this sort of cover—I have not the least doubt in the world of it—as to the others, there was a green-covered book, and one or two white-covered—they were similar to these—I firmly believe they are the same—I have heard Mr. Norman say, in reference to sales, if there was any pieces of wood, old iron, rags, bones, &c., the men might sell it, and get a pot or two of beer; if it would raise a drop of beer we might have it—it is what is called the clearance [this contradicts Norman, above]—we had a sale at a large linen-draper’s in Tottenham-court-road—Mr. Norman gave a man named Lillycrop, who is now dead, leave to take about two cwt. of rags—I firmly believe it was done with Mr. Norman’s leave—I did not hear him give leave.
COURT. Q. Then, the sun-blind you took off the premises?
A. No; I said I would not, as I had to go to the Strand—I do not know whether it was sound; I did not see it open—I did not know how he came by it—Joel [the alleges donor of the disputed book] lives in Petticoat-lane [then, as now, a marketplace, comprising Wentworth Street and Middlesex Street, nearly 1km east of Castle Court]—I saw him last week, but did not mention this to him—I speak to the book by the form of the writing on the top leaf—I merely know the writing and the outside covers.
HENRY BRUNSAY. I live next door to the prisoner [presumably in Dog Row, Cambridge Road]—I have seen this sun-blind at his house—I first saw it within two or three months—I was in the habit of assisting his wife to put it up outside his shop window.
COURT. Q. Where does the prisoner live?
A. In Cambridge-road [now Cambridge Heath Road], a mile and a half from the prosecutor’s—it was old—I cannot say it was not a serviceable one; it answered the purpose.
MR. NORMAN re-examined. The whole of the original writing in this book which the witness has looked at, has been cut out, and the writing which he swears to knowing as Parrington’s is the prisoner’s wife’s writing, and was not in it when I lost it—it was a perfect book, and never sold.
GUILTY. Aged 31.— Confined One Year.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, 23 February 2019),
September 1843, trial of WILLIAM GROOM (t18430918-2017).
September 1843, trial of WILLIAM GROOM (t18430918-2618).