William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.
PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers. The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 1s 4d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.
This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?
William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’. He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.
Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.
It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.
His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.
The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]