Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: May 2014

The Adventures of Captain Heather and his Wife

manNot very much is known about Captain Heather’s background. That he called himself a captain is evident from the descriptions of him as such in the Victorian press.

He claimed to be an army captain, a gentleman, a pensioner of the Consolidated Board (which was responsible for army provisions). He also claimed to have been born in Hanwell, Middlesex, in 1794 – but there is no evidence of his birth or baptism there, and none for neighbouring parishes. He is also absent from all of the National Archives’ army records.

The first thing known about him is that he married Sarah Ann Smith in Marylebone in 1827. She had a better recorded past; the daughter and only child of Morgan Smith, a Reading grocer who had died when she was around eight years old, and his wife Sarah Shackel, from a well-to-do family from Earley, near Reading.

Backing up Heather’s assertion that he was in the army, he and Sarah were living in St Helier, Jersey, by 1830, when their first child, the exotically named Victoria Commenda was born. They were still there in 1835, when second daughter Caroline Banksia was born.

They returned home in 1837 or 1838, and settled into a grand house – 25 Brompton Crescent, Kensington. Sarah was pregnant with their third child.

On 13 August 1838, The Morning Post reported that a Mrs Heather, ‘a youthful matron’, had been charged at the Queen Square police office in Westminster with breaking window panes of a cottage in Gore Lane, Kensington. The accusation was made the cottage’s owner, Mrs Wiseman, who, the paper reported, was known as “The Merry Widow”.

It appeared that Sarah Heather had suspected “the young widow” of having “inveigled” the attentions of her husband John. Sarah was described as “the best of wives”, but, the Morning Post pointed out,

“as jealousy, once aroused, knows no bounds, abuse and violence are usually resorted to against the supposed delinquent party as a means of vengeance.”

Sarah was ordered to pay six shillings – the value of the damage she had caused to the Merry Widow’s window – but refused to do so. The magistrates then ordered her to be locked up in default of payment – despite the fact that she was nine months pregnant. Hopefully, she soon changed her mind about paying, or her husband paid on her behalf.

The couple settled back into married life. In the early 1840s they moved abroad again for a few years, renting out their house, but had returned by 1851. In the 1851 census, John Heather was listed as the owner of a public house in Henley on Thames – presumably it was an investment he was checking on, as the rest of the family remained in Kensington.

Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. Photo by David Castor.

Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. Photo by David Castor.

He then became a vestryman at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, and poor law guardian for Kensington, living the life of a socially-aware, charitably minded, affluent gentleman. His mother in law had died in 1847, leaving her daughter a substantial amount of money, so the Heathers were comfortably off.

But suddenly, in 1863, Captain Heather was in the news. The Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper described him thus:

“John Heath [sic], apparently about sixty-five years of age, and very infirm…who it was stated had been a captain in the army.”

He may have been infirm, but he was nothing if not active. He was in the news as the result of an affiliation case heard at Marylebone: he was accused of having had an affair with 28-year-old Elizabeth Hoare, one of the servants of a Mrs Whitaker at Dorset Place. Elizabeth said:

“Defendant visited there [Dorset Place] and he made my acquaintance. I had intercourse with him in 1858 and 1859. The child was born on the 7th of October 1858.” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 September 1863)

Heather had, apparently, paid maintenance to Elizabeth, although she complained that she used to have “a difficulty” in getting the money  – “Sometimes he gave me 10s, 1l, 2l, and 3l”. It was Heather who arranged Elizabeth’s confinement – with a Mrs Doggett acting as midwife. However, Elizabeth stated that in 1860, he tried to get her to say that the child was not his, and when she would not, stopped her money.

Elizabeth was then prompted to take her case to the authorities, where, although she argued that she “was never intimate with any other man”, and that she “will swear that I never had a child before, neither have I had one since”, was soon forced to admit that she “might have had” another baby since.

Luckily for John Heather, but not so for Elizabeth, it was decided that the complainant’s immorality – in having had two illegitimate children by two different fathers, and attempting to hide the fact of the second child’s existence – meant that the case should be dismissed. No order for maintenance was made, and the “infirm” Heather did not have to pay further for this child, who continued to be supported by its mother.

John’s long suffering wife Sarah died in 1866 of bronchitis, leaving the Shackel and Smith money to her husband and three daughters. By this time, John had been paralysed for the past year, leaving him almost immobile. He survived in this state until April 1869, when he died in the family home in Kensington. He died intestate, with his parentage unknown, and much of his life likewise – apart from the gossip provided by the newspapers’ crime reports.

That was a bit of an indulgent post about my great-great-great-grandparents. Unfortunately, due to my grandma having thrown away all photos of my granddad’s family (like you do), I’ve had to illustrate this piece with more generic images. 🙁  

The End Of Captain Kidd

Today marks the anniversary of the execution of notorious pirate Captain William Kidd, who was hanged from Execution Dock in Wapping on this day in 1701. After death, Kidd’s body was hanged in chains further east at Tilbury Point.

I can’t do any better than link to Richard Cavendish’s feature on Kidd’s execution – produced for the 300th anniversary in 2001 – which is on the History Today website here. However, look out for something more on Execution Dock on this blog in the next couple of weeks. 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Arden of Faversham: plotting and petty treason at the RSC

Alice Arden (Sharon Small) and her lover, Mosby (Keir Charles)

Alice Arden (Sharon Small) and her lover, Mosby (Keir Charles)

“What, groans thou? Nay then, give me the weapon. Take this for hind’ring Mosby’s love and mine.” (Arden of Faversham, xiv, 237-238)

Arden of Faversham is a strange title for a play. It doesn’t give you much of an idea of what the play is about; you might expect a comedy of manners, perhaps, or a dull play about Kentish town life.

But, in fact, Arden of Faversham is a play about crime and murder with mystery even in its own origins and authorship, and it is a valuable means of learning about crime and punishment in Elizabethan England.

The RSC is currently performing Arden of Faversham in Stratford, and I went to see it last weekend – on a whim, fancying a night out at one of my local theatres.

I had never heard of it and the title didn’t sound particularly attractive. But it had, in its favour, the fact that it was part of the RSC’s Roaring Girl season (I’m going to see The Roaring Girl itself in the summer, and can’t wait), and it wasn’t Shakespeare.

I’m a great fan of the non-Shakespearean work the RSC puts on, but not a great fan of Shakespeare himself, having studied him almost to death at school and university.

It was the best play-on-a-whim I have seen for a long time. It revolves around Alice Arden, unhappily married to Thomas, an entrepreneur of his time (the mid-16th century) who is also somewhat obsessed with his business, to the detriment of his marriage. Alice finds comfort elsewhere, in the arms of Thomas Mosby, but resents having to keep this liaison secret. She and Mosby plot to kill Thomas Arden of Faversham.

Arden (Ian Redford) and his wife Alice (Sharon Small)

Arden (Ian Redford) and his wife Alice (Sharon Small)

The play is a dark comedy, with Alice and Mosby recruiting assassins who fail – due to fights, fog and incompetence – to carry out the murder.

I won’t give the exact method away, but eventually, Arden is killed, his wife proving herself to be a better murderer than the paid ‘professionals’.

The most fascinating part of the play is the fact that it is based on a real event, and, despite the contemporary setting that the RSC’s production is given, the audience can get an insight into the gendered nature of punishment in Elizabethan England.

Thomas Mosby was hanged in London for his part in Arden’s death; but Alice, convicted of petty treason (the murder of a husband by a wife being regarded as a more heinous offence than that of a wife by a husband), was burned at the stake in Canterbury. Her fate was decided by the Privy Council – of which her stepfather was a member.

Alice Arden, as she is portrayed by Sharon Small in the RSC production, is a feisty, independent woman, who refuses to accept life in an unhappy marriage. She is not a submissive female; she plots and schemes and proves herself to be a stronger individual than those men who are supposed to be able to kill her husband.When they fail, she steps in and succeeds.

Arden of Faversham has farcical elements – but it is the men who provide much of the farce. They are weak, dithering creatures.

It is Alice who is the brains, and she inveigles those around her to march to her tune. She is just one of the women in history who have killed; but she kills because she cannot see any other way to be with a man who is more ‘her’ than the socially acceptable husband she married.

Sharon Small as Alice Arden

Sharon Small as Alice Arden

The depiction of the sexes in this play – whose authorship is not known, although there are apparent digs or at least nods towards Shakespeare in it – turns the kind of history I was taught in school on its head.

It is not a feeble romance, or an idealised portrait of life in Elizabethan England. It is a tale of love, crime and punishment – full of strained emotions and mess, thus reflected the realities of life in a broken marriage, where divorce is not possible.

The RSC’s production reflects the gap between ‘normal’ life – the conveyor belt mundanity of working life experienced by Arden’s employees (churning out ‘lucky cats’ by the cattery-full and going mad in their few minutes’ break) – and the mounting hysteria of Alice’s double life, by setting the play in a recognisably ordinary present day whilst maintaining the 16th century style of dialogue.

It doesn’t jar; it simply reflects that this is reality, claustrophobic and boring, yet also strange – full of plots and secrets.

Arden of Faversham continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until 2 October.

For a good discussion of the play, see Frances E Dolan’s Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Cornell, 1994) Photos by Manuel Harlan, and reproduced with permission courtesy of the RSC.

Hanged at Tyburn: An Interactive Account

I’ve been playing with ThingLink, which enables you to create interactive pictures, embedding photos, videos and webpages within them. It’s got a lot of potential for historians, particularly those creating educational material for students, I think.

As this is only a account, I’m not allowed to embed ThingLink images into this post (boo!), but you can see my initial ThingLink about Tyburn hangings here.



A Woman's Turn To Be A Constable

Richard Burn, in the 18th century, warned that people should be very careful of how they chose their parish constables – or they could end up with… wait for it… a FEMALE apprehending suspected criminals and serving warrants. The horror.


© 2018 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑