Full text

  1. The Witham Fires and the 1820s
  2. The Legal Framework and the Witham Fires
  3. The Social Background
  4. Conclusion

The Witham Fires and the 1820s

In 1846 Robert Bretnall of Witham wrote in his diary: ‘November 5th … It was this day 18 years ago that the Witham Fires begun and the same day I had the row with old Martin Brunwin’.1

So far, investigation has failed to discover the details of the row, except that it is clear from other parts of the diary that it was still raging in 1846. However, the ‘Witham fires’ were recorded fully in the newspapers and other records of 1828 and 1829. This makes it possible to study them in considerable detail, and there is therefore an opportunity to view the fires in the context of the time and place in which they occurred. As a result, an apparently random series of sensational events can be seen to have some more general significance. The particular episode and the historical background can each illuminate the other. This study will therefore amplify the details and the circumstances of the Witham fires in the hope of achieving such illumination. Section 2 will discuss them from the point of view of law enforcement, and Section 3 will deal with some aspects of the society in which they took place. First, however, there will follow a summary of the historical context, and a brief description of the actual events at Witham.

The 1820s: Historical Background

The 1820s are difficult years to classify. Many old manufacturing activities, such as the cloth industry of Witham and the rest of north Essex, had virtually disappeared. The new ones of northern England were growing, but England was still a predominantly rural country. Essex, adjoining London, was part of a ‘rural’ area, but also had much non-agricultural activity. The population of all areas was increasing, but less rapidly than in the previous decade. The worst of the post-war slump had passed, but the railways and the boom that they created had not yet arrived. The economy was unsettled, as typified by the cyclical boom of 1825 and the crash of 1826 which broke many country banks and businesses.2

In most areas a permanent police force was still a thing of the future. After various earlier schemes, the Metropolitan Police were established in London in 1829, but the county forces were only authorised after 1839; the Essex force, set up in that year, was one of the first.3 Recorded crime had increased rapidly since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In part this was the normal post-war pattern that had been seen at intervals during the previous century, but fluctuations and regional variations made it difficult to interpret in detail.4 The most obvious ‘troubles’ were in the manufacturing districts, but the countryside had what Dunbabin has called an ‘endemic’ tendency to crime and disorder.5 In particular, the 1820s fell between early 19th century farmworkers’ protests in Essex and East Anglia, and the even more extensive ‘Swing’ disturbances which affected the whole of lowland England in 1830.6

There was much discussion during the 1820s about social policy, but in general, effective legislation on the subject did not begin to appear until the end of the decade. The law in 1820 still allowed for capital punishment, usually by hanging, for a large number of types of offence, including burglary, robbery, many types of stealing, and arson. Between 1825 and 1828 the Tory government, under the guidance of Home Secretary Robert Peel, passed a series of enactments relating to the criminal law; they were mainly of a consolidating nature.7 A Select Committee reported in 1826 and 1828, and its findings were to form the basis for the reforms of the Whig governments of the 1830s, which considerably reduced the number of offences subject to the death penalty.8 By the 1820s concern was being felt and demonstrated about the expense of poor relief, but the new Act restricting it by law was not passed until 1834.9 In Essex the relationship between Anglicans and other Protestants was perhaps the most important religious issue; Congregationalists, also known as Independents, formed the main body of non-Anglicans, and the term ‘Dissenter’ usually applied to them.10 In 1828 the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts allowed Dissenting Protestants to become magistrates.11 But both political parties were more involved in the issue of Catholic emancipation which was finally ‘granted’ in 1829.12

It was in this context that a wave of arson began at Witham in November 1828. A full account of the affair could occupy a whole book in itself, so that this section will merely attempt to outline the main events.

Witham and the Fires

Map showing locations of places mentioned
Map showing locations of places mentioned in the text

The parish of Witham had a population of about 2,700 in 1828. It had a weekly market, and was usually referred to as a town rather than a village. It was in the centre of Essex, on the main road from London to East Anglia, with the larger towns of Colchester, Chelmsford, Maldon and Braintree situated to the east, west, south and north respectively. Witham was known for its religious dissent, and its past cloth industry. The brief flourishing of a spa in the 1740s had left it with something of a reputation for gentility. About a quarter of the population lived in the area of the main street, Newland Street, with another sizeable group about a mile to the north at Chipping Hill, around the parish church. In addition, the parish’s extensive boundaries incorporated a number of farms. This and the influence of the surrounding villages, meant that the fortunes of agriculture had a considerable influence on Witham; the poor included a high proportion of farmworkers, and farmers were important in local administrative bodies. Another influential group were the professionals. There were also a variety of occupations in trade and service activities, and in some of the processing industries which were typical of all small towns, such as malting, milling and brewing. The only manufacturing process that was more specific to Witham was brushmaking, in Thomasin’s brush yard off Newland Street, which had a work force of 30 to 40, mostly men.13

The Select Vestry was the elected body responsible for distributing Witham’s poor relief from the income provided by the rates. From 1822 it sought to control its spending.14 1828 saw the first of a series of three poor harvests, and the price of wheat shot up from 60 shillings (£3) a quarter in September to 72 shillings (£3.60) in October.15 This was the highest price since 1820, and it remained above 70 shillings (£3.50) until June 1829. The increase seems to have caused remarkably little comment at the time, but then the farmers were usually quicker to draw attention to low prices than to high ones.

In the evening of 5 November 1828, two fires broke out in Witham. One was in the barn of John Crump, an Anglican overseer, at Freebornes Farm in the main street, and the other in a stack belonging to James Catchpool, a Quaker maltster, in the Lion Fields behind the street. At first the cause was thought to be rockets from Guy Fawkes festivities; then an ‘organised gang’ was blamed, and rewards were offered for the apprehension of its members.16 Arson was subject potentially to the death penalty. It was not new, but riot and machine-breaking had been a more typical feature of rural protest in previous years.17

So the relative severity and novelty of the offence contributed to the great sense of alarm that spread through the town. During the following weeks William Wright Luard, a magistrate who lived at Witham Lodge, carried out assiduous investigations and interrogations. Two more fires took place at the beginning of December. One of them was at Motts Farm in Witham occupied by Henry Barwell, a butcher, and the other was in the neighbouring parish of Rivenhall, on property belonging to the Whig Member of Parliament for Essex, Charles Callis Western of Kelvedon. Several men were interviewed by local magistrates and then released.18 Peter Du Cane of nearby Braxted Lodge wrote from London to ask his solicitor, William Henry Pattisson of Witham, to check that his stacks were insured as well as his buildings.19

On 6 December, the MP Western chaired a meeting of ‘land-owners, tradesmen and most respectable occupiers of land’ at the Blue Posts inn. Speakers began, reluctantly, to admit the probability of a local arsonist, and to deplore the ingratitude of the well-treated poor. Western offered a reward of £200, and also announced the promise of a free pardon from the Secretary of State to any accomplice who gave evidence leading to a prosecution. An Association for ‘the Protection of Life and Property against Fire’ was formed, a watch system established, and a new fire-engine purchased from London. The vicar of Witham, Revd John Newman, moved a vote of thanks to Western. At the end of December the magistrates in Petty Sessions swore in ten new Special Constables from Witham.20

In January 1829 there was a spate of fires in north Essex at Saling, Finchingfield and Great Yeldham, for which no-one appears to have been prosecuted. There was also a machine-breaking incident at Toppesfield for which the suspects were eventually found not guilty.21 On 19 and 20 February there were two more fires in Witham, the first in a hay-stack belonging to William Whale, an innkeeper, and the second in William Green’s barn at Olivers Farm, south of the town. The new fire engine performed well.22 In the latter case the crowds who rushed to watch were said to have found that ‘the reflection of the light of the flames on the clouds was singular. The trees looked like spectres, and it seemed to the spectators as if the world was on fire’.23

Suddenly, events moved rapidly. On 25 February James Cook, a cow boy who lived over the brewhouse at Olivers Farm, was interrogated about the fire there.24 He was sixteen, and the oldest of the six surviving children of James and Dorcas Cook. His father, a labourer, had died in 1827 at the age of 35.25 Since then Dorcas and her children had been maintained by the Select Vestry, although the amount they received had decreased considerably during her widowhood, as had all poor relief payment in Witham.26 On 2 March Dorcas went to ‘the Committee’ to collect a further two shillings, but was ‘unable to walk alone from illness’, and had to be helped by her sister Harriet Hales.27 On this same day there was yet another fire in Witham, this time in a stack of oats belonging to the Quaker miller, Hoffgaard Shoobridge. On 4 March, William Luard and Revd John Newman sent James Cook to the new Convict Gaol at Chelmsford, the county town, to await trial for causing the fire at Olivers Farm. Two days later, on 6 March, the Anglican farmer William Hutley of Powers Hall received a letter threatening him with arson, and the following day an outhouse belonging to William Grimwood, a maltster, was set on fire.28

Although these last events took place while James Cook was in custody, his prosecution for the Olivers Farm fire continued. At various times he made three contradictory ‘confessions’.29 His case was heard on 12 March at the Lent Assizes at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy, as did the prosecutor, farmer William Green. However the judge, Mr Justice Alexander, sentenced him to death. In this period the judge nearly always granted an instant reprieve after a death sentence, and reduced the penalty to transportation or imprisonment. But on this occasion he did not do so; he said he felt that ‘a severe example’ was necessary to ‘put a stop to such national calamities’, and that James Cook should therefore be hanged. The newspaper reported that ‘the boy appeared to feel but little during the trial; at the conclusion, however, he burst into tears’.30 It was said later that ‘feeling in the neighbourhood was greatly excited by the severity shown by the judge … it was considered a cruel act of injustice’.31

No appeal was possible. The only means of obtaining mercy was to petition the Crown, via the Home Office, for a Royal Pardon. Luard, the magistrate, desperately pursued this course, writing to Peel, the Home Secretary, on 18 and 19 March, and sending copies of the relevant depositions. He also wrote to Western, the Member of Parliament. The following day, 20 March, there was yet another fire, and Luard wrote again to point this out.32 It was in an outhouse belonging to a wealthy Dissenter, Thomas Butler, a grocer, draper and farmer.33 Western was persuaded to visit Peel to discuss the matter; both were engrossed in the Second Reading of the Catholic Emancipation Bill. J M Phillips, as under-secretary at the Home Office, wrote to Luard that it would be reckless to pardon Cook, in view of his confessions.34 So he was hanged on 27 March outside Chelmsford gaol. A hanging was in itself a fairly rare occasion; no other person was hanged in Essex in 1829. This one was made particularly awesome by the widespread feeling against it, and by Cook’s youth; the Chelmsford Chronicle honoured the event with a large illustration.35

Drawing of the execution of James Cook from 1829
The execution of James Cook as shown by the Chelmsford Chronicle, 10 April 1829

The Times newspaper was also by this time taking an interest in the affair; it reported that following Cook’s trial he had named other culprits, and that ‘nine persons have already been apprehended and the constables are in pursuit of others’.36 No further details of this allegation are available. Only two further suspects reached the criminal records, namely Robert Ling and Edmund Potto. Ling was a labourer or thatcher aged 50, who lived in the Chipping Hill area. He was a Dissenter, and had been a soldier, probably having enlisted as a Regular from the Volunteers in 1813. The parish of Ramsey had returned him to Witham in 1825 under the Poor Laws; since then he had received occasional poor relief.37 The reason for his arrest was that one of Cook’s confessions had said that Ling had been involved with him in the fire at William Green’s Olivers Farm, though another had contradicted this. Ling had been working there win-rowing on the day of the fire. This was rather beneath him as a thatcher, and he was said to have complained about what he was paid, thus giving him a possible motive for arson.38 Furthermore, on 2 March 1829, after Cook’s first interrogation, Ling was ‘out of employ’ and received 2s.6d. (12_p.) from the Vestry. While collecting it, he had met James Cook’s mother and aunt, and remarked to them about the fire at William Green’s that ‘it is a pity he [Green] was not in the middle of it’.39 He was widely reported to have made many scurrilous statements about the ‘parish’ of Witham and its harshness to him.40 The magistrate, Luard, had hoped to convict him to save Cook, according to a letter he sent with Cook’s petition.41 On 28 March, the day after Cook’s execution, Luard committed Ling to gaol for trial at the next Assizes in August, for the fire for which Cook had already been hanged.42

It is a little unclear what happened next. It is possible that there were two further fires; if so Luard must have been dismayed to find that putting Ling in gaol was no more effective than had been the committal of James Cook.43 For whatever reason, there was further magisterial activity by William Luard, and on 18 April he and the Dissenter Samuel Shaen, a newly appointed magistrate from the neighbouring parish of Hatfield Peverel, made another committal to gaol. This time the suspect was Edmund Potto, and they subjected him to a six-hour examination. He was a nineteen-year old apprentice tailor from Witham, and the local newspaper rejoiced that the agricultural labourers were thereby vindicated.44 His father was Nathaniel Potto, a Witham currier. Nathaniel’s sister was the wife of James Thomasin, owner of the brush manufactory in a yard off the main street of Witham, and they were also related to the Bentalls, who were ironfounders in the Maldon area. All the families were non-conformists. The acquaintances of Edmund Potto, the suspect, regarded him as rather odd and solitary; he was short with a ‘ruddy, freckled complexion, light brown hair, hazel eyes, and a mermaid and anchor tattooed on his right arm’. Although it was not mentioned in the press, he appears to have spent a month in gaol in August 1828, Witham Petty Sessions having sent him there for leaving his work after an argument with his master.45

This time the sending of a suspect to gaol did seem to produce the desired result, and there were no more fires in Witham. Crimes carrying a potential death penalty could not be tried by Quarter Sessions, so like Ling, Potto had to await the Summer Assizes in August. Although the intervening four months were relatively peaceful in Witham itself, there were signs of anxiety in the high level of committals for trial in Essex as a whole.46

At the Summer Assizes, eight charges were brought against Edmund Potto. One was for writing the threatening letter to William Hutley at Powershall; it had said ‘There is 4 of us in the Gange we will have a tucker of a fire 4 Deape feallows yo dame sett fools when the Whind is hie’. The other seven charges were for all the known Witham fires except for the one for which Cook had been executed, and the one at James Catchpool’s stack.47 Catchpool was a Quaker and possibly reluctant to prosecute, though fellow-Quaker, Hoffgaard Shoobridge, did prosecute, and another, Josiah Marten Sanders, gave evidence for William Grimwood.48 The victims who were prosecuting were a representative group of the Witham middle class, both tradesmen and farmers, Anglicans and Dissenters, with Joseph Howell Pattisson, a Witham solicitor, advising their counsel. As was usual, the charges were first considered by the Grand Jury in private. They dismissed four of the arson charges for being inadequate to proceed. The other charges continued to the open court, where the case concerning one of the fires at William Grimwood’s outhouse was heard on 6 August, the third day of the Assize, before a crowded court room and Mr Justice Park.49

Unusually, Potto was defended by a lawyer and had many witnesses to support him. This was said later to have been entirely due to the efforts of the ‘young man’s relations in the town’.50 The hearing opened with one of the most singular occurrences of the whole affair when Potto’s lawyer challenged all ten farmers who appeared to be sworn into the jury. No other instances are evident of juries being challenged in criminal cases in the 1820s in Essex. The Sheriff and the Clerk of Peace who compiled the jury panel were clearly unprepared for such an event, and they only had 56 jurors to cover the thirteen cases expected on this and the following two days. However, they were left with little alternative but to replace all the farmers and produce a jury consisting entirely of tradesmen. The local newspaper took the unusual step of publishing their names.51

This trial attracted even more attention than James Cook’s, earning a full page report in the Chelmsford Chronicle. It lasted all day, from 9 am to 8 pm, whereas an average Assize day heard about twenty cases. Evidence was given that Potto had been seen running from the fire and that he had made a confession in the gaol, wrongly implicating four other men and saying that if he ‘could have got a little of the reward he would have gone up to London, and there were people there who would have got him a berth, and he would never have been found’. Then it was suggested for the defence that Potto was a ‘monomaniac’, insane on the subject of fires but not in other respects. Dr Henry Dixon of Witham later claimed credit for raising this point, since he had just been reading about the ailment in the Edinburgh Review. Dixon was a Dissenter who sat carefully on the fence when called to give evidence on the question himself, and was praised by the judge.52

In the end, monomania turned out to be a red herring which the jury claimed to have disregarded. However, it provided a golden opportunity for the inhabitants of Witham to take sides. The prosecution called thirteen new witnesses including several doctors, in addition to its eight original ones. They all assured the court that Potto was sane. Prosecution witnesses such as these usually had their expenses paid by the county. The defence called fourteen people at its own expense to testify to Potto’s insanity. These included James Thomasin, the brushmaster who was Potto’s relative by marriage. He found himself in a cleft stick when the judge admonished him for not taking care of Potto if he was as odd as Thomasin claimed. Included in Thomasin’s supporters were two of his own brushworkers, one of whom was James Mount, the secretary of the local branch of the workers’ organisation, the Brushmakers’ Society.53

The judge summed up the case in the evening; it was reported by the newspaper that he ‘clearly expected a verdict of Guilty’. The jurors took so long discussing the case that, unusually, they had to retire from the court room. On their return the foreman pronounced the prisoner ‘Not Guilty’, explaining to the judge that they ‘had not dwelled upon the subject of insanity’, but considered that ‘there had not been sufficient evidence generally to convict the prisoner’. The report added that ‘the Verdict was received with the greatest astonishment by a crowded court’. Dr Dixon noted many years later that ‘the jury were probably partly influenced … by the cruel hanging of the little boy … and they did the best they could to save Potto from the like fate’.54

Next morning Mr Justice Park called for a fresh jury. Potto’s lawyer had clearly decided not to test his luck further, and put in a plea of ‘Guilty’ to sending the threatening letter to William Hutley. The judge sentenced him to the maximum punishment for this offence, transportation for life. When speaking of the previous day’s events he said that ‘The Jury … came to a decision, no doubt satisfactory to their consciences, but, I must confess, unintelligible to my own’. Addressing Potto, he said that ‘your conduct has been most frightful … how a young man of your appearance … could be so deeply immersed in guilt it is most difficult to conjecture … I hope you will endeavour to make some compensation by deep and sincere repentance in your future conduct for the injury you have committed’.55

The remaining charges of arson against Potto were dropped. Robert Ling followed him into the dock in an atmosphere of anticlimax, to answer for the fire at Olivers Farm. His bad relationship with the victim and with the ‘parish’ was described, ‘but after a few minutes consideration the jury acquitted the prisoner’, and ‘the learned Judge expressed himself satisfied with the verdict’.56 A week later Edmund Potto was taken with three other Essex convicts to the Leviathan hulk off Portsmouth, and in March 1830 he went in the convict ship Lady Faversham to New South Wales. On his arrival there he was registered as ‘John Potto, protestant’, and sent to work for Thomas Potter MacQueen, on a new ten-thousand acre model estate at Segenhoe.57 Meanwhile, in November 1829, the Witham Association for the Protection of Life and Property against Fire had held a meeting at which William Luard was presented with an inscribed silver salver for his ‘great exertions’, and ‘as the evening proceeded the utmost hilarity continued to prevail’.58

Late in 1830 a wave of protests by farmworkers began in Kent, and spread to the whole of south-eastern England, far exceeding any earlier movements in their scale. They included arson, riots, machine-breaking, and the threatening letters, often signed ‘Captain Swing’, which gave the protests their name.59 When the Royal Commission on the Poor Law sent out a questionnaire to parishes in 1834, it included a question about ‘the causes and consequences of the Agricultural Riots and Burnings of 1830 and 1831’. Two of the respondents from Witham disagreed about whether unemployment was to blame; it was the magistrate William Luard who thought it was. The third respondent was the vicar, Revd John Newman, who said firmly that, ‘there were no Burnings or Riots in Witham Hundred in 1830 and 1831’.60 In the circumstances this was perhaps being economical with the truth.

In the same year, 1834, Dorcas Cook, James’ mother, died at the age of 44.61 Robert Ling lived until 1859 when he died in Witham at the age of 73.62 Edmund Potto only survived eleven years in New South Wales, where he died in the service of Mrs Katherine Harper in 1841. But his fate does not seem to have been common knowledge in Witham. In the 1870s Dr Henry Dixon still remembered the Witham fires vividly, but wrote of Edmund Potto that, ‘I know nothing of [his] fate afterwards, or whether he is now living or not. I have never asked the question of his friends’.63

The Legal Framework and the Witham Fires64

The last section described the progress of the Witham arson suspects towards their fate. Now the significance of this progress will be elaborated in relation to the legal framework in which it took place. It will be seen that the law was not a detached entity, because its use depended on the requirements of the people involved in it. Furthermore, it was constantly developing in response to those requirements. For guidance, the procedures involved have been illustrated in diagrammatic form.

Flowchart diagram
Simplified outline of procedure for dealing with crime

The 1820s may be seen as a transitional period in the development of attitudes to the criminal law. Historians dealing with the time before the 19th century tend to stress that much so-called ‘discretion’ was extended to suspects.65 The operation of the law was largely in the hands of private individuals, who used it as a tool of social control. Potential maximum punishments were very severe, but frequently they were not adhered to in practice, and served mainly as a threat. In contrast, historians who write about the later 19th century stress the development of a new approach.66 It became the ideal that as many suspects as possible should be caught and punished, in a systematic way. To make this more feasible, the law was amended so as to reduce potential penalties to a level which was likely to be used in practice. In particular there was a reduction in the number of offences for which the death sentence could be inflicted. In an attempt to achieve the new aims, public intervention was increased. Thus during the 1820s, some tension and confusion can be expected between the use of discretion and the hope of certainty, and between private and public participation in the law.

The initial reaction to an offence

In the past, most offences were not even recorded, and thus formed what is now known as the ‘dark figure’. Official documents only mentioned cases where a suspect was found and prosecuted. A few offences were spectacular enough to be mentioned in records such as newspapers, even if the case went no further; examples are the three fires which took place in north Essex in January 1829 during the period of the Witham scare.67 And Edmund Potto at Witham was not committed for trial until over five months after the first of the fires of which he was accused, so if that had been the only case, it seems likely that it would also have gone unsolved.68

Skill, determination, luck and money were among the items needed for successful detection. This stage of the proceedings was often still a private affair. The main free and public service available was that of the parish constables, who were elected and unpaid; only their expenses were re-imbursed by the county.69 In the Witham Division they were generally tradesmen, with a few farmworkers; they were of lower social status than the overseers of the poor, which limited their authority. There were many signs and examples of competence amongst them, as other studies have found. However, in this area only a minority of victims appear to have used the parish constable to search for a suspect.70 And the Witham fires seem to have been regarded as much too serious to leave to the parish constable; Petty Sessions appointed ten special constables for a ‘twelvemonth’. They were of higher social status than the usual parish constables, and for their pains three of them later had fires on their premises and one received a threatening letter.71

London policemen were sometimes used in Essex, but outside London they demanded sizeable fees.72 So although they were in a sense a public service they required private initiative, and were only available to those who could afford them. The same was true of two other supplementary agents, the prosecution associations and the reward system, both of which were used during the Witham fires. Subscriptions were required for the associations. In the 1820s they seem to have been a temporary phenomenon in the Witham Division, and often to have arisen only after a particular crisis; in the town of Witham itself there were three successive bodies.73 One of them was set up, with a committee of thirty men, solely in response to the arson in 1829, and probably wound up thereafter. Not much is known about what it actually achieved. It does seem to have raised the money for the new fire engine in December 1828, and its aims included the appointment and ‘compensation’ of fire-men. But less than a year later it was ‘the parish’ which had to pay for a building to accommodate the engine, as the old engine house was too small.74 This illustrates neatly the limitations of both the private and the public body. During the arson scare the Association’s membership must have overlapped so much with the other agencies such as the vestry and the special constables, that it may not have had a very distinct function except as a morale-booster. Its success in this role is illustrated by the ‘utmost hilarity’ which prevailed at its dinner in November 1829 after the fires had ceased.75

Radzinowicz suggests that offering a reward was at this time as much a matter of course after an offence as sending for the police would be today.76 There were statutory rewards for some types of offence dealt with summarily.77 However, for most offences rewards had to be privately funded. For instance, Lewis Way of Great Yeldham and William Green of Witham offered rewards after the arson of 1828 and 1829. They also secured an offer of pardon from the Home Office to an accomplice giving evidence.78 It is probable that in fact, a whole unrecorded network of informal reward, bribe, threat and social pressure acted at this early stage in the processing of an offence. Otherwise it is hard to see any incentive for potential witnesses to admit their knowledge and become liable for enforced appearance at court; there is evidence for the strong disapproval that this could provoke amongst their neighbours.79

Once it had been decided to seek the offender by one of the means outlined above, public intervention was allowed to the extent of obtaining a warrant from a magistrate to enable searches to take place. There was rarely much research expended in deciding where to search. Out of twenty-eight cases from the Witham Division at Quarter Sessions in 1824 and 1829, there were as many as nineteen (68 per cent) where the suspects were found by ‘suspicion’. Six of these had at least been seen at the scene of the crime, in the same way that Edmund Potto was at the Witham fires, and four of them were ‘followed’. But in nine, the ‘suspicion’ was not defined.80 The thinking behind it is probably summed up by a newspaper comment on the Potto case, that ‘when crimes are committed, it is not unusual to suspect men of bad character who may reside in the immediate vicinity of the place where such are perpetrated’.81

Whether to prosecute

If, by the use of these various means, a suspect was identified and caught, the victim still had to decide whether to press the case further. King estimates that in 18th-century Essex, well over 90 per cent of offences were never prosecuted, and the same would have been true of the 1820s; the figure for the present day is thought to be between 50 and 80 per cent.82 These figures include the cases where no suspect was found, but also those where one was found but no further official action was taken. There were various times during the Witham fires when suspects were questioned, released, and not heard of again, and this must have happened frequently.83

Prosecution entailed a conglomeration of forces similar to that which has already been seen at the detection stage. It amounted to a combination of subsidised laissez-faire and privatised intervention. For felonies, which were the majority of cases in the jury courts, the prosecutor like the constable was entitled to claim expenses. These were nearly always awarded in Essex, and accounted for about one fifth of county expenditure.84 But reimbursement was only made after the trial, and did not include the cost of a solicitor, so not all prosecutors employed one. In multiple prosecutions such as the eight against Edmund Potto for the Witham fires, solicitors’ costs could be shared, but they must still have been considerable.85

In addition to the financial deterrents, there were many social pressures against prosecution, particularly where there was a potentially very severe punishment, and the suspect was local. Indeed James Cook might not have been prosecuted had the outcome been foreseen. There are strong indications that many victims hesitated about prosecuting, and only did so at a later date and for a particular reason. This can be illustrated by the gap in time between the date of an offence and the date of committal for trial by a magistrate; in many cases this gap was surprisingly long. In Essex in 1824 and 1829, it was over eight days in half the cases and over twenty-six days in a quarter of them. A scare or ‘moral panic’ could increase prosecutions of both recent and long-standing offences. A good example of this is the apparent effect of the 1828/9 Witham arson, when for a time the level of committals for past offences in Essex was well above the level of recorded new offences.86

There is evidence that it caused no surprise when known regular offenders were not prosecuted.87 However, contemporary impressions were that victims were more likely to prosecute by the 1820s than they had been before. Thus Benjamin Dealtry of Yorkshire told the 1828/9 Select Committee, ‘I think one reason we may give for the increase of crime or the greater exhibition of it to the public view is the seizure and delivery to the police of all those who commit offences, that are styled offences at all. I remember in former days persons were taken and pumped upon, or something of that sort; but now they are handed over to the police and tried on it’.88 This is no doubt a cry of many periods including our own.88

Once suspects were in the custody of the prosecutor or of the constable, and a decision had been made to continue, they were taken before a magistrate. He was the one figure absolutely essential for an event to be officially recorded as an offence. Once found, the magistrate acted on his view of the evidence, which gave him considerable discretion; his various choices according to the type of offence are shown on the diagram. However, finding a magistrate in the first place was often difficult, even though their number was increasing during the 1820s. By 1831 England and Wales had about one acting county magistrate for every eleven square miles, whilst Essex had one for every ten square miles or 2,000 inhabitants. They were unevenly distributed, so that large areas had no acting magistrates at all and had to rely on those of neighbouring towns.89

The need to search for magistrates could thus be a considerable deterrent to proceeding further with a case. Even in those areas that were theoretically well provided with them, their activities were, like so many other aspects of the legal process, very variable, so they could not all be regarded as equally available to the potential prosecutor. Many members of the Witham Bench only rarely managed to attend even the regular Petty Sessions meetings in Witham. Three of the 24 advertised sessions in 1829 had no magistrates there at all, and could not be held; three others had only one magistrate in attendance, which was not enough for certain types of case.90 But some men, such as William Luard at Witham, and Samuel Shaen, the newly-appointed Dissenter at Hatfield Peverel, must have been virtually full-time in their judicial activities; the role of Luard in the case of the Witham fires even began with ‘detective’ work, and without him matters might have taken a different course. Western called Luard ‘a very attentive magistrate’.91

The trial

The law specified that some types of offence could be dealt with summarily by magistrates without a jury. But others had to be tried in one of the jury courts, namely Assizes or Quarter Sessions. Assizes were held before judges, and Quarter Sessions before a bench of county magistrates. Where one of these jury courts was appropriate, the magistrate to whom the suspects were brought could commit them to gaol to await trial if he thought the evidence justified it. However, there were still several opportunities to escape trial. In seven per cent of cases in Essex in 1824 and 1829 the prosecutors dropped the action between the committal and the trial.92 On occasion the reason stated was cost; if there were ‘social’ reasons they were not made explicit.93 Sometimes hearings might be postponed because of the non-availability of witnesses. Otherwise in Essex the suspects went to the next court, whether it was Assizes or Quarter Sessions, unless there was a potential penalty of death or transportation for life, in which case they waited for the Assizes. The basic number of two Assizes and four Quarter Sessions per year was sometimes added to; in 1829 for instance there were three and six respectively. In Essex in 1824 and 1829, 57 per cent of the 1,345 jury court prosecutions went to Assizes and the remainder went to Quarter Sessions.94

Before proceeding to trial, cases were first heard by the Grand Jury, which decided whether there was a case to answer. There were 23 men on the Grand Jury. At Assizes they were ‘gentlemen of the county’, usually in effect magistrates, whilst at Quarter Sessions they came from the panel of summoned jurors, customarily from its wealthier ranks.95 In 1824 and 1829 twelve per cent of the prosecutions heard by the Grand Jury were dismissed as ‘not found’.96 It met in private, so was ideally suited to be able to exercise its own brand of discretion. Four out of the eight charges brought against Edmund Potto at Witham were dismissed by the Grand Jury, perhaps an indication that the panic of the prosecutors had led them to put too much reliance on inadequate evidence.97

If the grand jurors found a case fit to proceed, they awarded it a ‘True Bill’, and it proceeded to open court to be heard in public. There the Petty Jury was responsible for giving a verdict on the guilt of the suspect.98 It was regarded as normal for this jury to act on guidance from the presiding judge or magistrates; when the jurors at Edmund Potto’s trial did not do so, the judge found their behaviour ‘unintelligible’.99 But Henry Hobhouse, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, wrote in his diary in connection with the Cato Street conspiracy in 1820, that ‘in this self-sufficient age … juries are not content to take the law from the judges’.100 So in fact the petty jurors may be added to the lengthening list of people whose discretion could affect the outcome of a prosecution.

In 1824 and 1829 Essex Petty Juries gave a verdict of ‘not guilty’ to twenty per cent of the charges that came before them. A further nine per cent were dropped because the suspect had been convicted of other offences on the same occasion. Many of the decisions must have been somewhat hasty. The jurors normally did not leave the court room, and in 1824 and 1829 they had to consider an average of 42 cases per day at Quarter Sessions, which only lasted one day, and 21 per day at Assizes, which lasted about a week.101 Thus the first hearing of Edmund Potto’s case at Witham was extremely unusual in taking all day and in having a jury which retired from the court room.102 Also exceptional was the challenge by Potto’s counsel to the farmer jurors, who had to be replaced by tradesmen; no other challenges were found during the 1820s. The challenges for Potto were probably wise, because there are indications that farmer jurors were more severe than others, quite apart from the fact that they were likely to be particularly hostile to arson. It also seems that the compilation of jury panels and the selection of jurors by the Sheriff and the Clerk may not have been entirely random; there was a tendency for farmers to be better represented at each stage than one would anticipate.103 Hence discretion could be influential even in jury selection.

Sentences and Petitions

With all the opportunities for ‘failure’ already described, only 52 per cent of the Essex cases which started out in 1824 and 1829 towards the jury courts, ended with a guilty verdict.104 They then became subject to the vagaries of sentencing. There was some overall relationship between the severity of the offence and the sentence, but only maximum sentences were laid down by law. Although it was just a matter of timing that determined whether non-capital suspects went to Assizes or to Quarter Sessions, this could well affect their sentence. It was widely believed that magistrates at Quarter Sessions were more severe than judges at Assizes.105 There is some evidence for this being true in Essex, and also that they passed a wider range of different sentences for similar offences.106 Their ability to exercise personal discretion was described by an article in The Times in 1829, which said that they ‘possessed local information, and a knowledge of the individuals accused, which the judges of Assize must be without’. So they had ‘better opportunities of discriminating as to the degree of punishment which is likely to effect the reform of offenders or secure the peace of the district’.107

The judges, however, did have particular powers of discretion, namely in their exercise of the reprieve system. After passing a death sentence, it was their personal decision whether to issue a reprieve and a reduced sentence. They nearly always did so. At the Essex Assizes of 1824 and 1829, 27 per cent of people found guilty were sentenced to death, but 95 per cent of those were reprieved; this reprieve rate was the same as the national one. 72 per cent of the people reprieved in Essex were transported overseas, most of them for life; the rest were imprisoned.108 The power of the judge lay in his ability to decide who should be amongst the unlucky five per cent to be executed, as did Mr Justice Alexander for James Cook; this particular judge seemed to use more discretion than his fellow judges on the Home Circuit, having a less consistent stance in many aspects of sentencing.109 More commonly, the young tended to be treated with leniency, as was also illustrated by King for 18th-century Essex.110 Also influential in securing a lighter sentence was proof of previous good character, and the wording of pleas for clemency shows that the public was aware of this.111

Of course many of these elements of discretion in the conduct of the trial exist today. However, there is now considerable scope for appeal against a verdict or sentence. In the 1820s there was not. In a few cases the judge himself changed his mind about the sentence after he had left Chelmsford.112 Otherwise the only challenge was a petition for a Royal Pardon. No expenses were provided for this process, and it was thus confined to those suspects who knew about it or could afford it, except in unusual cases like those of James Cook whose petition was submitted for him by a guilt-stricken magistrate.113

None of the twelve petitions for pardon from Essex in 1829 had any effect, but their tone suggests that the petitioners did believe that they had some chance of success.114 The one submitted by Luard for James Cook was unusual in not troubling itself with Cook’s character, and in suggesting that he may have been innocent. Several of the other Essex petitioners admitted the actual offence, and relied heavily for their effect on the petitioner’s character. King found that this was also the most common element in 18th-century petitions from Essex.115 Those of the 1820s spoke of such matters as the petitioners having received a ‘religious and moral education’, and of their ‘care and attention to their children’.116 Most petitions therefore reflected what has been seen throughout the ‘career’ of a suspect, that one of his best means of avoiding punishment was to establish that he was not a ‘man of bad character’.117

The Social Background

Crime has attracted the attention of historians for its own sake, as discussed in the previous section. But because of the volume and detail of the records it has generated, it is also of historical value to those whose interests extend into society as a whole. Personal documents such as household papers and ephemera only survive very rarely. In their absence, people can only be studied when they come under other particularly well-documented spotlights, such as those of the criminal law. Thus episodes like the Witham fires provide invaluable source material for the study of many aspects of social history. This section will discuss three such aspects as examples. They are the tensions between national and local interests, the relationship between the poor and the prosperous, and the status of ‘strangers’.

National and local interests

As already suggested, the 1820s came at an interim stage in the development of the treatment of crime. Thus there was a wide range of ‘old’ and ‘new’ attitudes, giving particular scope for dissent. This helped to accentuate discrepancies between national and local views. Some of these discrepancies were illustrated by the case of James Cook. For instance, his hanging provoked a considerable reaction against the death penalty. More evidence of provincial feeling against this came from witnesses appearing before a Select Committee on crime in the preceding few years.118 Nevertheless, the various enactments of the 1820s made hardly any reduction in the types of offences to which the death penalty applied; the new laws were largely consolidating measures.119 Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, was responsible for them, and he hoped that they ‘would confer some distinction’ on his name. He presented himself as a potentially more eager reformer merely held back by public opinion.120 But his private correspondence about radical ‘agitators’, and his own opposition to the later Whig legislation, contradict this benevolent self-image, and suggest that he was not really sympathetic to reformist views.121

The case of Cook illustrates the possibility of more direct confrontation between national and local people. In the initial stages of panic about the fires, there was a degree of co-operation. Western, the MP, was both a national and local figure, and he did obtain a promise from the Home Office that accomplices would be pardoned if they exposed the chief culprit.122 But this procedure was a fairly common and routine one. It was a different matter after the death sentence had been passed on Cook, when the magistrate William Luard petitioned for a pardon. Luard had a singular lack of success, in spite of Western’s visiting Peel on his behalf.123

There were other examples in the Home Office’s dealings with Essex people, that might have prepared Luard for this, had he known about them. The Home Office officials could on occasion react to local letters not just with neglect but with contempt. For instance in 1824 John Oldham received a very curt reply to a long and reasoned letter about the problems of bringing to justice a mob which had attacked an informer at Ongar.124 Particularly relevant to Witham was the fact that several very anxious letters from Essex about rural arson in 1829 had not provoked any signs of concern at the Home Office.125 One of them, from the Revd Thomas Jee of Thaxted, was merely sent back to Essex, to the Lord Lieutenant, Viscount Maynard, to whom Jee could have written himself had he thought the matter to be capable of a local solution. Maynard reported that he was ‘not aware that there has been any want of energy on the part of the magistrates’.126

This last reaction has particular relevance to the Witham case, in illustrating that the people with most status, and closest to the reins of power, were those least in a position to be aware of real local tension. Thus at Witham, Western, the Member of Parliament and link man, may, like Viscount Maynard, have been somewhat remote from local feelings, and, in his case, from the acute local consternation caused by the death sentence on James Cook. This may have contributed to his apparent ineffectiveness when he visited Peel at Luard’s request to plead for the life of Cook. Another factor was that his visit was on the same day as the Second Reading of the Catholic Emancipation Bill, on which Peel was undergoing a dramatic change of heart; this was to affect the personal reputation of which he was very proud.127 James Cook must have seemed a minor local difficulty in comparison.

In contrast to Western, William Luard, who prepared the petition, was practically a fulltime magistrate on the case. He was well aware of the great concern caused by Cook’s youth, his local origins, the existence of other suspects, and the continuation of the fires after his committal to gaol. Luard’s responses to the questions of the Poor Law Commissioners in 1834, and those of the Revd Thomas Jee mentioned above, show that they among others were very aware of local feelings, and possibly even of local working-class sensibilities.128 But it was not Luard and his kind that had any real influence. The petition he compiled for Cook was very much fuller than most, and was also unusual in coming direct from a magistrate rather than from a solicitor. So it might have been expected to attract particular attention. But the official Home Office response was in effect that Luard should be glad to have achieved a conviction for the fires, rather than being concerned about the severe sentence, or about who had been convicted.129

The correspondence between Peel and his Permanent Secretary Henry Hobhouse, shows that a petitioner sometimes received their consideration if he gained either national notoriety, or the personal support of George IV.130 Often, however, the King was so ill or distracted that Peel had to plead for his signature on even routine papers.131 On one occasion the King’s long-suffering Secretary told Peel that ‘it has been a great effort on the part of HM to sign so many papers and has occasioned much pain to HM’s hand’.132 And the majority of petitions were lost in a sea of’ other correspondence. Most clearly did not leave the Home Office for the Crown to which they were theoretically addressed. James Cook was not alone in paying the price for that office’s neglect. It was claimed in later years that between 1802 and 1840 at least seven people were executed in England who were innocent.133 This of course excludes those who were guilty but whose sentence could justifiably have been reduced. As far as can be discerned, no pardons were granted in the 1820s to Essex petitioners.134

Poverty and prosperity

The Witham fires were fairly typical in the sense that two out of the three main suspects were labourers, and that the prosecutors were farmers and tradesmen.135 In Essex, the available information for 1824 and 1829 shows that 63 per cent of Assize suspects were described as labourers, and 80 per cent of Quarter Sessions prosecutors were non-labourers.136 A high proportion of recorded crime therefore took place in the context of relationships between the poorer and the better-off members of the population. The circumstances of the fires in 1829 highlight questions about this relationship, particularly within the farming interest. Some of those questions will be discussed here.

During the Witham episode, Robert Ling was the only suspect known to have given a view of his own motives and situation. He was unequivocal about his hardship and low status, and attributed it to the harshness of the employers and overseers.137 The other few suspects in the area whose views are known, spoke of their need itself rather than its cause. One had ‘two children very bad’, and his ‘girl longed for a rabbit’, one said that he was ‘induced to steal to keep himself and his wife from starving’, and another ‘had got a large family and [prosecution] would be a great hurt to him and prevent his getting any more work’.138 One of these statements came from a man who was said to have taken 98 wheat sheaves, which seems a lot for a spontaneous act of starvation. So perhaps incidental information about the suspects’ circumstances is more revealing than their own self-justification. For instance, one made two sacks he had stolen into a bed, and a married couple were ‘at lodgings and have no property’; the husband had ‘an old smock frock not worth £5’, so a distraint of goods to pay a £5 fine was not expected to be very productive.139 And the knowledge that at Witham James Cook’s father had died two years before James’ alleged arson, leaving his widow and young children to be supported by poor relief, is particularly revealing.140 Similarly, the fact that Robert Ling, a thatcher, was reduced to unskilled labouring work, tells as much about his circumstances as his own frequent complaints.141

To put these suggestions of individual poverty in context, it should be borne in mind that Essex fell into the low-wage southern part of England, where workers had been much affected by the inflation of the Napoleonic Wars. The Wars had also accelerated the change from mixed to arable farming, thus increasing winter unemployment, which was also now being aggravated by the introduction of threshing machines. There had been a series of protests by farmworkers in Essex and East Anglia since the 1790s, which had produced no changes except an increasing sense of desperation amongst them.142 Charlesworth suggests that in south-eastern England, farmworkers were ‘gradually becoming a group apart from their employers’.143 To quote a contemporary view, there had here been a decline in ‘harmony and good will’ between them, and the development of a ‘separate interest’.144 This trend in the south-east is often said to be illustrated by the development of a taste for luxurious living by farmers and their wives, and by their reluctance to have farmworkers continuing to live in the farmhouses.145 It seems that in Witham very few workers did ‘live in’.146 Ironically, Olivers Farm was one where they did, but when he was accused of arson there, James Cook did not actually ‘board in the house; he slept … over the brewhouse’ with another boy.147 However, there was not complete separation, as William Green the farmer had been sitting by the kitchen fire whilst Cook and the female servant went ‘backwards and forwards’.148 This perhaps suggests a transitional period in the separation of farmer and worker. Obelkevich has suggested that this transition was an uneasy one, and that it was only later in the century, when farmers were more confident of their position, that relationships eased.149

Certainly contemporaries found it difficult to face up to the possibility of dissent within the agricultural interest. For instance, when commenting on the committal of the tailor Edmund Potto at Witham, the local newspaper reported that, ‘We were always averse to believing the agricultural labourer to be implicated … and we derive no small degree of satisfaction in finding our impressions confirmed in this respect’.150 Western thought that the poor owed an obligation to defer to all their ‘superiors’ who treated them ‘with courtesy and condescension’. Western’s escape when faced with the reality of deviance amongst the poor, was to make the common distinction between the ‘industrious labourer’ and the ‘idle, profligate and the dissolute’, whom he ‘would visit with a prompt execution of the law’.151

An equally common scenario which was put forward in the 1820s, was that the whole agricultural interest was suffering together; particularly as a result of low wheat prices. Thus the Chelmsford Chronicle felt that the reason the farmworkers were poor in 1829, was that ‘those who ought to employ them are deprived of the means of so doing’.152 A Select Committee witness said that in Suffolk, ‘whenever corn has been the cheapest … the labourers have been the most pressed upon, by their inability to procure the necessaries of life’.153 However, several factors, including the circumstances of the Witham fires, suggest that in reality there was an opposite relationship between prices and crime, namely that crime was aggravated by high rather than low prices. For example, in the winters of 1823/4 and 1828/9, there were two sudden leaps in prices, which co-incided with marked increases in the occurrence of recorded offences, even above the usual high winter level. The second one included the beginning of the wave of arson at Witham.154 This may be explained by the fact that wheat prices did not actually affect all participants in agriculture in the same way. Low wheat prices naturally distressed the farmer, but as they arose from the over-production of a good harvest, they often meant more work for the farmworker, as well as cheaper food. Conversely high prices, and high profits for the farmer, arose from shortages of corn and of work, and caused expensive food. So there was not as close a similarity in the interests of farmers and their workers as the farmers liked to believe.

The Poor Law was another subject whose problems gave rise to conflicting contemporary interpretations. The lack of poor relief was one of the most tangible of the factors mentioned by Robert Ling at Witham in explaining his grievances. He was reported to have said ‘the parishioners do not use me well – they neither find me work nor relieve me – they want a good blowing up; and I would not mind laying a train of gunpowder and doing for them’. Speaking of the fires he said ‘D–n them, it serves them right – for they don’t use the poor well. I should like to set old Philbrick in the midst of them’.155 John Philbrick was an overseer of the poor.156 The victims of similar fires at Saling and Finchingfield in 1829 were also overseers of their respective parishes.157 But where respondents to the 1826/8 Select Committee related crime and poor relief, they usually claimed that too much relief was the problem, causing the ‘demoralisation’ which fostered crime.158 This is the interpretation that was being used to justify increased strictness in granting relief in England and Wales as a whole, and which was ultimately to result in the severe restrictions of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834.159 Until 1825 the fall in relief spending could possibly be related to better times when relief was not needed. But during the harder times afterwards, it was not restored to anything like its former level, thus indicating a deliberate attempt to reduce poor rates in spite of increased demands for relief.160 An analysis of Essex parish figures for poor relief and crime suggests that where there was the most strictness in prosecuting crime in 1824, there followed the greatest reductions in spending on poor relief. Witham was one of the parishes which cut relief drastically. It set up a Select Vestry in 1822, and in 1824 paid out 10s.5d. (£0.52) per head of population, compared to 16s.7d. (£0.83) in Essex as a whole. Furthermore by 1829 Witham’s spending had fallen yet further to 7s.0d. (£0.35), whilst the Essex rate rose slightly to 16s.10d. (£0.84).161 The money payments from Witham Vestry to James Cook’s widowed mother and her children fell considerably before the fires.162 Nevertheless, Western claimed in 1828 that the poor of Witham and the surrounding area were ‘fairly dealt with’.163

Strangers and friends

The local newspaper, discussing arson in early 1829, blamed it on ‘persons who travel the country without any visible means of support’.164 James Cook said he had seen ‘two men with dark smock-frocks and black hats’ during the fire at Olivers Farm.165 In the event, no such people were discovered to have anything to do with the Witham fires. But the examples illustrate a common feeling, or even a hope, that crimes could be attributed to strangers. This attitude was often perhaps not so much a reality as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Real residences of suspects are hard to discover, but a study of the Witham Division suggests that between a third and a half of the people prosecuted in 1824 and 1829 came from parishes other than those where the offence was committed.166

Furthermore, the witnesses and even the prosecutors were very frequently from other parishes, so that perhaps less than a fifth of cases entailed people prosecuting others resident in the same parish as themselves.167 One specific indication of the tendency to suspect people from other areas, is the regular annual increase in recorded crime at harvest time.168 This was when farmworkers and others travelled about the county for work, particularly in view of the later harvest in the northern parishes.169 Needless to say, one place’s stranger was often another place’s beloved son. This was indicated for instance by the willingness of a Cressing farmer to take back his carter William Killock who was convicted of stealing coal at Heybridge in 1824.170 And at Witham, Edmund Potto did have his friends, in spite of the general enthusiasm of the prosecutions against him.

The details of the ‘moral panic’ in Essex during the period of the Witham fires suggest that it was accompanied by something of a change in the attitude of prosecutors, in that there seems to have been a new willingness amongst them to pick on local suspects, from their own sector of the economy, rather than strangers. Some of the thefts were very small, and it is clear from the prosecutors’ remarks that they did not consider their own actions as normal, and had to justify them specially on this occasion. One said that ‘though the value of the property was small … were he to overlook this offence, he would subject himself to further losses’, and another that ‘he should not have proceeded against the young urchins, had he not found it impracticable to protect himself from repeated depredations’.171

The unusual pressures may also be illustrated by the fact that one of the prosecutors of the period was Latimer Dell, a Quaker miller from Earls Colne.172 As already mentioned, in normal circumstances Quakers were reluctant to prosecute.

The prosecution of the young local farm boy James Cook at Witham was itself perhaps an example of unusual behaviour in a panic; the anxiety which it caused emphasises the fact. The tailor Edmund Potto was local too, but the prosecution against him was conducted much more eagerly than that against Cook. This might seem odd, but there were ways other than geographical ones in which one could be a stranger in the community. Potto had several ‘strange’ aspects, such as his alleged London connections, and his suggested insanity; an interesting early example which there is not space to discuss further here. At first sight his being outside agriculture seems sufficient to make him a safely ‘strange’ suspect. The fears of his counsel about the attitude of farmer jurors might suggest that he himself felt this.173 Witham’s extensive parish boundaries ensured that it had as many as 33 per cent of its population in agriculture, more than for many other towns.174 Farmers took the lead in many aspects of local society and administration, including prosecution. In Essex in 1824 and 1829 they were very much over-represented as prosecutors compared to their proportion in the population as a whole, much more so than any other occupational group.175 King also found this in 18th-century Essex.176 In the 1820s they also tended to prosecute for smaller thefts than other groups, and they might be expected to be particularly hostile to rick-burning.177

However, Potto’s situation is complicated by the fact that he also had tradesmen aligned against him, as both witnesses and prosecutors. What seems to have been his real asset as a scapegoat was not his trade status but his position as a relative of the Thomasin family.178 They were brush makers and Dissenters, also related by marriage to the Bentall family of ironfounders in the Maldon area.179 As a manufacturer who employed his thirty or forty workmen in one place, the ‘Brush Yard’ at Witham, James Thomasin was in a category separate from the inter-dependent agricultural/tradesmen liaison.180 Other local examples were the silk manufacturers D’Aiguillon of Coggeshall, and South and John Morse of Hatfield Peverel. The former showed his lack of harmony with the old accommodation by his involvement against his workers in court cases for assault at Petty Sesssions, whilst the latter prosecuted local girls there for breach of contract when they ran away from work.181 Like Thomasin, the Morses had a concentrated workforce probably contrasting with the local norm. Their mill had five floors, and a lodging-house with ‘ample accommodation for forty or fifty children’.182 Thomasin appears to have avoided the kind of situation encountered by D’Aiguillon and the Morses, by taking nearly all his employees from outside the county.183 They were probably following the Brushmakers’ Society tramping route. Brushmakers were paid ten shillings (50p.) a week by this Society when they were out of work, which was what a local farmworker earned when he was in work.184

In the relationship between most of the local tradesmen and farmers, and between the Dissenters and Anglicans, there seems to have been an underlying element of emulation. This meant that the tradesmen sought to copy rather than to compete with farmers, and the Dissenters to copy the Anglicans. Thus the feelings towards the other group may have been hostile, but they were not simply competitive. The tradesmen victims of the fires had their land and their corn-stacks as well as their shops, mills and maltings. The father of their solicitor in the case, James Howell Pattisson, had already moved from Dissent to Anglicanism in 1826.185 The family of one of the prosecutors, the miller Hoffgaard Shoobridge, was shortly to switch from Quakerism to Anglicanism; one of his relatives became a churchwarden in the 1840s.186

However, Thomasin, a Dissenter, does not seem to have entered wholeheartedly into this kind of behaviour. His son did eventually acquire a very large house away from the brush yard and attempted to have himself described himself as a ‘gentleman’ in the 1861 census return. But it may be significant that he was unsuccessful in this, as one of the registrars deleted the description and described him as a ‘brushmaker’.187 He also bought property in Witham, but, as far as can be discerned, not agricultural land like that of the tradesmen. Except for the meadowland required by all for horses, his Witham property was urban.188 The Select Vestry was the main seat of parish power; normally people served on it several times or for a period, Anglicans, Dissenters and Quakers alike, but Thomasin was only a member for one year, in 1827; the circumstances are not known.189 His relationship even with the Dissenters may have been strained, as he was in a group which temporarily split from their Meeting in 1823.190 Furthermore in the 1830s his wife’s ironfounding Bentall relatives were active in the Maldon area with the Dissenters’ new rival, the Methodists.191 It is therefore interesting that in due course, the first leading Methodists in Witham itself were also to be manufacturers, and they came from outside Essex like Thomasin’s workers.192 When one of them left the Witham Dissenters for the Methodists in 1848, he spoke of the greater concern of the latter for the ‘poor and needy and outcasts of Society’.193 And in 1850 James Thomasin’s son was himself providing a room for the Methodists in Witham, though it is not clear whether the Thomasins themselves were ever actually members.194 Davidoff and Hall quote Methodism, and investment in houses or buildings rather than land, amongst the features distinguishing the lower from the higher ranks of the middle class at this time.195 It could be, therefore, that the Thomasins were merely too low in status to be acceptable to the farmers and tradesmen. But this does not appear to have led them simply to seek self-improvement and acceptance, as it did with many others. It seems that they may have been seen as not so much inferior as different. Thus in the 1829 trials, James Thomasin showed no interest in placating the traditional local middle class, and instead produced a formidable array, including medical opinion, in defence of Potto. Admittedly he was able to secure a number of local supporters for the defence, as well as the imported medical opinion, but some were either his relatives or his brushworkers, including the local secretary of their Society, James Mount.196

The episode therefore reinforces considerable hints that Thomasin and his family were detached from the local community or even unpopular. This relationship between manufacturers and others may have been peculiar to towns with a large agricultural element, like Witham, and to villages, such as Coggeshall and Hatfield Peverel, which had difficulty in reconciling themselves to the silk mills. Witham’s ‘gentility’, perhaps partly arising from its 18th century ‘spa’ period, may also have added to the problem. In 1831 the parish had, in addition to its sizeable farming interest, as many as seven per cent of its adult males in the census category of ‘capitalists, bankers, professional and other educated men’. This was matched in some towns in the area, such as Maldon and Colchester, but others, such as the neighbouring industrial centres of Braintree and Halstead, had a very much lower proportion of such ‘capitalists’.197 In the 1820s, Essex towns with a high proportion of such people tended also to have a high prosecution rate, illustrating their severe attitude to deviants.198

It was noticeable that after the brush yard and the drill yard closed in the 1870s, Witham was to have no major manufacturing employer of men until 1919.199 Local tradition holds that this was due to deliberate exclusion tactics by local employers and property owners.200 This may seem far removed from the problems of arson in the 1820s. But if it is true, it does echo the attitudes of that period which seem to have been highlighted by some aspects of the Witham arson trials.


In 1907 Philip Hutley, son of the recipient of Edmund Potto’s threatening letter, chaired a meeting of the Witham Urban District Council. One of the items on the agenda was the consideration of tenders for the disposal of an ‘old manual fire engine’. It was reported that Messrs Shand, Mason and Co had ‘supplied it to Witham as far back as 1829, and as it was no longer fit for use, they could only offer £3 for it as old material. Mr Hugh Bawtree said it ought to be put in a glass case as a curiosity. It has not been to a fire for at least a quarter of a century. The offer was accepted’.201

There were no comments in 1907 about the sensational circumstances of the original purchase of the fire engine, which seem to have been forgotten. However, in the 1970s local writers began to rescue the Witham fires from oblivion, and to draw attention to their sensational character.202 They have been seen as an isolated and exceptional incident, and in some ways this is what they were. It might therefore appear that their oddity makes them meaningless historically – a so-called ‘monomaniac’ could embark on a fire-raising spree at any time – and not be seen to have any great significance. It must be admitted that it is really only the depth of reporting and the extent of record survival that make the fires interesting today. Without this they would have been just another unexplained few lines in the newspaper, or in the diary of Robert Bretnall with which this study began, and they would be as mysterious as the argument between Bretnall and ‘old Martin Brunwin’ which appears in the same entry.

But although the wealth of information may be untypical, it is very enlightening in many ways, and some of them have been discussed in this study. Often it is the contemporary comment about how unusual something was, that provokes questions about what was normal, and suggests fruitful areas of investigation. This particularly applies to the legal process discussed in Section 2, where it was suggested that the 1820s were a transitional period. On the one hand there was the force of local and personal discretion which had been dominant in the 18th century. For instance, the victims had first to determine whether or not an offence had actually taken place. John Crump and James Catchpool at Witham eventually decided that their fires on 5 November 1828 were not after all activated by fireworks but by an arsonist; it was only three weeks later that further fires seemed to confirm that decision. They then had to consider whether to take action, and had many opportunities to stop or continue with it before the trial in August. James Catchpool decided not to proceed, perhaps for religious reasons, but John Crump was left with little choice but to hunt the arsonist, because of the wave of feeling that overtook the town. This same anxiety seems to have spread to other parts of the county, where prosecutors rounded up old offenders. They also took people to court whom they might have overlooked at other times, who were thus very much the victims of chance. Some of them may even have been people of good reputation, unlike the ‘bad characters’ who usually became suspects under the powers of discretion, because of the absence of other information.

However, the anxiety generated by the fires also activated a more significant move against reliance on character alone in the furtherance of a prosecution. This was the recourse to new ideals of certainty and public and professional action, to supplement the force of suspicion. These were only in their infancy in the 1820s, and were to develop further to become the norm during the rest of the century. In particular, Witham saw the energy and application of the magistrate William Luard. In seeking evidence he sought information about matters such as the whereabouts of the suspects, and the availability of firelighting equipment, in a way which was much more like the systematic police approach of later years. This led him to James Cook, a suspect who did not have bad character. Cook’s trial might therefore be seen in some ways as a confrontation between the new and the old, as there he faced a judge who used the ‘old-fashioned’ powers of discretionary severe punishment.

Many other aspects of the episode would need wider investigation before one could be sure of their position in the history of the law. For instance, the question of a probable bias in the selection of juries, and in their decisions, is not one that seems to have been given any great attention. Similarly, the challenge of jurors by a defendant, as was done in the Potto case, and the action of the jurors themselves in defying the judge, were certainly seen to be unusual. But it is not clear whether this was part of a general trend, or just something that happened from time to time and was always thought odd.

These various ways of using the criminal law were a reflection of tensions and relationships in society. This is another aspect of the Witham fires which is made possible by the detail and survival of the records. Some examples were discussed in Section 3. One was the lack of communication and understanding between local and national figures. This is a perpetual problem, as is the fact that figures like Western who appear to bridge the gap may not do so very effectively in practice. But there were particular problems which aggravated matters in the 1820s, such as the fact that the Home Office and Robert Peel were pre-occupied with three other issues, namely Catholic Emancipation, the unrest in the northern counties, and a desire to restrict the pace of real law reform. The relationship between the poor and the prosperous was also under particular strain in the 1820s, under the effects of rapid population increase, changing agricultural practices, fluctuating wheat prices, and a severe reduction in poor relief payments. This meant that whether or not any of the fires were in fact ‘caused’ by the effects of the Poor Law, the comments they provoked suggest that it would have been no surprise if they had been. These comments also illustrated the complete discrepancy of view between those like the MP Western who thought the poor fairly treated, and those like Robert Ling who wished to see the overseer in the flames. William Luard’s ineffectiveness in petitioning for the life of James Cook, illustrates both these tensions in society. He was not able to break through the indifference of national figures to local concerns, and Western did not share with him his concern for the poor and the unemployed.

Lastly, the detail of the Witham fires can illuminate the minute workings of a local community. Normally, Witham people, in common with those of most parishes, would probably concentrate their prosecuting activity on people from other places. Their own fellow-inhabitants would be controlled by more subtle means. It was only unusual threats to local equilibrium which led to the criminal law being called upon for assistance. One of these threats was the alarm of the Witham fires themselves. Another was the introduction of an economic system, namely the brushmaking yard, outside the customary one of farming and trade; not only did this introduce outside workers on relatively high wages, but it was probably associated with an alien religious movement, namely Methodism. This set of threats to society may have little direct bearing on the fires themselves in that there is no evidence of it being an actual cause of arson. But it is an example of how a particular feature of a local community can be revealed by the exceptional reaction and rate of reporting which an incident like the fires provoked. Like many other aspects of the incident itself and the local society of the time, it leaves one wanting to know more. Hopefully there were other remarkable incidents in other areas that might be equally illuminating, and that might one day reveal their secrets.


Many people gave help and encouragement during the preparation of this study, both in its original form as a dissertation in 1982, and as it appeared in booklet form in 1991. Exceptionally supportive were Arthur Brown, Leonore Davidoff, Peter King, Betty Loring and John Walter. Rickstones School drama department provoked me to additional interesting discoveries by their portrayal of the story of James Cook. My family also helped in many ways; for instance John understood the trials of an author, and Phil and Susie made artistic and dramatic contributions respectively. I am very grateful indeed to all of these, and to all my friends. Without them I am sure I should not have had the determination to make my own contribution, which was, to paraphrase P G Wodehouse, the application of the seat of the pants to the chair.

Select Bibliography

J Gyford, Men of Bad Character: Property Crime in Essex in the 1820s, (Essex University MA dissertation, 1982). This described and discussed property crime in Essex as a whole, using the Witham fires as the main example. The version in the published booklet (reproduced in this web version) drew on research carried out for the dissertation, as indicated in the footnotes where appropriate, but also had some new material.

J Gyford, Images of England: Witham, Tempus, 1999, reprinted 2002, and History and Guide: Witham, Tempus, forthcoming. For general history of Witham (these have been published since the dissertation and booklet version of Men of Bad Character).

P J R King, Crime, Law and Society in Essex 1740-1820, (Cambridge University PhD thesis, 1984), and P J R King, ‘Decision-makers and decision-making in the English Criminal Law, 1750-1800’ in Historical Journal, 27, 1984. Both deal primarily with Essex, in the period immediately preceding the 1820s, and so provide an invaluable background.

C Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, Longman, London, 1987. One of the only ‘overviews’ of the subject. Being relatively recent, it includes most of the other relevant works in its section on ‘Further Reading’.

D Philips, Crime and Authority in Victorian England, Croom Helm, London, 1977. Deals with the period following that of the Witham fires, and includes a particularly useful account of the progress of a suspect through the legal process.

L Radzinowicz, A History of the Criminal Law and its Administration from 1730, Stevens, 1948-1986, especially volume i, The Movement to Reform, and volume ii, The Clash between Private Initiative and Public Interest in the Enforcement of the Law. The basic work on the subject; more readable than it looks and sounds, and also includes lists of the relevant Acts of Parliament etc.

A Charlesworth (ed), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900, Croom Helm, London, 1983. The most recent, and one of the most detailed, of the works on this subject; it includes its predecessors in its notes and references.

N Rowley, Law and Order in Essex 1066-1874, N. Rowley, Relief of the Poor in Essex, and R G E Wood, Essex and the French Wars 1793-1815, Seax Series of Teaching Portfolios, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1970, 1971 and 1977. Give illustrated information of these relevant subjects in an accessible form.

A F J Brown, Meagre Harvest: the Essex Farm Workers’ Struggle Against Poverty, 1750-1914, ERO, 1990, and Prosperity and Poverty: Rural Essex 1700-1815, ERO, 1996 (both now essential reading;. they have been published since the dissertation and booklet version of Men of Bad Character)

A F J Brown, English History from Essex Sources 1750-1900, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1952, and A F J Brown, Essex at Work 1700-1815, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1969. Still the standard works on Essex history in the period, and essential background reading.

A F J Brown (ed), Witham in the 18th Century, W E A, Witham, 1963. Gives helpful background to the town.

L Davidoff and C Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850, Hutchinson, London, 1987. Uses Witham as one of its case studies, and elaborates on the social and religious character of some of the prosecuting classes.

Select List of Sources

Parliamentary Papers

Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1826/7 (534) vi 5, and PP 1828 (545) vi 419.

Number of magistrates in England and Wales, PP 1831/2 (39) xxv 231.

Select statement of the number of persons charged with criminal offences during the last seven years, PP 1830/1 (308) xii 493.

Home Office Records

The main records used for information on the Witham fires were: PRO HO 13/52 (correspondence), HO 17/108 Vn 36 (petition of James Cook including copies of Assize depositions), HO 9/8 (register of convicts, Leviathan), HO 10/29 (list of arrivals, New South Wales).

For background information the following in particular were consulted: PRO HO 19/4, 19/5 (registers of petitions), HO 17 (petitions), HO 40/18, 40/23 (correspondence, disturbances), HO 64/1 (correspondence, rewards), HO 75/2 (Hue and Cry), HO 52 (in-letters, JPs).

Assize Records

See Guide to the contents of the Public Record Office, i, HMSO, London, 1963, for an account of these records, and J Gyford, Men of Bad Character: Property Crime in Essex in the 1820s, (Essex University MA dissertation, 1982), appendix 2, for their relevance to the 1820s. The main items which have not survived are the depositions, except in a very few cases. A few matters concerning the Assizes, such as expenses, were dealt with by Quarter Sessions.

The main documents used were PRO ASSI 35/264 and 35/269 (Essex indictment rolls, including calendars and jury lists as well as the indictments for each case endorsed with the verdict), ASSI 31/24 to 31/26 (Home Circuit agenda books), and ASSI 32/7 and 32/8 (Home Circuit minute books).

Quarter Sessions Records

See F G Emmison, Guide to the Essex Quarter Sessions and other official records, Essex Archaeological Society, Colchester, 1946, and F G Emmison, Guide to the Essex Record Office, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 2nd ed, 1969, for an account of these records, and J Gyford, Men of Bad Character: Property Crime in Essex in the 1820s, (Essex University MA dissertation, 1982), appendix 2, for their relevance to the 1820s. Their survival is very full, except for the absence of most of the pre-Session informal calendars which gave ages and informal occupational descriptions, until after 1860.

For basic information about cases, the records most used for the present study were ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4 (gaol calendars), Q/SPb 19 and 20 (process books), Q/SR 995-998 and 1015-1020 (rolls). More detail for the Witham area was obtained from Q/SBb 474-477 and 494-497 (bundles), Q/SBd 4/1 to 4/6 (depositions), Q/SMr 5 & 7 (recognisance books).

A variety of other Quarter Sessions records were used for other information, including ERO Q/SMg 33 to 36 (minute books), Q/SO 28 to 31 (order books), Q/FAa 4/4 and 4/5 (accounts), Q/FAa 6/1 (abstract of accounts), Q/FAb 89/2 to 89/8 and 94/2 to 95/2 (bills and vouchers), Q/CR 7/1 (return of peace officers), Q/JL 8, 9, 9A and 10 (lists and correspondence concerning magistrates), Q/RJ 1/12 and 2/1 (jury lists), ERO Q/RSc 1/1 to 1/3 (summary conviction books).

Petty Sessions

ERO P/WM 1 to 4, Minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, were used for other information about summary justice.


Chelmsford Chronicle (its sister paper, the Essex Herald, would also have been helpful, but at the time of writing the dissertation and booklet did not appear to have survived for the relevant period. I believe that there are now some copies at ERO).

The Times

Diaries, reminiscences and correspondence

BL Add MS 40344-40428, general correspondence of Robert Peel, and BL Add MSS 40299-40300, correspondence of Robert Peel with George IV.

ERO D/DBs F38, journal of a Witham farmer, 1846-48.

H N Dixon, Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago, in Essex Review, xxv, 1916.

General Witham Sources

ERO D/CT 405A and 405B, tithe map and award, Witham, 1839.

ERO D/P 30/1/4, 30/1/7, 30/1/9, 30/1/13, parish registers.

ERO D/P 30/12/10, 30/12/11, 30/12/13, 30/12/14, overseers’ accounts.

ERO D/P 30/8/2, vestry minutes, and D/P 30/8/13, notices of appointment of Select Vestry.

ERO D/NC 3/2, Minutes of Witham Independent Meeting.

ERO D/NM 5/1/11, Missionary Account Book, Chelmsford Methodist Circuit, 1831-47, and D/NM 5/1/13 and 14, Circuit Schedule Books, 1839-65.


  1. ERO D/DBs F38, diary of a Witham farmer, entry for 5 November 1846.

  2. A F J Brown. English History from Essex Sources 1750-1900, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1952.

    A F J Brown, Essex at Work 1700-1815, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1969.

    Census, 1811, 1821, 1831.

    M Christy, ‘The history of banks and banking in Essex’, in Journal of the Institute of Bankers, 1906.

  3. L Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, vol iii, Cross-currents in the Movement for the Reform of the Police, Stevens, London, 1956.

  4. V A C Gatrell and T B Hadden, ‘Criminal statistics and their interpretation’, in E A Wrigley (ed), Nineteenth Century Society: Essays in the use of Quantitative Methods for the Study of Social Data, CUP, Cambridge, 1972.

    P J R King, ‘Crime, Law and Society in Essex 1740-1820’, (Cambridge University Ph D thesis, 1984).

    Summary statement of the number of persons charged with criminal offences during the last seven years, PP 1826/7 (235) xix, 183.

    Summary statement of the number of persons charged with criminal offences during the last seven years, PP 1830/1 (308) xii, 493.

    Persons charged with criminal offences … for the last fifteen years, PP 1831/2 (282) xxxiii, 133.

  5. J P B Dunabin, Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain, Faber and Faber, London, 1974.

    Contemporaries found the statistics puzzling in this respect; after examining them in 1826, the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool announced that ‘another remarkable circumstance was that if any line of distinction could be drawn between the manufacturing and agricultural districts, it would be found that the balance was rather in favour of the morality of the manufacturing districts over the agricultural’ (The Times, 26 April 1826).

  6. A Charlesworth (ed.), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900, Croom Helm, London, 1983.

    E J Hobsbawm and G Rudé, Captain Swing, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969.

  7. L Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, vol i, The Movement for Reform, Stevens, London, 1948.

    An act for consolidating and amending the laws relating to jurors and juries, 6 Geo 4, c 50, 1825.

    An act for repealing various statutes in England relative to the benefit of clergy and to larceny and other offences connected therewith and the malicious injuries to property and to remedies against the Hundred, 7 & 8 Geo 4, c 27, 1827.

    An act for further improving the administration of justice in criminal cases in England, 7 & 8 Geo 4, c 28, 1827.

    An act for consolidating and amending the laws in England relative to larceny and other offences connected therewith, 7 & 8 Geo 4, c 29, 1827.

    An act for consolidating and amending the statutes in England relative to offences against the person, 9 Geo 4, c 31, 1828.

  8. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1826/7 (534) vi, 5.

    Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1828 (545) vi, 419.

    L Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, vol i, The Movement for Reform, Stevens, London, 1948.

  9. Royal Commission of Inquiry into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws: report and appendices, PP 1834 (44) xxvii.1 to xxxviii.1, 251, 313, xxxix,1.

    An act for the amendment and better administration of the laws relating to the poor in England and Wales, 4 & 5 Wm 4, c 76, 1834.

  10. Census, 1851 (section on ‘Number of places of worship, sittings and attendants connected with the various religious bodies in England and Wales’, published 1852/3).

  11. An act for repealing so much of several acts as imposes the necessity of receiving the sacrament of the Lords Supper as a qualification for certain offices and employments, 9 Geo 4, c 17, 1828.

  12. An act for the relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects, 10 Geo 4, c 7, 1829.

  13. Publications which have become available since Men of Bad Character was originally prepared include two illuminating works by A F J Brown, Meagre Harvest: the Essex Farm Workers’ Struggle Against Poverty, 1750-1914, ERO, 1990, and Prosperity and Poverty: Rural Essex 1700-1815, ERO 1996.

    In 1991 there was no comprehensive history of Witham. By 2004 there was J Gyford Images of England: Witham, Tempus, 1999, reprinted 2002, and History and Guide: Witham, Tempus, forthcoming.

    The following, mentioned in the original Men of Bad Character, are still helpful for specific periods and topics:

    A F J Brown (ed), Witham in the 18th Century, Workers’ Educational Association, Witham, 1963.

    M L Smith, Early History of Witham; Markets, Manors and Manorial Rolls; St Nicolas Church; Postal History of Witham; Witham Schools; Witham River Bridges; Witham Roads; Fires in Witham, privately published, Witham, 1970 to 1975.

    The brush shop was at what is now no 67 Newland Street, and the yard and other buildings were approached through the arch between no 67 and no 83 (p 47 of volume of ‘Press cuttings, Witham’, which was in Chelmsford Library in 1991 but is now (2004) in ERO, Accession 10510).

    Other information about Witham in this paragraph comes from a variety of original sources such as census reports.

  14. ERO D/P 30/8/2, 30/8/13, 30/12/6 to 30/12/14.

    An account of the money expended for the maintenance and relief of the poor in every place in England and Wales, 1824-1829, PP 1830/1 (83) xi, 227.

  15. D Gayer, W W Rostow, and A J Schwartz, Economic Fluctuations in the British Economy 1790-1850, OUP, Oxford, 1953 (microfilm supplement).

  16. Chelmsford Chronicle, 7 & 14 November, 1828.

    The tithe map shows John Crump as occupier of Freebornes Farm (now no 3 Newland Street). ERO D/P 30/28/5 gives him as an Anglican. R C Fowler, The Church of St Nicholas, Witham, Wiles, Colchester, 1911, shows that he became a churchwarden in 1837.

    The newspaper report refers to the fire to James Catchpool’s stack as being in the Lion Field. This was the field across which Guithavon Street was to be built in 1841, and where that street still stands (e.g. see ERO T/M 50, ERO Q/RHi 5/20A, ERO D/CT 405A and 405B). ERO D/NF 1/2/17 gives him as a Quaker. The tithe map shows that his house and maltings were in Collins Lane (between nos 13 and 29 Newland Street). The house no longer survives but the maltings is now unit 9 in the Grove centre (Superdrug shop in 1989 and 2004).

  17. S W Amos, ‘Social discontent and agrarian disturbances in Essex 1795-1850’ (Durham University M A thesis, 1971).

    A Charlesworth (ed), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900, Croom Helm, London, 1983.

  18. Chelmsford Chronicle, 5 December 1828.

    The tithe map gives William Wright Luard as occupier of Witham Lodge (the area of its ground is now occupied by the Witham Lodge estate, off Hatfield Road).

    Pigot’s Directory, Essex (1823/4 and 1839), gives Henry Barwell as a butcher. The newspaper report give the fire on his premises as being at Motts Farm. The tithe map confirms his occupation of this small farm; it was in what is now Motts Lane, off Cut Throat Lane. ERO D/DBw T46 shows his shop to have been at what a now no 51 Newland Street.

  19. ERO D/DDc E4/9.

  20. Chelmsford Chronicle, 5 & 12 December 1828.

    ERO P/WM 3, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, minute for 30 December 1828.

  21. Chelmsford Chronicle, 9, 16, 23, & 30 January 1829.

    PRO ASSI 31/25, 35/269.

  22. Chelmsford Chronicle, 20 & 27 February 1829. The newspaper report gives the fire in William Whale’s premises as being in a field near Sauls Bridge. ERO Sale Catalogue B1327 gives Whale as owner of Upper and Lower Sauls, so the fire has been mapped approximately where these were according to the tithe map. Pigot’s Directory, Essex, (1823/4 and 1826/7) shows that William Whale’s Inn was the Blue Posts. The tithe map shows this to have been at what is now nos 126/28 Newland Street.

    William Green’s gravestone at St Peter’s Church, Wickham Bishops, dated 1836, gives him as of Olivers Farm (and formerly of Hexton, Hertfordshire).

  23. H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’, in Essex Review, xxv, page 111.

  24. ERO P/WM 4, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions. entry for 25 February 1829.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 February 1829.

  25. ERO D/P 30/1/4, 30/1/9, 30/1/13.

  26. ERO D/P 30/12/12, 30/12/13, 30/12/14.

    An account of the money expended for the maintenance and relief of the poor in every place in England and Wales, 1824-1829, PP 1830/1 (83) xi, 227.

  27. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook. This contains copies of the depositions in the case, which are most detailed and interesting. They highlight the great losses arising from the fact that practically all original Assize depositions have been destroyed.

    ERO D/P 30/12/14.

  28. PRO ASSI 35/269.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    Pigot’s Directory, Essex (1823/4 and 1826/7), gives Hoffgaard Shoobridge as a miller. The tithe map shows Thomas Hoffgaard Shoobridge at Witham Mill (now the Old Mill House, Guithavon Valley). So the fire on Shoobridge’s premises has been shown at this site on the map, though he is known to have held other property (e.g. see ERO T/P 198/5, ERO D/DBw M39). ERO D/NF 1/2/17 gives him as a Quaker.

    ERO D/P 30/28/5 gives William Hutley as an Anglican.

    Pigot’s Directory, (Essex, 1823/4 and 1826/7), gives William Grimwood as a maltster. The tithe map suggests that he had occupied both Cuppers Farm (now no 19 Blunts Hall Road), and the maltings in Maltings Lane (now Maltings Court). It is not known for certain where the fire on his premises took place, but it was said to be visible from the bridge at the bottom of Newland Street, which makes Cuppers Farm more likely, and this is where it has been mapped.

  29. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 3 April 1829.

  30. Chelmsford Chronicle, 13 & 20 March 1829.

  31. H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’, in Essex Review, xxv, page 111.

  32. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

    PRO ASSI 35/269.

  33. Pigot’s Directory, Essex, (1823/4 and 1826/7) gives Thomas Butler under grocers and under linen drapers. His shop was probably in the buildings now nos 74/78 Newland Street (ERO D/DBw M78 and other records). The tithe map shows the extent of his property, including a small farm with its yard on the site now occupied by Bramston Sports Centre in Bridge Street, where the fire has been mapped. ERO D/NC 3/2 shows him as a member of the Independent meeting.

  34. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

    PRO HO 13/52, correspondence, letter dated 20 March 1829 from Home Office to W W Luard Esq.

  35. Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 March, 3 & 10 April 1829.

    PRO ASSI 31/25, 31/26.

  36. The Times, 14 March 1829.

  37. PRO ASSI 35/269.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    ERO D/NC 3/2 shows Robert Ling as a member of the Independent meeting.

    ERO L/L 3/2.

    ERO D/P 30/12/10, 30/12/11, 30/12/12, 30/12/13.

    ERO D/P 381/1/14 shows Robert Ling married in Colchester (St Mary Magdalen) in 1824. ERO D/P 7/1/5 shows Robert Ling, husbandman, father of son baptised in 1824, and Robert Ling, thatcher, father of son baptised in 1826, both at Ramsey.

  38. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    Win-rowing or wind-rowing is putting material into rows to be dried by the wind (Oxford English Dictionary). Often it was hay or corn that was win-rowed, but this was unlikely in February and so on this occasion it may have been something like material from hedge-cutting.

  39. ERO D/P 30/12/13.

    PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

  40. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  41. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

  42. PRO ASSI 35/269.

  43. PRO ASSI 35/269 gives dates of fires at William Grimwood’s and Henry Barwell’s premises as 30 March and 2 April respectively. But no fires seem to have been reported in the press at that time, so these could be mis-datings of the known earlier fires on these premises. On the other hand, they could have been reported in the Essex Herald, which was thought not to have survived when I originally wrote Men of Bad Character. By 2004 there were some copies in ERO which might help with this question. It was a sister paper to the Chelmsford Chronicle, and they appeared alternately, on different days of the week.

  44. Chelmsford Chronicle, 17 & 24 April 1829.

    ERO D/DU 138 contains some of the papers of Samuel Shaen as a magistrate.

  45. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    ERO D/NC 3/2 shows William Potto and James Thomasin as members of the Independent meeting.

    ERO D/P 30/1/3, 30/1/4, 30/1/7, 30/1/9 (parish registers of Witham), D/P 259/1/6 (marriage register of Southminster, Essex), PRO RG 4/1385 (register of Witham Independent meeting), and the baptism register of Hadleigh, Suffolk, show the relationships between the families mentioned.

    Edmund Potto was baptised in 1807 in Hadleigh during the temporary residence there of his parents. Information on his appearance from Family History Centre, Kiama, New South Wales. See note 13 for the brush shop and yard.

    ERO P/WM 3, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, entries for 5 and 19 August 1828.

  46. J Gyford, dissertation, fig 3.

  47. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    PRO ASSI 35/269.

  48. ERO D/NF 1/2/17 gives James Catchpool, Hoffgaard Shoobridge and Josiah Marten Sanders as Quakers in 1829.

    Select Committee on the Criminal Laws: Report, 1819 (585) viii 3, p 87 ff. Robert Torin, a Kelvedon magistrate, when discussing the likelihood of a prosecution for cutting down trees, mentioned that ‘many would not prosecute, particularly the quakers’.

  49. PRO ASSI 31/25, 35/269.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  50. H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’ in Essex Review, xxv, page 112.

  51. PRO ASSI 31/25, 35/269.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  52. PRO ASSI 31/25, 35/269.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’, in Essex Review, xxv, pages 113-14.

  53. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    W Kiddier, The Old Trade Unions, from unpublished records of the Brushmakers, 2nd ed., Allen and Unwin, London, 1931, pages 30-31.

  54. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’, in Essex Review, xxv, page 115.

  55. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  56. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  57. PRO HO 9/8, 10/29.

    Additional information from the Family History Centre, Kiama, New South Wales, and from Michael Smith of Scone, New South Wales, to whom thanks are due for their help. Michael is descended from Henry Smith, emigrant son of a 19th-century Witham shopkeeper. The great-uncle of Henry’s second wife preached the first sermon at Segenhoe in 1826, four years before Edmund Potto arrived there.

  58. Chelmsford Chronicle, 20 November 1829.

  59. A Charlesworth (ed.), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900, Croom Helm, London, 1983.

    E J Hobsbawm and G Rudé, Captain Swing, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969.

  60. Royal Commission of Inquiry into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws: report and appendices, PP 1834 (44) xxvii.1 to xxxviii.1, 251, 313, xxxix.1.

  61. ERO D/P 30/1/13.

  62. Census returns, 1851, Witham, at Victoria Cottages, Maltings Lane, give Robert Ling, aged 75, born in Layer, a Chelsea Pensioner, married, but with no-one else recorded there. ERO D/P 30/1/14 gives burial of Robert Ling at Witham, September 19 1859, aged 73. The evidence suggests that these records relate to the right Robert Ling. There was another man of the same name, who was baptised at Witham in 1785, married in Chelmsford in 1819, lived in the Chelmsford Workhouse in 1861, and was buried in Moulsham, Chelmsford, in 1862.

  63. Information from Family History Centre, Kiama, New South Wales.

    H N Dixon, ‘Reminiscences of an Essex country practitioner a century ago’, in Essex Review, xxv, page 114.

  64. For some of the information, research concentrated on the years 1824 and 1829. ‘Essex’ usually means Essex without the four boroughs of Colchester, Harwich, Maldon and Saffron Walden, and without Havering Liberty. More details are given in J. Gyford, dissertation, Appendix 1.

  65. E.g. D Hay, P Linebaugh and E P Thompson (eds), Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, Allen Lane, London, 1975, especially the essay by D Hay, ‘Property, authority and the criminal law.

    J Brewer and J. Styles (eds.), An Ungovernable People: the English and their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Hutchinson, London, 1980.

    J Sharpe, ‘Enforcing the law in the seventeenth century English village’, in V A C Gatrell, B Lenman and G Parker (eds), Crime and the Law: the Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500, Europa, London, 1980.

    P J R King, ‘Crime, Law and Society in Essex 1740-1820’ (Cambridge University Ph D thesis, 1984).

  66. E.g. D Philips, ‘A new engine of power and authority: the institutionalisation of law enforcement in England 1780-1830’, and V A C Gatrell, ‘The decline of theft and violence in Victorian and Edwardian England’, in V A C Gatrell, B Lenman and G Parker (eds), Crime and the Law: the Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500, Europa, London, 1980.

  67. Chelmsford Chronicle, 9 & 16 January 1829.

  68. PRO ASSI 35/269.

  69. Details of constables’ expenses for both Assizes and Quarter Sessions are in the Quarter Sessions bills and vouchers in the class ERO Q/FAb. Note that they are filed with the papers for the session after they were incurred, and that in this period the expenses for both east and west Essex were often dealt with by the treasurer of the western division, and filed in his bundles.

  70. See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 19, for an analysis of the status of parish constables in the Witham Division.

    In 1824 and 1829, nine out of the 28 cases going from the Witham Division to Quarter Sessions, had used a parish constable to carry out a search. This was calculated from descriptions in such documents as depositions, in ERO Q/SBb 494 to 497, and Q/SBd 4/1 to 4/6.

  71. ERO P/WM 3, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, minute for 30 December 1828.

    John Crump, farmer, Thomas Butler, grocer and farmer, and Henry Barwell, butcher, had fires, and William Hutley, farmer, received a threatening letter.

    The other special constables were: Edward Aldridge, farmer and tanner; James Beadel the elder, builder; James Beadel the younger, auctioneer and surveyor; Charles Barwell, butcher; John Cutts, solicitor; and William Nash, chemist, druggist and spirit merchant.

    Occupations from ERO D/DRa T119 (Aldridge), ERO Sale Catalogue B697 (Barwell), Pigot’s Directory (1823/4) (Beadels and Nash); ERO D/ACR 20/91 (Cutts).

  72. E.g. after the destruction of a threshing machine at Toppesfield, it was said that ‘Bishop, the Bow Street officer … has been down’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, 30 January 1829).

  73. See J Gyford, dissertation, pp 15-16.

  74. Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 December 1828.

    ERO D/P 30/8/2, vestry minutes, minute for 22 October 1829.

    M L Smith (Fires in Witham, privately published, Witham, 1975) shows that a similar arrangement had operated with the old engine, which had been donated by the Royal Exchange Insurance Office, but was housed in a building provided by the vestry in 1806 on Gallows Croft, which was at the east end of Newland Street, near where the Roman Catholic Church stood until recently, opposite what are now Grove Cottages. ERO D/DBw M39, entry for 2 November 1807, indicated the location, and also shows that the building was built on waste, i.e. in the roadway, and only measured 14 ft by 15 ft.

    The new engine of 1828 was still a manual one; the first steam fire engine in Britain was constructed in 1829 but they did not come into use in this country until the 1860s (A Ingram, A History of Fire-Fighting and Equipment, New English Library. London, 1978).

    The building provided in 1829 was probably near the old one, but adjoining rather than opposite Grove Cottages (deduced from the description of enumeration district 1b in Census returns, 1951, and of district 11 in the districts of the Witham Congregational Christian Instruction Society in 1848, quoted in M L Smith, A Brief History of Witham Congregational Church, privately published, Witham, 1965).

    Yet another house was provided between 1850 and 1859 at the junction of Guithavon Street and Mill Lane, where it still stands, though no longer used for that purpose. E Cresy (Report to the Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the parish of Witham, HMSO, London, 1850) gives the engine house still near Grove Cottages. ERO Sale Catalogue B5221 shows it in Guithavon Street in 1859, confirmed by O.S. Map 1/2,500, Essex XLV.1 (1875).

  75. Chelmsford Chronicle, 20 November 1829.

  76. L Radzinowicz, A History of the Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, vol. ii, The Clash between Private Initiative and Public Interest in the Enforcement of the Law, Stevens, London, 1956.

  77. By the 1820s these statutory rewards were mainly for informers in either poaching or ‘technical’ offences such as those against turnpike or weights and measures legislation; the informer could receive half of the money from the fine; see ERO P/WM 1 to 4 for examples.

  78. PRO HO 75/2.

    Hue and cry, 30 January & 28 February 1829.

  79. For example, in 1824 John Perry saw Mary Moulton ‘standing in the Shire Hall waiting to be examined’, and said ‘there’s that damn’d bitch that committed my father … I should like to do her an injury if it lay in my power’ (ERO P/CP 13, entry for 5 August 1824).

  80. Calculated from descriptions in such documents as depositions, ERO Q/SBb 494 to 497, and Q/SBd 4/1 to 4/6.

    See J Gyford, dissertation, p 26, for examples of ‘detection and suspicion’.

  81. Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 April 1829.

  82. P J R King, ‘Crime, Law and Society in Essex 1740-1820’ (Cambridge University Ph D thesis, 1984).

  83. For instance, Abraham Mingay and others (Chelmsford Chronicle, 5 December 1828), and nine unnamed people (The Times, 14 March 1829).

  84. Calculated from ERO Q/FAa 6/1, Abstracts of the accounts of the county treasurers 1819-60.

    Details of prosecutors’ expenses for both Assizes and Quarter Sessions are in the Quarter Sessions bills and vouchers in the class ERO Q/FAb.

    See note 69.

  85. PRO ASSI 35/269.

  86. Calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264, 35/269, 31/24, 31/25 and 31/26, ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020.

    See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 3, for illustration of the disparity between the time of occurrence of offences and the time of committal for trial by a magistrate.

  87. E.g. William Potter of Kelvedon, discussed by Robert Torin in Select Committee on the criminal laws: report, PP 1819 (585) vii 3, 87 ff.

  88. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1828 (545) vi 419, 71 ff.

  89. An ‘acting’ magistrate was one who had taken out a writ of ‘dedimus’ enabling him to function. In Essex only about half the commissioned magistrates appear to have done this.

    Figure for England and Wales calculated from Number of magistrates in England and Wales, PP 1831/2 (39) xxxv 231.

    Acting magistrates in Essex calculated from ERO Q/JL 8 and 10; numbers commissioned from PRO ASSI 35/269.

  90. See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 4, for information on the activity of magistrates in the Witham Division.

    PRO HO 52/5, in-letters, JPs, letter of 17 April 1829, includes a printed card of intended meetings of the Witham bench in 1829, and a letter of complaint from the parish officers of Wakes Colne about the non-attendance of the magistrates.

    ERO P/WM 4 gives the meetings actually held in 1829, and the magistrates’ attendance.

  91. ERO Q/JL 9 (letters about the magistracy), letter of 17 December 1823 from Charles Callis Western

  92. Calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264, 35/269, 31/24, 31/25 and 31/26, ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020, ERO Q/SPb 19 and 20.

  93. In 1824 one group of prosecutors wrote to Quarter Sessions that ‘themselves and friends are totally unable to pay even what Court Fees may be demanded of them, much more to engage in the expenses of a prosecution – themselves and friends being paupers – they … must utterly relinquish prosecution’ (ERO Q/SBb 474, f 89).

  94. Calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264, 35/269, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998 and 1015 to 1020.

  95. Usually grand jurors at Quarter Sessions had freeholds of over £20, whereas petty jurors had £20 and less (from comparison of jury panels in ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020, with jury lists in ERO Q/RJ 1/12 and 2/1).

  96. Calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264, 35/269, 31/24, 31/25 and 31/26, ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020, ERO Q/SPb 19 and 20.

  97. PRO ASSI 35/269.

  98. Before 1825 the jury qualification was ownership of a freehold of £10 or more. In 1825 the minimum qualification was extended so that it also included a £20 leasehold (21 years), a £20 poor rate, or occupancy of a house with 15 or more windows (An Act for consolidating the law relating to jurors and juries, 6 Geo 4, c 50, 1825).

  99. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  100. A Aspinall (ed), The Diary of Henry Hobhouse 1820-1827, Home and Van Thal, London, 1947.

  101. Calculated from PRO ASSI 31/24, 31/25 and 31/26, and ERO Q/SMg 34 to 37.

  102. PRO ASSI 31/26.

    Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  103. See J Gyford, dissertation, chapter 5 and figs 20 and 21 for details of the make-up and behaviour of the juries.

  104. Calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264, 35/269, 31/24, 31/25 and 31/26, ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020, ERO Q/SPb and 19 and 20.

  105. E.g. in The Times, 4 May 1829, it was claimed that ‘punishments inflicted by magistrates are commonly more heavy than those of judges’.

  106. See J Gyford, dissertation, chapter 2 and fig 6 for more details of the comparative sentencing behaviour of judges and magistrates.

  107. The Times, 4 May 1829.

  108. Figures for Essex calculated from PRO ASSI 35/264 and 269. Figures for England and Wales calculated from Summary statement of the number of persons charged with criminal offences during the last seven years, PP 1830/1 (308) xii 493.

  109. See J Gyford. dissertation, chapter 2 and fig 7, for details of sentencing behaviour of individual judges at Essex Assizes.

  110. E.g. in the case of Richard Everett and Daniel Wade, aged 13 and 11, convicted of stealing a fowl at Coggeshall in 1829, the judge ‘recommended them to mercy on account of their youth’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, 20 March 1829).

    P J R King, ‘Decision-makers and decision-making in the English criminal law, 1750-1800’, in Historical Journal, 27, 1984.

  111. E.g. two letters to Quarter Sessions in 1824; one pleaded for William Hampshire of Tollesbury that his character had ‘heretofore proved … to be perfectly upright’, and another for Lucy Hurrell of Witham that she had ‘borne and does bear a good character, and … is the mother of three small children (ERO Q/SBb 474 and 475).

  112. E.g. concerning Edward Blighton of Great Tey in 1824. Kent and Essex Mercury, 23 March 1824.

  113. PRO HO 17/108 Vn 36, petitions, James Cook.

  114. The twelve petitions for pardon found from Essex were for William Brookes, James Cook, Charles Coe, Thomas Drake, Luke Lamb, John Metson, Robert Oades, Thomas Rutherford, James Smith, William Stock, George Turner and Joseph Winters (names taken from PRO HO 19/4 – only these people had appeared at recent Assizes or Quarter Sessions, so the rest of the names on the list were probably people already serving time in the hulks or overseas, seeking a reduction of sentence; more research would clarify this).

  115. PRO HO 17/108 Vn 36, petitions, James Cook.

    P J R King, ‘Decision-makers and decision-making in the English criminal law, 1750-1800’, in Historical Journal, 27, 1984.

  116. PRO HO 17/123 Yn 46, and 17/30 Dk1, petitions, Charles Coe and Edward Blighton.

  117. Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 April 1829.

  118. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1826/7 (534) vi 5.

    Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1828 (545) vi 419.

  119. An act for repealing various statutes in England relative to the benefit of clergy and to larceny and other offences connected therewith and the malicious injuries to property and to remedies against the Hundred, 7 & 8 Geo 4, c 27, 1827.

    An act for further improving the administration of justice in criminal cases in England, 7 & 8 Geo.4, c 28, 1827.

    An act for consolidating and amending the laws in England relative to larceny and other offences connected therewith, 7 & 8 Geo 4, c 29, 1827.

    An act for consolidating and amending the statutes in England relative to offences against the person, 9 Geo.4, c 31, 1828.

  120. Substance of speech by Rt Hon Robert Peel in House of Commons, Thursday March 9th 1826, London, 1826.

  121. BL Add MS 40390, f 131.

    See J. Gyford, dissertation, chapter 3, for more about Robert Peel and his correspondence.

  122. Chelmsford Chronicle, 5 & 12 December 1828.

  123. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

  124. PRO HO 40/18, correspondence, disturbances, letter dated 10 December 1823 from John Oldham, JP, to Home Office.

  125. PRO HO 40/23, correspondence, disturbances, letters dated 7 January and 17 January 1829 from the Revd Thomas Jee and the Revd Lewis Way respectively, to the Home Office.

    PRO HO 64/1, correspondence, rewards etc., letter dated January 1829 from the Revd Lewis Way to the Home Office.

  126. PRO HO 40/23, correspondence, disturbances, letters dated 7 & 10 January 1829 from the Revd Thomas Jee and Viscount Maynard respectively to the Home Office.

  127. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36 petitions, James Cook.

    N Gash, Mr Secretary Peel, Longman, London, 1961.

    An act for the relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects, 10 Geo 4, c 7, 1829.

  128. Royal Commission of Inquiry into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws: report and appendices, PP 1834 (44) xxvii 1 to xxxviii 1, 251, 313, xxxix 1.

  129. PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

    PRO HO 13/52, letter dated 20 March 1829 from the Home Office to W W Luard esquire.

  130. E.g. BL Add MS 403060, f 10 onwards, letters between Henry Hobhouse and Robert Peel about the murderer Hunt, and BL Add MS 40300, f 265, letter dated 5 December 1828 from George IV to Robert Peel about Hutton.

  131. E.g. BL Add MS 40299, f 322, f 353, and BL Add MS 40300, f 137, f 139.

  132. BL Add MS 40300, f 265.

  133. J Robertson Scott, The Day before Yesterday, Methuen, London, 1951, p 123, quoting Sir Fitzroy Kelly in 1866.

  134. PRO HO 19/4, 19/5. See note 114.

  135. See notes 16, 18, 22, 28 and 33 for sources of information about occupations.

  136. The Assize information about suspects’ occupations comes from the printed calendars; these did not have any legal status, so did not have to be so meticulous in their wording as the indictments. The latter always used the description ‘labourer’ for the suspects, and this does not seem to have been questioned (PRO ASSI 35/264 and 35/269).

    The Quarter Sessions information about prosecutors’ occupations is calculated from the Recognisance books (ERO Q/SMr 5 and 7).

    See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 16, for more details.

  137. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

    PRO HO 17/108 Vn36, petitions, James Cook.

  138. ERO P/WM 3, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, minute for 4 November 1828 about John Edwards.

    ERO Q/SBd 4/5, examination of Abraham Simpson Ardley in the prosecution against Abraham Sexton, and information of William Warren in the prosecution against William Wainwright.

  139. ERO Q/SBd 4/1, information of Thomas Potter in the prosecution against Matthew Nicholls.

    ERO P/WM 2, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, minute for 21 November 1826 about Elizabeth and Isaac Cook.

  140. ERO D/P 30/1/13, 30/12/12, 30/12/13, 30/12/14.

  141. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  142. A F J Brown, English History from Essex Sources 1750-1900, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1952. Information from Arthur Brown on these points has been most helpful.

    Winter unemployment was particularly severe after frost and snow, when the basic work of preparing the ground could not take place. Dr Henry Dixon wrote in his diary in the winter of 1845 that in Essex ‘many industrious men are allowed to wander about in idleness and in destitution; they must plunder to live … A sharp frost again. Farmers are discharging their men and the poor fellows are wandering about in hungry despair’ (manuscript diary, entry for 20 February and 20 March 1845, quoted by kind permission of Dr J Denholm).

  143. A Charlesworth (ed), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900, Croom Helm, London, 1983.

  144. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1828 (545) vi 419, p 32 ff.

  145. A F J Brown, Essex at Work 1700-1815, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1959, chapter viii.

  146. Census returns, 1841.

  147. ERO P/WM 4, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, entry for 25 February 1829.

  148. Chelmsford Chronicle, 20 March 1829.

  149. J Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey 1825-75, OUP, Oxford, 1976.

  150. Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 April 1829.

  151. Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 December 1828.

  152. Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 April 1829.

  153. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1826/7 (534) vi 5, p 39, evidence of John Orridge.

  154. Wheat prices from A D Gayer, W W Rostow, and A J Schwartz, Economic Fluctuations in the British Economy 1790-1850, OUP, Oxford, 1953 (microfilm supplement).

    Dates of offences from PRO ASSI 35/264 and 35/269, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998 and 1015 to 1020, ERO Q/RSc 1.

    See J Gyford, dissertation, figs 3 and 10, for graphs showing wheat prices and offences.

  155. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  156. ERO D/P 30/12/14.

  157. Chelmsford Chronicle, 9 January 1829.

  158. Select Committee on the cause of increase in the number of criminal commitments and convictions: report of minutes of evidence, PP 1826/7 (534) vi 5, p.39, evidence of John Orridge.

  159. Royal Commission of Inquiry into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws: report and appendices, PP 1834 (44) xxvii 1 to xxxviii 1, 251, 313, xxxix 1.

    An Act for the amendment and better administration of the laws relating to the poor in England and Wales, 4 & 5 Wm 4, c 76, 1834.

  160. Average annual wheat prices from Lord Ernie, English Farming Past and Present, Longman, London, 5th ed., 1936.

    Select Committee on Poor Rate returns, supplemental appendix to report, PP 1822 (556) v (517).

    Select Committee on Poor Rate returns, appendix to report, PP 1825 (334) iv 39.

    An account of the money expended for the maintenance and relief of the poor in every place in England and Wales, 1824-1829, PP 1830/1 (83) xi 227.

    An account of the money expended for the maintenance and relief of the poor in every place in England and Wales, 1830-1834, PP 1835 (444) x1vii 185.

    See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 11.

  161. Calculated from Select Committee on Poor Rate returns, appendix to report, PP 1825 (334) iv 39, and An account of the money expended for the maintenance and relief of the poor in every place in England and Wales, 1824-1829, PP 1830/1 (83) xi 227.

    See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 9.

  162. ERO D/P 30/12/12, 30/12/13, 30/12/14.

  163. Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 December 1828.

  164. Chelmsford Chronicle, 16 January 1829.

  165. Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 February 1829.

  166. In the documents the suspect was always given as being ‘late of’ the place where the offence took place; this prevented the case failing on the grounds of a faulty residential description. ‘Real’ residences used for the calculation were taken from descriptive material in newspaper reports and documents such as depositions (ERO Q/SBb 494 to 497, and Q/SBd 4/1 to 4/6).

  167. Calculated from ERO Q/SMr 5 and 7.

  168. See J Gyford, dissertation, chapter 4 and figs 3 and 10.

  169. Dr Henry Dixon described in his diary how farmers in the Witham area ‘began early and have been assisted by labourers from the north of the county, harvest there being later’ (manuscript diary, entry for 23 August 1843. quoted by kind permission of Dr J Denholm).

  170. Kent and Essex Mercury, 20 July 1824.

  171. Chelmsford Chronicle, 30 October & 20 March 1829.

  172. ERO Q/SR 1016.

  173. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  174. Census, 1831.

  175. At Quarter Sessions farmers formed 30 per cent of prosecutors and 7 per cent of the population (tradesmen 27 per cent and 22 per cent, labourers 16 per cent and 60 per cent; in these occupations, definitions make comparison more hazardous than for farmers) (prosecutors’ figures calculated from ERO Q/SMr 5 and 7, population figures from Census, 1831).

  176. P J R King, ‘Decision-makers and decision-making in the English criminal law, 1750-1800’, in Historical Journal, 27, 1984.

  177. At Quarter Sessions the median value of stolen goods for which farmers prosecuted was 4 shillings (20p), for tradesmen it was 9s 6d (47_p), and labourers 5 shillings (25p) (calculated from ERO Q/SMr 5 and 7).

    See J Gyford, dissertation, fig 16.

  178. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  179. ERO D/NC 3/2 shows William Potto and James Thomasin as members of the Independent meeting.

    See note 45.

  180. The brush shop was at what is now no 67 Newland Street, and the yard and other buildings were approached through the arch between no 67 and no 83 (p 47 of volume of ‘Press cuttings, Witham’, which was in Chelmsford Library in 1991 but is now (2004) in ERO, Accession 10510).

    Census returns, 1841, include in Witham 11 people described as brushmakers, mopmakers or pattenmakers (plus James Thomasin himself and his son George), 21 as journeymen, and one apprentice.

    W. Kiddier, The Old Trade Unions, from unpublished records of the Brushmakers, 2nd ed, Allen and Unwin, London, 1931, p 30, says that the Brushmakers’ Society had 17 men in Witham in 1826; this may have excluded some unskilled workers.

  181. ERO P/WM 1, 2 and 3, minutes of Witham Petty Sessions, minutes for 7 & 21 September, 12 October, 2 & 30 November 1824, 4 January, 3 May, 5 July, 16 August, 20 September 1825, 16 January 1827, 6 & 20 November 1826, 4 March 1828, 19 August 1828.

  182. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 March 1828, advertisement for the property after the Morses’ bankruptcy.

  183. Calculations from Census returns, 1841, for Witham, show that 31 of the 33 brushworkers were born outside Essex, i.e. 94 per cent. For the population as a whole the figure was 12 per cent, and for labourers and agricultural labourers it was 2 per cent (inmates in the Union House were not included in this calculation).

  184. A F J Brown, Essex at Work 1700-1815, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1959, chapter viii.

    W Kiddier, The Old Trade Unions, from unpublished records of the Brushmakers, 2nd ed, Allen and Unwin, London, 1931.

  185. ERO D/NC 3/2.

  186. ERO D/NF 1/2/17 shows Hoffgaard Shoobridge as a Quaker in 1829. One of the Shoobridges married in the Quaker meeting house on 16 April 1830 (ERO D/NF 1/2/1), and another in the Witham parish church on 27 September 1838 (ERO D/P 30/1/16). R C Fowler, The Church of St Nicholas, Witham, Wiles, 1911, gives Thomas Hoffgaard Shoobridge as churchwarden 1845 to 1867.

  187. George Thomasin’s house was what is now Roslyn House, no 16 Newland Street (judged from situation in Census returns, 1861, and confirmed by ERO D/DBw M59, which has him in 1856 owning and occupying part of the property numbered 44 in the records of the manor of Newland. This part can be identified as no 16 Newland Street by tracing it to later manorial records).

    His description is in Census returns, 1861, ED 3, p 2. The amendment seems most likely to have been made by the superintendent registrar, Joseph Howell Blood, who was George Thomasin’s next-door neighbour, living at Whitehall, now Witham library (tithe map). He was the chief Witham solicitor, with innumerable official posts in the town (e.g. see White’s Directory, 1848 and 1863). In 1833 he was clerk to Joseph Howell Pattisson, the solicitor who had acted against Edmund Potto in 1829 (ERO D/ACR 21/746), so he may have been particularly sensitive about the Thomasins’ position.

  188. Miscellaneous sources, particularly ERO D/DBw M39 to M41 and M 140, court books of the manor of Newland, Witham, and ERO D/DU 467/5, mortgage, 1895. The only agricultural land was 43 acres at Tolleshunt Major bought in 1852, forming only a small proportion of his total rental.

  189. ERO D/P 30/8/13.

  190. ERO D/NC 3/2.

  191. ERO D/NM 5/1/11, 5/1/13, 5/1/14.

  192. One of the leaders of the Witham Methodists of the 1830s and 1840s was James Church, who came from Kent and was manager of the gas works, which was where the Mill Lane car park now stands. He was followed in both his job and his Methodism by the North American Robert Robinson. In the 1840s there was also Peter Hannah and his wife from Suffolk, who managed the yard which assembled seed drills, which was behind what is now nos 126/28 Newland Street (information on occupations and birthplaces from Census returns, 1851 and 1861, locations from the tithe map and ERO D/F 1/1/5).

  193. ERO D/NC 3/2, referring to Mr and Mrs Hannah.

  194. Information from L D Kinsey, Methodist Circuit archivist, Chelmsford, 1980.

  195. L Davidoff and C Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850, Hutchinson, London, 1987.

  196. Chelmsford Chronicle, 14 August 1829.

  197. Census, 1831.

  198. Calculated from Census, 1831, and PRO ASSI 35/264 and 35/269, PRO ASSI 31/24, 31/25, and 31/26, ERO Q/SMc 3 and 4, ERO Q/SR 995 to 998, and 1015 to 1020.

  199. The brush yard closed in 1871 (ERO T/P 164). The Crittall metal furniture and window factory opened in Witham in 1919 (catalogue for ‘the Crittall centenary exhibition: design with vision’, Braintree, 2 October 1989). The Pinkham glove factory opened in 1912 but mainly employed women (The Story of a Lamp, W Pinkham. Witham, n.d.).

  200. E.g. conversation with the late George Hayes of Chalks Road, Witham, in 1977.

  201. Essex Weekly News, 3 January 1908.

    ERO D/UWi 1/1/2, minute book of Witham Urban District Council 1904-1911, minutes of Council meeting on 30 December 1907.

  202. N Rowley, Law and Order in Essex 1066-1874, Seax Teaching Portfolio, Essex County Council, Chelmsford, 1970.

    M L Smith, Fires in Witham, privately published, Witham, 1975.