Some of the stories on Untold Lives are so strange that they might pass for April Fool hoaxes if posted today: the poor cat which suffocated behind the books in the Foreign Office Library; the man who committed bigamy by marrying a mother and her daughter just a month apart. So here are some snippets about London criminal cases involving the East India Company. Could they possibly all be true?
From The Bottle, and the Drunkard's Children, G. Cruikshank (1905) Images Online
• A clerk at East India House stole official records sent from India and sold them as waste paper. This was only detected when a colleague visited a ham shop in Fenchurch Street and saw the papers being used to wrap meat.
• A labourer hid in the roof space of the Cutler Street warehouse one Saturday night, broke through the ceiling the next day, threw valuable bales of silk down into the yard, then lowered himself on a rope and landed in a water cistern. He heaved a number of bales over the perimeter wall but found that he was unable to climb over and join them. He settled down to sleep in the yard to await discovery when the gates were opened on Monday morning.
• A sailor hid in a chimney in East India House, intending to break through to the bullion office. Initially he found himself in a tea store. He drilled through a chest and was nearly suffocated by a large amount of tea falling on him.
• When three ounces of tea were discovered in his shoes, the suspect explained that it had simply found its way in there from spillage on the floor as he had gone about his duties in warehouse.
• A warehouse labourer accused of theft said that he did not know what he was doing as he was suffering from a fractured skull having fallen down 36 yards from Hackney Church steeple. His father was sexton and he was going to wind up the clock.
• A labourer was found with a yard and a half of calico in his hat, and a yard round his waist. He claimed he had picked them off the ground in order to wipe the wet off the window sashes.
• When searched, a labourer was found to have a large pair of pantaloons under his trousers with a bag over 12 inches long sewn where the pockets should be. The bag contained 14 ounces of tea.
• John Leaf was tried for stealing tea. He was found not guilty. So John Leaf was not a tea leaf.
(Cockney rhyming slang, ‘tea leaf’ = thief!)
These are indeed all true stories taken from the records of the Old Bailey. Many more implausible excuses and strange crimes await you there!
Lead Curator, East India Company Records
The printed versions of the trials can be read at the British Library or on The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
The trials mentioned here are:
James Wood 18 April 1798
Samuel Clough 14 January 1830
John Pickett 17 April 1765
Samuel Russell 14 Sep 1803
John Waller 20 May 1801
William Connolly 17 February 1820
James Simms 10 September 1823
John Leaf 6 April 1785