Piracy on the Wandle Again

Two men angling on the River Wandle.  Etching by John Mallows Youngman.  © British Museum

Police Inspector Shaw and Detective Sergeant Morley of Wandsworth’s V Division were concerned with a series of thefts that had taken place on their patch during the last month of 1890.  The locus of the crimes was the abandoned yard of Messrs Bell’s Match Factory at 94 South Street.  They quickly deduced that the thief was entering the site via the River Wandle, which flowed past the edge of the yard on its way to the Thames.

Richard Bell & Company Wax Match Manufacturers occupied a four acre plot that consisted of warehouses, offices, stables, machine rooms and an on-site manager’s house.  At one time up to five hundred operatives were employed in Wandsworth, Bell’s being only second in size to Bryant and May’s.  But by 1890 the site was largely deserted.  Bell’s had moved to new premises at Bromley-by-Bow, the centre of East London’s match-making district.  In 1887 it formed a new subsidiary company, trading from the old Wandsworth site, called both the Wax Vesta Company and the Fusee Vesta Company.

The following year was an annus horribilis for the match industry, although for the workers employed in it — largely women and girls — every year was horrible.  In July 1888 workers at Bryant and May went on strike to bring to public consciousness their awful working conditions, which included poor pay and the threat to their health from handling the dangerous white phosphorus used to make matches.  At the time Bell’s was seen as a marginally better employer, but it too would be hit by strikes in 1894.  Before that, though, on a Saturday night in October 1888, the large two-storey workroom on the Wandsworth site was destroyed by fire.  The site was largely deserted for the next two years.

Perfect reading matter for boys with a sense of adventure.  Image in the Aldine Publishing Company Aldine “O’er Land and Sea”. Library (1890) page 141.

Joseph Bussell, a foreman at the factory, was employed to dismantle the fire damaged sheds by the river, and to reassemble them with a view to getting the factory fully operational again.  On Wednesday the 10th of December 1890 he discovered his office had been broken into, and that two paint kettles, three brushes, three pounds of paint, one oil lamp and three pairs of hinges had been taken.  As December continued there were almost weekly thefts, and in the week following the first burglary a hammer, a saw and nails — the property of workmen assisting Bussell with the renovations — were also lifted.

Returning to work on Monday the 29th of December, Bussell discovered the most audacious theft yet.  Fifteen metres of corrugated iron, some forty metres of wooden boarding, and a portion of stove pipe had gone missing.  Shockingly the thief had stolen these items over the Christmas period.

Shaw and Morley investigated the site.  Something they saw or something they heard gave them a firm idea of who was responsible, and that person, they were determined, would be held accountable.  Wandsworth was a heavily industrialised area with paper mills, a starch manufactory, firework factories and a gas works, and the owners of these concerns, who employed many a local resident, would expect the police to act fast, and hard.

The policemen proceeded to the premises of the Wandsworth and District Gas Company, which was situated close to the river near Wandsworth railway station.  Their suspect was quickly identified as a messenger by the name of George Tillman, who was forty-one years of age.  Tillman indignantly denied stealing anything, and, concerned to clear his name, said that the police could search his home, even though they did not have a warrant.

Tillman lived with his wife and five children at 2 Skinners Row, a small cottage only a hundred yards along the river from Bell’s factory at 68 South Street.  Skinners Row is no more, for South Street, which started at Wandsworth High Street, was later incorporated into Garratt Lane.  The tiny back yard led down to the Wandle and housed a small wooden shed.  The shed had walls of wooden boards, and a roof made of corrugated iron clearly marked as the property of R. Bell & Co, and in the shed they discovered the stolen tools. George Tillman continued to deny any knowledge of or involvement in the crime, but the police had clear evidence, and were persuaded neither by his pleas of ignorance nor by his clean record.

One of the policemen, wondering how Tillman transported the stolen goods from Bell’s,  noticed a home-made punt in the yard of the next-door house at number 70 South Street.  He went to speak to its owner, a fifteen-year-old telegraph boy called Herbert Segrott who lived in the house with his father — a coal and coke dealer — his mother and his two much younger siblings.  As a result of this conversation a number of people, including Segrott and George Tillman, were rounded up and taken into custody at the local police station.

The others were George’s son Albert Tillman, a diminutive lad of sixteen who had just started a new job in the flour mill, James Attwood, a fifteen-year-old who lived at 20 South Street with his parents and worked at the Orlando Jones & Co.’s starch works, and Charles Gardner, an errand boy aged fourteen who lived with his widowed mother at 4 Helier Terrace on Merton Road.  The boys were close friends who had all attended Garrett Lane School.  They had spent their young lives in Wandsworth, and they claimed the polluted and industrialised River Wandle as their playground.

The gang of five were held overnight in the police cells, and the next day, which was Tuesday the 30th of December, they were brought up before the police court.  Mrs Tillman and her lodger, Richard Mortimer, arrived desperate to explain the circumstances of the theft, but they were refused entry.  To the surprise of many, what seemed like a series of minor crimes committed by people who had never been in trouble before, which would normally be dealt with by a magistrate, were to be tried at the next sessions court.  Until that date the defendants would be held in custody in Holloway Prison in north London.

Holloway Prison.  Photograph dated c.1896.

Sergeant Morley, dressed in plain clothes, stealthily approached the youngest boy, Charles Gardner, and explained that charges against him could be dropped if he gave evidence against the others.  A refusal would see him going to prison.  Charles, the only child of a sick-nurse who he knew relied on his meagre earnings, agreed and was promptly discharged.

Before the police van took them to Holloway, the families of Attwood and Segrott managed to raise the bail, which was set at ten pounds — equivalent to over a thousand pounds now — and the lads were released into their custody.  The Tillmans were not so fortunate, for they were taken to prison, leaving Mrs Tillman with the care of four younger children, and with no money coming in — a worrying and desperate situation.

On New Year’s Day a local cowkeeper called Nash came forward with the thirty pounds bail needed to free George Tillman, who had once worked for him, from Holloway.  Although George found on his release that he had been suspended from his job at the gas works until after the trial, his colleagues offered support.  The Secretary wrote him a glowing character reference, and his workmates clubbed together with a gift of money to tide the family over.

Nobody offered bail for young Albert Tillman, who remained in Holloway until the trial.

On Friday the 16th of January the case came up at the Newington Butts Sessions before Mr George Somes, with Mr Alfred Beamish prosecuting for the Crown, and Mr William Marcus Thompson acting for the defence. The boys were charged with theft, and George Tillman with feloniously receiving stolen goods.

The exterior of the Pirates’ Den.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 17 January 1891.

The sorry tale began in the summer of 1890 when the old Spread Eagle Assembly Rooms in Wandsworth High Street were demolished — they would be rebuilt as the public house that still exists in about 1898.  Albert Tillman and Herbert Segrott had managed to scavenge some wood that was being thrown away, and with this the resourceful Segrott made a small punt, which they would use to sail the Wandle.

During each Sunday in December, when they were not at work, various members of the gang went to Bell’s using the punt and a makeshift raft.  Albert Tillman appears to have been the ringleader, with Charles Gardner and Herbert Segrott his loyal lieutenants, and James Attwood a slightly unwilling fourth member.

The driving factor behind these criminal forays appears to have been the desire to create a den or clubhouse.  In the Tillmans’ backyard were the remains of an old summer house with one side completely open to the river.  Albert decided to modify it into an enclosed cabin, which would provide his gang with privacy from parental eyes, and an inviting alternative meeting place to the Wandle in the colder months of the year.  In his evidence Albert’s younger brother, William, described the building of the cabin using the spoils from Bell’s.  The wooden boards were used for walls, and the corrugated iron provided an excellent roof for what was called The Pirates’ Den, or so the newspapers claimed.

The cabin came into its own on Christmas Day 1890 when it was filled with boys partaking of hot drinks and roasted chestnuts .  Presumably the purloined bricks were used to form a hearth, and Segrott, whose father was a coal merchant, no doubt provided the fuel.  William Tillman demanded entry — the shed was in his garden, after all — but to his annoyance admission was denied by his big brother Albert, on the grounds that there was no room.  During the trial William’s simmering resentment was clear for all to see, and it was reported with relish by the assembled journalists.

The interior of the Pirates’ Den.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 17 January 1891.

Character witnesses were called, and nobody had a bad word to say about any of the defendants.  A Mrs Amelia Marsh of East Hill in Wandsworth told how she had employed Albert before he left to go to the flour mill.  This paragon was conscientious, polite and always willing to help.  He frequently expressed his desire to join the navy, and liked reading adventure books.

What also came out was Morley’s heavy-handed and coercive treatment of the Crown’s witness, Charles Gardner, although the sergeant denied using threats.  Mr Thompson, the defence barrister, then asked Gardner if the boys had read Robinson Crusoe together — presumably referring not to Defoe’s book but to a “penny dreadful” series published by Edwin John Brett — as it was a common defence tactic at the time to try and pin the blame on the corrupting influence of literature, a theme I have explored in my Wandle Pirates and The Modern Jack Sheppard articles.  Not receiving a satisfactory answer from Gardner, Thompson expressed the hope that the jury would recognise that “going up the river in a boat and a raft” the boys had themselves constructed was “only the outcome of the love of adventures which were inherent in all British lads”.  Then for good measure he appealed to the jury — “a British jury” — to accept that the boys, none of whom had been in trouble before, were just indulging in a “harmless freak”.  In response  Mr Beamish said that he would not be challenging the boys’ characters — but they were still guilty of theft.

Not the “penny dreadful” but the original story.  Image in Daniel Defoe The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1884 edition) page 11.

And what of the charge against George Tillman of feloniously receiving stolen goods?  His defence was ignorance, that he knew neither that the items had been taken by the boys, nor that they were stored in his back garden.  The prosecution argued that this was unlikely given the miniscule size of the yard, but the loyal lodger Mortimer, finally getting his day in court, defended Tillman.  He explained that George — who would probably have worked Monday to Saturday as was the practice in the nineteenth century — left the house at about six in the morning.  He rarely returned home before eight in the evening, and sometimes not until eleven at night.  Of course, this defence supposed that George did not look out of the window on Sundays.  Everyone said that he was a quiet and steady fellow who was in regular employment: before starting at the gas factory he had worked for a local greengrocer for twenty years.

The recorder, Mr Somes, said in summing up that the jury must decide if the defendants had stolen from Bells.  Did they intend to keep the items or to return them?  They also needed to decide if George Tillman had known about the items.  I think that we would agree that strictly speaking they had stolen the items.  Returning them might have been difficult, as the boards and corrugated iron were by now attached to the walls of the Den with the purloined nails. But as Bell’s factory had been abandoned for some two years, they probably believed that no one had any use for the items.  After a lengthy trial — five hours — all the defendants were found not guilty and released.

And afterwards?  George Tillman went back to his family at 2 Skinners Row and his job at the gas company.  He died nine years later in 1900 aged only fifty.  But his son Albert got his wish for adventure, for a few months after the trial, on the night of the 1891 census, he was on HMS Ganges, a Royal Navy training ship docked in Falmouth Harbour.  He served in the navy for ten years, during that time in 1896 he married a Camberwell girl called Eliza Esther Elsey.  He later worked as a driver for the borough council, while living with his wife and two sons in Peckham.  Like his father, he did not make old bones, and he died in the Camberwell workhouse infirmary in 1923 at the age of forty-nine.  He is buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery.

Photograph of HMS Ganges at Victoria in British Columbia.  Date unknown.

Herbert Segrott also joined the navy in 1891, and rose to the rank of petty officer.  From 1911 to his death in 1936 he served in the Royal Navy Coast Guard.  He is buried in Walmer in Kent.  But James Attwood joined the army, having graduated from the Duke of York Royal Military School, which was based at the Chelsea barracks.  In March 1895 he joined the Royal Artillery, serving at home and in India.  He left the military in 1904 to work as a labourer back in Wandsworth, and in 1906 he married Rose Elizabeth Lane Lee at St Mary’s Summerstown.  But in 1906 he enlisted in the army reserve, and later he served in the First World War.  He finally settling in 64 Garrett Lane, and worked as a builders labourer, dying in 1963.

Charles Gardner appears not to have left the Wandsworth/Battersea area.  Perhaps a life of adventure did not appeal to him.  Or perhaps his sense of duty to his widowed mother kept him local.  He worked as a butcher’s carman or delivery driver, married Elizabeth in 1897, and lived in Yelverton Road in Battersea until his death in 1962.
















The 20 kilometre Wandle Trail can easily be walked or cycled – in sections if you prefer – from East Croydon to where the river meets the Thames at Wandsworth.

A free map can be accessed by following this link.  For more details of the industry and ecology of the river, together with the route, see the book by Steel and Coleman referred to above.






The Wandle Industrial Museum is a small volunteer-run museum celebrating the industrial history of the river including the mills, the William Morris works, the Surrey iron railway.

© london-overlooked 2023


The Adventures of the Wandle Pirates

The Railway Children, or, A Moving Story of Youthful Heroism

A Riotous Affair, or, A Christmas Story from the Chelsea Workhouse

A Short Fuse, or, Robert Milnes Newton and the London Fireworks Brigade

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