CRIME IN OLD ROTHERHAM: The Attack on Sarah Hancock

IN 1841 Sarah Hancock was aged only 50 when she was described as being ‘an elderly woman’ living at Brampton-en-le-Morthern, near Rotherham.

On the evening of 16 October Sarah retired to bed after making sure the house was locked up. She slept lightly and about 2am she heard sounds which disturbed her. Partially dressing herself she went to the door and was confronted by a man carrying a light. Despite the soot on his face Sarah later told the police that she recognised him as John Rose, a chimney sweep. She fled in the direction of the kitchen, and the man followed her and knocked her to the floor demanding ‘where’s thy money?’ Pushing him away the elderly woman managed to escape and ran to open another door, only to be confronted by a second man, who she said was another chimney sweep called Henry Wilson.

At this point the first attacker knocked her down again and Sarah fell into the yard. The men dragged her back into the house and struck her several times demanding her money. Finally she was overpowered and she gave them her purse which contained £5 as well as some other coins.

Eventually the men ran away and after Sarah was sure they had gone, she went to the nearby rooms occupied by a Mr James Ward and told him what had happened. The police were quickly notified and after listening to her statement, Constables Bland and Womack went to arrest the two men. They found Wilson at his house and arrested him. Rose lodged at the house of a man called George Denton, who swore that he had been at their house on the night of the robbery, and could not have left without his knowledge. A man who slept in the same room, called Abraham Parr stated that he shared a bed with Rose, and declared that he did not get up till seven o’clock the next morning.

The two men were brought before the magistrates on Thursday October 21 and Sarah was in the courtroom. It was reported that she was ‘still very much disfigured and her hands and face showed that she had been very much abused by the villains’. Despite her condition Sarah gave her evidence in a clear and concise manner, as she described the events of the night. She told the court that she recognised both men as chimney sweeps of Rotherham. A woman called Mrs Norman stated that she was a lodger at the same house as Rose and had been nursing her sick grandchildren on October 16. She confirmed that John Rose had never left the house. When the magistrates asked Sarah if she was correct in her identification of the two men, she told them that she was sure, and the two men were ordered to take their trial at the next assizes

The pair were brought to York on March 22 1842 where Rose’s defence counsel Mr Roebuck, stated that ‘no jury should rely on the identification of just one witness, under circumstances which might deprive her of herself possession’. Denton again swore that the prisoner had been at his house on the night in question. Wilson's defence, Mr Wilkins claimed that although Mrs Hancock had said that the prisoners were wearing sooty clothes, not a scrap of soot had been found on her person. Instead he stated that men carrying out such a crime, would traditionally blacken their faces with soot to prevent identification. He claimed that in her mind she had associated it with the two chimney sweeps. The jury retired for quite a while and eventually Rose was declared innocent, but Wilson was found guilty. The judge then gave him the death sentence, before informing him that he would be transported for the rest of his natural life. But that was not the end of the story.

On April 15 four other men were arrested for several robberies which taken place in and around Rotherham. The men were brought before magistrate Mr T B Bosville Esq. and one of them made a statement to the effect that they were the same gang that had committed the robbery at Mrs Hancock’s. Several enquiries were set in motion which proved the truth of the matter, and Henry Wilson received a Queen’s Pardon on June 2 1842. He was released two days later from York Castle and he returned back to Rotherham in triumph.


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