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In a corner of Mill Road cemetery in Cambridge stands a gravestone recording the death of Edward Kirbyshire. He died, the inscription says, in June 1924 at the age of 89, adding that he was '38 years [a] member of the Borough Police'.
Kirbyshire had joined the Cambridge Borough Police as a police constable when he was little more than a boy of fifteen, around the year 1850. He was little more than a boy in stature when the Borough force was photographed in 1865, although as he was surrounded by burly policemen perhaps appearances are deceptive. Kirbyshire was around thirty years old at the time.
He wears a top hat. All the policemen are wearing top hats, and all of them except Kirbyshire and the Superintendent are dressed in knee-length long coats fastened with polished buttons and strapped around the middle with a gleaming belt. The coats have a high collar adorned with the individual’s identifying police number.
Kirbyshire is wearing a long coat fastened by the top two buttons, a waistcoat and what looks like a dicky-bow tie. The overall impression is of a young, fresh-faced, dapper man-about-town rather than a police constable.
Every member of the force sports a plethora of facial hair, mostly the whiskers and beard without a moustache fashionable at the time (think Abraham Lincoln), but unless the dark smudge under Kirbyshire’s chin is a small goatee beard and not a shadow he is again the exception to the rule.
The caption to the photograph lists him as a constable, but it might well be that he was working as a plain-clothes policeman – hence his everyday dress. He certainly was in plain clothes five years later, when in the spring of 1870 the now Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire was hot on the trail of a fraudster called William Roberts.
The story begins with a letter sent to Messrs. Brimley, Whibley and Co., a Cambridge firm which supplied wholesale grocery items to businesses in Cambridge and the local area. The letter was dated 19 August 1869 and came from a man called William Roberts, who gave an address in Bermondsey, London.
Roberts said he had recently taken premises next to the Angel Inn in Ely, had made some alterations to them and was about to enter 'the baking and provision trade'. As he required someone to supply goods to him, he wondered if Messrs. Brimley, Whibley and Co. would care to undertake the task? He enclosed a card from a Mr Alfred Leddicot, who would supply a reference.
Messrs. Brimley, Whibley and Co. checked the reference, and replied to Roberts saying 'We have heard from Mr Ledicott, and shall be happy to supply you goods at Ely, say to the amount of £20 or £30, at a month's credit. Perhaps you will give us a call.' Roberts never replied.
Eight months later an advertisement appeared in the Cambridge Independent Press seeking a house and shop within 20 miles of Cambridge, suitable for the grocery and drapery business. Readers were asked to contact 'WRS', at an address in Leadenhall Street in the City of London. 'WR' was William Roberts, but what the 'S' stood for is anyone's guess. ‘Shyster’, perhaps.
The advertisement was noticed by Mr W Dennis, who lived at 83, Richmond Road, Barnsbury in Islington. Mr Dennis also had, as he later described it, 'a country residence at Gamlingay, and a farm' as well as some suitable business premises in the village that he wished to let. The country residence was Merton Grange.
On Friday 22 April 1870 William Roberts took the train to Gamlingay and put up at the Rose and Crown, run by Mr and Mrs Wilcockson. The day before he left London he wrote again to Messrs. Brimley, Whibley and Co.
'High-street, Gamlingay, April 21st, 1870
Sir, - No doubt you thought it strange my not calling after receiving the enclosed letter from you. The cause of my not going to Ely was the death of an uncle. I have been managing the business for my aunt since then, but have now taken the premises of Mr. Dennis, as above, thinking I shall be able to do better for myself on my own account. Should you still feel disposed to supply me with goods, you will always find me prompt in my payments. Will you please send me on the following articles:- Tea, sugar, currants, coffee, rasins, soap, soda, starch, blue, mustard, pepper, bacon, butter, cheese, cocoa, pickles, jam, washing powder, tobacco, pearl barley, biscuits, sweets, and any other articles you may think I shall require. I must leave it entirely to you to use me as well as you can. By so doing you oblige yours respectfully,
P.S. Please let me know per return of post, otherwise I must buy elsewhere.'
Roberts' claim that he had taken the shop from Mr Dennis was false. He had seen neither the shop nor Mr Dennis when he wrote the letter.
It was received on Saturday 23 April and answered by Mr Mark Ives Whibley. He suggested that Roberts visit him at the company’s Cambridge premises, which Roberts did on Wednesday 27 April. He told Whibley he had taken Mr Dennis's shop in Gamlingay. Whibley asked 'why he thought of Gamlingay as a place desirable to open a shop in?'
Roberts replied that some engineering friends of his had been working at Gamlingay 'fitting up steam machinery for Mr Dennis'. They recommended opening a shop there and that Mr Dennis had one to let. Roberts said he had seen Mr Dennis and taken the shop.
Whibley asked him what capital he had to start a business, and Roberts answered that he had about £70. Not unreasonably Whibley responded by saying 'Well, you can pay for the first parcel of goods'.
'It would be more convenient for me not to do so', Roberts explained, 'as I have paid £21 10s for the fixtures to Mr Dennis, and I want to buy a horse and cart, as I intend to go about the country with goods. I went to Biggleswade yesterday but could not suit myself: and I don't want to part with all my ready money.'
THE TWELVE PACKAGES
Mr Whibley accepted Roberts' repeated assurance that he had taken and paid for the shop in Gamlingay, and after Roberts had departed he sent off the goods. Twelve packages containing grocery items valued at £27 10s, weighing eleven hundredweight and addressed to Mr W Roberts, High-street, Gamlingay, were despatched by the London and North Western Railway to Gamlingay station.
Roberts had indeed already met Mr Dennis before going to Cambridge and had discussed the premises to let in Gamlingay. He told Dennis the house and shop would suit him very well, but that his wife was coming down by the next train – the implication being that he would have to consult with her before making a decision. They then discussed the rent - £14 for the single shop or £28 for the double shop - and Dennis told him he must take the fixtures too, which would cost him £4 10s.
Roberts left, saying he had to meet his wife. Dennis, who did actually have some engineers working for him, was quite clear about what had transpired at their meeting: Roberts did not rent the shop, nor pay him a penny. He said later that before he would let Roberts have it he 'should have required a very good reference'.
Roberts had told Mrs Mary Wilcockson at the Rose and Crown on the Monday morning that he was going to meet Mr Dennis to talk about the shop, but Roberts did not return until the next day. He settled his account with the landlady, telling her he had been to Biggleswade to 'get a communication from his wife'. He also told her he had agreed to pay Mr Dennis £4 10s for the shop's fixtures.
Roberts stayed at the Rose and Crown until the Wednesday when he left, to go to Cambridge on the train to meet Mr Whibley.
On Friday 29 April, Thomas Hale, the station-master at Gamlingay, received what he called 'a large quantity of goods from Cambridge', addressed to Mr Roberts. The same day he got a letter from him:
'12, Peel's-place, Silver-street, Kensington.
Dear Sir, - When I went Cambridge yesterday I bought some goods to be sent on to Gamlingay, intending to return in a few days. On arriving home I find my wife seriously ill. That was the reason she did not come down as I expected; therefore it is uncertain when I shall be back. I shall be obliged to you to forward them on the next luggage train to my order at Camden Town Station, as there is perishable goods amongst them.
I am, yours respectfully,
The station-master complied with the request and sent them by the Friday afternoon train. Another letter from Roberts also arrived in Gamlingay on that Friday, this one addressed to Mrs Wilcockson and asking for his letters to be sent on to him at Peel's Place in London.
MR WHIBLEY SMELLS A RAT
On the Saturday Mr Mark Whibley somehow got wind that everything was not as it should be in his dealings with William Roberts. The alarm bells that ought to have rung during his interview with Roberts were now clanging loudly in his head. He got in touch with the station-master at Gamlingay and discovered that his goods had been sent on to London the day before.
On Monday he caught the train to London and immediately went to Camden Town goods station. He asked about the packages at the Enquiry Office and was told they had been collected on Saturday by someone named Glass, who had an order for them from William Roberts. Whibley went straight to the address Roberts had given, 12 Peel's Place, only to discover that it was a coffee house, and that although Roberts had paid for a bed there for one night he had not actually slept in it.
Mr Whibley, wobbly perhaps at discovering he had been duped, returned to Cambridge and informed the police. The warrant he took out against Roberts was handed to Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire.
THE GOODS DISAPPEAR
Samuel Glass, 67, who had collected the goods from Camden station, was a carman (another name for a carrier or carter) by trade. He knew Roberts but had not seen him for eighteenth months, until that Saturday. Roberts had gone to his house in Devonshire Street looking for him, but Glass was not there. His wife sent him to one of the wharves on the Thames where Glass was working.
Roberts asked Glass if he would cart some goods from Camden Town station for him, and Glass agreed. Roberts instructed him to meet him in Camden at 'Mother Redcap's', a well-known public house, where he gave Glass a pound in money and an order for the goods. When Glass got to the station the staff refused to let him have the consignment because he had not enough money to pay for the carriage. He was fivepence ha'penny short. Roberts supplied an extra three shillings and Glass went back to the station where he signed and paid for the goods.
'Roberts met me in Camden Town', said Glass, 'and rode on the van part of the way, nearly to the Great Northern, in the New-road. Roberts got off, and said he was going to see a friend, and I was to stop at a place in Judd-street till he came back.'
Glass waited patiently for two-and-a-half or three hours and then went home. Roberts turned up on the Monday lunchtime while Glass was in his local pub and asked if he could take the van and the goods by himself, but not surprisingly Glass would not let him.
Both men then drove the van to Camberwell, where they went into a beer-shop in Albany Road. Roberts again asked Glass to let him have the van. Glass finally agreed, saying 'I dare say it is all right enough', and remained in the pub. Half an hour later Roberts returned with the horse and van but without the goods, and paid the carrier ten shillings for his trouble.
Roberts, unaware that Mr Whibley had been making enquiries at Camden station or that there was now a warrant for his arrest, did not spend the whole of that Monday driving around London. He also found time to write to Mr Wilcockson in Gamlingay.
'May 2nd 1870
You will no doubt be surprised at receiving a letter from me under these circumstances. Could you conveniently lend me £5 or £10 for a fortnight? I will give you £1 for the use of it, and leave the enclosed shares as security till I repay you. I have been buying largely, and it has taken all my ready cash. There are plenty of times I should be glad to let out a bit of money, and shall be pleased to oblige you any other time. Excuse me asking you such a favour, but the fact is I do not like to have anything to do with professed money-lenders. Please do not mention the circumstances to anyone, as I should not like it known that I am run short. If you can manage it, please send a £5 or £10 note enclosed in a letter by return of post; if not, please to return me the shares at once, so as to enable me to borrow elsewhere. I am pleased to say my wife is better. I shall be down about the end of the week.
I remain, yours respectfully, W Roberts.
P.S. - If you do send them, please copy the numbers of the notes. If you can manage it, I shall feel extremely obliged'.
The letter arrived at the Rose and Crown the next day (Tuesday 3 May). By now Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire had started work on the case. In the course of a visit to Gamlingay he was made aware of the letter from Roberts and went to see Mary Wilcockson. At his request she picked up her pen and and while he dictated she wrote the following letter.
'Gamlingay, May 4th, 1870
Dear Friend, - In answer to yours of yesterday, I thought, as I was coming to London with Jimmy tomorrow (Thursday), to King's Cross, and as we should have to go to Potton to get an order, I thought it best to wait until I came up. So if you will meet me at the coffee house, at King's Cross Station - I believe it is 4, York Road; I know the name is Tredales - I shall be there by three o'clock to-morrow afternoon. Hoping you are quite well.
I remain, yours truly,
The Detective-Sergeant’s plan was simple enough: he was hoping the lure of easy money from his ‘dear friends’ in Gamlingay would flush out Roberts. With the trap baited, Kirbyshire left for London that evening. Mr Whibley also travelled up to town from Cambridge to spend the night in London.
THE TRAP IS SPRUNG
The next day Mary Wilcockson arrived at King's Cross and made for Tredale's coffee house for the three o'clock appointment. Kirbyshire and Whibley were already there, waiting. But Roberts was no fool, and either suspected what was going on or was being very careful, for instead of turning up himself he sent a youth in his place.
The youth was carrying a letter from Roberts to Mr Wilcockson and an IOU.
'12 Peel's Place, Silver-street, May 5th 1870
Dear Friend, - I was pleased to receive your letter this morning. I was getting uneasy on account of those shares. Should have telegraphed to you had I not heard. It would have given me great pleasure to have met you, but have an appointment with a city gentleman at four o'clock that I would not disappoint, as it is for him to send my goods in future, to save my coming too often. I shall be glad when we can have another walk to Potton Wood together, and get out of noisy London, for I am nearly knocked up. What with packing up and buying things, I am nearly knocked up, but am glad to say I have nearly done, as I got all my furniture on the rail yesterday, and sent my wife home till I get all the goods on, which I hope to be able to do to-day. I shall feel extremely obliged to you if you will send me the small loan I have asked for by the bearer. We will have a day or two together in London some future time, when I feel more settled. I am glad to hear you are well enough to come up. Was afraid your getting about with me might have thrown you back again, the weather being so changeable. I am glad to say my wife still continues to improve in health. Trusting you and Mrs. Wilcockson are well.
Believe me to remain, your sincere friend,
Roberts of course did not know that the police were on to him. He may really have expected this chatty missive to persuade the Wilcocksons to part with their money to the youth. Perhaps he thought of them as gullible country folk. He probably reasoned that if they suspected anything and refused to part with the cash he would in any case be no worse off.
Whoever the youth was, Mrs Wilcockson, or more likely Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire, quickly persuaded him to tell them where Roberts actually was.
All four participants in this little drama – reminiscent of a scene from Sherlock Holmes - left the coffee house and hailed a pair of hansom cabs. Mrs Wilcockson and the youth got into one, and Mr Whibley and the Detective-Sergeant got into the other. With the cab containing Mary Wilcockson and the unfortunate messenger leading the way they set off through the busy streets of the metropolis. Three miles or so later they pulled up outside the Bell public house in Basinghall Street in the heart of the City of London.
Mrs Wilcockson went in, presumably without the anonymous youth, who may have given the game away. Nothing more is heard of him and it is reasonable to suppose that he scarpered while he had the chance.
Mary Wilcockson quickly found Roberts, and you can bet she was telling the truth when she later said 'He expressed his surprise at seeing me'.
No doubt he was even more surprised when Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire entered the premises, followed by Mr Whibley, and arrested him. When Kirbyshire told him the charge, Roberts knew the game was up. His tone changed, pleading in desperation to Whibley to forgive him and let him go, and that he would get the goods back, or pay for them, if he would give him time.
Kirbyshire had, no doubt, heard it all before and Whibley was not about to be bitten for a second time. With the arrest made, Mrs Wilcockson and the hapless Mr Whibley presumably departed, the latter no doubt a sadder but wiser man. Their part in the action had ended.
Kirbyshire took Roberts to Moor Lane police station and searched him, finding 2s 10d in his pockets, then on to Shoreditch, where Roberts asked Kirbyshire how he thought he would get on. Kirbyshire was noncommittal, saying the goods would have to be found.
Roberts replied that he did not know where they were, but that someone called Tim Johnson, 'a betting man, gave him those two certificates, and he [Johnson] was to give them and so much money for the goods, but the money he had not paid. He had seen him in Shoreditch the day before. He did not know his address, but he sometimes stayed at the Norwich Arms, Shoreditch'.
Whether any of it was true, who knows? Kirbyshire probably realised that neither 'Tim Johnson' nor the goods were ever likely to be seen again, and possibly he did not care. He had his man.
THE LAW AND WILLIAM ROBERTS
A week later, on Thursday 12 May 1870, William Roberts appeared before the Mayor and several magistrates at the Borough Petty Sessions in Cambridge, charged with obtaining goods under false pretences. He did not have a defence lawyer, though he claimed he had written to his friends to have himself defended.
Despite this, the case took two hours to hear. The Cambridge Independent Press reported it in full, helpfully describing William Roberts as 'a stiff-built man of about 30 years of age, wearing a moustache, and looking exceedingly like one of the betting fraternity who formerly infested Faringdon-street.'
He was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions. The magistrates agreed to his request for bail, setting it at £100 for himself plus two sureties for £50 each. Roberts would almost certainly have been unable to find such enormous sums and doubtless spent the next few weeks in custody.
The story was reiterated at the Cambridge Quarter Sessions. The Recorder told the jury there were three questions they had to answer. The first was, was Roberts' statement to Mr Whibley that he had taken the shop from Mr Dennis false? The Recorder pointed out the strange circumstance that Roberts had written to Whibley saying he had taken the premises before he had actually met Mr Dennis.
The second was, did that statement induce Messrs. Brimley, Whibley and Co. to part with the goods? And the third question was, did Roberts intend to defraud?
The jury quickly decided the answer to all three questions was a resounding ‘yes’, and convicted Roberts without hesitation. He was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment with hard labour.
Roberts might have got away with it had he not been so greedy. Tracking him down in the vast and murky criminal underworld of Victorian London would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The potential profit that Roberts could make was not great in comparison to the risk he was running. The cost of setting up the confidence trick was considerable: thirty-three shillings to pay for and collect the goods from Camden station; various rail fares; the expense of putting up at the Rose and Crown and the cost of the advertisement and so forth. He must have invested getting on for five pounds.
In return Roberts would have been lucky to have received half the value of the goods from a fence - say £13, which would give him a profit at best of just £8.
It was the lure of the extra £5 or £10 from the Wilcocksons that brought about his downfall. When he wrote and asked them for a 'small loan' it was such a transparent con he must have known the odds were they would have been suspicious. From his point of view it was a chance worth taking. They may have fallen for it, after all, but if they saw through it they would in all likeliehood simply throw the letter away.
And they probably would have, had not Kirbyshire happened to see both the letter and the opportunity it offered to set a simple trap to catch a somewhat inept con man.
In the end, it was all rather elementary for Detective-Sergeant Kirbyshire of the Cambridge Borough Police.
Court reports in the Cambridge Independent Press, 14 May 1870 and 2 July 1870.
Information on Edward Kirbyshire and the Cambridge Borough Police photograph is online at
www.millroadcemetery.org.uk/MillRoadCemetery/Page.aspx?p=29&ix=3066&pid=3054&prcid=4&ppid=3054 (accessed 1 November 2013).
Above: The men of the Cambridge Borough Police in 1865. Kirbyshire is standing eleventh from the left.
Below: Camden Town Goods Station in 1889
Bottom: A hanson cab, 1884.