Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: June 2014

"Poverty is not the only crime": death and the inhumane overseer of Brentford

In my 18th century research, I’ve found the odd case of pregnant women being ferried across parishes in an attempt by overseers to shift financial responsibility for the women and their soon-to-be-born children to others… and these cases were in Old Poor Law days, before the divide between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor became as sharp as it did post-1834.

So perhaps this following case shouldn’t shock me – but it does. In a case that took place not long after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act came into effect, the case of Bridget Neville and her daughter Margaret remains horrifying nearly 200 years after it took place.


"Infant's Repast" by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

“Infant’s Repast” by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

On Monday 6 February 1837, just four months before Victoria became Queen, an inquest took place into the death of a little girl named Margaret Neville, who was just short of two years old.

The inquest, heard before coroner Thomas Stirling at the Windmill Inn in Turnham Green, now west London, caused considerable interest both amongst residents and the press, and raised the issue of the responsibilities of the overseers, and the need for compassion when carrying out their duties.

It was heard that Margaret was one of two children of Bridget Neville and her unnamed husband (possibly Michael). The Nevilles, who may have been Irish, were desperately poor, unemployed, and were having to travel around the country in search of work.

They had been in Croydon before, where, on their daughter Margaret being poorly, they had taken her to a surgeon, who had diagnosed an inflammation of the chest, and had given Margaret a blister, and her mother some powders to give to her.

They had then had to leave Croydon, as a policeman had turned up at their lodging house at midnight and given them a couple of hours’ notice to leave. They had then walked to Wandsworth, where they spent their last pennies on a night’s lodging.

They had then decided to get to Bristol on foot, in the hope of finding work there. However, on reaching Brentford in Middlesex around 3pm on the previous Friday morning, they realised that little Margaret, who had been poorly for the past month, had taken a turn for the worse.

They decided to stay in Brentford for the night, and booked a bed in a “common lodging-house” – all that they could afford.

But when the landlady saw how ill Margaret was, she refused to allow them to stay, saying:

“since the Poor Law Commissioners had come down there, the Overseers had given orders to the lodging-house keepers not to shelter any persons who were likely to become a burden to the [Poor Law] Union.”

So the Nevilles then went to another lodging house, where they were again met with a refusal. At a third house, the landlady said they could stay if they got the permission of the overseer, telling them where he could be found.

The overseer, Mr Burness, worked as a leather-cutter or shoemaker. The Nevilles – Margaret being carried in her mother’s apron as the latter walked – duly arrived at his workshop and asked leave to stay. He looked at Margaret, and told her to get back to Wandsworth:

“Do you think I’d give leave for this woman to lodge you, and your baby so bad as it is? No, indeed, go away with you.”

Bridget cried, “I am afraid my child will die in my apron – what am I to do in that case?”

“I don’t care where you go, so long as you don’t stop here.” retorted Burness. (As this was relayed to the coroner, the people present cried, “Shame, shame.”)

Bridget tried to remonstrate with the overseer, but she shouted, “Do you want to insult me in my own house? I won’t give you leave, so be off with you.”

The Nevilles were then made to leave, but, having been given the local magistrate’s name – Mr Crighton, a former poor law guardian – by the last lodging house landlady, there proceeded a tragic tour of houses in search of him.

They then went to another lodging house, where the lady who opened the door told them that the “gentleman upstairs” had warned her if she took them in, and “the child should die during the night, she would have to bury it at her own expense.”

Punch_Poor_LawThe lady gave the Nevilles a shilling, and told them the magistrate’s correct address. But the footman there refused to let them in, saying the magistrate only let him take messages to him once a day, and that time had already gone.

They then traipsed back to the last lodging house owner. She said, “I am very sorry, but I cannot let you remain, as if the child dies the parish officers will call me to an account for doing so.”

The Nevilles were in despair. They had spent all day going back and forth, trying to find anyone who would help them, or give them accommodation where they could look after their sick toddler. What were they to do?

In a final, desperate, move, they went into the Prince of Wales public house in Turnham Green. Once under the gaslight, Bridget peeked into her apron to see how Margaret was, only to see her child’s dead face reflected in the gloomy light.

Margaret had died whilst her parents had been desperately seeking help, and for the past half an hour, Bridget had been unknowingly carrying her corpse around in her apron.

The pub landlord, a Mr Battersbee, soon realised what had happened, and did what nobody else had done – he helped. He called the Chiswick overseer, a builder named Mr Adamson, who immediately admitted the family into the Chiswick workhouse, and put them before a warm fire, giving them food and drink.

The coroner’s jury was clear on what the problem was.

They said the failure to help the Nevilles was an effect of the “boasted New Poor Law system”, where “poor things were now turned out of even the common lodging-house, by order of the overseers, who would let them die in the street.

“The poor now could get no relief, but that was not the worst of the matter; they must not even ask for relief under pain of being sent to prison.”

They added that,

“Poverty was not the only crime to which the poor were subject, as sickness appeared now to be one also.”

Both coroner’s jury and the press found that although Margaret had died from the inflammation of her chest, if she had had sufficient care and attention earlier, she could have survived. Therefore, the ‘inhumanity’ of the overseer had contributed.

The jury stated that the Brentford overseer should have had the humanity to admit the family to the workhouse, and that in failing to do so, he had shown ‘great neglect’ in refusing shelter or help to them.

But that did not help the Nevilles, who had lost a daughter in their desperate search for charity and compassion.

Source: The Champion and Weekly Herald, 12 February 1837


Bigamy in Birmingham: the tale of Horatio and Mrs Hoskins

Mary Ann - fifth entry - appeared before the Warwick Assizes under her first married name of Brown.

Mary Ann – fifth entry – appeared before the Warwick Assizes under her first married name of Brown.

At the Loughborough Petty Sessions in April 1846, a Mrs Hoskins charged her husband with having committed bigamy.

This was not unusual; bigamy cases appeared fairly often in court during the 18th and 19th centuries; as David J Cox has stated:

“before men and women could divorce on equal terms and without blame being apportioned, bigamy was seen as one way in which men (or less usually, women) could evade an unhappy and sometimes dangerous marriage and begin afresh.” [1]

But this case had a couple of differences.

Firstly, the man accused, Horatio Huntley Hoskins, was an attorney from a good background, and also the author of a couple of published works: Count De Denia: Or, The Spaniard’s Ransom (1841) and De Valencourt: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1842, written with his brother).

But secondly, Horatio Hoskins had previously accused his wife of bigamy – a case that had been heard at the Warwick Assizes a month earlier. His wife had been acquitted, but she then attempted to get her own back on her husband by accusing him of the same offence.

The details, as given in a brief piece in the local paper, were as follows.

At the petty sessions, Horatio, who was working as an attorney in Loughborough, admitted having been married twice, but then:

“[he] introduced into court a person by the name of Brown, who swore that he was the husband of Mrs Hoskins; and her marriage with Mr Hoskins, as it was therefore contended, illegal. Some doubts were attempted to be thrown on the identity of this first husband of Mrs Hoskins, and she utterly denied and repudiated him, but the magistrates gave credit to his evidence, and dismissed the case.” [2]

I looked into the backgrounds of both Horatio and his wife, to see who was telling the truth here, and it emerged that neither was entirely innocent.

Horatio's childhood home of Newton Park - photo by MJ Richardson.

Horatio’s childhood home of Newton Park – photo by MJ Richardson.

Horatio Huntley Hoskins was the son of Abraham Hoskins, also an attorney, a wealthy man who had Newton Park, in Newton Solney, south Derbyshire, built for him.

Horatio would have grown up in a privileged environment, and, no doubt, his father would have expected his son to make a successful career and make a good match in marriage.

However, it is possible that the Hoskins sons rebelled against their father – Horatio’s brother and co-writer in his youthful plays, William, was an actor – not always a terribly salubrious occupation in Victorian England, describing himself in 1841 as a ‘leading tragedian’ and in 1851 as a ‘comedian’. [3]

William married an American-born singer and actress, Julia Susanna Wallack, who was known professionally as Julia Harland, in 1842. [4]

Whether Mary Ann would have been deemed a better marital choice than Julia Susanna, though, is a matter of speculation.

Her background is unknown, but I believe that she was born Mary Ann Hodgkins, and married William Brown in Birmingham in the summer of 1837, when she was between 17 and 20 years old (records differ – the notoriously unreliable 1841 census gives her age as 20; at the Warwick Assizes in 1846, her age was given as 29). [5]

Two years after her marriage to Brown, in the autumn or winter of 1839, again in Birmingham, Mary Ann Brown married Huntley Hoskins [sic]; Hoskins was, at the time, serving as an articled clerk, having started a five year apprenticeship at the age of 18 that saw him working for at least three different solicitors. [6]

This means that Mary Ann certainly committed bigamy in 1839, assuming that the Brown who appeared before petty sessions in 1846 WAS her husband William.

In 1841, Horatio and Mary Ann Hoskins were living at 2 Darlington Place, Southwark, where the 20-year-old Horatio was described as being ‘independent’. [7]

Perhaps he and Mary Ann had separated by this point. Hoskins continued working, and in 1843 was back in London. But in the summer of 1845, he married Fanny Warner in her home county of Leicestershire, where he appears to have now been working, despite Mary Ann being still very much alive. [8]

Did Horatio know for sure by this point that Mary Ann had committed bigamy in marrying in, and so was confident that this marriage was illegal? Or had he been unaware, and, having separated from Mary Ann, committed bigamy himself (in the belief that his first marriage was legal)? Or, a final option, perhaps he had been aware all along of Mary Ann’s youthful first marriage, and had simply ignored it in order to be with her?

There is no way of telling, although it is interesting that Mary Ann had been acquitted of bigamy at the Assizes. Had she convinced the jury that she had thought her first husband was dead, perhaps?

As an attorney, Hoskins had certainly used his skills to track down Mary Ann’s legal husband and persuade him to be a witness in the case at petty sessions.

The gendered nature of Victorian justice might be seen in the fact that Hoskins’ second marriage was not the subject of disapproval – despite Hoskins admitting that he had married twice knowing Mary Ann to be alive and his excuse that her marriage to him had been illegal anyway – and that more credence was placed on the evidence of a stranger than on Mary Ann’s previous acquittal.

What happened to Mary Ann is unknown. But five years after the case, in 1851, Horatio Hoskins was still living with the remarkably forgiving Fanny in Lambeth, where he continued to thrive as an attorney. [9]  Shortly afterwards, he seems to have emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1876. [10]

Mary Ann retreated into the shadows of history after this case; but I’d love to know what she did next.


1. David J Cox, “‘Trying to get a good one’: Bigamy offences in England and Wales, 1850-1950”, Plymouth Law and Criminal Justice Review, 4 (2011), 2

2. The Leicester Chronicle, 2 May 1846

3. 1851 census, return for St John Street Road [sic], Clerkenwell

4. Marriage entry for William Hoskins and Julia Susannah [sic] Wallack, Medway district, Sep 1842, vol 5, page 427, accessed via Free BMD. Julia was the daughter of London actor and manager Henry Wallack (source: Drury Lane Fund)

5. Marriage entry for William Brown and Mary Ann Hodgkins, Birmingham district, Sep 1837, vol 16, page 244, accessed via Free BMD

6. Articles of Clerkship, 1756-1874, accessed via Ancestry

7. 1841 census, return for Darlington Place, Southwark

8. Marriage entry for Horatio Huntley Hoskins and Fanny Warner, Ashby de la Zouch district, Sept 1845, vol 15, page 3, accessed via Free BMD

9. 1851 census, return for Palace New Road, Lambeth

10. Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, accessed via Ancestry

Thoughts on being a magistrate, by Samuel Pepys

170px-Samuel_Pepys_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller_1689On 25 June 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded that he and his wife Elisabeth had travelled to Dorset House ‘to deliver a list of the names of the justices of peace for Huntingdonshire’.

This is the first, but not the last, references to the magistracy in Pepys’ diary. The Pepys family were good citizens and both politically aware and involved. Samuels great uncle, Talbot Pepys, was MP for Cambridge in the 1620s; his father’s cousin, Sir Richard Pepys was MP for Sudbury two decades later. Pepys himself became an MP later in his life.

But the Pepys family were also involved in the law at a local level, as this June entry suggests.

Pepys was employed by the Navy Board, and it was common for navy officers to be made magistrates for those counties where the royal dockyards were based. Accordingly, on 24 September 1660, Pepys was sworn in as an ex officio justice of the peace for Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Hampshire.  He was aged 27. He recorded the day in his diary:

“there at Sir Heneage Finch Sollicitor General’s Chambers, before him and Sir W. Wilde, Recorder of London (whom we sent for from his chamber) we were sworn justices of peace for Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Southampton; with which honour I find myself mightily pleased…”

Interestingly, Pepys took on this role despite being, as he admitted ‘wholly ignorant in the duties of a justice of peace.’

Luckily for Pepys, there was help available, both from friends and acquaintances, and from the likes of Michael Dalton’s manual, The Country Justice, which had first been published in 1618.

It certainly seems as though Pepys got to grips with his justicing work quickly, for three months after being appointed, on Tuesday 11 December 1660, Pepys noted that he travelled by barge to Woolwich, where he met with a Captain Stoakes, who was ‘very melancholy’, suspecting that some of his clothes and money had been stolen from his cabin on board a ship there. A sailor was suspected of the theft, and Pepys recorded:

“I did the first office of a justice of Peace to examine a seaman thereupon, but could find no reason to commit him.”

Pepys’ role as justice of the peace largely involved examining individuals and signing warrants, as the above case indicates. On one occasion, he overstepped his legal jurisdiction; he sent a man named Field to prison, for ‘some ill words he did give the office’ – only to be later notified that he had no right to, as Field should have been dealt with by a City of London magistrate, whereas Pepys was a Middlesex JP with no jurisdiction over the Square Mile.

A lawsuit was brought against Pepys, – he was served a subpoena at his office on 4 February 1662 – which caused him great concern. The matter was only resolved eight months later, when Nicholas Lechmere, a councillor at Temple, advised Pepys that a verdict had found against him – and he would have to pay £30 damages as a result (Diary, 21 October 1662).


A Wordle of Pepys’ diary entries relating to the magistracy

Pepys read the news-sheets keenly, enjoying the tales of crime and punishment therein. On 25 February 1662 he read a story based on an examination of Charles, Lord Buckhurst, and his friends before a Justice of the Peace, ‘wherein they make themselves a very good tale that they were in pursuit of thieves’, and, thinking another man was a thief, promptly killed him.

Pepys clearly disbelieved the tale, but recognised the inherent unfairness in the criminal justice system that meant men of title and wealth would be given a sympathetic hearing at trial – ‘I doubt things will be proved otherwise than they say’. Pepys interest in the story reflected his spotting of stories involving magistrates, crime and the law; but also his interest in a good bit of tabloid-style gossip.

In March 1663, Sir Richard Ford – ‘a very able man of his brains and tongue’ – argued to the Lord Mayor of London that he and Pepys should be made JPs for the City, but although the Lord Mayor (‘a talking, bragging, buffleheaded fellow’) consented to the idea, Pepys suspected that he would change his mind the next day (Diary, 17 March 1663).

That did not appear to have happened, for five days later, on a quiet Sunday, Pepys recorded that he ‘Wrote out our bill for the Parliament about our being made Justices of the Peace in the City’ (Diary, 22 March 1663).

This took time to be passed, though; it was only on 25 January 1667 that Pepys was able to record, ‘and also our little Bill, for giving any of us in the [navy] office the power of justice of peace, is done as I would have it’.

Pepys’ diary shows that magistrates were called on to help with a variety of tasks. On one occasion, a magistrate was asked to help shut up the Exchange, at the request of the King (Diary, 22 December 1663); on another occasion, the magistrates requested Pepys and two others to go to the local vestry to do ‘something for the keeping of the plague from growing’ (Diary, 3 September 1665). The men sat and worked out some ‘orders for the prevention thereof.’

And despite Pepys’ original ignorance of the duties of a magistrate, it was clear that JPs soon picked up a knowledge of the law as it related to the them and their role, even if they did not have that originally. During a discussion with another magistrate, Sir Thomas Clifford, he told Pepys that he was ‘of little learning more than the law of a justice of peace; which he knows well’ (Diary, 26 April 1667).

On 1 May 1666, Pepys recorded a visit from his cousin Thomas, who wanted to ask him about the role of justice of the peace. He had been asked to become a magistrate for Kent, but pointed out that although he was ‘of Deptford parish’, his house was actually within Surrey’s borders.

He also pointed out that he could not read Latin, so might not be able to do the job as all warrants were written out in Latin at that time (Pepys, of course, was adept at Latin). In addition, he was reluctant to ‘exercise punishment according to the Act against Quakers and other people, for religion.’

But Pepys encouraged him to accept the position if he was ‘pressed to take it’, because he thought it would reflect well on him having a family member as Kentish JP.

Pepys took his role as magistrate seriously; but it is also clear that he saw it as having a social caché, and so was keen not only to serve himself, but to be seen to have relatives acting as justices too.

Seduction, April 1804

469px-Luise_Joseph_Grassi_1802_min_cropped“On the 31st ult. a writ of enquiry was brought before the Sheriff of Lancashire, in which the plaintiff was a respectable manufacturer at Bolton-le-Moors, father of five daughters, the eldest of whom, aged 20, had been seducted by his principal clerk, the defendant, 42 years of age, a married man, and father of two children.

“The plaintiff had permitted his daughter to asset in the counting-house, where the defendant took advantage of the opportunity of seducing her, and she was delivered of a child in November last.

“The Jury awarded £500 damages.”

From the Bury and Norwich Post, 18 April 1804. The damages were the equivalent of around £16,000 today.

Wanted: abstracts for proposed British Crime Historians Symposium panel on petty sessions & summary justice


The British Crime Historians Symposium CFP is here: BCHScallforpapers

If you’d be interested in being part of the panel we’re submitting for consideration by the symposium organisers, you can contact either Drew or myself at first name.last name at, or use the contact form below. We’ll be in touch as soon as possible.





The Marshal's Dance: Crime and Punishment at Execution Dock

sailorIt is early in the morning of Thursday, 28 January, 1796. In their cell at Newgate Prison, three men are woken by the dull clanking of a bell, being rung in a slow, sombre manner.

This is the execution bell, brought out from the church of St Sepulchre without Newgate, just opposite the prison, and rung by the curate to denote an impending execution.

It is the sound that all condemned men dread; the sound that means they only have a few hours left to live.

Today, the bell rings for a Cherokee Indian named Francis Cole, Irishman George Colley and Michael Blanche, who is from Spain. They are sailors, used to exciting journeys on the ocean. Now they get up, ready for their last journey.

Now we look back, to the previous autumn. Part of the crew of the merchant ship American Eagle, sailing in the English channel, the three men had formed a gang together with three American sailors – Samuel Dearborn, Archibald Hart and John Cassado. They had devised a plan to gain control of both the ship and its valuable cargo, and it involved the death of their master, William Little.

Cole had been the instigator of the murder, which occurred between 1 and 2 am on 28 October 1795. It was an act of sustained violence, and William Little’s death had been long and lingering. He had been stabbed several times, and then beaten with an iron tea-kettle. At one point, he was heard to shout, “I am not dead, though you think me so,” and later, faintly, “For God’s sake let me lie down and die quietly!” After he died, Colley threw his body overboard, shouting, “There, let him go to hell and be damned!”

The men were apprehended on the Isle of Wight, attempting to sell on some of the ship’s goods. But once in custody, the Americans turned King’s evidence, and incriminated the rest of what was described as a ‘motley set of desperadoes’.

The first two men, Cole and Colley, were tried at the Admiralty Sessions – the court session that heard cases of piracy – on 24 November 1795. The trial took place at the Old Bailey.

Two other crew members, Michael Blanche and Emanuel Batha, both from Spain, should have also been tried at this point, but their trial was postponed in order to ensure that the jury included other ‘foreigners’ like themselves. They also required translators, as they were unable to speak English. When they were finally tried, only Michael was found guilty of murder; Emanuel Batha was acquitted after witnesses spoke of him being ‘an angel’.

imageNow forward again to 28 January. Once up and dressed, the condemned men are placed on a cart, which is then wheeled – accompanied by City officers – through the streets of London; up Newgate towards Cheapside and then on to Wapping. Here, on the Thames foreshore, is the infamous Execution Dock. It is where pirates and mutineers are hanged, from a noose that swings over the river.

It is raining on this Thursday morning, and cold. Yet around the dock are gathered thousands of people. These are not just those looking for a bit of grim amusement; many are seamen, or sailors, themselves, and they are a mix of those who knew or supported the murdered man, and those who have known and worked with the convicts.

They wait. There is a bit of jostling, some shouting.

Prayers are said out loud; Francis, George and Michael listen intently, although some say they look obstinate and sullen. Sullenness may, of course, be confused with fear.

At 11 o’clock, the men are, to use the contemporary expression, ‘turned off’.

They swing from the nooses, doing the marshal’s dance, as the involuntary thrashing of limbs that occurs during hangings is known. They swing, their tongues protruding and their eyes bulging – staring but unseeing.

They are dead, but what they dreaded most is still to come. They will not be left to swing as a warning to others, but instead will be cut down and transported to the Surgeon’s Hall to be dissected and anatomised; exposed to the public who watch from the gallery there.

But for a few minutes more, they continue to swing, over the grey waters of a still and quiet river.

Case taken from The Times, Friday 29 January 1796; The New Annual Register of 1796 and the Newgate Calendar.

Case taken from The Times, Friday 29 January 1796; The New Annual Register of 1796 and the Newgate Calendar.

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