Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]

Two terrible cases of scalding, one accidental and other deliberate

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On Saturday 4 June 1887 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the regional press of a unfortunate brewery worker in Sheffield who died of injuries he sustained at work. John Thompson was employed at the Spring Line brewery and had climbed a ladder to turn off  tap when he lost his balance and pitched into a tank of boiling water. He suffered terrible scaldings and died in hospital.

That was a terrible accident, the sort of thing that probably happened more frequently than it would today with all our health and safety restrictions. But in the same week a non-fatal, but equally traumatic incident involving boiling water ended in life changing injuries and a court case.

Emily Westbrook was sitting quietly at her needlework in her employer’s house. She worked for Mrs Harriet Grant at her home at 30 Coldharbour Lane, possibly as a servant but maybe as a seamstress. Either way she wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Mrs Grant entered the room, quite the worse for drink.  She was carrying a jug of water and, without any warning, she came up to Emily and tipped its contents all over her neck and arms. The water had been taken from a kettle that had just boiled and so poor Emily was badly scalded. A doctor was called and Emily was treated but she was likely to be scarred for life.

Defending the prisoner, Mr Maye said that it was entirely an accident, but this was quite at odds with what the girl alleged. The magistrate was Mr Chance and he said that the case was too serious for him to resolve summarily, especially as Mrs Grant did not admit the charge. He bailed her to appear at the next Surrey Sessions of the Peace and took two promises of £25 to ensure she turned up.

If it wasn’t an accident I wonder what prompted the elder woman’s attack. Was it jealousy of  younger woman? Perhaps Mr Grant had been paying the girl too much attention, or Harriet merely suspected him of something similar. She had been drinking, and one wonders why and whether it was because she was unhappy and took it out on Emily. I have no record of what happened next but I rather suspect that a jury of men may well have dismissed the complaint as a little more than two women quarrelling over something trivial. Regardless it probably signalled the end of Emily’s employment.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 4, 1887]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]

An episode of ‘officious bumbledom’ as an 1890s dustman gets into hot water

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John Rooney had ‘parked’ his dust cart as he often did while he went to see he if there was any need for his services. The Lambeth based dustman had not been gone long but when he returned he found it had moved. As he looked around he saw the horse and cart being led away slowly by another man in the direction of the Vestry Hall.

Rooney ran after the cart and remonstrated with the man. The pair wrestled as the dustman attempted to get hold of the reins and the other resisted. In the melee the other man claimed he was ‘struck a violent blow in the chest and also behind the ear’. As a result he pressed charges against the dustman and Rooney found himself in court at Clerkenwell in front of Mr Bros the sitting magistrate.

His victim was a vestryman, a member of local (parish) government whose name was Joseph Walton. Walton explained that he had seen the dustcart standing unattended and had watched it for 10 minutes. When no one returned to it he decided to impound it and drew it away to the Vestry Hall.

Rooney’s lawyer, a Mr Cowdell, said his client had no idea who Walton was and so was understandably annoyed to see him ‘stealing’ his cart. It was normal custom for dustmen to leave their carts unattended ‘in a manner difficult for the horse to run off’ while they searched out work. In his client’s view, ‘it was a piece of “officious bumbeldom” for [Walton] to inferrer’ in this way.

We’ve all encountered a jobsworth at one point or other in our lives and know how annoying they can be. Walton was probably just following procedure however, and he could count on the support of the magistrate. Mr Bros determined that it was a violent assault and sentenced the prisoner to 21 days in prison. He later relented and changed this to a 40s fine.

I doubt it made Rooney much happier though; he had been dragged through the courts and fined for reacting to seeing his livelihood being taken away. I suspect Harold Steptoe would have sympathised with him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 28, 1892]

“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law

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On Sunday I started a short experiment in my methodology by choosing to follow just one week in the Police Courts. I picked the year 1883 because it neatly corresponded with our calendar for 2018. If you have been following the stories from Sunday you will know that we have resolved the case of George Wyatt (who robbed a jeweller on Hounsditch), heard that Henry Rollings was given the benefit of the doubt by the Woolwich justice, and noted the limits of the law in helping a cab driver whose fare had run off without paying him.

The case that remained outstanding was that of Harry Harcourt, the deaf and dumb pauper who made a miraculous recovery in Lambeth workhouse and found himself facing a charge of imposture.

Harcourt doesn’t appear in the police court reports published by The Standard on Saturday 3 February, nor is he in The Morning Post. I thought I might see him in the Illustrated Police News because that was a weekly paper and would have had the time to develop a fuller story around him, but sadly he’s a ‘no show’ there as well. We’ll have to wait to see if he is in the Sunday papers tomorrow. 

Instead, the top story in the Illustrated Police News  is the case of Mary Lowry and two other (unnamed) women who were brought before a City of London alderman for making a nuisance of themselves outside Aldersgate Street railway station.

The case was brought by a City policeman who explained to Sir Thomas Owden (on oath) that Mary and several others were frequently to be found outside the station selling flowers for button holes. Passersby were forced to ‘walk out into the road to avoid pass these obstructions’ he said, and the girls’ behaviour bordered on the aggressive:

‘They were not content with asking people to buy their flowers’, he stated, ‘but they followed them and thrust the flowers in their faces’.

When the policeman tried to move them on or arrest them they quickly got out of his way, returning when he’d passed by on his beat. As a result he had obtained summons to bring them into court.

Mary now spoke up for herself:

‘Beg pardon, my lord, I wasn’t there a minute. I was in the road till a milk cart came along, and I just stepped onto the path to avoid being knocked down’.

Sir Thomas didn’t believe her; the policeman had given his evidence on oath and he doubted he would have lied or made it all up. The other girls said they were sorry but they were simply trying to make a living. Flower sellers were a part of London’s poorest community and sometimes trod a narrow path between legitimate commercial business and petty crime or prostitution. If one thinks of Victorian or Edwardian flower girls an image of  Eliza Doolittle singing her wares in Covent Garden immediately springs to mind.

Sir Thomas said he was ‘sorry that [the girls] could not find something better to do’ but was inclined to be lenient on this occasion. He adjourned the summonses for a month to see if they would desist from their behaviour, and ket them all go.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 3, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Two ‘inveterate readers of juvenile literature’ caught short at Lambeth

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The Union Jack, juvenile reading matter from 1880

Thomas and Roger Casement were avid readers, or so their father believed. The pair of adolescents (Thomas was 13, his brother 11) were arrested in January 1876 in possession of three books they had allegedly stolen from a Lambeth bookshop. Mr William Polder, the shop owner, appeared in court at Southwark to press his prosecution against them while the boys’ father was there to defend his sons.

Polder said the lads came into his shop on York Road around lunchtime and asked to look at some of his 3d editions. Having perused these for a while they thanked him but said nothing interested them, and left. Soon afterwards however, Polder realised that three copies of more expensive texts (which he described as being ‘of greater value with showy covers’) were missing and he suspected the boys.

He soon caught up with them and, with the assistance of a police constable (PC 97L) they were arrested. The books were discovered and the constable asked them why they had taken them.

‘To make money of, as they had none’, the juvenile thieves reportedly replied.

Having ascertained that their father was a respectable man, a captain in the local militia no less,  a message was sent to fetch him. In court the officer spoke up for his offspring:

He ‘could not account for the lads taking the books unless it was to pay for the loan of them some other day. They were inveterate readers of juvenile literature, and were in the habit of borrowing books and paying for the loan of them’.

The justice, Mr Benson, pointed out that they had made no claim to borrowing anything, or offering to pay – this seemed like theft but the captain insisted it must have been a mistake. The magistrate gave him (if not the lads) the benefit of the doubt and released them into their father’s care on him agreeing to enter into a recognizance against their future good behaviour. If they stayed out of trouble all would be well, if they repeated the thefts then a reformatory possibly beckoned.

I imagine the journey home was an uncomfortable one for Thomas and Roger, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as the thrashing they were very likely to have received later.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, January 26, 1876]

A little local knowledge helps prevent ‘the grossest frauds and impositions’.

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When the Rev. Henry Burton, vicar of Atcham near Shrewsbury received a letter asking for his help he was immediately suspicious. Whether this was because he had be sent such missives or before and was wise to them, or perhaps on account of him being on the list of magistrates for Shropshire, we will never know but Rev. Burton decided to forward the letter to London. He sent it on to Mr Elliot, one of the capital’s Police Court magistrates, then looking after the Lambeth court.

The letter was from a  man named Henry Dewhurst who described himself as a doctor and begged the vicar to help him financially by placing an order (with payment) for a book that he had written. The book was entitled ‘The Moral Philosopher‘ and was priced at 8s and 6d (about £25 today). Dewhurst added that:

‘Diseased heart, want of employment, and the almost fatal effects of typhus fever to himself, wife, and two out of four children, have plunged them into the deepest distress. For two days they have not tasted food. Wife is fast sinking from consumption and want of nutriment. All they had is in pledge, even his clothes, for 56d. An early reply is humbly supplicated’.

Rev. Burton wanted to see if the magistrate at Lambeth could make some local enquires (as Dewhurst gave his address as 25 William Street, Nelson Square, Lambeth) and so Mr Elliot despatched the court officer, Sergeant Goff to see what he could find out.

When Goff returned he said it was a scam, or a ‘system of imposture’ as he put it. He had visited Mr Dewhurst and confirmed that he was someone who had previously been exposed as a fraud at the Lambeth Police Court. About a year earlier he had tried exactly the same method of parting gullible individuals from their money with a hard luck story and the promise of a book that never materialised.

Goff discovered that Dewhurst had also written other begging letters recently including one to another vicar (this time in Canterbury) where he tried to pass himself off as a having in MA in astronomy. That had also failed to convince the reverend gentleman who had asked a lady friend in Lambeth to check its validity.

Mr Elliot asked Goff if he was satisfied that Dewhurst was an imposter. Goff replied that he was, adding:

‘He has not his wife living with him, and whenever he is asked for the book he states he publish, his excuse is that it is at the binder’s, but who the binder is he does not say’.

The magistrate declared that if everyone was as careful as the Rev. Burton the ‘grossest frauds and impositions might be prevented’.

Interestingly in 1835 a man named William Henry Dewhurst did publish a pamphlet or book entitled the The Moral Philosopher, so perhaps he wasn’t such a fraud after all? 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 7, 1848]