Chapter 19 The Assignation

Mr. Henry Fowler could scarcely believe his eyes. There, in the faint glow of the street gas lamp, was a delicate creature, rosy-cheeked and wonderfully young. She could not be much past the age of consent of twelve, and her very posture, bearing, and timid manner bespoke her tender and uninitiated state.

He approached her; she replied softly, halting, with downcast eyes, and led him to a brothel lodging house not far distant. Mr. Fowler eyed the establishment with some trepidation, for the exterior was not particularly prepossessing. Thus it was a pleasant surprise when the child's gentle knock at the door received an answer from an exceedingly beautiful woman, whom the child called "Miss Miriam." Standing in the hallway, Fowler saw that this accommodation house was not one of those crude establishments where beds rented for five shillings an hour and the proprietor came round and rapped on the door with a stick when the time was due; on the contrary, here the furnishings were plush velvet, with rich drapings, fine Persian carpets, and appointments of taste and quality. Miss Miriam comported herself with extraordinary dignity as she requested one hundred and fifty pounds; her manner was so wellborn that Fowler paid without a quibble, and he proceeded directly to an upstairs room with the little girl, whose name was Sarah.

Sarah explained that she had lately come from Derbyshire, that her parents were dead, that she had an older brother off in the Crimea, and a younger brother in the poorhouse. She talked of all these events almost gaily as they ascended the stairs. Fowler thought he detected a certain overexcited quality to her speech; no doubt the poor child was nervous at her first experience, and he reminded himself to be gentle.

The room they entered was as superbly furnished as the downstairs sitting room; it was red and elegant, and the air was softly perfumed with the scent of jasmine. He looked about briefly, for a man could never be too careful. Then he bolted the door and turned to face the girl.

"Well, now," he said.

"Sir?" she said.

"Well, now," he said. "Shall, we, ah..."

"Oh, yes, of course, sir," she said, and the simple child began to undress him. He found it extraordinary, to stand in the midst of this elegant--- very nearly decadent--- room and have a little child who stood barely to his waist reach up with her little fingers and pluck at his buttons, undressing him. Altogether, it was so remarkable he submitted passively, and soon was naked, although she was still attired.

"What is this?" she asked, touching a key around his neck on a silver chain.

"Just a--- ah--- key," he replied.

"You'd best take it off," she said, "it may harm me."

He took it off. She dimmed the gaslights, and then disrobed. The next hour or two was magical to Henry Fowler, an experience so incredible, so astounding he quite forgot his painful condition. And he certainly did not notice that a stealthy hand slipped around one of the heavy red velvet drapes and plucked away the key from atop his clothing; nor did he notice when, a short time later, the key was returned.

"Oh, sir," she cried, at the vital moment. "Oh, sir!"

And Henry Fowler was, for a brief instant, more filled with life and excitement than he could ever remember in all his forty-seven years.

Chapter 20 The Coopered Ken

The ease with which Pierce and his fellow conspirators obtained the first two keys gave them a sense of confidence that was soon to prove false. Almost immediately after obtaining Fowler's key, they ran into difficulties from an unexpected quarter: the South Eastern Railway changed its routine for the dispatcher's offices in London Bridge Station.

The gang employed Miss Miriam to watch the routine of the offices, and in late December, 1854, she returned with bad news. At a meeting in Pierces house, she told both Pierce and Agar that the railway company had hired a jack who now guarded the premises at night.

Since they had been planning to break in at night, this was sour news indeed. But according to Agar, Pierce covered his disappointment quickly. "What's his rig?" he asked.

"He comes on duty at lock-up each night, at seven sharp," Miss Miriam said.

"And what manner of fellow is he?"

"He's a ream escop," she replied, meaning a real policeman. "He's forty or so; square-rigged, fat. But I'll wager he doesn't sleep on the job, and he's no lushington."

"Is he armed?"

"He is," she said, nodding.

"Where's he lurk, then?" Agar said.

"Right at the door. Sits up at the top of the steps by the door, and does not move at all. He has a small paper bag at his side, which I think is his supper." Miss Miriam could not be sure of that, because she dared not remain watching the station office too late in the day for fear of arousing suspicion.

"Crikey," Agar said in disgust. "Sits right by the door? He's coopered that ken."

"I wonder why they put on a night guard," Pierce said.

"Maybe they knew we were giving it the yack," Agar said, for they had kept the office under surveillance, off and on, for a period of months, and someone might have noticed.

Pierce sighed.

"No gammon now," Agar said.

"There's always a gammon," Pierce said.

"It's coopered for sure," Agar said.

"Not coopered," Pierce said, "just a little more difficult is all."

"How you going to knock it over, then?" Agar said.

"At the dinner hour," he said.

"In broad daylight?" Agar said, aghast.

"Why not?" Pierce said.

The following day, Pierce and Agar watched the midday routine of the office. At one o'clock, the London Bridge Station was crowded with passengers coming and going; porters hauling luggage behind elegant travelers on their way to coaches; hawkers shouting refreshments for sale; and three or four policemen moving around, keeping order and watching for buzzers--- pickpockets--- since train stations were becoming their new favorite haunt. The dipper would nail his quarry as he boarded the train, and the victim would not discover the robbery until he was well out of London.

The association of pickpockets with train stations became so notorious that when William Frith painted one of the most famous pictures of his generation, "The Railway Station," in 1862, the chief focus of the composition was two detectives pinching a thief.

Now the London Bridge Station had several Metropolitan Police constables. And the railway companies had private guards as well.

"It's fair aswarm with miltonians," Agar said unhappily, looking around the station platforms.

"Never mind that," Pierce said. He watched the railway office.

At one o'clock, the clerks clambered down the iron stairs, chattering among themselves, off to lunch. The traffic manager, a stern gentleman in muttonchop whiskers, remained inside. The clerks were back at two o'clock, and the office routine resumed.

The next day, the manager went to lunch but two of the clerks remained behind, skipping lunch.

By the third day, they knew the pattern: one or more of the men in the office went to lunch for an hour at one o'clock, but the office was never left unattended. The conclusion was clear.

"No daylight gammon," Agar said.

"Perhaps Sunday," Pierce said, thinking aloud.

In those days--- and indeed to the present day--- the British railway system strongly resisted operations on the Sabbath. It was considered unnecessary and unseemly for any company to do business on Sunday, and the railways in particular had always shown an oddly moralistic bent. For example, smoking on railway carriages was forbidden long after smoking became a widespread custom in society; a gentleman who wished to enjoy a cigar was obliged to tip the railroad porter--- another forbidden act--- and this state of affairs continued, despite the intense pressure of public opinion, until 1868, when Parliament finally passed a law forcing the railroads to allow passengers to smoke.

Similarly, although everyone agreed that the most God-fearing men sometimes needed to travel on the Sabbath, and although the popular custom of weekend excursions provided ever more pressure for Sunday schedules, the railroads fought stubbornly against this trend. In 1854, the South Eastern Railway ran only four trains on Sunday, and the other line that used London Bridge, the London & Greenwich Railway, ran only six trains, less than half the usual number.

Pierce and Agar checked the station the following Sunday, and found a double guard posted outside the traffic manager's office; one jack stationed himself near the door, and the second was positioned near the foot of the stairs.

"Why?" Pierce asked when he saw the two guards. "Why, in God's name, why?"

In later courtroom testimony, it emerged that the South Eastern Railway management changed hands in the fall of 1854. Its new owner, Mr. Willard Perkins, was a gentleman of philanthropic bent whose concern for the lower classes was such that he introduced a policy of employing more people at all positions on the line, "in order to provide honest work for those who might otherwise be tempted into lawlessness and improvident promiscuity." The extra personnel were hired for this reason alone; the railway never suspected a robbery, and indeed Mr. Perkins was greatly shocked when his line was eventually robbed.

It is also true that at this time the South Eastern Railway was trying to build new access lines into downtown London, and this caused the displacement of many families and the destruction of their houses. Thus this philanthropic endeavor had a certain public relations aspect in the minds of the railway owners.

"No gammon on Sunday," Agar said, looking at the two guards. "Perhaps Christmas?"

Pierce shook his head. It was possible that security might be relaxed on Christmas Day, but they could not depend on that. "We need something routine," he said.

"There's nothing to be done by day"

"Yes," Pierce said. "But we don't know the full night routine. We never had an all-night watch." At night the station was deserted, and loiterers and tramps were briskly ordered off by the policemen making their rounds.

"They'll shoo away a canary," Agar said. "And perhaps collar him as well."

"I was thinking of a canary in a lurk," Pierce said. A concealed man could remain all night in the station.

"Clean Willy? "

"No," Pierce said. "Clean Willy is a mouth and a flat, without a downy bone in his body. He's glocky."

"It's true he's glocky," Agar said.

Clean Willy, dead at the time of the trial, was noted in courtroom testimony to be of "diminished faculties of reasoning"; this was reported by several witnesses. Pierce himself said, "We felt we could not trust him to do the surveillance. If he were apprehended, he would put down on us--- reveal our plans--- and never know the difference."

"Who shall we have instead?" Agar said, looking around the station.

"I was thinking of a skipper," Pierce said.

"A skipper?" Agar said, in surprise.

"Yes," Pierce said. "I think a skipper would do nicely. Do you happen to know of a bone skipper?"

"I can find one. But what's the lurk, then?"

"We'll pack him in a crate," Pierce said.

Pierce then arranged for a packing crate to be built and delivered to his residence. Agar obtained, by his own accounting, "a very reliable skipper," and arrangements were made to send the crate to the railway station.

The skipper, named Henson, was never found, nor was there much attempt to track him down; he was a very minor figure in the entire scheme, and by his very nature was somebody not worth bothering with. For the term "skipper" did not imply an occupation, but rather a way of life, and more specifically away of spending the night.

During the mid-century, London's population was growing at the rate of 20 percent per decade. The number of people in the city was increasing by more than a thousand per day, and even with massive building programs and densely crowded slums, a sizable fraction of the population lacked both shelter and the means to pay for it. Such people spent their nights outdoors, wherever the police with the dreaded bull's-eye lanterns would leave them alone. The favorite places were the so-called "Dry-Arch Hotels," meaning the arches of railway bridges, but there were other haunts: ruined buildings, shop doorways, boiler rooms, omnibus depots, empty market stalls, under hedges, any place that provided a kip. "Skippers" were people who routinely sought another kind of shelter: barns and outhouses. At this time even rather elegant households frequently lacked indoor plumbing; the outhouse was a fixture among all classes, and it was increasingly found in public places as well. The skipper would wedge himself into these narrow confines and sleep away the night.

At his trial, Agar spoke proudly of the way he had procured a reliable skipper. Most of the night people were muck-snipes or tramps, wholly down and out; skippers were a little more enterprising than most, but they were still at the bottom of the social order. And they were often soaks; no doubt their intoxication helped them tolerate their fragrant resting places.

The reason Pierce wanted a skipper, of course, was obtain someone who could tolerate cramped quarters for many hours. The man Henson was reported to have found his shipping crate "ever so wide" as he was nailed into it.

This crate was placed strategically within London Bridge Station. Through the slats, Henson was able to watch the behavior of the night guard. After the first night, the crate was hauled away; painted another color, and returned to the station again. This routine was followed three nights in succession. Then Henson reported his findings. None of the thieves was encouraged.

"The jack's solid," he told Pierce. "Regular as this very clock." He held up the stopwatch Pierce had given him to time the activities. "Comes on at seven prompt, with his little paper bag of supper. Sits on the steps, always alert, never a snooze, greeting the crusher on his rounds."

"What are the rounds?"

"First crusher works to midnight, goes every eleven minutes round the station. Sometimes he goes twelve, and once or twice thirteen minutes, but regular, it's eleven for him. Second crusher works midnight to the dawn. He's a flummut crusher, keeps to no beat but goes this way and that, popping up here and there like a jack-in-a-box, with a wary eye in all directions. And he's got himself two barkers at his belt."

"What about the jack who sits by the offce door?" Pierce said.

"Solid, like I say, ream solid. Comes at seven, chats with the first crusher--- he don't care for the second crusher, he cools him with a steady eye, he does. But the first crusher he likes, chats now and again with him, but never a stop in the crusher's rounds, just a little chat."

"Does he ever leave his place?" Pierce said.

"No," the skipper said. "He sits right there, and then he hears the bells of Saint Falsworth ringing the hour, and each time they ring he cocks his head and listens. Now at eleven o'clock, he opens his bag, and eats his tightener, always at the ringing of the clock. Now he eats for maybe ten, fifteen minutes, and he has a bottle of reeb"--- Beer--- "and then the crusher comes around again. Now the jack sits back, taking his ease, and he waits until the crusher comes once more. Now it's half past eleven or thereabouts. And then the crusher passes him by, and the jack goes to the loo."

"Then he does leave his place," Pierce said.

"Only for the pisser."

"And how long is he gone?"

"I was thinking you might want to know," Henson said, "so I clocked it proper. He's gone sixty-four seconds one night, and sixty-eight the next night, and sixty-four the third night. Always at the same time of the night, near about eleven-thirty. And he's back to his post when the guard makes the last round, quarter to midnight, and then the other crusher comes on to the beat."

"He did this every night?"

"Every night. It's the reeb does it. Reeb makes a man have a powerful urge."

"Yes," Pierce said, "beer does have that effect. Now does he leave his post at any other time?"

"Not to my eye."

"And you never slept?"

"What? When I'm sleeping here all the day through on your nice bed, here in your lodgings, and you ask if I kip the night away?"

"You must tell me the truth," Pierce said, but without any great sense of urgency.

(Agar later testified: "Pierce asks him the questions, see, but he shows no interest in the matter, he plays like a flimp or a dub buzzer, or a mutcher, no interest or importance, and this because he don't want the skipper to granny that a bone lay is afoot. Now the skipper should have done, we went to a lot of trouble on his account, and he could have put down on us to the miltonians, and for a pretty penny, too, but he hasn't the sense, otherwise why'd he be a skipper, eh?"

(This statement put the court into an uproar. When His Lordship requested an explanation, Agar said with an expression of surprise that he had just explained it as best he could. It required several minutes of interrogation to make it clear that Agar meant that Pierce had pretended to be a "flimp or dub buzzer"--- that is, a snatch-pickpocket or a low-grade thief, or a "mutcher," a man who rolled drunks--- in order to deceive the skipper, so that the skipper would not comprehend that a good criminal plan was being worked out. Agar also said that the skipper should have figured it out for himself and "put down" on them--- that is, squealed to the police--- but he lacked the sense to do so. This was only one of several instances in which incomprehensible criminal slang halted courtroom proceedings.)

"I swear, Mr. Pierce," the skipper said. "I swear I never slept a bit."

"And the jack never left except that one time each night?"

"Aye, and every night the same. He's regular as this jerry"--- he held up his stopwatch--- "that jack is."

Pierce thanked the skipper, paid him a half-crown for his troubles, allowed himself to be whined and cajoled into paying an additional half-crown, and sent the man on his way. As the door closed on the skipper, Pierce told Barlow to "worry" the man; Barlow, nodded and left the house by another exit

When Pierce returned to Agar, he said, "Well? Is it a coopered ken?"

"Sixty-four seconds," Agar said, shaking his head. "That's not your kinchin lay"--- not exactly robbing children.

"I never said it was," Pierce said. "But you keep telling me you're the best screwsman in the country, and here's a fitting challenge for your talents: is it a coopered ken?"

"Maybe," Agar said. "I got to practice the lay. And I need to cool it close up. Can we pay a visit?"

"Certainly," Pierce said.