‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

pier-01215-640

Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]

Three lads in a boat, bound for Australia with ‘tea, cheese’ and a sense of adventure.

poverty

Thomas Stead was only a young boy when he was brought to the Bow Street Police Court, the most senior of the summary courts of the capital. He was charged with stealing two bank cheques and a dagger.

Thomas was only 14 and had been arrested with two other lads in an open boat by officers from the Thames Police , who patrolled London’s arterial river. When they were seized they were found to be well equipped, with tea, cheese, candles, etc., and a pair of revolvers’. The boys’ stated plan was to row to Australia!

I’ve no idea why it was only Thomas that appeared at Bow Street, or what happened to the others, but perhaps he was the only one without a family to look after him.

The sitting magistrate was clearly somewhat impressed by the spirit and determination of this young thief, but at the same felt it necessary to try and cure him of his ‘stealing propensities’ (as he put it). He sent him to the reformatory at Feltham – a young offenders  institution that still exists (and I recall visiting when my father used to play football for the London Probation Service team).

The justice hoped, he said, that the 10 days he would have to spend in prison before Feltham (as was required with all reformatory sentences, quite against the wishes of Mary Carpenter who had champion this form of rehabilitation for youthful felons), and the spell in the Reformatory itself, would affect a change in the boy.

Then, ‘perhaps, if he still desired to be a sailor, he would be assisted in doing so, and would be able to go to Australia, not in an open boat, but in a legitimate, and in a much more safe way’.

He went on to tell Thomas that he:

 ‘was an intelligent lad, and if he only acted properly a bright future might be in store for him’. Australia was no longer the place where Britain disposed of its unwanted criminals and political prisoners, that had slowed in the 1850s and come to an end in 1868. Only ‘honest, industrious people were wanted’ there now he concluded.

I really wonder what happened to Thomas Stead. For all his faults he seems to me (as he did to the Bow Street magistrate) exactly the sort of youngster Victorian society celebrated. He was resourceful, brave and adventurous and had he been born into a wealthy family (instead of most likely being an orphan and condemned to living hand-by-mouth on the streets) he might be a name we all remember as well as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott or Rhodes.

The last convict ship, HMS Hougoumont (named for one of the key buildings that allied troops fought so hard to keep at the battle of Waterloo) sailed to Australia in 1867, with 281 passengers. It marked the end of a system of forced migration that had lasted nearly 80 years.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 25, 1885

It has been a year since I started writing this daily blog. It began as an exercise in forcing myself to undertake a piece of research writing on  daily basis to keep myself ‘fit’ (in a sense) admit the routines associated with being a senior lecturer in a busy teaching university. It has grown (largely thanks to all the people that bother to read it and tell me they enjoy or find it useful) into a body of research that I will now attempt to use to form part of a couple of larger written projects over the the next few years. So, thank you for the positive comments made via the site, twitter and Facebook, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the day-to-day stories from the police courts of London.

                                                                                                                           Drew