‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

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Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]

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