The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]

‘The devil finds work for idle hands to do’: a youngster pays the price for his temptation

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William Barham was only 11 years of age when he stood in the dock at mansion House Police court. His experience is a reminder that attitudes towards children (especially juvenile offenders) have changed enormously in the past 150 years.

William’s father worked in a local market close to Mark Lane as a ‘sampler of corn’. He was well respected having held the post for many years. His lad often went into work with him and was allowed to play and run about the offices at the New Corn Exchange. The beadle had an office there, where the boy was allowed occasionally to wash himself.

On the 8 May William was watching Mr Wise the beadle tie up some bags of silver coin. The temptation  must have been too great because when the beadle left the room William helped himself to one of the bags. Wise spotted the loss on his return and his suspicions immediately fell on young William.

This was compounded by the eleven year-old’s absence and so on the following morning, when he reappeared, he was questioned closely about the missing money (which amounted to £5). William denied all knowledge of it and the matter was handed over to the police. Now William cracked; handling questions from his father and a man he knew was one thing, but being interrogated by police detective, perhaps in a cell nearby clearly unsettled the child.

Accompanied by his father, the beadle and the detective, William took them across the river to ‘an orchard in a retired part of Bermonsdsey’ where he’d buried his loot. They dug up the bag which still contained most of the silver; William had spent 36but wouldn’t say on what.

At his first appearance in court, soon after the discovery of the theft, William was remanded in custody at the request of his father. Mr Barham said he wanted his son to be placed in a juvenile reformatory, for his own good. The magistrate agreed but sent the child back to a police cell while the arrangements were made. This had taken about a week and now father and son were reunited at the Mansion House, along with the boy’s mother.

Alderman Challis, sitting as magistrate, asked the parents what they wanted to happen to William. They said they were ‘both anxious that some steps should be taken to reclaim their son from the dangerous career on which he had entered’.

Detective Monger explained that his enquiries had established that William had be led on by an older boy, a common trope in juvenile crime.

This other lad had persuaded William to ‘steal anything he could lay his hands on’ and, as a result, ‘he had frequently robbed his father and mother’.

Today William would have been seen as a troubled child, perhaps one that played truant or had been excluded from school. William didn’t go to school in 1860, nor, it seems, did he work. As the proverb suggests, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands to do’.

The alderman agreed that a reformatory school was the best place for William but the law required that he face a spell in prison first. William was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway gaol so that he could face the full consequences of his criminal actions and hopefully learn from it. Thereafter he would be sent to the Home in the East School for the Reformation of Criminal Boys at Bow, for four years. His father was obliged to pay 2sa week towards his keep, the intention being that parents should not evade their responsibilities entirely.

William was led away in tears and ‘for some minutes after was heard shrieking loudly for his father and mother’. It was a harsh system and we can only hope that William emerged in his early teens unscathed by it and perhaps one step removed from the influences that had led him to steal in the first place.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, May 19, 1860]

A deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]

A ‘Champagne charley’ causes mayhem in the cells

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John Betts’ appearance at the Mansion House Police court in early May 1867 caused something of a stir. Betts, a notorious thief in the area, was arrested in Crutchedfriars in the City at 11 o’clock at night as he raced away from a victim he’d just robbed.

Charles Cadge had been walking with his wife in Gracechurch Street when they encountered Betts. The robber started him ‘full in the face, and then made a rush at him and snatched his watch from his pocket, breaking the guard’. It was a daring attack and had a City Police patrol not been just around the corner the thief might have evaded capture.

However, now he was up before the Lord Mayor, and he was far from happy about it.

Those waiting for their cases to come up were supposed to stand quietly once they had been brought up form the holding cells but Betts was in no mood to behave. He had made so much noise before his own hearing that he’d been taken back to the cells and while Mr Cadge and other witnesses (Inspector White and one of his constables) tried to give their evidence Betts made such a row that it was almost impossible to hear them.

Once in the dock he refused to give his name. Asked again (even though the warder of the City Prison said he was well known to him) he said he would only give his name if they gave him half a pint of beer. When this was not forthcoming he started singing the music hall standard ‘Champagne charley’.

The Lord Mayor admonished him, telling him to behave himself.

‘I shan’t’ Betts replied, ‘I want half a pint of beer. I have had nothing this morning. Look at my tongue’ which he stuck out, provoking much laughter in the courtroom.

The magistrate simply committed him for trial at the next sessions and the gaoler went to take him away. But Betts wasn’t finished and he lashed out, resisting the attempts to lead him to the cells. Two constables had to help the gaoler drag the prisoner down the stairs. As he passed a glass partition that allowed some light to the cells below Betts kicked out violently, trying and failing, to smash it.

Placed in a cell on his own he continued his protest, smashing ‘everything he could lay hold of, and armed himself with a large piece of broken glass in one hand and a leaden pipe which he had succeeded in wrenching up in the other’ and standing there in just his shirt, ‘he threatened with frightful imprecations that he would murder anyone that approached him’.

When he was told what was happening below him the Lord Mayor ordered that Betts be secured and taken directly to Newgate Prison, but this was easier said than done. Several men were sent to take him and after some resistance he gave in and said he only wanted a half pint of beer and he would desist. Finally the gaoler acquiesced and Betts was given a glass of porter, which was placed carefully on the floor of the cell in front of him. He tasted it, declared it was ‘all right’, gave up the weapons he’d armed himself with, and was taken to Newgate to await his trial.

When Betts (or in fact Batts) was brought for trial at the Old Bailey he refused to plead, pretending to be mute. A jury determined that he was ‘mute from malice’  not ‘by visitation of God’ (in other words he was shamming) and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. It wasn’t a great way to start one’s defence but by now I think we know that Batts was probably suffering form some sort of mental illness. Even his encounter with the police that arrested him suggests an unbalanced mind (as the Victorians might have described it).

Inspector White explained that:

On 2nd May, about eleven o’clock, I heard a cry of “Stop thief!” and saw the prisoner running—I stopped him with the assistance of another constable, and said,”Where are you going?”

He [Batts] said, “All right, governor, I am just going home; we are having a lark”—he ran round the urinal, took a watch out of his trousers pocket, and threw it against the urinal—I picked it up, and Cadge came up and identified it

On the road to the station he said, “It is only a lark; I did not take the watch, it was only a game; I did not throw it there”—he said nothing at the station except joking.

The prisoner said nothing in his defense and was convicted. It was then revealed that he had a previous conviction from Clerkenwell Sessions in 1864 where he’d been given three years’ penal servitude for stealing a watch.

For repeating his ofence the judge sent him back to prison, this time for seven years. He was let out on license in 1873 and doesn’t trouble the record again after that. Perhaps he went straight, let’s hope so as in 1867 he was only 21.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 04, 1867]

A fanatic causes a disturbance at St Paul’s.

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It was midday on 24 April 1883 and the verger to the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (a Mr Green) was close by the choir with his assistant. He noticed a well-dressed respectable looking man marching towards the altar with some determination. As he got close he clambered over the rope that divided the area from the public space and would have reached the communion table had Mr Green not stopped him.

There was no service at that time and no good reason for the man to be where he was. The man now demanded that the verger remove the cross and the candlesticks from the table at once, a request that Green, not surprisingly refused to comply with.

This angered the man who insisted again, trying to push past to implement his will himself. With some effort Green and his assistant prevented him and when the man refused to stand aside they called for a policeman to take him into custody.

So exactly what was all this fuss about? This became clear later that day when the verger and the intruder appeared before the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police court.

The defendant gave his name as William Handsley Podmore, 61 years of age and a solicitor. He was charged with making a disturbance in the cathedral, not a very serious offence in the eyes of the law but an unusual one for a man of such standing in society. Indeed, when the policeman was summoned Podmore warned the verger that he himself was a magistrate and he would ‘make him remember this one day’.

In court Podmore at first conducted his own defence, insisting that he had every right to ask for the candles and the cross to be removed:

‘On principal’, he declared, ‘I maintain that they have no right to be in a Protestant Church. I said I insisted on their being removed, and I will have them removed’.

The verger’s assistant was called to testify and supported his colleague’s account adding that the solicitor had acted very oddly that lunchtime. He had told them both that he’d been to the cathedral ‘1800 years ago, and made other strange statements’. He had even suggested he was Jesus Christ himself the verger’s assistant told a presumably stunned courtroom. William Podmore dismissed this as ‘nonsense’. He insisted he was within his rights and was a upstanding citizen. He ‘held five appointments in the City’ he added, and was a ‘Master Extraordinary of the Court of Chancery’.

The alderman, Sir Robert Carden, seemingly chose to humour the aged lawyer. If he didn’t like ‘ornaments in the church’ why did he go there? There were plenty of other churches he could worship in in the city after all.

‘I will go there’, insisted Podmore, ‘and I will pull them down. It is simply Romanism in our Protestant Evangelical Church’ adding that ‘these accused things should [not] be allowed to remain’.

A character witness appeared next to vouch for Podmore. Mr Crawford was a fellow solicitor who had known the defendant for years as well-respected member of the community, he soon took over his friend’s defence. He thought he must be ill if he was acting in this way because it was entirely out of character. Podmore was a Commissioner for Oaths and he hoped the alderman would be satisfied by a promise from the defendant not to enter St Paul’s ever again.

However, he added that he thought a shame that it had come to court at all. He alluded to recent changes at the cathedral that were not to everyone’s liking and Sir Robert agreed. However, whilst he might think it fitting to express his ‘disapproval at the extraordinary change which had taken place in the service at the cathedral, he should not think of disturbing the service because he disliked it’.

Reynold’s Newspaper ‘headlined’ its reports as ‘another disturbance at St. Paul’s’ suggesting Podmore wasn’t the only person unhappy that whatever changes had been taking place. The justice decided that he wanted to hear from the Dean and Chapter about the changes that were happening at St Paul’s so adjourned the case for a week, bailing Podmore on his own recognizances.

A week later Mr Podmore was back and the Dean and Chapter chose not to press charges. They insisted that they did so because it was their belief that the solicitor was ‘not responsible for his actions at the time of the occurrences’ (suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness). However there was a little more detail to this that emerged in Reynolds’ account of the second hearing. The Dean and Chapter wanted to make it clear to the public – through the auspices of the magistracy – that disturbances at the cathedral should not be allowed to continue.

‘St. Paul’s was the cathedral church of London’, they insisted, and its services were attended by large congregations. There was no knowing what might be the result to life and limb if any scare or panic arose through the act of a fanatic, and in these days especially when the public mind was excited by recent threats against public buildings, the dean and chapter had a great weight of anxiety resting on their shoulders’.

Sir Robert Carden agreed that Podmore was ‘in the wrong’ and the solicitor himself (while insisting he was not out of his mind) accepted his responsibility and his ‘little want of judgement’. He said he hoped the law would change so such ‘ornaments would soon be removed in a legal manner’.   He was released on his own sureties of £50 to not disturb the peace in future but the magistrate added a warning that the leniency he’d shown to Mr Podmore was on account of his infirmity and character, he would come down hard if there were any further attempts to disturb the peace of Wren’s masterpiece.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 25, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, April 29, 1883; The Standard, Wednesday, May 02, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 6, 1883]

‘They have treated my young lady shamefully’: a schoolmaster has his day in court

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In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.

There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.

In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.

The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.

The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:

‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.

She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.

Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.

When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.

Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.

Minton had come quietly and happily stating:

‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.

The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.

He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]

‘Long Bob’ is nabbed as the American Civil War causes ripples in Blackfriars

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In early March 1865 Mr John Crane’s (a gunmaker’s agent) warehouse in Birchin Lane, in the City of London, was raided. Thieves broke in and stole a number pistols over the weekend of the 4th to 6th March. Three men were arrested as they attempted to sell on the guns on the day the burglary was discovered. However, it was believed at least one other man was involved and, by April 1865, the police had been looking for him for nearly a month.

Robert White, who went by the nickname of ‘Long Bob’ was presented at the Mansion House Police Court on the 4th April charged with being involved in the burglary. The middle-aged ‘commercial traveller’ had been brought in by City detectives Hancock and Harris after being found trying to sell a pair of revolvers to a pawnbroker in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.

The case was prosecuted by Mr Davis, a Cheapside lawyer. He produced the pawnbroker’s assistant to give evidence. The assistant told Alderman Carter (who was sitting in for the Lord Mayor) that a man fitting White’s description but giving the name ‘Martin’ had pledged two ‘six barrelled revolvers’ on the evening of the 4th March. The man was loaned £2 5s against the security of the weapons.

Later that evening ‘Martin’ (White) was back, this time with five more guns which he offered for sale. Asked for their provenance White told the pawnbroker’s man  that they belonged to a ‘friend of his’ who had asked him to sell them. They were part of a large order for the Federal Army, he added, and were surplus to requirements.

In early April 1865 the American Civil War was almost at an end. The Union blockade of the South which had been increasingly effective in choking the Confederacy’s economy was strengthened by the capture of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Only a few days later (on the 9 April 1865) General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union troops at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending four years of bitter conflict.

The Blackfriars pawnbrokers was run by a Mr Folkard and the police (in the person of Detective Edward Hancock) visited as part of their inquiries into the theft. They notified the ‘broker that stolen guns were in circulation but what happened next is far from clear.

The pawnbroker’s assistant – a Mr Parker – had given ‘Long Bob’ £5 for the revolvers he wanted to sell. White wanted £7 10s which Parker had said he would have if his master was convinced they were worth that. White agreed to return later. In the meantime of course, the police had been.

When White returned Parker told him that the guns were stolen and that if he gave back the money he’d given him he could have back the guns. This seems bad practice at the very least; if he knew they were stolen he should have detained the thief and called for a constable. However, White denied knowing anything about any robbery and said he would get the money back. Shortly afterwards he returned, with money and the pistols. Parker now kept both.

Amongst all this the revolvers produced in court were identified as belonging to the gunmaker’s agent, Mr Crane.

There was some confusion and dispute about the facts presented in the Mansion House Court and it can’t have been easy for the Alderman to work out who was telling the truth. The police suggested that when he visited Mr Parker he’d shown him the two pistols that White had pledged but hadn’t mentioned the other five he’d tried to sell. He added that under questioning the prisoner (White) said that Parker had agreed he could have the guns back if he retuned the £5 he’d been advanced for them. When he’d returned however the ‘broker had kept both the guns and the money, something Parker now denied.

The magistrate decided that all this argument about who did what and when needed to be picked over by a jury and so he sent Robert White to join the others accused of stealing Mr Crane’s pistols. He would face a trial at the Old Bailey.

On the 10 April four men appeared in the dock at the ‘Bailey: John Campbell, James Roberts, Edmund Collins and Robert White. They were charged with stealing 50 revolvers from the warehouse of John Crane. The weapons had a collected value of £130.

In front of the jury and Old Bailey court Henry Parker explained that while he was aware of the robbery he hadn’t associated Roberts with the theft because he was a regular visitor, often trading items under the name of Martin. This fitted with White’s image as a commercial traveller and suggests that he was part of a shady underground in Victorian London where thieves worked together to shift stolen goods through the second-hand market.

Should Parker have been more careful? Probably. Was he attempting to make some money for himself or Mr Folkard’s business on the back of this crime? Possibly, but that is hard to prove. In the end all four men were convicted of the burglary. Collins received a good character and got away with six months’ imprisonment. Campbell went down for 10 years of penal servitude while White and Roberts got seven years.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 05, 1865]