Friday, 26 July 2013

A family affair? The curious case of Perkin v. Birchenough

The Queen and Hezekiah Perkin v. John Birchenough was heard at Stafford Winter Assizes on 16 December 1865. At first sight the case seems to be a straightforward robbery – Birchenough was a petty criminal who had already served time in Derby gaol for attempted larceny – but a little digging has revealed there may well be more to matters than first meets the eye.  

The story starts on 28 September 1865, when Hezekiah Perkin, keeper of an eatinghouse in Spout Street (now St Edward Street), Leek, rose at 6 a.m. Going downstairs he found the back door closed but unbolted – he was sure he had left it bolted the previous night.

Just then he heard his wife calling from upstairs. On getting up Louisa Perkin had discovered that her clothes were not where she had left them the previous night: ‘I picked them off the floor and thought they felt light – I examined my pocket and found that my purse and money were gone.’ The purse contained two watchkeys, a half-sovereign and some silver, and there were a further five shillings wrapped in paper in a pocket.

Hezekiah investigated further and found that the trap door from the coal cellar into the street had been unfastened and that ‘a candle had been used about the house during the night’. A candlestick and a partly burned candle, usually left on the chimney piece, were on a table near the back door and a partly burnt match (‘we generally cut them off with scissors’) was on the cellar steps.

The Perkins took an inventory and discovered that two silver watches, one with a gold Albert chain and key,  and the other (a new one) with a silver guard and gold seal, were missing. Going into the shop, Hezekiah discovered that a bag containing ‘£1.15.0 in money and 5/- in copper’ was also missing off the counter, ‘the last shilling of which I had counted and placed there the previous night’.

Immediately the couple thought of John Birchenough, who lived ‘in the immediate neighbourhood and had been formerly in the habit of going to the house’. Louisa reported the break-in to the police. However, they then seem to take matters into their own hands. A week or so later, on 7 October, Louisa went to see one of John Birchenough’s friends, William Flanagan, silk twister and, as we shall see, dab hand at ‘toss’. Louisa found Flanagan in the Bull’s Head in Spout Street and told him that, if Birchenough were to return the missing items, they would not press charges. As a further sweetener, she let it be known she would give 10 shillings for the return of the watches. Their conversation was heard by Elizabeth Boothby, wife of the landlord.

William Flanagan’s statement to the police (by this time he was under commitment for three months on a charge of assault, so he didn’t have far to go) confirmed that he had spoken to Birchenough after meeting with Louisa. Perhaps not surprisingly, Birchenough had denied any knowledge of the missing items. Flanagan told him ‘if he had them we could put them right and have no further bother’. He also told police he had won nineteen shillings from Birchenough gambling at toss a couple of days earlier, first in the Talbot Inn and then behind Alsop’s shade. (A shade was the local name for the sheds where threads were twisted.) Birchenough had paid up with a half-sovereign and silver which he took from a purse – perhaps not the best move in the circumstances.

Later on, in the evening of 7 October, Mrs Boothby sent for John Birchenough, who by this time must surely have been sick of the whole saga. ‘He came to my house,’ she told police. ‘I told him Flanagan was locked up and asked the prisoner to give me Mrs Perkin’s watches. … I said if he did not wish  to give them to Mrs Perkin he might leave them in my hands and I would see she had them back. [He] immediately went away and in a few minutes returned and gave me the watches standing at my parlour door.’

It would seem that things had been pretty much sorted out without any involvement from the police, but on 9 October John Birchenough was arrested at his house in Jacob’s Alley by Superintendent Thomas Woollaston. Birchenough denied any knowledge of the burglary or watches but was charged that he did ‘feloniously and burglariously break and enter the dwellinghouse of Hezekiah Perkin’. The prosecution brief notes that if the burglary charge did not stick then receiving stolen goods could certainly be proved. This wasn’t necessary, though. John Birchenough was found guilty and sentenced to six months with hard labour.

So ends the story. But we were intrigued to discover that after his release John Birchenough moved from Leek to Woolstanton and began to call himself John Perkin. A brief look at the records revealed that Birchenough was actually John’s mother’s name and they both lived with a Joseph Clowes Perkin; Hezekiah Perkin had a brother of that name. So it seems likely that Hezekiah Perkin and John Birchenough were actually related, or at least known to one another. In fact they may well have been uncle and nephew. 

Which raises a whole host of questions. Why didn’t the Perkins tell the police John was a relative? Hezekiah’s statement merely says: ‘I know the prisoner. He lives in a yard behind my house.’ Did the police know but not record the fact?  Hezekiah and Louisa seemed to go to some lengths to sort the matter out themselves – because Birchenough was family? In which case, why go to the police at all?

Or is the whole thing a coincidence of names, a genealogist’s nightmare?  If anyone has researched this family, please let us know!

Monday, 15 July 2013

The fasting woman of Tutbury

In 1808 Robert Taylor, a surgeon living in Tutbury, Staffordshire, made an astonishing claim: that local woman Ann Moore had survived without food or water for 13 days. The report he published appeared to vindicate Ann’s claims that she had passed years with no nourishment. Her fame as the ‘fasting woman of Tutbury’ was assured, and became one of the cause célèbres of the age.

But was it for real?

Ann’s story starts at Rosliston in the south of Derbyshire, where she was born Ann Peg in 1761. Her parents were poor and Ann went into service at a young age. At 27 she married James Moore, a labourer. But James left her, and she and her children (reputedly fathered by the master of the house) eventually made their way to Tutbury.

Perhaps because in her poverty she did actually manage to survive on very little food, once at Tutbury Ann began to make her claims that she could survive without any food. Although most were sceptical, some in the village were prepared to swear they had never seen her eat or drink. Talk grew, and Ann agreed to be placed under surveillance to prove her case. So, in September 1808 she was taken to the house of Tutbury’s grocer, Mr Jackson. The fast was supervised by Robert Taylor, with groups of villagers coming and going as they pleased, so Ann was never alone.

For three days Ann took a little water but for the next 13 she had nothing: hence Taylor’s report backing her contention. Taylor speculated that, with the window to her room always being open, she was somehow imbibing nourishment from the hydrogen in the air. With such ‘proof’ to support her, Ann’s fame spread across England and beyond; pamphlets were published about her and she was used by the prophesier Joanna Southcott to promote her cause.  

By now Ann was receiving hundreds of visitors – many of whom left a ‘little gift’ for her and her children.  It is estimated she had made £250 by 1809 and up to £500 thereafter.

Not everyone, however, was convinced. For a religious woman (a Bible always lay open on her bed and she assumed an air of piety, discussing religious matters with her visitors), Ann was subject to surprising outbursts of ‘such virulent language as would fully evince the absence of all religious principle in her’. Then there was her questionable morality – her illegitimate children and the fact she was living openly with a man while still technically married to James Moore. Her explanation for her strange gift was also inconsistent: first she claimed it was a result of her washing the cloths used to bind a boy’s ulcerous wounds; then she said it was due to ‘extreme want’; and then that it occurred gradually, that she took less and less food, then liquid only, and then nothing at all.

In April 1813, with Ann still claiming to have had no sustenance in all that time, a committee headed by Sir Oswald Mosley and including doctors, ministers and magistrates from the surrounding towns, decided that she should be placed under a second watch – and this time for a month. Ann was placed in a new bed with a weighing machine attached and the mattress was stripped and filled with chaff.

After seven days it was announced that she had taken no nourishment, and Ann looked set to prove the doubters wrong once more. But on the eighth day she appeared distressed and said she was too ill to continue. Her weight loss was noticeable and her pulse erratic. Worried she would die, Mosley halted the watch and called for Ann’s daughter, after which she started to recover. The results of the trial were published in a second report, this time by the Rev. Legh Richmond.

After the failed test Ann initially stuck to her story that she had taken no food or drink for the previous six years. However, she then made a full confession that: ‘I Ann Moore, of Tutbury, humbly asking the pardon of all persons whom I have attempted to deceive and impose upon, and above all with the most unfeigned sorrow and contrition, imploring the divine mercy and forgiveness of that God, whom I have greatly offended, do most solemnly declare, that I have occasionally taken sustenance for the last six years.’

Ann had to leave Tutbury to escape the wrath of her victims, and she is said to have died soon afterwards. Most believed that some food must have been smuggled into her in the first watch, either by her daughter or another collaborator amongst the villagers. However, it would seem that she could have received only minimal sustenance and she must truly have been able to survive on very little food.

We will never know whether Ann devised the entire scheme as a money-making scam, or whether it was just idle boasting around her village that grew completely beyond her control.
Engraving of Ann by Anthony Cardon, 1812

Frontispiece of second report