TOWARDS the end of 1867 two young men, George Nixon, aged 15, and Charles Bell, aged 17, absconded from their separate homes at Masbrough, near Rotherham. They had both previously lived with their parents, who were increasingly finding them difficult to ma

On their return, they gathered about themselves a gang of young gullible boys, relating to them the many daring highway robberies they had committed on children in the course of their travels. A number of small metal swords had been collected by these boys, and they performed some kind of ‘highwayman training’ on the back roads and lanes of Rotherham. They also trained the boys in the art of burglary, which they carried out in various houses and business premises of Masbrough and Rotherham over the first few months of 1868.

On the night of Tuesday February 25 a burglary took place at the home of Mrs E Bacon, a wine and spirit merchant of Clifton Bank, Rotherham. Fortunately the door of the room where Mrs Bacon kept most of her money was locked, so the thieves contented themselves with stealing some wearing apparel and other articles to the value of £1.10s. The police were called in the next morning. They found that the burglars had gained entrance into the house by breaking a pane of glass in the kitchen window, and slipping a hand through managed to unfasten the latch.

A large bulk of the stolen property was quickly found by Police Constable Walker at the pawn shop of Mr Boardman of Masbrough. Some of the items had been pledged in the name of a local man, who was totally innocent of the crime. He was arrested, but just as quickly eliminated from police enquiries.

The description that the pawnbroker Mr Boardman gave of the two boys who had pledged the items was so good that Nixon and Bell were soon arrested. Sergeant Snowden found the boys enjoying themselves at the Victoria Music Hall in Rotherham. Two other young lads, Dan O’Brien, aged 16, and John Gill, aged 13, who were with them, were also charged.

On their way to the cells the four boys were followed by a large crowd of people as they were marched through the streets. It was reported that the young prisoners enjoyed the attention of the crowd ‘before whom they conducted themselves with the utmost bravado’. John Gill the youngest of the boys, saw some of his friends and waved at them cheerily before giving them an affectionate and dramatic farewell. When they reached the cells they were searched and tools of the trade were found on them. Bell had a hammer and some matches, O’Brien had a match box, a screwdriver and a bread knife, with half the blade missing. Nixon had a small pistol loaded with powder and shot and Gill had in his possession a dark lantern. When questioned, Nixon said the pistol belonged to O’Brien, but the latter denied it and said it belonged to all of them. They said that they would use it on anyone who threatened to interfere with them.

Within a very few hours however it was reported that one of the lads’ confidence had given way. John Gill started to cry as he told the officer ‘I may as well tell all about it, we did the job’ meaning the burglary at Clifton Bank. The others then confessed their own part in the robbery.

On Friday February 28 the four young men were brought before the magistrates charged with ‘burglariously’ entering the dwelling house of Mrs Bacon. The bench were told that Bell, Nixon and Gill had all been employed at different works in the neighbourhood. The only exception was Dan O’Brien, an apprentice to his father employed as a roof slater. The chief constable asked the magistrates to remand the prisoners until the following Monday, in order for more enquiries to be made. On their next appearance the four prisoners readily admitted their guilt, and expressed their penitence for the crime to the victim, Mrs Bacon. Nevertheless they were all found guilty and committed for trial at the assizes.

The four boys appeared at the Leeds Town Hall on Thursday April 2 1868 in front of Mr Justice Hannan. He told them that it was an appalling crime to be committed by prisoners of such a young age. John Gill aged 13 was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment, whilst the other three were sentenced to four months’ prison with hard labour each.