OLD ROTHERHAM: The case of the stolen gun caps

IN January of 1864 it was noted by the shopkeepers of Rotherham that there had been countless thefts from their premises of indiscriminate articles ranging from fish to cloth caps.

Police Constable Kershaw was on duty on Thursday January 20 when he saw two boys letting off gun caps in the town centre.

He was aware that 49 boxes of these had been stolen recently from the shop of Mr Clayton an ironmonger of College Street, so he took the boys into custody. When they were brought into the police office the boys admitted that the gun caps had been stolen.

They then told Kershaw that they were not so bad as another companion who they named, 'for he had stolen much more than us'. The third boy was taken into custody and from the information that he gave, PC Kershaw and Police Sergeant Chenhall were occupied for most of the night rounding up young boys.

By midnight a total of 22 boys had been brought into the station whose ages were from six to 14 years. The boys showed no fear and as more and more of them were brought into the office, they were greeted like old pals. 

The boys sat around laughing heartily at the various exploits in which they had been engaged. Some of them were from respectable parents, whose names were well known in the town, whilst others came from poorer families. The next day there was a large collection of people to see all the boys marched through the streets of the town on the way to be taken before magistrate Mr G W Chambers Esq. They were marched six abreast, closely guarded and flanked by constables and weeping parents.

Two or three of the boys seemed to be distressed, but the majority of them appeared as if they were having an exciting day out. They were brought before Mr Chambers who remanded them until the following Monday. When they next appeared in court, Superintendent Gillett requested that seven of the boys be released. They were Joseph Burden, Tom McDonald. George Humphrey, John Howe, Timothy and Thomas Gannon and Henry Goulding. 

He stated that they were to be witnesses against the remainder of the boys. These boys were removed from the dock, but after some discussion the bench decided not to take their evidence on account of their youth. The cases of Joseph and Frederick Astbury, Joseph Humphrey, Thomas Burden and Robert Hardy were heard, charged with stealing five scarves from the shop of Mr R H Sharp, draper of College Street. The scarves had been stolen on the Tuesday night of the previous week. A boy called John Willey was charged with stealing a brass tap from the British School, but the schoolmaster said that the boy had promised to replace the item and he did not wish to prosecute. Solicitor Mr Whitfield told the court that the boy had taken the tap to make a cannon with, but the first time he had let it off it was blown into smithereens. 

John, William and Henry Cross, Robert John Hardy, Joseph Humphrey and Frederick Astbery were then charged with stealing cloth caps from a stall in the market, but the shopkeeper did not appear and the case was dismissed. 

John Gill, Robert Hardy, Patrick Slattery, Thomas Burden and Arthur Fox were then charged with stealing 49 boxes of gun caps. A little boy named John Duggan gave evidence that he had seen the boys coming out of the shop with the boxes. Another boy named Lister confirmed buying two of the boxes later that night from Burden. Thomas Burden, Robert Hardy, Frederick Hardy, Joseph Astbery, Frederick Charles McMann, Joseph Humphrey, Frederick Astbery and John Torr were then charged with stealing a quantity of fish from Mr Scales the fishmonger, which had been stolen the previous week and all the prisoners admitted to taking them.

Mr Whitfield told the court that to have such a large number of children brought before the magistrates on such serious charges was a distressing one. He put forward his opinion that if the boys had been left to the shopkeepers or their parents ‘they might have been properly corrected by them’. But as a last resort they had been brought into the court, which would result in a branding that would cling to them for the rest of their lives. He ventured to submit that ‘a sound flogging would now meet the ends of justice’.

Superintendent Gillett stated that the two Hardys, the two Astberys and Thomas Burden had been the ringleaders, and they were ordered to the workhouse with the intention of getting them into industrial schools. Gill, Slattery, McMann, Torr and Humphrey were ordered to be flogged and the remainder of the prisoners were then discharged.