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Mysterious arson attacks in London solved – suspect arrested; 30 September 1871

In the following report, I am continuing my series of blog posts on aspects of Victorian crime investigated by Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke.  Today's item refers to his investigation into an increased incidence of damaging fires in Victorian London.

At 12.55 a.m. on 20 September 1871, a fire was reported to Richard Gatehouse, ‘the keeper of the fire escape’ opposite Shadwell Church.  The informant, a young man, said that a fire had just broken out at Sufferance Wharf on Wapping Wall. The young man assisted the fireman, William Padbury and Gatehouse, with the fire engine. When reaching the fire, they found a waggon-load of straw ablaze on the ground floor, together with the upper floor of the warehouse above the wagon. The fire took about an hour to put out, at which point the young man assisted the firemen to convey the equipment back to Shadwell Church, where he was given the standard reward of half a crown (two shillings and sixpence in pre-decimal currency) for the call and his trouble, and he signed the receipt as ‘W. Anthony’.

A 2006 photo of the Thames-side Wapping Wall area, showing the historic pub 'The Prospect of Whitby'
After lobbying by insurance companies, a publicly-funded fire service in London had  been established after the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act in 1865. Alongside the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the London Salvage Corps had started its operations in 1866; their responsibilities included salvage work after a fire had taken place.One of the Salvage Corps employees, a foreman named Thomas Meechan, had been investigating a number of fires of unknown cause, including one in July where the Holborn Fire Station had been called out by a young man living at 2 Parker Street, Drury Lane.  On the night of 26 September 1871, Meechan took the Shadwell fireman, Padbury, to Parker Street to see if the Holborn fire alert and the Wapping Wall alert might have given by the same man. Using the ruse that they had lost the receipt that had been signed by the young man at Wapping, they knocked at the door and found the man that Padbury recognised as ‘W. Anthony’. However, ‘Anthony’ said “You must be mistaken, I don’t know where Wapping is, I was never up there”.

Armed with this denial, that Padbury knew to be false, Meechan and his superiors decided to call in the detective police at Scotland Yard.  Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke picks up the story:

George Clarke c. 1864; at that time a Detective-Sergeant

“On 29th September, I received information about this fire at Wapping Wall, and next evening, Saturday, about 10 o’clock, I went with Meechan to the corner of Parker Street, near No. 2 – Meechan pointed out the prisoner to me as one of two men, and I went up to him and said “Anthony, I want to speak to you about some money you received for calling fires” – He said “What is it” – I said “I will tell you directly,” and I took him to the corner of Long Acre - I then told him I was an Inspector of police, and should arrest him on a charge of wilfully setting fire to a wharf in Wapping Wall on the night of 19th September – He said “I know nothing about it; I never was there” – He repeated that several times, and I took him to King David Lane Station [Shadwell], and charged him with the offence – After the charge was entered, the inspector asked him if he could read or write – he said “No”; and then, after some hesitation said “Only my name, I can write my name” – He did not write at the Station, he was not asked to do so. – He gave his name, William Anthony, Parker Street, Drury Lane, and said he was a blacksmith.” (Old Bailey Proceedings Online)

William Anthony, arsonist, from the Penny Illustrated Paper 2 December 1871

Anthony appeared  at the Thames Police Court, on 2 October.  In addition to Clarke’s preliminary evidence, P.C. William Waller (K Division) confirmed that he had seen Anthony opposite Shadwell Church early in the morning of 20th September.  Clarke also indicated that there was evidence (from other signed reward receipts) that Anthony had called out the fire brigade at thirty six fires, where the destruction of property amounted to £100,000 (equivalent to approximately £4.5 million in 2010).  Anthony was remanded to further hearings; by 17 October Anthony was suspected of having set fire to at least 109 buildings, houses, factories and other premises in London in the last two years.  Witnesses had also been located who recalled seeing Anthony near the scene of the Wapping Wall fire before he had called out the fire-escape.  Anthony, who represented himself, continued to deny the charges, saying that he had been laid up in bed with a sore throat on the night in question.

On 7 November additional detailed evidence was brought up that Anthony had called out the fire engine and helped in the pumping at a fire at some workshops in Hampstead, and at a corn-chandlers workshop at Chalk Farm.  By 29 November, Clarke’s enquiries had unearthed a total of 150 probable fire-setting offences, and he was engaged in the investigation of 85 others, or as the Prosecuting Counsel, Sir Harry Poland said:

Sir Harry Poland, barrister and Treasury Counsel

“Every day they obtained fresh information about the prisoner, who had in two years set fire to 150 places and caused immense losses.  Inspector Clarke, the detective officer, had been engaged in the investigation of those cases for six weeks daily, and had not done with them yet”

Anthony again claimed that all the witnesses were mistaken.

At his Old Bailey trial on 13 December 1871, Anthony defended himself against the indictment of setting fire to the warehouse at Wapping Wall.  After some legal discussion the Judge, Mr Justice Grove also allowed witness evidence on the association of Anthony with other fires. At the conclusion of the trial the jury recorded a ‘guilty’ verdict, and Anthony was sentenced to 12 years penal servitude.  The Pall Mall Gazette of 14 December 1871 was not happy:

“In the good old times arson was punishable with death, and now it is often visited with the punishment next in severity to hanging.  Sentences of penal servitude for fifteen or twenty years are ordinarily passed when there is no cause for believing that the prisoner has committed any further crime than that with which he is charged.  Where the crime has unquestionably been systematically carried on, it is surprising to find only twelve years’ penal servitude awarded; and William Anthony appears to have been thus affected, for he is reported to have addressed Mr. Justice Grove with a smiling countenance, saying “Thank you, my lord,” before he left the dock.  If there ever was an occasion for an exemplary sentence this was one...”

The Liverpool Mercury focused on a more positive aspect, noting that “whereas the fires from unknown causes in the metropolis had for some time numbered 25 or 30 per month, they had, since the apprehension of the prisoner, dropped to three”.

More of George Clarke's numerous Victorian crime investigations can be found in my biography of him

Today, it is likely that Anthony’s behaviour would be a source of some discussion amongst pyschologists.  In the 1870s it was assumed that Anthony ‘did it for the reward money’ but, if he did set 150 fires in 18-24 months and gained the maximum reward for each one, he would only have raised £18 15s. in total (equivalent to about £900 today), scarcely a fortune.  According to more recent analysis, arsonists usually cause fires to achieve significant financial gain, but pyromaniacs do not, as they prefer to start fires to induce euphoria, and often fixate on institutions of fire control like fire stations and firefighters, and they have a persistent compulsion to set fires.  Thus Anthony would appear to fit some of the criteria that are associated today with pyromania.  However, George Clarke was probably not bothered with Anthony’s psychological state but was simply happy to have ‘banged him up’.