Crime & Punishment

FELONS Today, if we have a series of thefts in Stoke St Gregory we immediately assume it's a group from 'outside'. Maybe so, but not in Victorian times. You stole from your neighbours. Apart from anything else, you didn't have the transport to travel far. On October 24th, 1857, the Bridgwater Mercury reported the latest sentences  given to some local felons. James Butt was given six years penal servitude for stealing two tame rabbits from a farmer in Charlton Musgrove. Daniel Chedzoy of Stoke St Gregory only got three years for stealing “a sack, two knives &c, the property of his master, John House”. After transportation stopped in the 1850s (when the colonies refused to take any more convicts)  serious offenders were sentenced to years of ‘Penal Servitude’ instead. This was served at a large, harsher prison (such as Wandsworth, Portland or Parkhurst) rather than locally, and the prisoners were usually repeat offenders. Portland Prison was built to contain the convict labour force used to build the Portland breakwater and the Verne citadel. The men were here as free labour. Their lives were harsh and often dangerous, working in the quarries alongside the Portland quarry men. Many paid the ultimate price for their dastardly deeds, but many were here for crimes that had been committed through the sheer necessity to survive. In the same year Anthony Langdon got three years for stealing six ducklings from Thomas Miller of Stoke St Gregory.

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These men were on gardening duty at Portland Prison - probably one of the cushier jobs, but still hard work

DISPUTES Some cases were often about a dispute of ownership. On 2nd May 1860, Farmer Robert Keen was up before Magistrate Captain Giles. He was “brought up in the custody of PC Coles, charged with stealing 2 cwt of hay, of the value of 10s, the property of Mr James Jeanes, a farmer, of Stoke St Gregory”. Keen had held an auction to sell his stock when he had vacated the farm bought by Jeanes. He also had kept some land adjacent to the farm. Jeanes had bought 50 cwt of hay at this auction. When Keen and had asked to buy some of this hay back Jeanes had refused, so Keen had helped himself to some. Keen was bailed and the case adjourned.

VIOLENCE And some times the crime just seems to happen. On 2nd December 1863, Henry Betty, aged 17, and his brother (either Samuel or John) were walking along the River Tone, near their home, Creeds Farm. Their father Sturton (aka John) and his wife Mary farmed 68 acres south of the A361 between Lyng and Burrowbridge. Unusually for the time, Mary was from Bradlinch in Devon and was ten years older than Sturton. Mark Brown, a 22 year old farm labourer, was “indicted for unlawfully shooting and wounding by firing a gun at Henry Betty . . . evidence went to show that about 10 o’clock on the night in question he was walking with his brother along the towing path by the river, when they observed the prisoner and a man named Smith on the opposite side. Smith had a gun with him, and the prisoner a pole. They (the prisoner and Smith) started singing, and prosecutor and his brother did the same, upon which Smith shot at them, but the cap missed fire. They ran away and hid themselves behind a house, but one of them fired again, and prosecutor was struck in the face by seven of the shots.” Mark Brown was given ten weeks hard labour.

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Creeds Farm. One of several properties on Silver Street, an old thoroughfare between Burrowbridge and Athelney on the north side of the River Tone. The farm was owned by William Daw, whose family also owned the windmill on Woodhill Green.

OWNERSHIP DISPUTES Disputed thefts could also end with severe penalties for the accused. In 1864 the Bridgwater Mercury reported that George Adams had been “indicted for stealing, at Stoke St Gregory, several ducks, the property of Mr Michael Venn, Yeoman . . . In May last he (Venn) had two broods of ducks. The elder brood he marked with three snips on the left foot, and the younger with three snips on each foot. In the middle or latter part of May he missed four of the older brood, and three weeks afterwards he missed four of the older brood. Ducks similarly marked were found in the possession of the prisoner. The defence was that the whole brood belonging to the prisoner were so marked, and he produced two in court that exactly corresponded . . . The jury, to the surprise of everyone in court, returned a verdict of guilty, and the prisoner was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.”

Michael Venn was the son of William Venn, butcher, who had moved to Stoke some time before 1841, from Uffculme, Devon. They lived in what is now Rose Cottage, Windmill.

ALCOHOL LICENSES In 1865 the question was: “CAN A FELON KEEP A BEER HOUSE? Ezekiel Meade of Stoke St Gregory was charged at the instance of the police with keeping a house for the sale of beer and cider, he having been convicted of felony. Meade was once the proprietor of the King Alfred Inn, Boroughbridge and resided there for many years. In 1859 he forged a deed whereby he purposed raising money. He was tried and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At the expiration of his sentence he returned to the King Alfred Inn . . . but then went to Stoke St Gregory where he applied for and obtained a licence to sell beer and cider [we do not know which Beer House he kept, but the Meade family later kept the Kings Head in Athelney]. The penalty for the selling of beer and ale under such circumstances is a forfeiture of the license and a penalty of £5, which the magistrates have power to mitigate.” In this case a fine of just £1 was imposed.

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CHILD ABUSE In October 1883 the Bridgwater Mercury reported a case of child neglect in the village. Samuel Newberry, who lived just over the old bridge at Athelney, was a thatcher. His wife Mary Ann had died aged 39 in 1875. According to later census records he had not remarried, nor did he have a housekeeper. The newspaper reported: “INHUMAN TREATMENT OF CHILDREN - At the Police Court on Saturday, Samuel Newbury, labourer, Stoke St Gregory, was charged under the Poor Law with having neglected to maintain his three children, who had become chargeable on the Taunton Union. The defendant pleaded guilty. Mr Dawe, the clerk to the Board of Guardians, stated that the defendant had behaved in a most brutal manner towards the children. On several occasions he had turned them out of doors, and they had been obliged to seek shelter in a neighbour’s house or remain in the open air all night. One night lately they had been turned out, and they were taken nearly naked and in a deplorable condition to the relieving officer. Supt Goldsmith said the man was in a position to keep his children well, but he had behaved towards them in a most inhuman manner since the death of their mother.” On the promise that “the children should be well treated in the future, the bench ordered the defendant to pay the costs, which amounted to £1 15s 9d”.