The Great Tobacco Robbery

Today, we associate the new year with giving up tobacco, but in the 19th century a gang decided to take it up and lift it over the dock wall and thus on the evening of the 3rd of January 1845 and into the early morning of the fourth a robbery of a very daring character was effected’ at the London Docks

A crime wave

For some time, there had been a series of thefts from the docks and a very strict watch kept, by the police with respect to some parties suspected to
have been concerned in the late extensive robberies of wines and spirits from
the great dock establishments’
Tench St/Bird St

How could such a spate of crime could have taken place with the perpetrators  able to remain undiscovered despite a strict watch kept on the docks was a puzzle. The circumstances though made it ‘very evident to those well acquainted
with the docks’
the daring robberies could not have been accomplished with the success with
which they have been attended, unless by some well organized gang of
Not only were these criminals organised but The Times thought they must be ‘perfectly cognizant of the different parts of the
premises, and of the particular places in which certain goods, the most
valuable, were deposited.’
This conclusion had been reached as the plunder had been
confined to the articles of tobacco, brandy, and wine.

The Times’ assessment was that: no doubt now exists but that one or more of these men have managed to enter the establishment just previously to the closing of the gates for the night, and have availed themselves of the darkness and dullness of the atmosphere to conceal themselves in some appointed spot to await the opportunity of carrying their schemes into operation’.


Early in the morning of the 4th of January, an Inspector in the Thames Police, Benjamin Walker found a hook in the wall of the dock. This in itself was odd, but what was striking to Walker was that he had ‘left that spot at a quarter before nine o’clock the night before and there was nothing of the kind in the then’. It was obvious that some climbing, either up or down the wall had occurred.

John Clements an officer of the London Docks, was also on duty that morning. He observed how the buildings in the docks were of different heights that might allow someone to climb up on top of a warehouse.

Between the Western Dock and the Tobacco Dock there is a bridge. A person standing on it can see a shed which is near the Eastern-Quay warehouse. There are two cranes near the shed. The roof of the shed is not so high as the warehouse—a person by the cranes could get on the roof of the shed, and then to the top of the warehouse. 

The eastern side of the Eastern-quay warehouse is bounded by Broad Street, and the wall of the warehouse on the Broad Street side is very steep, and is thirty-five feet high.

Clements climbed the roof of the shed and noted that in going over the roof of the shed to the top of the warehouse there are several [roof] lanterns. Clements’ attention was drawn to two of the lantern windows. These windows shut with a swing sash, which is fastened by a cord and a person outside, by cutting the cord, could get into the warehouse. 

So, should someone find a way from one side of the great walls to the other, the warehouses and their precious stores were vulnerable to agile thieves. Clements explained the street layout in relation to the dock wall:

Broad Street and Tench Street meet, and form a right angle near the East-quay warehouse, and there is in that angle a privy, the dome of which is fifteen feet high, and the top of the wall of the East-quay warehouse is ten feet above that.

Clements realised that ‘a person could easily get down there by means of a rope or line’; and where was this? Opposite Johnson Street.

Tasteful antique style map showing the principal sites of this tale. Brown shapes are tobacco warehouses.

Clements described his rounds.

I went on the roof of the warehouse, between four and five o’clock—I looked at several of the lanterns—I did not find that the cord of any of them was cut then, but between nine and ten I found that a cord of one of them was cut, and near to it I found some lucifer-matches, some of which appeared to have been tried to be ignited.

Clement noted one lantern near Tench Street and opposite Johnson Street which had had its cord cut. Crucially though, Clement found some evidence that revealed how the tobacco left the docks.

I found some small pieces of leaf tobacco on the roof, in a direction from the lantern which I found open nearest to Tench Street: they had carried the tobacco from there to the light opposite Johnson-street.

Clements continued to investigate and went to the corner of Broad Street and Tench Street, and he too found an iron hook fastened in the wall, under the cap-stone. Clements noted there were marks on the capstone of the rope having been drawn over it. Clements then examined the tobacco warehouse, and found one hogshead of tobacco had been opened, lying almost immediately under the lantern nearest to Tench Street.

So, the theft was discovered, but who had committed the crime, and how did they get into the docks without being discovered? The Times considered that such a crime meant that there has to exist an extensive gang of rascals, whose well-concerted schemes have hitherto successfully eluded every attempt to discover and bring them to justice’.

Bird Street c.1910 looking South
towards Wapping High Street.
The dock wall is on the right of the picture.
Credit: LBTH Idea Stores

The distraction

Map of the London Docks 1811
Creative Commons Wikipedia

So how did this gang of rascals get past all of this security without being detected?

In the immediate aftermath or the robbery, the authorities still didn’t know how the thieves had gotten in. Even with a hook and rope, it wasn’t clear how someone could climb the 30 foot high wall. What was known was that the London Docks Company had been tipped off about the possibility of a robbery, but in fact this was a ploy to focus the attention of the police and guards in another part of the docks.

“though the company were informed of the probability of a robbery being attempted on the premises, they were led to believe that another description of merchandise, situated in another portion of the premises, was the object of plunder, for the purpose, it is supposed, of taking off the attention of the watchmen and police from the actual spot of the intended robbery, in order that they might carry their operations into effect with less chance of detection”

So, whilst the cunning plan was understood, it still wasn’t known how the thieves had scaled the walls to get into the docks or who they were.

The plan unravels

Gates at the Corner of Bird St. and Tench St.

John William Judge, an ironmonger lived lived with his uncle Joshua at No. 5 Johnson Street, near the tobacco warehouses.

At half-past midnight John was at the window, and saw two men standing at the corner of Johnson-Street and Broad Street. The men stood there for about five minutes, and then went away. At about two am eagle eyed John saw two men come from No. 3 Johnson Street and then go towards the dock wall, and were joined by a man and a woman near the wall. John then alerted his uncle.

His uncle who happened to be an inspector in the Thames Police.

John and Joshua went out on to the street, but there was no sign of anyone.

Then at 3 am John heard a noise, which he described as being like something dropping from a great height. John looked out again and saw a woman come from Broad Street and go into No. 3, Johnson Street, and immediately saw a man carrying a package follow him in and then followed by another two men. John continued to watch but no one left.

Joshua joined his nephew and spotted that the two men were also carrying bags, laden with something heavy. Two men left and headed towards Old Gravel Lane and Joshua followed after them but couldn’t find them. Joshua continued to watch No.3 Johnson Street. After a long wait, Joshua entered No.3 at 8 am.

Inside he found a man lying by a coal fire made on the stone flags. There was no grate or fireplace, which must have struck Joshua as odd. Joshua counted seven bags full of tobacco. Joshua called out to the sleeping figure: “Halloo! where have you got this tobacco from?”.

The man responded: “Let me go, I will tell you who brought it”. However, he struggled with Joshua and they fell down on the floor several times.

Joshua secured him and tied his hands. Ever the professional, Inspector Joshua Judge searched him and found in his pockets some string, some lucifer matches, and a wax taper, which appeared to have been recently lit. Judge compared the string to that tying up the bags holding the tobacco and found that it matched.

The sleeping man, James Hurley was then taken into custody for questioning in the hope he might reveal the names of his accomplices.


Hurley appears to have sung like a canary and a few days later  four men were were arrested from a house on Church Street and on remand for the crime alongside Hurley: Samuel Cantelo, Matthew Clark, William Johnson and Benjamin Aston.
The London Docks Company were trying unsuccessfully to find evidence to link these four to all of the previous the robberies:

The Company are understood to be exerting themselves to the utmost to bring the persons concerned in these impudent and daring frauds to justice, and probably, although no proof appears to have been obtained as yet, something may arise out or these inquiries between this and the period of their trial which are being made by the parties interested, inculpating those persons alluded to in these transactions also. 

The Times thought it
useful to remark, in order to calm the public mind with respect to, these robberies at the Dock establish-ments, which have created considerable excitement and alarm for the safety of property at these places, that considering the extent of the premises, and the extraordinary number of allsorts of packages, and of every description of merchandise, necessarily lying on the quays at all times, after being landed from the importing vessels, and previously to being housed, very-few robberies take place, and it may confidently be anticipated,now that  the gang of plunderers has been broken up by the police, that we shall hear of no more attempts of a similar nature being made. At all events, from the experience furnished by the late discoveries, and the increased vigilance in consequence by the Dock company’s watch and the police, it will be almost impossible for them to be effected with any degree of success

Clark though had the perfect alibi – he was in custody at the time of the robbery. So unless he was a ghost it seemed unlikely that he was scaling the walls with a sack of tobacco. Unfortunately though, the circumstances in which he was arrested, combined with the address of of a property he had recently leased, and the name of one of his employees,  meant that his role in the scheme wouldn’t go undetected.

For some reason, Benjamin Aston was released without charge, and only the other four were committed to be tried  at the next session of the Central Criminal Court. The Times reported that no further evidence was  brought against them at the magistrates, which was of being concerned in the one robbery in question. 


John Clements was the first witness, followed by Charles Nash, a shoemaker.

Nash Lived on Old Gravel Lane in Wapping, a property owned by a Mr Salter, the Landlord of the White Lion Pub. Nash told the court of the occasion he met Matthew Clark and William Johnson.:

On Monday, the
30th of Dec., I saw Johnson and Clark at the White Lion with Mr. Salter. Mr. Salter told me, in their presence, to take
the key, and go to No. 3, Johnson-Street, and show them a room that was to let
there, which belonged to Mr. Salter.
One can only wonder what Mr Nash thought of these two chaps looking for a room to

I took them—they looked at an empty garret there;
there was no bed in it, and no grate—after that they went back with me to Mr.
Salter’s—they had asked me if I knew what the room went at per week—they both
took a part in asking—about a quarter of an hour after that I delivered the key
to Clark, in Johnson’s presence.

So, Hurley was found in number 3 Johnson Street with the tobacco, Clark and Johnson had rented the property. But how was Cantelo implicated?

I was present when the prisoner
Hurley was apprehended, on Saturday morning, the 4th of January, about half-past
eight o’clock, and within an hour after that I saw Johnson and Cantelo at No.
3, Johnson Street—they both came together, and went up into the garret—they did
not speak, but went away in about two minutes—some tobacco had been removed
then from the room.
Cross-examination of Nash was somewhat lacking in bite, and focussed on his knowledge of the property which Nash answered at great length.
I do not know that there have been complaints of bad women going in
there with men. I have heard no complaints of the door having been found open
in the morning. The persons who live in the house seem very decent sort of
people—there are two old widow ladies, but no other single women live
there—Mrs. Border and her husband live there, and a young man, whose brother is
in the Thames-police, has the back room. Two of the floors are occupied down
stairs, and two up stairs—there are four floors occupied besides the garret.
up with questions is Mr Payne who was dubious about Nash’s recollection of having seen Johnson and Cantelo on the morning of the crime:

When did you first recollect that you saw Johnson and Cantelo for
about two minutes, going up the stair-case on the Saturday morning?

Was Nash the pretend shoemaker making it up? He responded:

I recollected it all along, but the question has not been put to me
before—I have had no conversation about it with any policeman, or the officers
of the Docks till yesterday, when I mentioned it to Mr. Clements.

So no!
But the defendant Clark then tries to play lawyer, but limited his questions to Nash’s role as jobbing estate agent and who received the deposit. The only thing of note arising from this questioning was the stunning statement from Nash about one of the other occupants:
I believe the man who lives in the house belongs to the Humane

Quite what the
relevance of a man trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation living in the same
house was I don’t know, but Nash clearly thought so.

After having established that Clark was the man who rented the property, the next witness was a Mr Michael Riley, a watchmen attached to the tobacco warehouse. He described events on the second of January, the day before the robbery.

The bridge between the western dock and the tobacco warehouse is on the north of the East-quay warehouse—I was watching there between two and three o’clock, on the 2nd of January. I saw Clark and Hurley on that bridge, apparently talking to each other. I went towards them—Clark then separated, and went under the shed of the Eastquay, joining to the tobacco warehouse. Hurley was joined by two other men, and remained on the bridge. I went into the warehouse, and saw no more.

So, Clark and Hurley had been spotted together by the warehouse. This shed was the one described by Clements. The day of the robbery, Riley patrolled the tobacco warehouse and observed that the cords on the lanterns were not cut. On that night Riley shut the warehouse at four o’clock and the docks closed at about six pm that evening.

A member of the jury then asked whether the cranes next to the warehouse were swing cranes:

Yes, the jibs swing over, partly level with the roof of the warehouse—they are swung round for protection—I believe some of the cranes are fastened up—I do not know whether these were—there is no grating over the lanterns.

Clearly, the jury seemed more capable of actually extracting some relevant information from the witnesses than the lawyers. Riley was then questioned on how he, accompanied by Joshua Judge and Clements, had identified Clark as having been in the docks after he had subsequently been arrested and held in custody at Clerkenwell prison. The line-up was part of police procedure even in the mid 19th Century:

there were several persons standing in a row—I walked down before them—I looked at them one by one as I passed

Clark accused Riley of being prompted to pick him out. However, Clark was well known to Riley, and more notably had been seen in the company of criminals in the past:

I have seen you many times at the corner of Denmark-street, Ratcliff-highway, in company with persons who are now transported—I have seen you with Cantelo, drinking porter, or ale

James Swingland, a constable of the London Dock then testified about finding Clark, and being suspicious of his actions:

I was there between four and five on Friday afternoon, the 3rd of Jan., and saw Clark under the shed on the east quay, near the tobacco dock—he was going towards the eastern dock—there were two persons before him—I did not take notice of them—I asked Clark where he was going—he said, “On board the Alkmar, lying in the eastern dock,” and that he wanted to see a person on board—I told him the ship did not lie in the eastern dock—he said he knew that, but it was too late for him to go out that night, and he was going into the eastern dock—I said he had better walk with me to the principal entrance of the London Dock.

This was very odd, as the Alkmar had sailed several weeks earlier, so Swingland took him to the watch house and Clark unprompted handed him some candles but stated he had nothing else on him. Swingland however searched Clark:

I searched, and found part of a box of lucifer matches on him, and an old key, which he said did not belong to him—I asked why he carried it—he said he did not know

So Clark, was wandering around the docks with candles, matches and a mystery key. Swingland stated that he knew Johnson, the co-accused.

I know Johnson—he was employed in the warehouse No. 3, in the dock—that is not a tobacco-warehouse, but he has been employed in the tobacco-warehouse—I think I have seen Johnson with Clark.

Swingland stated the he also knew Hurley by sight having seen him come out of the gate of the dock, sometimes alone, and sometimes with others’. 

One of the other residents of No. 3 Johnson Street, Sarah Border testified that she has seen Cantelo in the building on the evening of the robbery struggling to get a door to his room open:

I saw Cantelo on the top stairs—there was a man with him, and they were trying the top door—after they tried the door I came out of my room, and Cantelo asked if I would lend him my key—he said his sister, or the woman, had given him a wrong key. I gave him my key and —he opened the door, and they went into the room—Cantelo came and returned me my key—they remained in the room a little time, and then went down stairs

Sarah Border  was at home the following morning, when Hurley was arrested, but had been disturbed in the night:

During the night I had heard footsteps going up and down continually to that room over my head—on the following morning three men came up the stairs as I stood at my door, talking to Nash—they said, as they passed up, “We will go and see how the fire goes on”—I said [to Nash], as they passed, that is the man I gave the key to,” meaning Cantelo, who was one of them—I think Johnson was one of the others—I do not know which of them spoke about the fire.

She continued to describe the things that went bump in the night:

The first of my waking up was about two o’clock in the morning, and then I heard footsteps going up stairs till half-past four, or a very little after, and I heard something fall heavy—I have lived in that house two years—I left it for eleven months, and while I was away the people moved who had had that garret and another room—the garret was empty about seven weeks after I came back—I never knew of persons taking shelter there—it is always kept locked—I heard a woman and child in the course of the night—I did not see them.

So Sarah Border had identified Johnson and Cantelo as being at the room where the tobacco had been found and had testified that noone else had been using the room before these men moved in.

Clements was then re-examined on the basis of the evidence presented by the other witnesses. He was asked about Clark being taken to the watchhouse by Swingland:

I asked him if the key that was found on him belonged to any place he occupied—he said no, it did not—I asked where he got it from—he said he did not know, he hardly knew why he carried it, and he had two or three more old keys at home—I asked where he got the lucifer matches and candles—he said he bought them at a chandler’s shop at the corner of Johnson-Street, Old Gravel-Lane, and gave the last penny he had for them.

So, Clark’s position was that the key he was carrying was of unknown provenance, though his explanation of why he was carrying it around was less than convincing. On the following Monday, Clements went to Clerkenwell Prison with Nash, the shoemaker.

As soon as we got into the yard where the prisoners are, Clark stepped up to me, and pointing to Nash, he said, “There, Mr. Clements, that person can tell you all about the key”—he then said, “I hope you will let me have fair play”.

So having denied it was the key to his lodgings when originally, Clark was now hoping Nash would state it opened his rooms. However, Clements revealed which locks it did open:

I said it did open certain places at the dock—he said it was the key of the room he hired of a publican in Old Gravel-lane, and the room was at No. 3, Johnson-street—I said, “Am I to understand that it was the key of the garret at No. 3, Johnson-street?”—he said it was—I said, “You shall have fair play”—I then went to No. 3, Johnson-street, and found the key fitted the garret door lock—I said to Clark, “When I asked you on Friday where you got the key, you told me you did not know”—he said, “Yes, I was so confused, I did not know what I was saying”

So by some coincidence (or unsophisticated locks), this key was able to open both the locks of Clark’s lodgings and the docks. So, was the suspicion that Clark sought to use the key to access the docks unfair? Possibly, but Clements noted that the key was like a lock pick, so perhaps not surprising that it opened a number of locks. Clements said that he did not however think that the key had been used for improper purposes in the docks. However, whether or not it would have been had Clark not been arrested would have been a key thought for the jury. Clements continued to make some observations about the abundance of lucifer matches, which had been found on both Clark and Hurley:

I found some lucifers on the top of the warehouse—I saw the foreman pick up some lucifers under the lantern near Tent-street—here are some lucifers produced by Swingland and by Judge—they all appear to be of the same description—there were four more matches, which were left at the police-court—this is a piece of cord I found on the head of one of the hogsheads of tobacco under the lantern.

The final two key witnesses were John Newman Fricker of the docks and Richard Tweedy, foreman of the tobacco warehouse. They confirmed the tobacco found in Johnson Street matched the weight and type of tobacco stolen.

Credit: Mapco


The Times reported that after a long consultation, the jury returned a verdict of Guilty against all the prisoners.

All four men were found guilty and transported to Australia for ten years.


Three days after the trial, The Times noted perhaps a little wistfully that no evidence had been presented that linked the four men on trial with the other robberies from the docks. However, a note of optimism concluded the reporting of the case:

However, from the capture and conviction of these persons, it is very
probable that the gang of depredators who have been concerned in the robberies
in question has been in a great measure, if not wholly, broken up, and the
public may feel assured, from the additional watch and supervision exercised at
the great dock establishments, it will be extremely difficult to attempt a
robbery of a similar character, without causing immediate alarm, and leading to instant discovery.

The geography of C.19th Wapping

Although the docks have gone, and with them many warehouses, industrial buildings and houses, the street layout of Wapping has not changed too significantly over the past century or so. There have however been a series of changes in street names, which keeps the historian on their toes as they try to trace the past to to the present.

More frustrating though is when historical sources record names incorrectly as one needs to establish what the correct name and spelling is.

Throughout the sources I’ve been reading there are references to ‘Tent Street’. I believe these actually refer to Tench Street, given the location of the events that will be revealed. I have changed all such references to Tench Street to avoid confusion.

A stone marker on the Turk’s Head,
Tench St. showing the name Bird St.

More problematic are the references to Bird Street.

There was a Bird Street in Wapping, which ran north-south along the eastern wall of the docks by the basin leading from Pier Head and met at the corner of….Tench Street! Indeed, Bird Street now forms the western part of Tench Street and an old street marker for Bird Street is visible on the Turk’s Head pub.

In an ideal world, this would make sense and be very simple, it’s not. 

Why not? Well, because, there are references to the junction of Bird Street and Tench Street. But there are also references to the junction of Bird Street and Johnson Street.

Johnson Street (bear with me) was renamed Chandler Street and runs between Wapping Lane (formerly Old Gravel Lane) and Reardon Street (formerly Broad Street). I think that on balance the references to Bird Street are actually to Broad Street. I have also changed these references above, but all originally referred to Bird Street.

I have included an historic photo of Bird Street, as I didn’t find one of Broad Street, and I’ve also included some photos of Tench Street, as they were more atmospheric than the ones I tried taking on Reardon Street (the challenge that on-street parking poses to an unimaginative blogger).

I think it possible that in some of the transcription of court proceedings the speech or accents of the natives of Wapping may have not been fully clear, leading to this confusion.

The economics of tobacco theft in the 19th Century

correspondent, with the nom de plume ‘Civis’ wrote to The Times saying he thought the robbery did ‘evince much boldness and ingenuityand noted that ‘whoever has witnessed the towering walls,
the massive gates, the panoply of locks and bolts, the formidable array of
warehouse-keepers, deputies, inspectors, lockers, police, &c., must wonder
at the temerity and success of the enterprise
of tobacco is probably enough to see even the heaviest smokers through a few
weeks- it would be sufficient to make 60,000-90,000 modern cigarettes – so would be an attractive haul, but the
correspondent noted that it was the high levels of duty on tobacco that made it
a lucrative acquisition.
docks had bonded warehouses, which had been introduced into the UK in 1803.
Rather than an importer paying duty on goods when they arrived in the country,
the importer made agreements with the tax authorities to pay the duty at a
later point, typically when it was sold or taken out of the warehouse. Thus,
Civis pointed out:

150lb. of tobacco within the walls is worth 1l.
17s. 6d. and without the walls 25l 12s. 6d.
When were walls, or gates, or
warehouse-keepers, or lockers, proof against such odds? It is really lamentable
to think of the wide spread of crime created by this exorbitant duty.

value of the duty on the tobacco was such that ‘the warehouse in which this
tobacco was deposited is at all times under the special locks of the Crown, the
official keys being removed from the warehouse daily at the closing hour of
business to a place of trust and security…
Yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer affects to doubt the extent of
smuggling? What are his boasted Coastguard, in comparison with the walls, the
gates, the bolts, the locks, of the formidable London-dock, which must be
deemed as secure as art and massiveness can make them? And yet are all open at
Civis argued for a reduction in duty to reduce the
level of smuggling:

In this
afflicting view of the subject our triumph at the prosperous state of the
public revenue is much diminished, and every friend to humanity must wish that
less might be obtained if this direful cause of crime and suffering could be

Based on Civis’ figures mid 19th Century
tobacco duty increased the price 13 fold. In contrast tobacco duty on rolling tobacco today accounts for only about half of the retail price, rather than over 90 per cent in 1845. 
on how you inflate the value of money, the tobacco in the warehouse was worth £152
(RPI) to £5,000 (share of GDP) and with duty £2,080 to £67,000. Using the
current retail value of rolling tobacco, 150lb is worth about £109,000.

the 21st Century, tobacco smuggling remains a problem and the
introduction of the tobacco duty escalator in 2010 increases the incentives to defraud the exchequer. Many of those on HMRC’s most wanted list are wanted in relation to some much larger scale frauds than that perpetrated in 1845.


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