On a chilly March evening in 1849 a young man aged nineteen was making his way along the Edgware Road in Marylebone. He was small, and of medium build. He had dark hair and an oval face with a fresh complexion. His eyes were grey, and they were peering keenly through the dark. His name was Cornelius Ahern, and he was a pickpocket.
Ahead of him Ahern spotted two gentlemen, who were strolling along arm in arm, deep in conversation. One was portly, with corkscrew curls and a double chin, and past the first flush of youth. His companion, wearing an expensive hat and coat, carried less weight, and was the right side of forty. Creeping up and putting his hand in a pocket of older gentleman’s coat, Ahern got the fright of his life when his victim spun round and clouted him on the head with a walking stick. Swearing at his assailant, the young thief turned tail and fled.
Although unnerved by the sight of a gathering mob, the two gentlemen gave chase, and with the help of a police constable on plain-clothes duty caught up with Ahern in Bell Street. They then frog-marched him kicking violently and swearing to the police station at 86 Marylebone High Street, where they formally identified themselves. The older of the two—Ahern’s victim—was Mark Lemon. He was the editor of Punch magazine. His younger companion was Charles Dickens. He was a writer.
At the police station Dickens, who had once written a piece on the Middlesex House of Correction at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell, spoke to Ahern. “Have you not been in prison before?” “No, never,” replied Ahern, who had in fact been locked up in one penitentiary or another on twenty previous occasions. The constable gave him a knowing nudge. “What are you talking about?” Ahern again protested, although he conceded that he had once served a two-month sentence. One presumes that he felt that this did not count.
Ahern’s defiance did not end there. When he came before the magistrate, and was asked to give his version of events, he explained that he had simply been walking behind the two gentlemen, quickly, but with nothing unlawful in mind. They had stopped so suddenly that he had bumped into them, at which they had turned and struck him. When he had protested they had struck him again. He had then run off, pursued by cries of “Stop thief!”.
At this point Dickens said again that he thought that he had seen the young man in the House of Correction, in reply to which Ahern said that in that case he, Dickens, must have been in prison himself. In fact, he went on, he knew both the gentlemen well as members of the swell mob. And he added—to the obvious amusement of the court—that they got their living by buying stolen goods.
“And I recollect him at the prison”—Ahern was pointing at Dickens—“where he was put in for six months, while I was there for only two.”
The magistrate handed down a sentence of three months in Coldbath Fields with hard labour. He had been unimpressed by the attempt to discredit the two eminent men of letters, and he made it clear that the young pickpocket had only avoided a high court trial, with the possibility of transportation, by failing to find anything in Lemon’s pocket.
And so Cornelius Ahern was taken away in a police van to the House of Correction. He had been born into a Catholic family in about 1830 in Ratcliffe Highway, the road running from Shadwell to Limehouse in the East End of London. His mother, Margaret, who was in her mid-thirties when he was born, came from Ireland. Nothing is known about Cornelius’s father, beyond the fact that he had already died when the 1851 census was taken. At that time Margaret was living in Burying Ground Passage off Marylebone High Street, where she was the domestic servant of a bricklayer’s labourer, who was also from Ireland. Cornelius too was a labourer, although at one time or another he described himself more precisely as a plasterer or a mason. In prison records his degree of instruction—his education—was classified “imperfect”.
By a curious coincidence Dickens had explored the relationship between illiteracy and criminality in the course of his prison visits. In 1846, in a letter published in The Daily News, he commented on the sight of male prisoners in the House of Correction being taught to read:
The contrast of this labour in the men, with the less blunted quickness of the boys; the latent shame and sense of degradation struggling through their dull attempts at infant lessons; and the universal eagerness to learn, impress me, in this passing retrospect, more painfully than I can tell.
But he was less generous in his depiction of a juvenile pickpocket being sentenced at the Old Bailey to transportation, which appeared in Sketches by Boz. The thirteen-year-old boy tries to argue his way out of trouble, but his arguments are disingenuous, and his tears are a sham.
Like the boy in Boz, and indeed like the “dodger” in Oliver Twist, Ahern had started his criminal career at an early age. His repertoire was decidedly varied, and by the time of the Mark Lemon affair he had been charged not only with picking pockets but also with stealing from gardens, assaulting the police, passing counterfeit money and—on a darker note—mugging children. However, he was not as artful as the fictional Jack Dawkins, and only weeks after serving time for his botched attempt at picking Lemon’s pocket—and we are assuming that Lemon was telling the truth about the incident—he was brought before the Marylebone magistrate again.
But this time he was committed for trial at the Middlesex Sessions because there was material evidence of a crime, namely a two-shilling silk handkerchief. The victim was the remarkably named Bulkley John Mackworth Praed—a first-class cricketer, and member of the Marylebone Cricket Club—who had been walking along Great Cumberland Street with his wife when he felt what he called “a slight twitch” at his pocket. Catching Ahern trying to hide the stolen handkerchief, he had dragged him into a baker’s shop, where he had kept watch over him until a policeman arrived. Once again Ahern had his own version of events. He had seen a handkerchief fall out of Praed’s pocket, and, while attempting to return it to its rightful owner, had been rounded on. To be accused of stealing the handkerchief—“prigging the wipe”—was a travesty of justice.
But Ahern’s notoriety went before him, and on the 21st of August the Clerkenwell court, deciding that enough was enough, sentenced him to be transported for ten years.
He was held in Coldbath Fields until he was transferred to Millbank at the end of November, where he remained for nine months. From Millbank he went first to Portland in Dorset, and then to the Sterling Castle, a convict hulk at Portsmouth. By the end of 1851 he had been moved to Dartmoor. Finally, in the autumn of 1852, he was put on board the Dudbrook at Plymouth with fifty-three other convicts. Australia now loomed.
The Dudbrook, a 601-ton barque, had already collected convicts from the hulks at Woolwich and from the prisons at Portsmouth, Portland and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. In total she carried two hundred and twenty-nine convicts. She sailed on the 9th of November, and after a voyage of seventy-seven days reached Fremantle in Western Australia on the 2nd of February in the year 1853. And there Cornelius Ahern disappeared from sight. We know that he had a ticket of leave—possibly granted for his record of good behaviour in the months prior to departure—which gave him a degree of freedom of movement. But where he went, what he did, and what ultimately became of him remains a mystery. After all, Australia is a pretty big place.
He disappeared from the lives of Mark Lemon and Charles Dickens, too. No doubt they would have said that the young ne’er-do-well had got his just deserts. One wonders, though, what the man who railed against social injustice would have said if he had seen the forlorn Ahern on board the Dudbrook. He was still only twenty-three years old, and oval of face, and fresh of complexion. His fellow-passengers were a rough lot, their bodies bearing witness to their crimes, but also to their deprivations. One man had a skin deeply pitted with small pox. Another had scars running across his nose and under his chin. A third had lost the three middle fingers of his left hand. Ahern had but a tattoo of a heart on his right arm. Why does a man have a tattoo of a heart? He was unmarried. Maybe it reminded him of a girl he had once known. Or of his mother, Margaret, who having lost a husband now lost a son.
My research for this post was carried out largely in contemporary newspapers. Other important sources were censuses and prison records. The image on the home page shows two young Victorian convicts, ten-year-old George Davey, who stole two rabbits, and twelve-year-old John Hearne, who stole eleven pieces of leather. They were both sentenced to one month in prison with hard labour. Photographs © National Archives
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