The beginnings a notorious life of crime?

Recently historians of crime have become more interested in looking at the offending patterns of individuals and networks as a means of understanding criminal activity in the past. Heather Shore’s latest book is an example of this approach. Shore traces the criminal life of William Sheen and his family, a ‘career’ that involves petty theft, violence, informing and murder. The Sheens lived in Whitechapel, East London, an area which remained associated with crime and criminal networks throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. William (or ‘Bill’) Sheen first came to the attention of the authorities in the Regency period but he (and his family) remained as a stain on society long into the Victorian age.

Contemporaries and modern criminologists have debated the causes of crime and the pathway offenders took to reach the point at which they found themselves in a court room, imprisoned, or on a scaffold. Mostly the circumstances or incidents which started the process are hidden to us but just occasionally we can get a glimpse of offending patterns that often start modestly but then escalate to more serious acts of illegality.

Sheen was already known by 1829 but the appearance in the Mansion House police Court of someone bearing that name (and resident in Whitechapel) could well indicate a relative (or even his son perhaps). In June 1829 three young men were charged at the Mansion House courtroom with stealing bread and other goods from a City baker named Mr Baber who had a shop in London Wall.

The defendants, listed as Wilkinson, Sheen, and Brown were accused of  taking away three loaves. One of them entered the property, grabbed the bread and ran out. He then passed a loaf to each companion and they made off. This wasn’t the first time the baker had fallen victim to the lads’ thieving, the court was told that they had frequently taken cakes, bread or biscuits but this time Baber was determined to put a stop to it by catching and prosecuting them.

As the ran away they tore the bread up and stuffed it into their mouths, feigning (the baker alleged) hunger. This was their defence in court when questioned by the magistrate. Sheen declared that: ‘It’s very hard that a poor man can’t take  a bit of bread to satisfy nature, without being grabbed for it’. Wilkinson complained that ‘vot right have we to starve any more nor yourself, my Lord Mayor’? [the London press quite often rendered the speech of the working classes or of immigrants like this – I presume it amused the middle class readership].

The Lord mayor sent for the parish officials from Whitechapel who testified that the three were among the most ‘idle and refractory vagabonds in the parish’. He added that ‘if they were not checked they would, no doubt, engage in some desperate offence’.

The justice and his fellow alderman Mr Atkins agreed. They were determined to make an example of the three men but felt on this occasion the Vagrancy Act was lacking. Although this was such a minor theft they decided to send the three to Old Bailey to face  trial there. While Sheen does appear of subsequent occasions he wasn’t tried for theft in 1829 so perhaps it never got that far.

It was seen as extraordinary by the newspaper that reported it as such cases were routine and dealt with summarily, perhaps this was William Sheen in the early days of his path to notoriety.

[from Caledonian Mercury , Monday, June 15, 1829]

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