William Cropley & Samuel Griffiths: Bacon Stealing Bad Boys

I mentioned a couple of months ago, as part of my Ethelbert Collection, that Ethelbert Holborow, cheesemonger of Clare Street, London, suffered the egregious loss of 2 shillings worth of bacon from his shop in September 1827. The culprits were 12 year-old Samuel Griffiths and 14-year old William Cropley.

But I wanted to know what happened to them after this incident … I was surprised at what I found but not entirely disappointed.

To be honest, this whole post could be about child poverty, especially how it manifested in inner-city London during the 19th Century. We can all have this idea in our heads of apple-cheeked, tow-headed urchins pinching things but basically ‘avvin’ a ‘art of gold and having a good-old singsong and being looked after by their team of fellow vagabonds. Yup, Hollywood really did a number on Charles Dickens, whose works were intended to hold a torch (or at least a candle) up to these forgotten corners of society and the horrors that they faced.

And, to be honest, far more educated minds than mine have studied this, such as Matthew White, who is a Research Fellow in History at the University of Hertfordshire where he specialises in the social history of London during the 18th and 19th centuries. Amongst others, he published this article about juvenile crime in the 19th century.

But back to William and Samuel …

Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 13th September 1827, page 105.

Poor lambs, right? Well … not so much.

William was born on 13 March 1812 and baptised on 8 June in St-Martin-in-the-Fields as the son of William and Esther Cropley. Esther was buried in St Clement Danes on June 1816 (these two churches are at either end of The Strand today), aged 31, two years after her daughter Phoebe died and was buried over in St Anne’s in Soho. I can’t find a confirmed death for William Senior, but in 1822 two things happen: on 15 June William Junior appears in the Westminster Workhouse for the first time, aged 10, and is released on 5 September “to his father”, and then a month later he appears in court charged with stealing a coat, worth 20 shillings, “the property of William Cropley”. The verdict was No Bill. I can only assume that the coat belonged to his father, otherwise it’s quite the coincidence. But why steal your father’s coat? Why have your 10 year old son arrested and charged with theft?

Maybe this emboldened young William. Or maybe entrenched in poverty from every side. But the name William Cropley appears in court records in 1825, 1826 and twice in 1827. The last time he appears is in 1832 charged with stealing one pair of boots, worth 10 shillings. He was found guilty and charged with 7 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), arriving in Hobart aboard the York on 29 December 1832, aged 20.

Samuel’s start in life is harder to pin down, but he also was no stranger to the Georgian court system, being charged with theft before the theft of Ethelbert’s bacon. However, just one month after that crime, he was back in court again charged with housebreaking and the theft of a pair of shoes on 12 October 1827. He and another boy were caught absolutely red-handed by a pair of men. His compatriot, John Barry, then threw Samuel under the bus with his statement:

At the time the robbery was committed I was playing with my little sister in Denmark-street; Griffiths came up, and spoke to me, but I saw no shoes in his hand, nor did I know he had committed the robbery. I am innocent; I unfortunately was committed to the House of Correction for three months, and had only been out a week; the constable who took me thought I must be guilty, because I spoke to Griffiths, who had also been in the House of Correction with me, in the same yard; but I am innocent, and have kept myself innocent of robbery ever since I have been out of prison.

The jury, however, were having no truck whatsoever with that and sentenced the pair of them to death. You read that right. Death. However, they did recommend mercy on account of their youth (they were TWELVE) and instead Samuel was sentenced to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land. (John Barry was sentenced to transportation for 21 years to New South Wales – aboard the same ship as a paying passenger would be Mortimer Lewis who went on to have an amazing career as Colonial Architect and designed, amongst other things, the Australian Museum in Sydney.) Samuel arrived in Hobart on 12 August 1830 aboard the Manlius.

Once in Tasmania, Samuel and William seem to have had quite different experiences. Once again, it’s thanks to the amazing Convict Collection at the Tasmanian Archives! Samuel’s conduct record shows that in the 16 years that he was a convict he wasn’t too badly behaved. A bit of insolence. A bit of idleness. A bit of stealing sugar from a fellow prisoner. A bit of abusive behaviour against his master that earned him six months on the Constitution Hill Road Party. Fairly standard stuff, and nothing that stopped him getting his Ticket of Leave in 1837, followed in 1841 by his first constitutional pardon, which was then extended to 25 August 1846 when he was granted his final pardon.

New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters, 1806-1849

Unfortunately at this point Samuel rather disappears into the Australian ether – not helped by a surprisingly large number of Samuel Griffiths’ born 1814-1816 who were either convicts or colonists! I do wonder, having spent almost 20 years as a convict, what life waited for him afterwards as he barrelled toward middle age. We saw what happened to one older convict after he was pardoned.

William … didn’t take to convict life. Whilst Samuel’s conduct report was a handful of lines long, William had to have two separate entries within five years (bearing in mind his term was only seven years) – and within four months of arrival his sentence had been extended by 12 months. It would later be extended again by another five years.

His conduct record (above) makes for some interesting reading … He states in his prisoner interview that he has been flogged “many times”. He often received floggings for insolence and being absent without leave. This often escalated into violently assaulting other prisoners or beating his overseers or masters. In August 1833 he was found guilty of “inciting the men to leave off work and pressuring them to mutiny – 75 lashes”. Just over 2 months later he was charged with using “disgusting and disgraceful language … and being a leader in the mutiny – hard labour and 6 months in the Bridgewater Chain Gang”. He was also a fan of absconding from his work and breaking his irons. He was repeatedly assigned to roadwork and chain gangs or days or weeks in the “tread wheel”. One can assume that these attempts at reformation and deterrence were not successful!

In 1843 he was granted his certificate of freedom, which was short-lived. After being released, he would be tried again at the Quarter Sessions in Launceston on 25 September 1845 for “uttering base coin” in payment at a bar in Longford and was sentenced to another year of hard labour at Bridgewater. (Sidenote: whilst waiting to be ‘removed’ to his punishment, William was locked up with James Kimber – referred to as “the dog’s flesh man” as he had been found guilty of fraudulently selling dog meat to various butchers.)

Launceston Advertiser 2 October 1845, via Trove

After this, William, like Samuel, disappears off the radar. However, there is a potential death record in Brunswick, Victoria of a William Cropley in 1890. (Victoria was a common landing point for ex-convicts from Tasmania.) The date of birth is off by 10 years (a curiously specific amount!), and the parents are listed as William and Esther (Hester/Esther …). If this is indeed him, then might he not have married? There are a couple of marriages in Brunswick of a William Cropley, one of which leads to two children: Alfred and Esther. It’s difficult to get too excited as I am working off names and broad geographical similarities, as well as the name Esther being passed down. But if it is the same family, looking at the number of times Alfred appears in the newspapers for vagrancy, assault (both his wife and a police constable), housebreaking, murder, and for ‘living off the proceeds of his wife’s prostitution’ then maybe it’s as well to end things here!

Were Samuel and William victims of the Bloody Code that proliferated the criminal justice system at that time? Absolutely. Are they representative of any number of young people in urban areas of the time, trapped by industrialisation, left behind by 19th century modernisation that didn’t care about ‘the lower classes’ or education? Again, absolutely. I can’t imagine sentencing young boys to death for stealing a pair of shoes, least of all sending a 12 year old to a prison hulk for a couple of years before transporting him for life. I’m sure I’d be insolent too. I hope that they both found some kind of peace.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s