Echoes of Saddleworth as arsonists set Wimbledon Common on fire

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At the beginning of the week the Fire Serve in Greater Manchester declared that they had finally put out the fires that have devastated Saddleworth Moor in the past few weeks. Although they warned that the continuing hot weather might precipitate further outbreaks of fire, the situation is now under control.

The exact cause of the fire hasn’t yet been confirmed but there were sightings of men or youths on the 24 June apparently deliberately setting fires. Of course it goes without saying that anyone who starts a fire that might endanger people, homes, wildlife and the environment is either completely devoid of morals or intelligence, or is in need of psychiatric support.  It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow.

Sadly arson is not that uncommon an offence, nor is there anything particularly new in what those people did in the north west of England. In July 1881 four men were charged at Wandsworth Police court in South London with ‘wifully setting fires’ on Wimbledon Common.

Now, readers of a certain age may associate Wimbledon Common with much more positive examples of outdoor activity but it is fair to say that Frederick Deverell (a porter), William Grain (a lighterman), William Booth (a plumber) and Alfred Byrant (a painter) were no Wombles. SHOWBIZ Wombles 1

Deverall and Grain were seen lighting matches and throwing them into the furze on Sunday evening (the 17 July, 1881), while Booth and Bryant were sighted doing exactly the same on the Monday. The common had been set on fire several times that month and so the offenders could expect to be dealt with severely if they were caught.

All of the parties denied any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming it was an accident. Mr Shiel, the presiding magistrate, didn’t believe them however and fined Booth and Bryant £5 each, with a month in prison if they were unable to pay the fines. He clearly deemed that Deverall and Grain’s crimes were the greater however, as he indicted them to stand trial in front of a jury where they might be given a longer custodial sentence if convicted.

The pair were lucky. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 2 August and acquitted. Both were young, just 17, and the situation on the common was confused with lots of visitors and some people camping out in the summer holidays.

Nevertheless there does seem to have been sufficient witness testimony from the police (who were there in plain clothes) and the head keeper of the common to have convicted them so perhaps the fact that they received good character references saved them from a lengthy spell in gaol. I hope those responsible for setting the fires on Saddleworth Moor are not afforded such generosity if they ever come before a jury.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 20, 1881]

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