A Trio of Battersea Boy Thieves

Photograph of children playing round a lamp post in 1910. © London Picture Archive

In April 1899 Police Constable 390 W was walking the beat in North Street, a thoroughfare that runs from Wandsworth Road to Old Town Clapham.  He spotted a stationary van—a covered wagon that was used for transporting goods and people—and thinking that there was something odd about it he took a closer look.  Inside the van were three young boys curled up and fast asleep.  Alongside was an empty wicker basket and the remains of a feast. On being woken the boys admitted, with no dissembling, that they had been on a shoplifting spree and had made their way into the van to eat their ill-gotten gains.

Justice was quickly dispensed, and the trio found themselves appearing in the juvenile division of the South Western Magistrates Court on a charge of being in unlawful possession of a quantity of eatables.  They were lucky, as before the 1847 Juvenile Offences Act children under fourteen would have been tried in an adult court and punished as adults, and even sent to adult prisons.  Being asked by the magistrate if they had anything to say, the boys sang like proverbial canaries, and admitted to stealing from a shop on nearby Lavender Hill.

Advert for Pears’ Soap.  Credit: Wellcome Collection.  CC BY

A COSTLY BAR OF SOAP
Eight-year-old Gussie Fitzgerald proudly told how he had taken three bottles of lemon squash, a jar of jam, a loaf of bread and three oranges.  The newspaper reports described Gussie, who sounds like a forerunner of Just William, as speaking “laconically”!  To the amusement of the court his older brother John Fitzgerald, aged nine, admitted—shrilly—that he had stolen a bar of soap.  Soap was perhaps a strange thing for a child to take: it did not fall under the definition of an “eatable”, and it was obviously not intended for the feast.

The third boy—eleven-year-old James Stothard—said that he had taken a single egg.  So was little Gussie the ringleader, or had it been agreed that he would take the rap?  Although children from the age of eight could be held criminally responsible, the boys might have thought that Gussie would get into less trouble.  And things worked out well for the Fitzgerald brothers, as they were let off with an admonition, although one suspects that they got a beating at home.  But James Stothard—he of the egg—was not so lucky.  He was remanded into the care of the workhouse, and sent to an industrial school in Feltham in Middlesex.

AWAY FROM THE BAD EGGS
Why did James receive a more severe punishment than the Fitzgeralds?  Was he thought to be the mastermind, owing to his age?  Had he previously been in trouble?  Was he sent to Feltham to remove him from the bad influence of his friends and family?  He entered the school in 1899, and was there for at least two years, and possibly for longer. A lengthy absence from home was thought to give boys the opportunity to turn their lives around, and on release many went into the navy, or were sent to work as farm labourers far from the temptations of the city.

Middlesex Industrial Schools, Feltham, Middlesex: aerial scene.  Wood engraving by C.W. Sheeres, 1857, after Banks and Barry.  Credit: Wellcome Collection.  CC BY

Founded in 1854 the Feltham Industrial School could house up to seven hundred boys.  Facilities included an infirmary, workshops, a gas factory and a chapel.  Divided into groups of about fifty, the inmates shared common sleeping areas, school rooms, washing facilities and punishment cells. They were described as juvenile offenders, and could be made to stay until they were sixteen, and

of the 75 boys admitted in 1901 just two had been sent for begging, six for wandering, two were uncontrollable and the majority, 65, had been charged with offences punishable by imprisonment (Gilliam Carol Gear “Industrial schools in England, 1857-1933”, doctoral thesis, page 63).

OFF TO WAR
So what do we know about James before and after his brush with the law?  Born on the 4th of September 1887 James was one of six children born to George Stothard, a bricklayer, and his wife Sarah.  George was a native of Lincolnshire, and Sarah a local Battersea lass. The family can be found at various addresses in and around Battersea: 14 Wickersley Road, Arliss Road, St James Grove and elsewhere.  When James was three, he and two of his siblings were baptised at St Bartholomew’s Church in Wickersley Road, and in 1893 he started at Sleaford Street School.

Photograph of 40-42 Lavender Hill, near Wickersley Road, in 1904. © London Picture Archive

At some stage after leaving Feltham James moved to Andover to work as a house painter.  His parents were both dead by 1909, so possibly there was no reason for him to return to Battersea.  In 1916 he was conscripted, and he joined the Labour Corps of the Devonshire Regiment, who

cooked, cleaned, carried and cared for the soldiers on the front line and behind the lines. They built roads and railways, carried the wounded and buried the dead (The Western Front Association).

The men in the Corps were those who were not A1 fit.  To be A1 they needed to be able to march, to see to shoot, to hear well and to stand active service conditions.  After a month of home training James was sent to France for the duration of the war, only being finally discharged in March 1919.  On his return, severely damaged by his military service, he was declared 30% disabled.  His condition is recorded both as neurasthenia—shell shock—and a “disordered action of the heart”—stress syndrome.  He was awarded a pension of eight shillings and three pence, and, like many of the men ruined by war, he was sent back to an ordinary civilian life.

In 1939 James is still working as a painter and living in Andover at 88 South Street, lodging with Albert and Phoebe Shrimpton.  He died unmarried in 1952 aged 64.  Perhaps James would always have lived what sounds like a lonely life, with no family of his own, or even as part of his wider family.  I cannot help wondering what his life would have been like if he had just received a caution—like the other two boys—and had then been returned to his family.

THE OTHER TWO
And what of the Fitzgerald brothers?  Gussie—Michael Augustine or Augustine Michael—and John were two of six children born to Michael, who was a machinist from Barnstaple in Devon, and his wife Sarah, who was from Norfolk.  Like the Stothards they also moved around a lot. Gussie has been hard to find: neither he nor John are living with their family in 1901.  The 1911 census says that of the seven Fitzgerald children two are dead.  A sister died in 1908, and, as I have been able to trace them all except for Gussie, I assume that he was also dead.

John Thomas Fitzgerald did not stay in the bosom of his family for long after his caution for shoplifting: he was sent to St Vincent’s Industrial School for Roman Catholic Boys in Dartford in Kent in November 1904.  Was this because he was trouble, or did it have something to do with the fact that his parents had separated after more than twenty years of marriage?

Basra War Cemetery.

John’s later career suggests he was a troubled young man.  In 1905, aged fourteen, and measuring five feet with brown hair and grey eyes and a fresh complexion, he enlisted as an army bandsman with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.  By September 1909 he had deserted, only to re-join two months later.  At the beginning of 1912 he deserted yet again, and was only found several months later when he was apprehended for a civilian theft.  This time the army had had enough, and he was discharged.

A LONG WAY FROM BATTERSEA
At the very start of the First World War John joined up yet again, this time with the East Kent Regiment, which was known as the Buffs.  He was twenty-five years and seven months old, and he had grown to five feet four inches, but his army career yet again hit the rocks when after only two weeks he was discharged as not likely to be a good soldier.  In 1915 John joined up again.  Within days he had absconded en route to his first posting.   Perhaps he was reluctuant to embrace the military life because he had a presentiment of things to come.  For he was soon found, and less than a year later, having been sent abroad with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, he died.  The date was the 1st of August 1916, and the place was Mesopotamia—now Iraq—and there in the war cemetery in Basra he was laid to rest.

© london-overlooked 2019

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