A deserter has a change of heart after Isandlwana

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A police constable was on his beat one evening in the Borough, Southwark, when a man came up to him and asked to be arrested. It was a fairly unusual request and so the officer asked him what he’d done.

‘Take me to the station-house’, the man replied, ‘and I’ll tell you’.

The pair set off and when they reached the police station the man gave his name as George Gwilliam, aged 33. He said that wanted to surrender his liberty as a deserter from the Queen’s colours. Desertion was an offence that was prosecuted by the military courts and rewards were payable to those that brought in or gave evidence against absconders.

First of all, however, the desk sergeant had to establish whether Gwilliam was telling the truth. Fortunately all deserters reported to the police were listed in the Police Gazette (formally known as the Hue and Cry) which had been published in London since 1772. It had been the brainchild of Sir John Fielding, one of the Fielding brothers who had founded the Bow Street ‘runners’ in the mid 1750s.

While the Gazette fell under the editorial control of the Bow Street office it was a ‘national’ paper, printed by and for the Home Office. By 1879 (when Gwilliam handed himself in at Southwark) it was still being edited by John Alexander, Bow Street’s chief clerk. It finally passed over to the Met in 1883.

The sergeant at Southwark nick was able to trace George Gwilliam finding that he was listed as having deserted from the 6th Dragoons on 16 June 1874, meaning he’d been AWOL for four years and eight months. So why hand himself in now? The story Gwilliam gave was that he’d heard the regiment were being posted to Africa and he wanted to join them.

The Southwark magistrate, Mr Partridge, was willing to indulge him and so told the officer of the court to notify the dragoons and have George transferred to the house of the correction in the meantime until he was required by his regiment.

The 6th(Iniskilling) Dragoons were one of the most celebrated cavalry units in the British Army, famously involved in the charge of Union Brigade at Waterloo and that of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava (rather than the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade in the same battle). The regiment saw action in South Africa in the ‘Boer War’ but Gwilliam would have probably have been too old by then, since he was 33 in 1879. In 1879 it was deployed to fight in what became known as the Anglo-Zulu war and, if he went, that is where our reformed deserter would have seen service.

Gwilliam may have been reacting to the heavy defeat of British forces at Isandlwana (on 22 January 1879) and the heroic defensive action at Rorke’s Drift (22-23/1/1879) where no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses were won. The British eventually won the war and the conflict has spawned two movies, the best of which is Zulu (1964) featuring a young Michael Caine.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 13, 1879]

No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster

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In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

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From point duty to the ranks of the ‘brave 600’: one policeman’s dangerous career move

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The 13th Light Dragoons at the Battle of Balaclava (1854) by John Charlton

Yesterday I wrote about Police Constable Wallington and the problems he encountered as one of the new ‘Peelers’ to hit the streets of London after 1829. Many members of the new force either left or were dismissed in the first year of the Metropolitan Police for corruption, disorderly conduct or because the pressure of the job was too great. The difficulties these new law enforcers faced did not fade away quickly and the police continued to be resented by large parts of the public (wealthy and poor) and had to fight hard to establish themselves as an accepted part of British society.

Charles Bailey was one of those that clearly found that either the strains of the job or discovered that the unsocial hours and dreary repetitive nature of the work was not for him.

In August 1840 he had been detailed to stand on fixed point duty at 2.30 in the afternoon in Camden Town. PC Bailey (74S) was supposed to stand watching out for ‘ominous and cab irregularities’ until 9 o’clock at night. This was, I understand from Neil Bell’s excellent study of the Victorian police in the 1880s, an unpopular task. The officer was not supposed to move from his spot until he was relieved by another policeman.

Yet when sergeant Gladmen (18S) checked on the constable at 2.45 he wasn’t there. Gladman was forced to position a replacement there in his stead. PC Bailey had completely disappeared.

When he was tracked down it was discovered that the policeman had quit his job and joined the army. Bailey had swapped his swallow tailed blue coat and tall hat for the much more glamorous uniform of the 13th Light Dragoons. The sergeant and his superintendent were not impressed and had no inkling of the officer’s intentions. As a result (former) PC Bailey was summoned before the Marylebone magistrate and asked to explain himself.

All that Bailey would say was that he was sorry but he had already enlisted before he went on duty. Presumably he felt unable or thought it unnecessary to inform his station sergeant of his new career. In court he did get some support from his new sergeant (this time from the Light Dragoons) who confirmed his appointment and asked the magistrate for clemency. The Marylebone justice fined the constable £10 for his dereliction of duty and because the new Dragoon didn’t have the money to pay he was sent to prison by default.

This was an odd switch of career for the time; it was probably more common for former soldiers to join the police, as we saw with George Walters, a hero of the Crimean who ended up policing a London park. However, perhaps for PC Bailey being asked to stand and watch (not even direct) traffic was just not what he had signed up for and the temptation to join the army and see the world was just too attractive.

The 13th had seen service in the Peninsula and at Waterloo and would go on to see action in the Crimean. If Bailey was still serving in the Dragoons in October 1854 as it lined up on the right flank of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava I wonder if he wished himself back on point duty in Camden rather than facing the Russian guns, ‘to the left of them’,  ‘to the right of them’ and ‘in front of them’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 15, 1840]

Stealing the medals of Victoria’s Crimean heroes

Cookhouse of the 8th Hussars

In early 1856 the Crimean War – fought because of Russia’s desires to gain territory at the expense of the seemingly weakened Ottoman Empire – ground to a halt. The allies (Turkey, Britain and France) and triumphed over the Russian Empire because of superior weaponry and technology such as the international telegraph.

It was a ‘modern’ war, coming as it did between the Napoleonic and the Boer (South African) War and offered lessons for the upcoming Civil War in America. It was also the first war to be reported with photographs, meaning that it impacted the home front in a particularly evocative way. Britain lost 25,000 troops (the French four times that figure) but many were lost not to Russian bullets or steel but to illness.

The Crimean War also saw the minting of a brand new award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. Supposedly made from bronze  smelted from a Russian cannon (the cannon was actually Chinese) the VC continues to be Britain’s highest military honour.

But as with previous (and subsequent) conflicts those that served were given either a service medal or a silver bar to mark their presence at one of the key battles. There were five bars for the Crimean medal (representing the battles of Alma, Inkerman, Azoff, Balaclava, and Sebastopol).

This is the Crimean War medal below:

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Of course with tens of thousands of medals needing to be minted someone had a huge task, and it it seems that it also offered opportunities for those with light fingers to profit.

William Henry Sharman was a 33 year-old silversmith who worked for Messrs Hunt & Roskell, ‘the extensive silversmiths’*, at their Gray’s Inn  Road factory. In February 1856 (just a month before the final peace treaty officials ended the war) Sharman was called into the manager’s office.

Earlier that day he had been given 200 bars to work on. When he returned them there were five missing. In the office with the manager William Day was a detective sergeant from E Division, Metropolitan Police. Sergeant Smith (16E). Day questioned him and Sharman told him he had handed back all the bars he had been allocated, and so couldn’t account for any ‘deficiancy’.

Day knew that this was a lie because he had personally checked the quantity and he challenged the silversmith. Sharman’s defence collapsed and he came clean. He produced the missing bars from his pocket and was arrested.

The case came before the sitting justice at Clerkenwell and Sharman made no attempt to conceal his guilt, merely throwing himself on the mercy of the magistrate, Mr Corrie.

‘I am guilty’ he admitted, ‘It is the first time I have been in a police court, and if you will be kind enough to deal leniently with me, I will take very good care that such a thing will never occur again. I am very sorry for what I have done’.

No doubt he was but at a  time that Britain’s  bruised and bloodied heroes were returning home the act of stealing their medals must have appeared particularly callous. Mr Corrie was also quick to remind Sharman (and the reading public) that stealing by employees was a serious matter because it involved a breach of trust. It was, the magistrate told him, ‘far more serious than a thief purloining from a shop window’.

Nor did Sharman have the excuse of poverty he added; the silversmith earned between £1 8s and £1 10s a week and had money in his pocket when he arrested. This was greed and opportunism and Mr Corrie sent him to prison for four months at hard labour. Sharman ‘who appeared to feel his situation acutely’, was then taken away.

Whether he was able to recover from this blow is impossible to say. He was a craftsman so had something to sell when he got out but his reputation was in tatters. As someone that worked with precious metals it is unlikely that anyone that new the truth of his crimes would ever allow him to work with silver in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 13, 1856]

*the firm, founded in 1843,  still exists today