Crime; a failed execution; Rural descriptions by a Vicar and a Rant by a Politician; the first Fatal Car Accident; 19th century disaster at sea; Trouble in Fleet Prision and, to close, the founder of the Methodists and ‘an end and a beginning

Monday 22nd February 1886: Over the years petty and personal crimes were recorded, often in some details, in the newspapers so I thought we’d take a little stroll through entries in this day’s papers. It is worth mentioning that £1 in 1886 would be worth around £100 now.
The Hartlepool Mail reported: ‘Theft at Ryhope’ – At the County Police Court on Saturday, before Mr James Hartley (in the chair) and other magistrates, a putter (one who pushes or hauls trams in a coal-mine – pronounced ‘pooter’), named Matthew Dixon, was charged with stealing a number of iron bolts, valued at 1 shilling, the property of the Ryhope Coal Company. It was stated in Court that ten days previously Dixon had made use of some tokens with a view to defrauding some of his fellow workmen in the West Pit at Ryhope Colliery, where he was employed. The Bench considered the case a bad one, and committed Dixon for two months’ hard labour.
The paper also recorded ‘Alleged extensive theft of boots’: James Dinsdale and Annie M Reed were charged at Auckland to-day with stealing about £350 (about £35,000 today) worth of boots. Inspector Fleming said he had been making enquiries respecting the boots and up to the present had recorded about 500 pairs. Mr Rhodes, of Leeds, owner of the goods, said there was a deficiency of about £300 at Spennymoor and £40 or £50 at Bishop Auckland. The investigations were still going on. The prisoners were remanded’.
The Dundee Courier reported that: ‘On Saturday before Bailie M Kinnon; Joseph Joliffe, painter of Blackness Road, was brought up charged with assaulting Jane Stewart, in a house in Blackness Road on Friday night. He pleaded not guilty. It appeared that Joseph and the woman Stewart had cohabited together for many years; but Stewart wanted to shake him off, but she could not get rid of him. On Friday night after she was in bed he came in at the window, and assaulted her. He was found guilty and fined 20 shillings or 15 days in prison.
At the same sitting Francis McDade was found guilty of stealing one and a half hundredweight of coal from the Wellgrove Quarry and, having been previously convicted, was sentenced to 30 days in prison.’
Moving into the south-west of the country; todays Western Daily Press recorded that, at Stroud, ‘George Chappell was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for two thefts. He was a shoe maker, and sold a pair of boots he was entrusted to mend for 1 shilling. In the second case he pawned his master’s watch!’

Monday 23rd February 1885: On this day, just a year before the crimes mentioned above, John Lee, who had been convicted of the murderer of a Miss Keynes, survived three attempts to hang him in Exeter prison.
The Western Times of 25th February carried a plea from Jno. H Caseley dated February 24th 1885 and addressed: To the Editor:
Sir – At the annual session of the East Devon District Lodge of Good Templars held yesterday in the Victoria Hall, before commencing business, the following telegram was ordered to be forwarded to the Home Secretary:
“The Good Templars of East Devon in annual session assembled have heard this morning of the painful circumstances connected with the condemned man John Lee. Three unsuccessful attempts have been made to carry out the sentence of death. In the name of humanity we humbly pray that you will commute the sentence.
The following reply had been received from Whitehall on February 23rd 1885
Sir – I am directed by the Secretary of State to acknowledge the receipt of your telegram relative to the case of John Lee, and to inform you that the execution of the sentence of death passed on this prisoner has been respited.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant A.F.O.LIDDELL; The Secretary East Devon District Lodge, Victoria Hall, Exeter.
The Shields Daily Gazette of Tuesday 24th gives us a less specific view of the matter: ‘THE CULPRIT JOHN LEE – MESSAGE FROM THE HOME OFFICE. The official document from the Home Secretary, respiting John Lee, the Babbicombe murderer which was not expected at Exeter until this morning, arrived by train late last night. It merely stated that the Secretary of State had respited the sentence on Lee pending a further signification of Her Majesty’s pleasure. The Gaol Governor at once informed the prisoner, who made no observation, and who has quite recovered his self-possession, showing no trace of suffering from the fearful ordeal he yesterday suffered.’
Lee finally left prison in 1917 and lived until 1933

Thursday 24th February 1870 – The Rev. Francis Kilvert records in his diary today: ‘Writing a sermon for Ash Wednesday. Dined with Mrs V. who drove down with Brewer from Llysdinam in the yellow Perthcart with the grey mare this afternoon. A lovely evening and the Black Mountain lighted up grandly, all the furrows and water courses clear and brilliant. People coming home from market, birds singing, buds bursting, and the spring air full of beauty, life and hope. Farm labourers threshing with the machines at Llowes Court. Ash and beech and elms being felled in Clyro Court lands, and going away in timber carriages. Alders being cut down on the left bank of Wye. A market woman’s chestnut horse restive in the road, and market folk on foot winding their way home through fields by Wyeside.’ (Can you just visualise that scene?)
Saturday 24th February 1990 – I must record that there is no personal bias in any way in this piece – I just love the following reported statement by Norman Tebbit in this day’s Independent newspaper: ‘The word “conservative” is used by the BBC as a portmanteau word of abuse for anyone whose views differ from the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naïve, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the 1960s.’
For every reader of this – I’m quoting not stating

Saturday 25th February 1899 ‘Chambers Book of Days’ tells us that on this day ‘The first driver to die in a car accident was one F R Sewell, who was test driving a Daimler down Grove Hill in Harrow when the rear wheels collapsed.’ That intrigued me – so I started researching to add it to this week’s stories. It’s a fascinating, if sad, story of the early days of motoring. It also shows that what you read may not be the absolute truth – no matter what period of history you are in.
The Sunderland Daily Echo of Monday 27th says briefly that: ‘On Saturday evening some gentlemen connected with the Auxiliary Army and Navy Stores were making an official trial of a waggonette motor near Harrow. While the car was going down Grove Hill at a high speed the front wheel collapsed, and the occupants of the car were violently thrown out. A man named Sewell, who was driving the car, was killed, one gentleman was seriously injured, and four others received minor injuries.’
The Sussex Agricultural Express of Tuesday 28th February reports it in more detail: ‘A party of officials from the Auxiliary Army and Navy Stores met with an accident in descending a steep decline known as Grove Hill, Harrow-on-the-Hill, in a motor car, driven by an employee of the Motor Car Company. The car left Harrow for London at a pace which attracted attention, and it dashed down Grove-hill at a very great rate of speed. It was impossible to turn Roxeth Park-road at right angles, and to avoid collision with a high bank the brake was applied, but this was done so suddenly that the car reared up, tore a track in the road, and collapsed. The occupants of the car were thrown out, and the driver, Sewell, was killed. Major Ritchie sustained a severe fracture at the base of the skull, and Messrs Greenhill, Hutt and Brennan were badly bruised and shaken. The whole party were conveyed to the Harrow Cottage Hospital, and Major Ritchie now lies in a precarious condition’.
The Glasgow Herald of Tuesday 28th looked at it from a different view-point under the heading MOTOR CAR ACCIDENT
‘The horseless carriage, when the non-existent steed gets the bit between his teeth, is, says the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, anything but a companionable vehicle. Two accicents, of a significant character, are recorded. At Nice, Prince Lubomirski’s motor car bolted, ran over its driver, smashed into a carriage and pair belonging to the late Baron de Reuter, all but slew an Englishman and his wife, and finally butted itself to bits against the pillars of the Hotel des Anglais. “It was a mercy” says a report somewhat obviously, “that nobody was killed”.
Somebody was killed, unfortunately, in a trial trip between Harrow and Shaftsbury Avenue. A hill labelled “Dangerous for cyclists,” and therefore, most dangerous for motor-carrists, was the cause; the effect, the driver killed, one passenger, Major Ritchie, in hospital with a fractured skull, and others greatly bruised and shaken. Accidents will happen, no doubt; but the Grove Hill affair would certainly seem to show that danger boards are no less desirable for motor drivers than for cyclists.’

Thursday 26th February 1852 was the day that the British troop ship HMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of Africa. Around 450 men died in the incident.
On Tuesday 23rd March 1852 the Northern Whig newspaper reported that: ‘Her Majesty’s troop-ship Birkenhead, with troops and stores for the Cape, arrived at Sierra Leone, all well, on 30th January, and proceeded the next day for the Cape.’
It was the Yorkshire Gazette of Saturday 10th April 1852 that told the story with the headline:
It reported that thePropontis’ mail packet that had left the Cape on the 3rd March, had arrived and had brought the distressing intelligence of the loss of the Birkenhead troop-ship on 26th of February, near Simon’s Bay; 446 persons were missing.
You will find additional information on this at the end of this week’s Blog

On a very different slant on Thursday 26th February 1903 James Joyce wrote to his father in Paris:
‘Dear Pappie I received your telegraph order on Tuesday afternoon and dined. As it was the evening of the carnival, I allowed myself some luxuries – a cigar, confetti to thro, and a supper. I bought a stove, a saucepan, a plate, a cup, a saucer, a knife, a fork, a small spoon, a big spoon, a bowl, salt, sugar, figs, macaroni, cocoa & and got my linen from the laundry. I now try to do my own cooking. For instance last night for dinner I had two poached eggs and Vienna bread, macaroni and milk, a cup of cocoa and a few figs. Tomorrow (for dejeuner) I shall finish my ham with bread and butter, Swiss cream and sugar, and finish my figs. I think I shall reduce my expenses in this way. Anyhow I hope I shall not fall asleep now as I used dreaming rice-pudding, which for one who is fasting is not a nice dream.’

On 27th February 1729 a Parliamentary committee tasked with the investigation of conditions in Britain’s gaols began its tour of inspection at the Fleet Prison. The visit was led by James Oglethorpe who later founded the colony of Georgia for the ‘worthy poor’ of Britain.
At this time the Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts and usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. The prison was divided into a restrictive and arduous Common Side and a more open Master’s Side, where rent had to be paid. In general, prisons were effectively ‘profit-making enterprises’ and prisoners had to pay for food and lodging! There were fees for turning keys or for taking irons off, and Fleet Prison had the highest fees in England. At one time there was a grille built into the Farringdon Street prison wall, so that prisoners might beg alms from passers-by.
BUT: prisoners did not necessarily have to live within Fleet Prison itself; as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings, they could take lodgings within a particular area outside the prison walls called the “Liberty of the Fleet”.
The head of the prison, termed ‘the warden’, was appointed by ‘Letters Patent’ and it became a frequent practice that the holder of the patent ‘farmed out’ the prison to the highest bidder. This custom made the prison notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners.
At the time of the committee’s visit the purchaser and holder of the office was one Thomas Bambridge. He had become warden in 1728 and was of particularly evil repute. According to the committee after their visit Bambridge was ‘guilty of the greatest extortions on the prisoners, and, arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded them with irons, put into dungeons, and destroyed prisoners for debt, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner, in high violation and contempt of the laws.’
Following the visit Bambridge was committed to Newgate Prison, and an act was passed to prevent him enjoying the office of warden, or any such post, ever again.

Saturday 28th February 1784: By this day the aging Methodist preacher John Wesley was without an apparent successor so, to ensure the continuity of the movement, he put into place a plan for perpetuating the Methodist organization. This was called the ‘Deed of Declaration’ which he executed on this 28th day of February 1784.
The ‘Deed’ legally defined the “Conference of the people called Methodists,” and declared “how the succession and identity thereof is to be continued.”
It contained the names of one hundred preachers who were to be in the eye of the law that Wesley himself had been for forty years, in relation to his societies and trust property. He had been carefully training his preachers for his responsibility. In a letter in 1780 he had written, “I chose to exercise the power which God had given me through the Conference–both to avoid ostentation, and gently to habituate the people to obey them when I should be taken from their head.”
This, Wesley now carried out more fully by merging his own authority in that of the Legal Conference. The Conference was to meet annually, fill up vacancies in its number, elect a president and secretary, station the preachers, admit preachers on trial and into full connection, and maintain the discipline and general oversight of the societies. The term of appointments for itinerant preachers was limited to three years. The deed came into immediate effect when five months after its execution it was acted upon at the Conference by the election of two preachers to fill vacancies in the Hundred, and by the formal signing of the Minutes.
Wesley was chosen president year by year until his death. At the Conference of 1785 all the preachers present signed a document approving both of the substance and design of the deed. “Viewed in the light of outward appearances” wrote William Arthur, “the enrollment of the Deed Poll of John Wesley would be one of the most commonplace of events. Viewed in the light of the attention given to it at the time by men of thought, of taste, or of affairs, it would rank as one of the most insignificant; not of more consequence than the execution of his will by an ordinary proprietor, or that of his deed of donation by the founder of some local charity. Viewed in the light of its moral intent, however, it rose to the rank of acts noble and wise. Viewed in its relations to Christianity as a collective body of Churches, it belonged to the category of great ecclesiastical events; and viewed in the light shed back upon it to-day by its historical results, as developed up to the present time, it must be placed among those pregnant acts in human affairs to which in successive generations other pregnant acts have to trace up their own origin.”


Since I started this weekly blog on 17th February 2014 I have posted just over 100,000 words in almost 400 different items. I have found it fascinating, enjoyable, enlightening and challenging. At times it has also time consuming, frustrating hard work!
I now feel it is time to move on. There are many things that I want to write and publish but there are just not enough hours in the day to do it. I’m going to have a darn good try though!
Around this time last year I was posting the poems written by William Harrison – often called ‘The Fenland Poet’. These are still on the site if you wish to read them. I came across William many years ago when I was a freelance tutor for the ‘Worker’s Education Association’ in the Eastern Counties of England. There is more of his personal story that I want to tell – and many other stories about the Fenlands that I want to post.
There are also many other multi-session courses that I developed and presented over the years. They ranged from ‘Medieval Monasticism’ to ‘The story of popular music from Rag Time to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and lots of others in between. These deserve a modified representation – and it will happen – both as elements in Blog form and eBooks for the wider story.
I am a story teller at heart so there are some short stories – fact and fiction – that will appear in Blog form and extended pieces that will be launched as eBooks.
Apart from that I’ll have a sleep from time to time!

In this week’s Blog was a brief piece on the loss of the troop ship HMS Birkenhead. The first of my one-off pieces will appear next Sunday in Blog form telling the personal stories of some survivors and also the views of various commenters and ‘specialists’.


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