An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]