01 July 2022
Author Malcolm Archibald explores the world of crime in Victorian Glasgow, highlighting the fascinating story of a case involving professional jewel thieves and a one-legged watchman. ...
Nineteenth century Glasgow was a centre of world shipping, a rapidly expanding city of innovative architecture and a place where incredible wealth jostled with abject poverty. While the west end had some of the most desirable properties anywhere, the old heart of Glasgow had closes such as the Tontine, where an estimated 2,000 people scrabbled for survival in unsanitary rooms populated by thieves, prostitutes and the occasional murderer.
Given such extremes it is not surprising that crime stalked the city streets, garrotters lurked in shadowed closes and predatory thieves waited only for the dark of the evening. All that was to be expected in any burgeoning city but when I was researching for my book Glasgow: The Real Mean City: True Crime and Punishment in the Second City of Empire, other aspects of Glasgow crime were much more surprising.
For example there were the men who ordered specially-made keys from London so they could rob the Paisley Union Bank in Ingram Street. The robbery was a success but the perpetrators were big spenders who left a trail of Paisley Union bank notes behind them. After a coach chase to London, most of the money was recovered. The three thieves were all professional criminals, but some of the money was never found.
Other crimes had an even more international dimension. Where else but Glasgow would apparently respectable gentlemen have an entire ship refitted and supplied with the best of provisions before calmly stealing it to embark on a voyage of fraud that took them all the way to Australia?
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Yet these outrageous escapades were not the most surprising aspect of crime in nineteenth-century Glasgow. That was the visit of international jewel thieves. There were at least two: one by the splendidly named George de Fontenoy in 1877 and one by a man who called himself George Jackson in October 1853. Jackson was a thorough professional who worked with an accomplice. The two of them had visited the Buchanan Street shop half a dozen times to learn the layout; they had the local policeman’s beat timed to perfection and they knew the habits of the private watchman.
Jackson was Canadian, his companion a mystery man but both slipped up the alley to Prince’s Court. A skeleton key opened a security gate at the foot of a common stair that led to half a dozen business premises. They climbed the stairs to the door of Campbell’s soft goods warehouse, used the skeleton key to enter and closed the door behind them. They had no intention of robbing Campbells; their target was D. C. Rait’s jewellery shop on the floor below. Using a selection of tools they had brought with them, Jackson and his companion cut through the floor, only to find that Rait had lined his ceiling with iron plates. Disappointed but not dismayed, the robbers tried the heath of the fire instead; they removed the hearthstone, cut through the plaster beneath and dropped a rope ladder to Rait’s beneath.
They chose only the finest of jewels; £3,000 worth of gold brooches and bracelets, with some fine diamond rings, then they left just after six, when the watchman knocked off. Unfortunately for them, there was a different watchman that day and they walked straight into him.
There was a moment of confusion, followed by a wild scuffle that ended with the one-legged watchman crying ‘murder’ and the robbers running for dear life. The beat policeman heard the shout and came pounding to the rescue. There followed a chase through the streets of Glasgow and the capture of Jackson in a dead-end close.
Jackson was a professional thief who had worked in England and France; he was transported for life. The second man was never caught; his identity is as much a mystery today as it was in 1853. But that was only one case in a plethora of crimes from Glasgow in the 19th century; it was a fascinating period in a fascinating city.
Glasgow the Real Mean City is published by Black & White Publishing.
Text originally published here May 2013. Reviewed July 2022.