Tragedy at Rotherhithe

It probably started innocently enough; two twelve year-old boys squaring up to each other by the river at Rotherhithe, egged on by a small crowd. John Bolton and William Selless were supposedly fighting over ‘some buttons’ but small boys fight for the least excuse.

William was the smaller lad and when Mary Warren turned into Wellington Street from her home nearby she saw the fight and three men around them offering advice. One of them called to William: “Hit him under the left ear’ he’ll not want to fight you any more”. William landed two blows under John’s ear causing him to scream out in pain and fall to the ground.

The onlookers quickly realised this was no sham, and the lad was picked up and rushed to the nearest doctor. Sadly, there was nothing he could do and John died of a ruptured blood vessel at the base of his brain. William was distraught: ‘Oh mother, I have killed him’ he said, ‘I shall be hung’.


Hales Rocket Factory

[Hales Rocket factory, Rotherthithe, 1853]


The man that had offered William the boxing advice was a Thames court police inspector, Henry Hambrook and the paper (the Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian) described his advice as ‘fiendish’. The magistrate at Greenwich remanded William Selless in custody and bailed the police inspector for £25 sureties.

The case came to the Old Bailey in May 1858 (note how swift justice could be in the mid 1800s) and both defendents were charged with manslaughter. The surgeon deposed that in his opinion the blood vessel had ruptured as a result of the fall, not the blow and this probably helped William’s case. The police officer was just short of retirement ‘on the grounds of ill-health’ and that is also likley to have swayed the jury.

Both were convicted but strongly recommended to mercy by the jurors. William Selless (who had spent a few day in prison already) was sentenced to a further 3 days, while Inspector Hambrook ended his career in ignominy with a three month gaol term.

It was a tragedy and a reminder that boxing is dangerous and that adults can behave stupidly when those they should be protecting are aping the behavior of men who should know better.

[Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian , Saturday, May 01, 1858]

The author has written a number of books on crime and punishment, if you enjoy this blog and want to find out more you might like these.

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