Good day again,
It is Sergeant Mendick here once more, with another reminder of crime in this country where Queen Victoria sits on the throne. For all the glory of our navy that has swept all enemies before it, and the doughty deeds of our red coated army, things at home can be precarious when the criminal element is on the prowl.
Today I am going to relate the story of one of the gentleman thieves that plague the streets of our cities.
This case occurred in October 1853 with the target being D. C. Rait in Buchanan Street, the largest jewellery business in the city of Glasgow. I have pieced the case together after consultations with my Glasgow colleagues and an attempt at interviewing the principal thief, a tall gentleman of the Canadian persuasion.
On Saturday 1 October 1853 two men waited in Buchanan Street until Rait’s closed for the weekend. They knew the shop well, having visited in the guise of customers at least half a dozen times while they learned the layout and studied the stock. They also timed the routes of the local beat bobbies and walked the surrounding streets. This mysterious Canadian was very professional.
The taller named himself George Jackson, which was undoubtedly an alias, while the identity of the second man remains a mystery, although I suspect he was also from the colonies by his sagacity and skill. Jackson was about twenty-eight, a gentleman by appearance, handsome as the Devil’s deceit, with hair as dark as charcoal, a dandy set of whiskers, clear steady eyes and an accent he pretended was English but laden with the slow twang of the Canadian backwoods, damn his black heart.
Carrying a bag full of tools and equipment, the two men slipped through the narrow passage into Prince’s Court which gave access to the back door of Campbell’s soft goods warehouse. A false key opened the gate that led to half a dozen different businesses in a common stair. The two Canadians, for I am sure they were both that, quietly shut the gate behind them and climbed up a flight of steps to the Counting House and warehouse of Campbell’s. There were other premises above, but there was no need to go further.
They used another false key to open the door; Campbell’s warehouse stretched right above Rait’s shop, and they cut a square hole in the floor. This operation took them a few hours and ended in well-earned frustration. Rait’s were well aware of the temptation their stock would be to every blackguard in Glasgow and they also knew that people gained access by cutting through walls and ceilings. As a precaution, they had lined their ceiling with iron plates that proved invulnerable to the tools the Canadians had brought.
Jackson and his companion were stumped for a moment, but they knew a solution. They moved to the fireplace and with great labour prised free the hearthstone. As they hoped, there were no iron plates beneath. It was the work of a moment to saw through the timber joists and kick through the plaster ceiling. The Canadians had come prepared with a rope ladder and swarmed down to find the entire contents of the jewellery shop open to them.
Rather than grabbing everything in sight they chose only the most portable and most valuable. They chose diamond rings, gold bracelets , brooches of gold and pearl, pure gold chains, lockets and bracelets, which they packed in a leather travelling bag. The overall value was over £3,000 – about sixty years wages for an average working man.
Once the bag was packed the thieves waited until just after six on Sunday morning, slipped back up the rope ladder into Campbell’s warehouse and out onto the stairs leading into Princes’ Court. Quite confident that they had succeeded, they walked down the stairs – and met the private watchman head on.
The shock for both must have been immense. Jackson had done his homework and knew that Hugh Carmichael, the watchman, knocked off at six, which is why he had waited until that hour before leaving Raits’ premises. The next watchman was meant to take over at seven, allowing an hour for Jackson to escape. However that morning the seven o’clock man had been on night shift the previous day and asked Carmichael to remain longer.
Carmichael was elderly, wooden-legged and had never had any problems. He had the keys to all the external doors in the Court and checked all the premises assiduously; now he was confronted by two very respectable looking men emerging from the jewellers at seven on a Sunday morning.
If the thieves had both held their nerve all might have been well.
Jackson remained calm: ‘Could you open the door for us?’ he asked but before Carmichael responded the smaller man leaped on top of him, wrapped a hand round his throat and tried to cover his mouth to prevent him yelling for help.
Carmichael jerked his head to one side and shouted: ‘Murder!’ and ‘thieves.’ It was fortunate that Glasgow at seven on a Sunday morning was quiet so his voice travelled. The beat policeman happened to hear his shouts and rushed to help.
The policeman ran into the passageway but the gate was shut so he could only watch as the two thieves scrambled upstairs away from the watchman. There was a small window six steps further up and they wriggled through and jumped the fifteen feet to the court below. They ran into Buchanan Street and then separated, each man fleeing in a different direction. At that early hour there were no crowds in which to hide, but equally nobody to help the police. The police followed Jackson as the smaller man vanished into the wynds and streets.
As Jackson raced along Buchanan Street he dropped his greatcoat and turned into Queen Street, and the slipped into Tax Office Court, hoping to escape into the narrow closes at the head. Instead he slammed into a closed gate. There was no way out; he was arrested, all because of a one-legged watchman who should not have been there.
Carmichael found the leather bag full of swag and the police lifted Jackson’s discarded coat and found a bunch of false keys that opened the doors of the court. There was also a left luggage ticket that led them to a locker in the railway station where a second bag was full of fashionable clothes and books. They checked the local hotels and traced his steps all across Great Britain. There was no doubt as to his guilt, only his nationality and identity. He was transported for life as George Jackson, while his accomplice escaped and was never seen again.
David Rait presented Carmichael with £100 and a silver mounted snuff horn; he had done a good day’s work.
It is interesting how a small thing can solve a major robbery, but I would like to know the real identity of my mysterious Canadian
Sergeant James Mendick