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!

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