Undesirable or Unlucky Maid? Lucy Constable and the Walworth Robbery

A maid with a bottle of medicine and a bowl of soup for her master.  Coloured lithograph by James Collinson dated 1857.

On the 24th of February 1856 an anguished cry for help echoed around Sutherland Square in Walworth, disturbing the peace of a Sunday evening, when the good folk of the neighbourhood were either at church or occupied with suitable sabbath activities.  Rushing from their houses they found a young maidservant bleeding profusely from her neck and hand and begging for assistance.  Sergeant Samuel Coppin of the Camberwell detective division arrived on the scene, and after a brief but alarming statement from the maid he called the local police surgeon to treat her injuries.  Not long after, as the church service came to a close, the sexton found Mr John Knott and his wife Sophia and told them that they were urgently required at home.  

Knott was a wholesale woollen draper and commercial traveller, and the family home in Sutherland Square was in a respectable lower middle-class enclave just off the bustling Walworth Road and within a monkey’s shriek of the Surrey Zoological Gardens.  The houses, built around a shared garden, were mainly three or four storeys high with sub-basements.  They were occupied by policemen, cabinetmakers, clerks and printers, who typically employed just one female “general” servant to look after them and their families.  The Knotts lived at no.15.  They were now in their fifties, and having married relatively late in life they had no children.  From time to time they received visits from Sophia’s mother, but the only other occupant of the house was their maid servant, Lucy Constable, who was twenty-two years old.

Having pushed through the crowd in the street, and the mass of police and neighbours inside the house, the Knotts were told by the weeping Lucy of her terrifying ordeal, which began not long after they left for church at six o’clock that evening.  Three men brazenly opened the front door with a skeleton key.  Finding Lucy alone they threw a coat over her head, gagging her with “something like a plaster”, and forcing her down the stairs to the basement.  As if this was not rough treatment enough, Lucy was beaten senseless.  The plaster must have come loose in the struggle, for on regaining consciousness she berated her attackers, bravely and perhaps foolishly, as villains and murderers.  The coat must also have fallen off, or been removed, as she saw one of the men brandishing a kitchen knife, with which he then cut her throat.  When she tried to defend herself her hand was badly slashed.  Shortly afterwards the men escaped, whereupon the unfortunate maid was able to stagger upstairs and out of the front door to raise the alarm.

Oil painting of St Thomas’ Hospital, which at the time of the story was in St Thomas Street in Southwark.  The Lambeth site opened in 1871.  Date and artist unknown.

AN ENGLISHMAN’S HOME
Lucy’s injuries were serious, and after a consultation with the police surgeon Sergeant Coppin arranged for her to be transported to St Thomas’ Hospital.  But the subsequent investigation of this heinous crime was not entrusted to Coppin alone, and the big guns, in the form of Chief Superintendent John Lund, were also deployed.  The honest burghers of Walworth were demanding that the matter be taken seriously, for the very idea of a criminal using a master key to gain easy access to the castle that is an Englishman’s home was both terrifying and appalling.  Furthermore the wretched Knotts had been relieved of silver plate and rings to the value of fifty pounds, a haul that would be worth a hundred times this amount today.

What they discovered when they questioned the neighbours and their servants led Coppin and Lund to ask the doctors at St Thomas’ if Lucy could have inflicted the wounds herself.  Although the doctors said that this was not possible, the policemen had long experience of the dark side of life in South London, and on the Tuesday following the incident Coppin went to visit Lucy in hospital to ask her about men she had been see chatting to at the garden gate and elsewhere in the neighbourhood.  Lucy vehemently denied having talked to any men.  When the dogged Coppin returned two days later, clearly unimpressed by her denials, she tearfully told him the truth.

A GLASS OR TWO
Three Sundays before the robbery, with the Knotts having left for church, Lucy and her friend Mary O’Brien, a servant at no.17, were talking over the front gate.  Two young men passed.  One commented that Lucy and Mary were nice-looking girls, while the other mournfully remarked that they would want nothing to do with their sort.  Such a show of false humility appealed to the two maids, who spent a happy thirty minutes basking in the attention of the sharply dressed young men.   And when they were invited out to partake of a sophisticated glass of wine, they were no doubt flattered and giddy with excitement.  Working as a general servant provided little free time and no encouragement to obtain a gentlemen caller, and this was unfortunate, as the only escape from a life of drudgery as a maid-of-all-work was to swap it for a life of drudgery as a wife-and-mother-of-all-work.  But before domestic service could be swapped for family service it was necessary to meet someone.  This someone might be the childhood sweetheart who was seen once or twice a year during precious holidays from work, or the local butcher’s boy or grocer’s assistant who came to the house with deliveries.  Unfortunately for Lucy and Mary the modest households of Sutherland Square did not employ the coachmen or the footmen or the gardeners who might—just might—provide some illicit romance, and, later, a home of their own. 

A housemaid with an admirer.  Image in Charles Maurice Davies Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses for Young and Old (1875) between pages 236 and 237.

The pretty Lucy was singled out by one of the young men.  He wrote for the papers, and was a far cry from the youths she had occasion to meet.  The following week he and his friend again arrived in Sutherland Square and again invited Lucy for a drink.  She wisely declined, not only because she had to mind the house while the Knotts were at church, but also because her friend Mary’s employers, the Squires, were at home, and might see her leave.  The next Sunday the persistent suitor, who was called Robert, knocked on the front door only five minutes after the Knotts had left to keep their regular appointment with The Lord.  He was alone, and Lucy, flustered by his audacity, invited him into the back parlour.  Suavely he asked for a glass of wine—he might almost have been calling on a daughter of the house—and was a little disappointed when told that the master kept it locked up.  He said that it was no matter: they could drink elsewhere if she would join him at a local hostelry.  His sister would be there, and she was eager to meet Lucy.  Flattered by what she took as a sign that his intentions were honourable, Lucy left Robert in the back parlour while she ran upstairs to collect her bonnet and cloak.

The couple drank brandy in a public house in the Old Kent Road, where Robert’s sister failed to materialise.  Saying that she lived close by Robert left to find out where she had got to.  Returning to the public house he said that somehow they had missed his sister, who was not at home.  He responded to Lucy’s disappointment by arranging to meet her at o’clock the next day, when she had an afternoon off work, to visit the hallowed halls of the British Museum.  Hurrying off to ensure that she got home before her employers, and to allow the hard-pressed Robert time to make an eight o’clock appointment, they said goodbye at the end of the street, well away from prying eyes.  But to Lucy’s horror the front door of no.15 stood open with a skeleton key in the lock.  Inside the plate basket had been emptied of its valuable silver-plated contents.  The house, including Sophia Knott’s bedroom, had been ransacked.  Whether Lucy immediately knew that she had been duped, or believed that the robbery was just a coincidence, she panicked at the thought of being dismissed without a good character reference when the Knotts learnt that she had left the house unattended to drink in a public house with a stranger.  She quickly came up with the fairly believable story that she had been attacked while trying to defend their property, and to make it more credible she took a kitchen knife and cut her throat.  Unfortunately she cut it a little deeper than she intended.

Coloured lithograph of a policeman dealing with a youthful member of the public.

AN UNDESIRABLE SERVANT
On the 3rd of March she was taken from St Thomas’ Hospital to the Lambeth Police Court, where she was charged with attempted suicide.  (Suicide was only decriminalised in England and Wales in 1961.)  When she told the sorry tale of how Robert had fooled her, there was sympathy, but also the suggestion that she had actually aided and abetted the gang in the robbery.  She was again remanded into custody, despite her objections, while further investigations were carried out.

It did not take long for the police to hear an interesting story about another robbery that had taken place in Tunbridge Wells only the year before.   In July 1855 a man called William Stanley had stolen a cash box containing eighty pounds from the Railway Bell public house.  He and an accomplice, Trayton Adams, were caught heading off to London, where they were said to have connections in the Newington area of Elephant and Castle, which neighboured Walworth.  Before the case came to court, and while evidence was being collected, a chambermaid was asked if she could positively identify Trayton Adams as the man who had stayed at the Swan Tavern, where she worked, the night before the robbery.  It was reported that they seemed rather familiar for people who had not met before.  The young woman was evasive, and could not or would not help with the identification, which displeased the magistrate.  The chambermaid was none other than Lucy Constable, who not long afterwards moved to the very area in London the gang were supposed to be from. 

Ticket of leave men.  Illustration in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862) between pages 32 and 33.

Little was made of this connection in the Sutherland Square case, and Lucy’s claim to have been duped by the robbers was believed.  Released into the care of her family she went back to Tunbridge Wells, for newspaper headlines such as “A Caution to Heads of Families” and “An Undesirable Servant” and “Servants and their Tempters” made it unlikely that she would ever be employed as a maid again.  Later in 1856 she appeared in court as a witness when a Robert Evernnet—alias Everest or Everett or Evernet, or Humbell or Humble or Humbelt—was charged with a series of robberies in the Walworth area.  Evernnet was thirty, and his accomplice, George Brown, was thirty-one.  They had stolen from the landlord of the Zoological Arms in Penton Street—which no longer stands but would now be in Amelia Street—just around the corner from the Knotts.  Then they had burgled the Knotts themselves, and after the Knotts a Mr Edward Stevens, who lived in Camberwell.  At the time they had been staying in Elizabeth Street, but they had pushed off after the Knott robbery, leaving behind pawnshop tickets that established that they had pawned their ill-gotten gains.  Robert, who gave his address as 88 Union Street, and his occupation as a pickle dealer, was identified as a career criminal.  So too was Brown.  They were actually ticket of leave men, who, having been transported to Australia for previous crimes, found themselves free at the end of their sentences to resume their nefarious activities in their mother country.  But now Lucy’s clear and frank evidence helped put them away for six years.

Church of St Peter and St Paul in Mitcham.  © Karen Ellis-Rees 2018

A BLAMELESS LIFE
The Knotts continued to live in Sutherland Square until John’s death in 1869.  Sophia then moved back to Mitcham, where her brother’s family lived, and resided in Sutherland Cottage until she died in 1875.  Both were buried at St Peter and Paul’s church in Mitcham.

So what do we make of Lucy Constable?  A cynical gangster’s moll?  Or an easily flattered dupe to practised con men?  Or just an unlucky girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Interestingly none of the men involved in the cases ever implicated her—proof of her innocence or of honour among thieves?  She also went on to lead a blameless life—had she simply done nothing wrong or had she learnt her lesson?  My belief is that having worked as a domestic skivvy for at least ten years she was looking for love, excitement and escape.  She was an easy target for any unscrupulous man—a Trayton Adams, a Robert Evernett—who paid her some attention.  After the case she returned to Tunbridge Wells, where within three months she had married a bricklayer called Gilliam Henry Benton.  They had eleven children, and they remained married for over fifty years, until Lucy’s death in 1913.

© london-overlooked 2021

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