Victorian lives in North Mymms
by Peter Kingsford
Cherry Dell is a small field, or close as it was formerly called, at the west end of Hawkshead Lane, about a hundred yards above the little bridge over the Mimmshall Brook. Long ago it was known as a good place for game. 0n 2 October 1836, a labourer, James Keep, saw three men in the field with three dogs in full cry. He asked them what business they had there to which one of them replied, "Well, I am only here after a rabbit and if I catch it I will kill it." Keep told them to clear off, but they refused. Keep then went to tell the landowner’s bailiff. As a result, early in November William Pilgrim and James Pratchett, were up before the magistrates at Barnet’s new police station, charged with trespassing for game. The third man charged, Pratchett’s brother Thomas did not make an appearance.
The prosecutor was the bailiff, John Tappenden. He was a man of some standing and substance who lived in Bell Bar with his family and a farm servant called Charles Banks. Tappenden served the squire of Potterells, William C Casamajor, resident and farmer there since the early years of the century when he had been visited and commended by the agricultural expert Arthur Young. Casamajor’s exotic name came from a family of wealthy West Indian merchants. At Potterells he enjoyed the benefits of a splendid house which were also shared, to a modest degree, by his butler and his family, his footman and half a dozen female servants. The two young men, Pilgrim a whitesmith of Water End and Pratchett a bricklayer of Pancake Hall, faced the bench.
Respectable artisans, they were not among the poor of the parish for whom poaching might be necessary to keep the wolf from the door. They were not to be put upon by any one, least of all by a labourer such as James Keep. When Keep had given his evidence, Pilgrim on being asked if he had anything to say, drew himself up, stuck his hands in his pockets and with the utmost dignity replied. Yes, I have a question to put to Mister Keep that will bother him to answer. Pray Sir, did I not leave the Dell? To this the witness said no. But Pilgrim who had considered his line of defence, had another question: Pray Sir, what posture was I in when you saw me? Did I not stand thus?" (with hands in pockets) But Keep replied that he did not know. Pilgrim insisted on repeating the question forcibly, loud and clear, so as to emphasise that he had his hands in his pockets at the time of the alleged offence, but he could get no confirmation from Keep.
Pilgrim’s dignity was further at risk when a second witness, William Brown "a simple country lad", who had been with Kemp, innocently referred to him as Bill Pilgrim. That would not do and Pilgrim, laying his hand on the lad’s shoulder, solemnly corrected him - ‘William Pilgrim, if you please!", only to provoke laughter on the bench. The defence of his partner in crime, Pratchett, was that he had gone to gather nuts. Pi]grim’s, equally plausible, was that he was in the field to ring some strayed pigs; "he had gone to searchlthat there deli for them there sows." It was all to no avail. Both men were convicted but the penalty was mitigated to a fine of £2 each plus costs or two months hard labour in default of payment.
On being removed the angry Pilgrim told the officers not to touch him, declaring that he was ‘every inch a man". All the same, he returned to the court to plead mercy. Meeting with no response, he paid the fine on the spot and retired in a rage. James Pratchett was given a fortnight to pay, being not so well supplied with ready cash. As for the absentee Thomas Pratchett, a warrant for his arrest was issued but what happened thereafter is lost in obscurity.
They were by no means the only parish poachers to be caught throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s. The punishment for day poaching was usually a fine or in default of payment a corresponding period of hard labour in the House of Correction. The fine varied according to the seriousness of the offence and the mood of the magistrates, depending on whether the defendant was merely ‘trespassing in search of game", or had a gun or a dog, or was setting snares, or had actually taken rabbits, hares or birds. It was usually beyond the means of the labourer.
James Pratchett continued to brave the Game Laws in the 1830s and twice more fell foul of them. Along with him there were quite a few - Thomas Sams, George and Thomas Cornwell, David Cox, George Rands, William Dell, William Ward. all fined for various amounts. Others followed into the 1850s. John Rand convicted of shooting partridge on W Lysely’s land at Mimwood was perhaps lucky to be fined only £2 l0s. 0d with 15s. 6d costs or indefault six weeks’ hard labour.
There were James Morris’s trespass in search of rabbits - £2 and 15s. 6d or two months in the House of Correction; George Collins, Chas Maddams and Charles Pope - for the same offence only 30s, plus costs; George Long’s snaring on Gaussen property costing him £5 plus costs or three months hard labour; Frederick Sleet and Thomas Tapster for the same - 40s plus l0s. 9d or two months; James Plumb for setting snares for pheasants - 50s.; William Constable, described as an old offender, for snaring hares belonging to R W Gaussen - £5 or three months. William Pew, ‘a healthy, tidy and good looking agricultural youth" set snares for hares at Tollgate Farm, was convicted on the evidence of R W Gaussen’s gamekeeper George Tuley and was fined £2 plus cost which was duly paid. Thomas Tapster again and John Sleet for setting snares, for pheasants this time, in Colonel Sibthorp’s wood - £5 and costs or three months hard labour.
Allowances could be made. In January 1856 the young William Harris led astray by an older man was seen to trespass in a wood with a gun and dog and take a rabbit and a hare. The watcher, James Wanstell told them that he would inform ‘Squire Gaussen" who let some land to the youtb’s father. Harris senior, a haybinder, explained to the Court that his son had no previous offences, that he was out of work because of the frost and had therefore got into mischief. The penalty was £2 l0s. 0d plus costs or two months. The father pleaded for part of the fine to be paid there and then with time allowed for the rest and, contrary to custom, this was allowed.
All the above were North Mymms men. Sometimes an outsider came in to get what he could from Squire Gaussen’s coverts. A desperate character occasionally appears such as Joseph Griffiths who, when he had been fined £2 for trespassing for rabbits, was shown to have been sentenced to death for highway robbery, commuted to transportation and subsequently had had eight years in gaol. But throughout the 1850s the labourers of the parish continued to defy the Game Laws.
Variations in the penalties depended on the circumstances. It was "three respectable looking lads, Joseph Shambrook, Jeremiah Drummond and William Long, who got away with a 5s fine and l0s costs each for killing a pheasant at Lower Woodside. The extenuating facts were that they got the bird while they were hoeing turnips on farmer Tingey’s fields and when village constable William Dunn called on the culprits they produced their prize. The moderate fine of 20s plus costs or one-month was levied on William Field and David Read when they "trespassed for conies’ at Leggatts. In contrast, the chronic offender Thomas Tapster incurred £5 and costs or three months hard labour for shooting partridges. Two respectable labourers, Thomas White and Joseph Staines informed on him, telling the court that as they were going to church on Sunday they saw Tapster fire a gun from the road and pick up the birds. Tapster had a record; he had been convicted at County Petty Sessions on seven occasions and had been in St Albans gaol three times. He pleaded to be let off more lightly, without success, and then to the surprise of all present he paid the fine on the spot.
There were fewer of the more serious offence of poaching by night, punishable by transportation until it was abolished in 1853 and then by longer terms of imprisonment. One offender Thomas Sams in 1851 escaped transportation but received six months in gaol plus finding sureties for the following twelve months. The parish was well stocked with game; shooting rights were an important property. And as poaching increased during the century so did the gamekeepers to keep pace with it from only two in the parish in 1841 to eight forty years later. None of them were local men, no doubt a prudent policy. But there is little doubt that the poachers who were not caught out numbered those who were. A few indeed were caught but acquitted for though the gamekeeper’s evidence was usually enough to convict there were exceptions.
One of them was Thomas Tapster again, twenty four year old illiterate labourer, charged along with three others in 1850 with night poaching from Fulke GrevilIe of North Mymms Park. The under keeper William West gave evidence; he had known Tapster since infancy. But unbreakable alibis got him off. James Morris also appeared at the County Petty Sessions in the following year for poaching on Col Sibthorp’s land. He and three other men were seen by keeper John Burr walking in the woods as if searching for game, but without dogs or snares. They were defended by the Hertford solicitor Longmore. Perhaps that helped the chairman to decide that "the keeper had been too quick on them" and to dismiss the case.
What of the punishment? Most of the men convicted could not pay their fines and so performed hard labour. Hard labour in Hertford House of Correction in the 1860s consisted of "the treadmill, crank labour for pumping water, oakum picking, making mats and matting and cleaning." Hertford where most of the convicted parish poachers were sent had had a treadmill since the 1830’s. Originally used to grind corn for the prison and for sale, it was later only a punishment device for forty men at a time. Treading the mill was carefully calculated. The height of each step was seven and a half inches, the number of steps per minute - 48, the number per day in winter 13,440, in summer 16,120. The prisoner trod on the mill, known as the ‘shin scraper’ , wearing shoes with thick wooden soles, in spells of quarter of an hour or twenty min utes for a maximum of seven hours per day in winter, eight and a half in summer, all in silence. Any one who spoke or turned round was punished. While the novice tried to mount the revolving steps the old lag waited for the step to rise to his level. Such a case hardened offender was the "man of considerable intelligence" who told the Inspector in 1862 that he had, "eaten his last five Christmas dinners in the prison having on each occasion been convicted of poaching and worked on the treadmill.’
Poaching was one thing, theft and assault was another. Offences against property were much more frequent than those against the person even though these included matrimonial conflicts. For theft, a whipping was often added for many years to a term in prison. In 1831 John Pedder, of North Mymms was given three months hard labour and a whipping for stealing James Welch’s smock frock. In the same decade others who received the lash included Frederick Pointon for theft of a coat valued at 15s., George Rands of Welham Green and James Plummer for stealing hay and wheat, Charles Bennett for theft of knives of 1s value. This punishment continued into the 1850s for Charles Squires, a lad of fifteen. for theft of a flannel jacket after "he had had a good deal to drink". A year before he had been had up for stealing peas; P C Dunn, had been asked "to frighten" him because his relatives complained that he had robbed them. The boy had lost his mother; now he was to lose his liberty for fourteen days as well as receive a whipping. Another, John Allen, a Welham Green labourer, was sentenced to three months hard labour and whipping for the theft of seven fowls and three turkeys from farmer Pilgrim.
The evidence in that case was that the nail marks of his boot fitted exactly the marks he had left in the snow. The value of evidence from boot nails became well known, some time later, Thomas Carrington also a labourer, faced a charge of stealing three fowls from his master Frederick Gunter, of Bell Bar farm in December 1856, perhaps for his Christmas dinner. When Inspector English from Hatfield had visited the suspect he found that Carrington had removed his boots and had had the foresight to extract some nails from them, which however the inspector found. Unfortunately Carrington’s footprints in the rickyard corresponded with his boots, except for the missing nails, and this was enough to earn him three months hard labour.
Whipping had a long history. In the eighteenth century the philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisaged a machine which would administer the lash impartially. In Hertford in the 1830s the number of lashes with the cat of nine tails varied between thirty and sixty; in one year, 1836, twenty one men were "privately whipped’. For juveniles it was the birch. In the 1850s thirty-six strokes with the birch rod were given for stealing turnip tops. A fee was payable for whipping boys - 1s per boy.
Yet another kind of punishment was ‘Solitary’. Fathered by the reformer John Howard in the London Penitentiaries, solitary confinement was meant to be benevolent. The offender was to reflect on his crime, realise his guilt and become a reformed man. Some North Mymms men had the benefit of this practice.
The motive for imposing solitary in some cases but not in others is not clear, but perhaps it may be inferred from what is known of the following in the l840s: George Squires for stealing barley valued at three pence from his master John Massey - four weeks hard labour and two weeks solitary; Joseph Howard for theft of £3 6s. 2d from John Hutchins of Roestock - six month hard labour of which the first and the last weeks in solitary (a double opportunity for repentance); John Justice for theft of a shirt from Charles Flint junior - only one week’s solitary. Continuing into the 1850s William Rands was one who got into trouble. He pleaded guilty to the theft of pieces of wood from Thomas Brassey the railway contractor then building the Great Northern Railway, and was given three months hard labour including solitary for one week, the lad Charles Squires, mentioned above, received solitary to reinforce the effect of the whip. In his case one month’s hard labour with a week in solitary and the whipping were for the stolen jacket and six weeks hard labour including a week solitary on the second charge of theft of a clasp knife and two pounds of beef in Hatfield.
Even so, the treadmill and the whip were preferable to transportation to Australia or Tasmania. Those Members of Parliament who served on the Select Committee of 1837 showed some understanding of the labouring poor when they reported:
"Exile is a very severe punishment to persons who have strong affections for their native land, for their kindred, and for their acquaintances. Generally speaking, it is most dreaded by those offenders against the laws of their country, who may be termed accidental criminals; that is to say, by those who have not made a trade in crimes, but who have been induced to commit crimes by the impulse of the moment, or by some accidental combination of circumstances, or by some powerful temptation; and who may, in many cases, be possessed of good moral feelings. Transportation, though chiefly dreaded as exile, undoubtedly is much more than exile; it is slavery as well; and the condition of the convict slavery as well; and the condition of the convict slave is frequently a very miserable one. The punishment of exile is viewed with apprehension by offenders from the agricultural districts, who entertain a horror being removed from the land of their birth."
Those may well have been the feelings of North Mymms men who were transported. In the 1830s they were John Coleman, Joseph Harding and George Brown for the theft of £1 from a fellow labourer; James Ewington convicted of stealing a gun worth 5s. and three ducks worth 6s. from fanner Franklin; John Ansell for stealing a turkey from farmer Mary Chappell, all for seven years. Then in 1842 seven years was also the sentence of James Greenham for taking food worth 3s. 11d, from Mary Hart of Redhall farm. In the few years before abolition of transportation other men were shipped overseas. James Plummer was sent for trial to the Old Bailey where that was the likely sentence, for he, a carter at Little Heath farm, was charged with the theft of clover and meadow hay from Thomas Kemble Esq JP. William Gilbert convicted of stealing four ducks and two hens from Joseph Tingey, the farmer at Tollgate, was given a longer exile of fourteen years for he had two previous convictions. The evidence against him came from fellow labourers who, as they were "reposing in Tingey’s rickyard", saw the awful deed. In the same year, 1851, the theft of meat in Welham Green led to William Rands being transported for seven years. His wife had left him with three young children to care for. His case aroused some interest in the press:
"William Rands, aged 33, labourer, of North Mimms, was charged with feloniously breaking and entering the house of Mr James Littlechild, at North Mimms, and stealing therefrom a piece of mutton and apiece of beef. It appeared that the prosecutor, who kept a grocers shop at North Mirnrns, left some beef and mutton on the counter in his shop when he went to bed, a little after ten o’clock. The shop was properly fastened up and the next morning it had been entered and some of the beef and mutton taken away. Suspicion fell on the prisoner, who had been in the shop for a loaf of bread, at ten o’clock; and, on his house being searched, some beef was found, which was identified by the prosecutor. On his person was found a shoulder of mutton bone, which corresponded to the knucklebone left at Prosecutors shop. Prisoner said he was innocent as a child three weeks old, and nobody had ever seen him in the shop". The jury returned a verdict of guilty. A former conviction was proved and the prisoner was transported for seven years".
After his conviction his three daughters, Eliza 10, Elizabeth 8 and Emma 5, were taken into the Hatfield workhouse.
Young delinquents also were about occasionally. At the County Petty Sessions in 1849 the brothers William and James Brooks, aged 18 and 20, labourer’s sons of Tollgate Cottage, faced charges of many robberies and assault on the police. At their first appearance in court the charge was theft of a mare from Downes Farm, Hatfield. But this was only the beginning, previously they had been arrested at Buntingford for stealing four fowls and had given false names and addresses. Meanwhile they went to Tewin and stole a copper warming pan from a labourer. On their second appearance before the Bench the matter was more serious. Continuing their travels they had reached Roe Hyde, Hatfield, begged for money, asked for work from farmer Wicks and finally stole his two donkeys, value £6. Unfortunately for them inspector Evans was on patrol at midnight. Between the Red Lion, Hatfield and Potters Bar he saw two men riding donkeys and when he stopped them William struck him drawing blood. The two brothers were committed for trial at the Assizes. Anything less then transportation was unlikely.
In contrast petty offenders who got off lightly abounded. Isaac Taylor, that uncommon person in 1851 a yearly servant was charged with staying out late and neglecting the work of his master, Joseph Hunt of Red Hall farm. As he promised to behave better he was only given a caution and made to pay 2s. 6d. to Hunt. The same year John Wright committed the crime of cutting turf on the heath in North Mymms, the property of lord of the manor Fulke Greville for which he paid l0s. and costs. When pheasants could not be got at their eggs were fair game. When William Kingham took nine pheasants eggs he was made to pay 5s. for each, and James Plumb, found to have stolen four eggs, incurred a penalty at the same rate plus costs or four weeks’ hard labour. Partridge’s eggs were the choice of young James Longstaffe who took fifteen at Mimwood where he worked under the gardener Henry Johnson. Johnson gave evidence but W J Lyseley, future Member of Parliament, would have forrgiven the boy if he had not taken his apples as well, and so the penalty was 5s. or fourteen days in gaol. Fourteen days was also the penalty paid by George Deards. convicted of ‘embezzling £1 l0s. from the hay carter at Leggatts and spending the proceeds at Hoo races.
Need, however, was the cause of many thefts, particularly of food and wood for fuel. Whether it was so for Mrs Posnett is open to doubt, though she "borrowed" rather than stole. The wife of a railway labourer who resided in "a miserable hovel in Welham Green" she was accused of the theft of a brass stew pan from the widow Giles, but was discharged. The pan was found under William Posnett’s bed but "as there was no evidence how it got there" he too was absolved and the stew pan was restored to its owner.
For William Marlborough though, it was a case of necessity when he helped himself to a farmer’s turnips. (The taking of turnips or only turnip tops was not uncommon in emergency). He was disabled and destitute because of the failure of his benefit club. A nominal fine of sixpence without costs was imposed. In the upshot in 1851 James Ansell and George Jones, stewards of the Amicable Friendly (sic) Society meeting at the Swan Inn, Bell Bar, were summoned to pay Marlborough the sum due to him arising from his accident. AnselI’s defence was that as there was only £200 in the bank he had decided to close down and "gather his resources for a new career", all without the members’ assent. The Bench could not interfere because the Society was not registered under the Act and they could only remonstrate with the stewards for Marlborough to be given six weeks benefit. All Ansell would do was to give the opinion of the Bench to a meeting of the Society and whether Marlborough got his money to pay the fine is not known. Such benefit clubs were the background to the vicar’s decision in the 1860s to start the parish welfare clubs, subsidised by the gentry as they were.
If the offences of poaching and petty theft were numerous, those of assault and violence against the person were much less so and less serious. Few as they were, the cause was usually poaching or sex, an assault on a gamekeeper or a matrimonial dispute. William Seymour found guilty of assault on Sarah Smith in the 1830s was merely fined £1 l0s. In the same years when James Welch assaulted Gaussen’s gaxnekeeper, Charles Flint, he was only fined. In contrast, the same James Welch, former licensee of The Bell, and WilliamTaylor, convicted of stealing harness from The Bell, were given a year’s hard labour and a whipping.
Men who neglected their dependants, whether legitimate or not were also dealt with by Petty Sessions, especially if the burden fell on the parish. They issued maintenance orders in respect of bastard children for half a crown or so a week on the putative fathers.
Neglect within the family was more of a problem for the magistrates. ‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion’. The trails and tribulations of James and Eliza Bovingdon appear in chapter four. For carpenter John Lindop in 1850 the threat of violence was from his wife. Any undue charge on the parish was serious and his offence was that he made his wife and child chargeable to North Mymms parish while he could support them himself. After he had abandoned them they went to the workhouse for four days before being rescued by his father in law. His apparently reasonable excuse was that "there was no peace or comfort at home’ because of his wife’s temper. She had threatened to stab him and cut his throat. The father in law complained that it was hard on him since the husband was earning 30s a week in London; could he not be compelled to support his family? But the Bench said no, unless the expense came on the parish. They did, however, order Lindop to pay the cost of four days in the workhouse, which was 3s. 6d, plus legal costs which were rather more at l7s. This he paid at once. The magistrates could only admonish the unhappy pair to ‘make it up and live together", as they had the Bovingdons.
On the whole North Mymms seems to have had its fair share of what the authorities called rural crime. Poaching was the chief offence and the rest was mainly petty theft. The poachers were numerous, sometimes persistent, offenders against the laws protecting the landowners’ game The motives were mixed - need, defiance, sport, the right to take wild animals. Rabbits and hares were a different kind from pheasants; ‘the leveret is wild’, but it belonged to the landowner. If poaching was an offence by the poor against the rich, theft was too often a matter of the poor robbing the poor and informing against each other. The facts suggest that North Mymms people were no more law abiding than elsewhere, and the record is only of those who were caught.
Peter Kingsford, 1989
Chapter 8 - In Service
Index - Victorian lives in North Mymms
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched the material for this book.
Photographs - The photographs reproduced by Peter Kingsford in his book