Little boys should not play with guns: a cautionary tale from West Ham

Vintage engraving from 1864 of showing a victorian Revolver

William Slade wasn’t a bad lad but like many nine year old boys he was fascinated with guns. His father kept a loaded revolver in his desk and, while he was supposed to keep this locked he had lost the key some time ago. William knew where the gun was and in November 1885 he took it out of the drawer to play with.

On the 18 November he took the pistol down to the river bank at Plaistow where he showed it off to his friends who used it to shoot at the pigeons and wildfowl. He must have enjoyed being the centre of attention so the next day he and his mates were back by the river again, getting through his father’s arsenal of 30 live cartridges.

At half past one he was back at school where no doubt more small children wanted to see the now famous weapon in action. William loaded the chamber with a fresh bullet and thought he’d carefully fixed the firing hammer so it couldn’t go off.

But then tragedy struck. He was ‘swinging the revolver about when it went bang’. A boy next to him fell to the ground and William rushed off home to his father. In the meantime the stricken lad, another nine year-old named Henry Leach, was taken to Poplar Hospital where he died of his wounds.

When William admitted what he’d Mr Slade took him by the arm and delivered him to the police station to face the music. Inspector Golding  attended the inquest into Henry Leach’s death where a verdict of misadventure was recorded.

Later that month father, son and police inspector were all present at West ham Police court to hear the magistrate (Mr Phillips) express his sorrow for the death of Henry and the trauma suffered by both families. As the coroner had determined that the death was an accident he discharged William into the care of his father.

One hopes that Mr Leach secured the revolver and young William never handled a gun again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 26 November, 1885]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

300px-Victoria_Docks_1872

London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]