HOW A LONDON POLICE COURT IS WORKED.
THE average Londoner is strangely ignorant of the methods by which the custodians of law and order secure for him his accustomed immunity from the depredations of what are vaguely known as "the criminal classes." One or two of the big police courts dotted here and there about the metropolis are probably known to him by sight, but his acquaintance with them generally ceases at the doorway. Even should he obtain permission from the portly official stationed at the door to penetrate within the court, he will receive but little enlightenment.
Pushing open the swing-doors he finds himself in an interior which makes up in height for what it lacks in width. At the far end is seated an elderly gentleman, over whose head the royal arms throw a golden nimbus. In a railed-off platform in the middle stands the prisoner, gesticulating energetically, and a harassed clerk beyond him is adjuring the witness to "Please speak up, the prisoner can't hear one word you say, I'm certain." There is an inarticulate murmur from the bench. "'Ow much?" cries a brawny armed, shawl bedizened woman at the visitor's side. " Se'n d'ys; I'll do thet on me 'ead!" returns the prisoner jubilantly, and prisoner and gaoler depart together through a side door.
The clockwork regularity, the matter-of-fact indifference of the whole procedure, is the very reverse of impressive. There is no break in the general monotony ; everyone present seems bored to the last degree. A baby on the visitor's left sets up an infantile squall ; the magistrate looks up, and the black-robed usher hurriedly conducts mother and baby to the door. A few legal gentlemen are seated at a bench, each one buried in a newspaper ; in another part two reporters are chatting together in whispers, and the general public on each side of the onlooker lean stolidly against the wooden partition in front, trying to make sense out of the scattered words which are all that they can catch.
Such are the first impressions of the casual visitor ; but, if he observes more closely, he will perceive that the apparent absence of all haste is really due to the perfect orderliness of the whole procedure. As fast as one prisoner is taken from the dock another is marshalled in; witness follows witness in unbroken succession ; and, as on a well-ordered stage, everyone knows his cue, and there is never the suspicion of a "wait." There is really no time for delay of any kind, for the press of business at many of the courts is enormous; and so perfect is the routine, that as many as forty of the more unimportant cases can be disposed of in a couple of hours.
Let us then take a glance at the workings of the complicated human machinery by the interaction of which this result is brought about. To do this it will be necessary first to proceed to the police station adjoining, where the processes preliminary to placing the prisoner in the dock are gone through.
There is little of interest about the room we enter. One or two policemen are writing at desks; one corner is railed off as a dock for the reception of the prisoner, with painted on the wall a measurement table to take his height, and, beyond, the inspectors' room, which is furnished exactly like a merchant's office. A prisoner is brought in and placed in the dock ; the inspector on duty comes forward and hears the story of the prosecutor and his witnesses, and decides whether or no he shall take the charge. If the accusation made be frivolous, or impossible of proof, the prisoner will not have to wait for the decision of the magistrate upon it, but will be at once released, particulars of the charge and the reason for its refusal being first entered in the "Refused Charge Book" for the benefit of the central authority at Scotland Yard, whither reports of all police business have to be sent.
Should, however, the charge be one of some substance, as is more likely, the inspector takes a long strip of cartridge paper, known as the "charge-sheet," and enters thereon the prisoner's name, age, address, the charge preferred against him, the names and addresses of the prosecutor and his witnesses, and an inventory of all articles found in the prisoner's possession. From this document another similar description is entered in the magistrate's "Charge Book," and this sheet also, once the case is completed, will find its way into the archives of "The Yard," having attached to it a careful abstract of the contents, so -that it may be capable of immediate reference.
Meanwhile, the prisoner has been searched—a process varying from a mere inspection of the contents of his pockets to the thorough over-hauling of every part of his clothing, according to the nature of the case—and the inspector next busies himself with the compilation of yet another document, containing a description of the prisoner's appearance and clothing, and, most important of all, of any marks upon his body. It is a noticeable fact that quite ninety per cent. of the lower class of criminals are tattooed, generally upon the left arm ; and very inconvenient indeed no they find these indelible marks when for any reason they wish to conceal their identity. Not much originality is shown in the subject of these decorations, which are generally amatory. A heart transfixed by an arrow, or a motto such as : "I love Emma Jones"—alas, poor Emma, discarded ere the scars were healed!—usually entirely satisfies the artistic or amative aspirations of the tattooee.
These formalities completed, the prisoner is conducted to the station cells, there to await his appearance before the magistrate. All things considered, perhaps a police cell is rather an improvement upon the usual nightly lodging of the average prisoner, and certainly it has the advantage in its spotless cleanliness. It is by no means uncommon for a man to enter the station and demand to be locked up, and the request, if sufficiently persistent, is sure of satisfaction. The only disadvantage about it is that the magistrate is liable to extend the period of detention over a week, in default of a pecuniary penalty, which fact may lead the applicant to revise his views on the merits of a police station in providing free board and lodging.
The furniture of the cell is of the simplest possible description. A wooden settle, serving as bed or seat, extends round the three walls, and the heavily bolted door, with its little grate, bars all outlook to the incarcerated one. Unless the prisoner is too intoxicated to eat, or is brought in very late at night, he will be supplied with a meal consisting of a pint of either tea or coffee, according to taste, and three thick slices of bread and butter (which is not margarine). As the contract price of this meal is threepence per head, it can easily be seen that the prisoner has no reason to complain of lack of food here. A drink of water can be obtained at any time by application to the constable in charge of the cells. Between 8 and 8.30 the following morning a breakfast, similar in quality and quantity to the meal of the previous night, will he furnished ; and at both these meals it should be stated, the prisoner has the option of obtaining at his own cost any other provisions that he may desire, alcohol and tobacco alone excepted.
Another wait of an hour and a half ensues, and then at 10 sharp the prisoners are conducted to the court and placed in the Prisoners' Waiting-Room, the constable in charge of each case being left with the prisoner in his custody. At most courts this is a lofty white-tiled room, with a broad bench running right round it, divided by lofty partitions into seats to accommodate two people, the constable and his captive, and so to some extent preventing communication between the prisoners. But the methods by which prisoners converse with one another are far too many and too ingenious to be much interfered with by such a simple precaution. No sound may pass, but a gesture, a facial contortion, will enable any criminal of experience to understand what his neighbour wishes to say. Of course "thieves' patter" and "back slang "—the latter an ingenious inversion of common words—are current coin through all ranks of criminality, but to use such language in the waiting-room is only to risk a quick "Hold your tongue there," frcm the watchful custodian, with the certainty that he has understood all that was said, however cunningly wrapped up in slangy periphrasis.
On his entry into this room the prisoner passes under the control of the gaoler, and this official is responsible for him frcm the time when he is "sent to court "—to use the language of the charge sheet—until at the end of the day the black van arrives to transfer him to the prison. The duties of a gaoler are many and onerous. At a court with an average amount of work he may have as many as a hundred prisoners passing through his hands in one day, and it will be his task to see that each one, with the constable in charge, appears before the magistrate in the order fixed. He should also have a list of each prisoner's previous convictions, if any, at his finger's ends, and to do this he has to compile a voluminous register of his own. Of course a good memory of faces is a sine qua non, for a criminal of any record may have as many as half a dozen aliases, with a conviction standing to his discredit in each one.
A cultivated memory of this kind is capable of many surprising feats. Some years ago a man was charged at Bow Street Police-court with stealing a watch from one of the Judges of the High Courts. Police-sergeant White, who was then chief gaoler at that court, identified the prisoner as having been charged with theft as a ]ad thirteen years before. The man entirely denied this, declaring that he was a native-born American, and had only just come over to this country, but the gaoler supported his accusation by giving the name under which the man had been sentenced, and at this the prisoner admitted the truth, explaining that after serving his sentence he had emigrated to America
When brought before the magistrate the prisoner will be placed in the "dock "—a small railed platform generally constructed to accommodate four, which is occasionally mistaken by too eager witnesses for the witness-box. If the offence be a simple misdemeanour, however, the prisoner will not be required to enter that place of dishonour, but will take his station in front of it. All evidence must be given in the hearing of the prisoner, being interpreted to him in case of need, or bawled into his ear by the gaoler if he says that he is deaf. On the same principle no statement made about the prisoner to a witness by a third person is admissible in evidence unless the accused himself heard it—a fact which it takes years of drilling to get even a policeman to realise. Police-court sentences vary from a fine of a shilling to a sentence of six months' hard labour. A misdemeanant, however, can only be imprisoned in the event of his having no money and no property whereon to distrain for the amount of the fine. Persons charged with theft have the option, generally speaking, of taking their case before a jury. With respect to the graver offences, such as forgery, the magistrate has no power to convict, and police-court proceedings in such cases are only a necessary preliminary to the trial.
The case being disposed of, the prisoner is returned into the care of the gaoler, and locked by him in one of the court cells until the prison van (in common slang the " Black Maria ") removes him. A very great amount of watchfulness is needed on the part of the gaolers during this period, both to prevent any forbidden articles being smuggled in by the prisoner's friends, and to anticipate any attempt that he himself may make upon his life. The fact that friends of the imprisoned one are allowed to provide him with food and drink until he is removed, naturally affords opportunity for a good deal of ingenious trickery in the effort to convey to him in addition alcohol and tobacco, to alleviate his first period of incarceration. A favourite plan some years ago was to hollow out a thick slice of bread for the reception of matches and tobacco, masking the fraud with a liberal allowance of butter, whilst the accompanying can of tea or coffee would contain a little bottle of spirits. but all food is carefully inspected before it reaches the prisoner's hands ; the bread and butter, slightly pressed, reveals its secret, and the tea is always poured into another can, so that these tricks have little chance of success.
Far more serious are the attempts made by the prisoners themselves upon their lives. It is easy to imagine how, in the first shock of despair which ensues when the sentence is pronounced, there should come the insidious temptation "to mend or end it all." Women are most prone to give way to this impulse, and many are the strange and determined efforts made to end a life that has proved but a terror and a shame to its possessor A handkerchief, a garter, or a strip of cloth torn from a petticoat, offers a ready means of strangulation, and instances are not unknown where women have attempted to take their lives by the extraordinary means of thrusting bent hairpins down their throat. A criminal who has been released on bail must often be an object of special suspicion to the gaoler, for when he surrenders he may have hidden in his clothes the poison or the knife by which he intends to cheat the law if he is sentenced. Where any suspicion has been aroused, a strict search will be made through the prisoner's clothing, and if any weapon is discovered— as not infrequently is the case —the governor of the gaol will be made acquainted with it, though it may never reach the public ear. In one instance which has come to the writer's knowledge, a man who had concealed a razor in his boot attempted to commit suicide while the gaoler was in the very act of searching him, and so nearly succeeded that it was six months before he had recovered from the wound.
But the records of the police-court are not all of this gloomy shade. Many a lad can date his first real start in life on the day when the magistrate handed him over to the representative of the Police-Courts Mission stationed at that court, and many a wandering daughter has been restored to her home by the same kindly aid. A very large amount of work is done, too, by the police in rescuing homeless child-vagrants from the streets, and during the year hundreds of struggling families obtain from the poor-box the temporary relief they need to tide them over some especially bad time.
The element of humour, too, is not entirely lacking in the proceedings, although it is hardly of the nature depicted by some imaginative writers for the evening press. A naive rejoinder, or an unlooked-for explanation by the prisoner, will always provoke a laugh, and even the magistrate condescends to crack a little joke at times. The quarrelsome neighbours who seem to choose their lodgings close to a police-court for convenience in getting summonses are often amusing enough in the extraordinary and vehement denunciations which they throw at one another's heads, and the wild and frothy flow of verbiage which constitutes their evidence, whilst the complainant will generally conclude her string of accusations by producing from her pocket a piece of newspaper containing hair which she will take "her dyin' oath " was torn from her head by the righteously indignant defendant, utterly ignoring the fact that this hair is black, while her own is of the brightest shade of "carrots."
To the popular imagination also a magistrate not merely possesses absolute power in every branch of the law, but is the rectifier of all grievances, real or imaginary. Hence the police-court is the happy hunting-ground of cranks of all descriptions. One of the metropolitan courts was haunted for years by a little old lady who might have served as the model for Dickens's sketch of Miss Flite, who was for ever seeking to bring to justice the criminals who, by her account, had poisoned her husband, and buried his remains in her back garden seventeen years before. Another applicant will ask the magistrate's advice as to how he can establish his claim to an earldom which has been extinct for the last hundred years ; and he may be followed by a young girl who wishes the magistrate to mediate between her and "her young man." All meet with an attentive hearing, and to each is given the advice they need ; but, to judge by their faces as they leave the court, the result is seldom as satisfactory as they anticipated.
But these are only stray items in the day's work, and meanwhile the gloomy progress of prisoners from cell to dock, from dock to gaol, has recommenced, and, as we step from the grim building to the street, it is with a sense of relief that we feel once more a breath of fresh air upon our cheeks.
HOWARD H. BIRT.
Leisure Hour, 1899
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
How a Police Court is Worked
A nice Leisure Hour article from 1899, which details, amongst other things, arrest procedure for 1890s police stations in London: