The Adventures of the Wandle Pirates
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 10 JANUARY 2022
Picture the quintessential pirate. He is likely to be a man sporting a black curly wig à la King Charles and a full beard, and possibly accessorised with an eye patch, a wooden leg or a voluble parrot who shrieks ‘pieces of eight.’ He is brutal, amoral and greedy, and he cares little for the suffering of those who stand in the way of his gaining riches.
The seven seas are his hunting grounds, which is why newspaper reports about a band of pirates based in South London might come as a surprise. But in this case one might go as far as to say that the cut of their jib was somewhat different from that of the archetypal buccaneer.
The Wandle Pirates, as they were known, had certainly never sailed any of the seven seas at this point in their criminal careers, and they had probably not even left the small area of Wandsworth they called their own: bound by the Thames to the north, Wandsworth Common to the east, Tooting to the south and the River Wandle to the west.
Infesting the Wandle
The Wandle runs through South London from its source near Croydon to meet the Thames at Wandsworth. Historically it provided the power that led to the development of many industries, such as flour, paper, tobacco and snuff mills, textile printing works and brewing. While parents laboured nearby, the river served as a playground for children enjoying the days of freedom — all too few — before they too joined the working population.
Although South London was developing quickly with housing and industry, the riverside remained semi-rural and was quite removed from the prying eyes of the authorities. Consequently the activities of the infamous gang of pirates, who ‘infested the banks of the Wandle’, according to the local police magistrate, Charles Francis, went unchecked. The little children innocently playing by the water’s edge — the natural victims of the young pirates — were never entirely safe from harm.
The gang of four
The gang consisted of four denizens of Iron Mill Road: two twelve-year-olds, Henry Hunt and Robert Symes, a ten-year-old, George Harold, and a nine-year-old, Sidney Saintey. Tagging along with them was an eight-year-old, James Johnson, who lived in nearby Bendon Valley, a road that led down to the river. They were all pupils at Garratt Lane School, including James, who had recently moved from the infants to the senior department.
Of course they differed from Blackbeard, the Barbarossa brothers and even the less hirsute Sir Francis Drake in one respect at least, and that was the sporting of facial hair. At their age it was no use hankering after beards and moustaches. Nor was there any mention of eye patches, peglegs or parrots. However, the boys had tattoos, which identified them as belonging to a particular crew. These had no doubt been engraved with needles ‘borrowed’ from their mothers and inscribed with ink from school.
But during the dog days of summer their alma mater was closed for the holidays, and, as they were working-class lads, they were unlikely to visit the seaside. Instead they were expected to entertain themselves outside all day, leaving their mothers to get on with their paid work — some of them were washerwomen — or to look after younger children. And it was indeed in the summer, in the year 1896, that the Wandle Pirates found themselves in trouble with the law and infamous far beyond the limits of their familiar stomping ground.
What happened was this. Two friends, Ernest Budd and Arthur Sweet, aged eleven and ten, were walking across Southfields towards the Wandle. Ernest lived on East Hill in Wandsworth, and Arthur in Florence Road in Wimbledon. At that time they would have been regarded as a ‘better class of boy’, as their fathers both worked in the printing industry: Mr Budd was a print finisher, and Mr Sweet managed a print works. By contrast the Iron Mill Road boys were the children of manual labourers. They must have been aware that their circumstances and life chances differed from those of Master Budd and Master Sweet, for these were class-ridden times.
The Wandle Pirates held up the two boys, relieving Ernest of a toy pistol and a handkerchief and Arthur of a toy ship and a handkerchief. One may disapprove of but still understand the desire to steal toys. But why they wanted the handkerchiefs is anyone’s guess. Imagine — if you can bear to — the state of hankies belonging to two young boys!
Well, Ernest and Arthur reported the theft. The local police, led by Inspector Charles Colgan, knew where the responsibility lay. Indeed, they were fed up with the antics of the gang, and on 6 August The Ross Gazette quoted Colgan as saying that
the police received daily complaints of respectable boys being molested by the gang … when they went to play cricket or sail their boats on the Wandle.
Crime and punishment
Colgan and his sidekicks, determined to put an end to this state of affairs, patrolled the Wandle in search of the gang. Scaling an eight-foot wall they found the ‘pirates’ sitting around a campfire. They were enjoying an after-crime cigarette, although all was not sweetness and light, as there had previously been some fisticuffs to decide who would take possession of the pistol. Seeing the police the boys made a run for it, some even charging into the river to escape. But their flight was in vain, for they were apprehended and taken to the Wandsworth Police Court to appear before the magistrate.
In the dock under Mr Francis’s gimlet gaze the brave pirates crumbled, dissolving into tears. The magistrate discharged eight-year-old James Johnson, the son of a Wandsworth costermonger, as there was no evidence that he had taken part in the robbery. The remaining lads sobbed loudly when after a stern telling-off each was sentenced to six strokes of the birch cane. They sobbed even more loudly when each was taken from the dock to a nearby room to receive his six of the best. The cries of pain were clearly heard in the courtroom.
Press reactions to this story varied. Some accounts were humorous and made much of the pirate sobriquet. There was even some sympathy for them, for they were only children. Others, though, bemoaned their juvenile delinquency and looked for something to blame for what was seen as yet another example in a tide of youthful bad behaviour.
Cheap and nasty
Nor did they have far to look, for a few days after the Budd and Sweet incident another member of the gang, twelve-year-old George Allen, was charged with leading an attack on a thirteen-year-old boy, Henry Goult, who was playing in a field near the Wandle when he was suddenly pelted with stones and bricks. Commenting on the case The Bristol Times and Mirror of 14 August 1896 stated that
there can be no doubt in the mind of any impartial person that the literary horrors served up for the ill-trained child must be injurious. Schoolboys of a better class may read such twaddle without being influenced by it. Boys of an ignorant and vicious nature are, however, stimulated to evil actions by this cheap trash which is so general.
The outraged writer of this piece was of course referring to the ‘penny dreadfuls’, the cheap serial publications, aimed at youths, which contained exciting and blood-curdling stories of criminals, adventurers and daring-do. There was even one called Wild Will and the Pirates of the Thames, which is interesting in light of the particular activities of the Wandsworth gang. In more recent times we have seen the internet, video games, horror videos and rock music lyrics held responsible for all manner of misdemeanours and crimes committed by young folk. Well, these were the Victorian equivalent.
Contemporary newspapers blamed penny dreadfuls for a wide variety of crimes. When thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes was put on trial in 1895 for stabbing his mother to death, his love of this reading matter was emphasised. And in the previous year The Ipswich Journal had reported that at the trial of fifteen-year-old Harry Clarke, a shop assistant charged with attacking the manager of the Hadleigh Co-operative Stores with a mallet, his counsel argued that
pernicious literature was at the bottom of this crime. The boy had been in the habit of reading what are known as penny dreadfuls, and, as not infrequently happened with young people, his mind became over-balanced by the stories.
This ‘pernicious literature’ was held up as the cause of thefts and robberies, as in the case of two youngsters from Liverpool who were inspired by what they had read to steal twenty-nine pounds, intending to use the money to get to Australia for a spot of bushwhacking. The dreadfuls were even blamed for suicides and arson attacks.
Not so bad after all
But I am pleased to report that, in spite of the supposed pernicious influence of the dreadfuls, the pirates were not led into lives of habitual crime. After finishing at Garratt Lane School they worked as bricklayers, dustmen, labourers and delivery men. They fought for their country during the First World War, and at least two of them returned to the small patch of South London where they had grown up, there to bring up their own families.
Sidney Saintey — one of ten siblings — became a builder’s labourer. During the First World War he served in the Prince of Wales’s Company Labour Corps in France. After the war he lived in Knowsley Road in Battersea with his wife Jessie. He died there in 1963.
Henry Hunt — the son of a bricklayer and a laundress — lived in Iron Mill Road until at least 1901. He worked as a labourer at McMurray’s Royal Paper Mills in Wandsworth before joining the Militia and transferring to the Royal Field Artillery. After the war he went back to work as a labourer and joined the Reserves. But he then disappears in a sea of Henry and Harry Hunts.
Joining the fight
George Harrold was also the son of a bricklayer and a laundress. After leaving school he too worked as a bricklayer before joining up in 1915 and being sent to France in August 1916. Barely a month later he saw action in the Battle of Morval — part of the Somme offensive — and was wounded.
A year later he was discharged from the army as no longer fit for combat: like many of his fellow soldiers he was suffering from shellshock. He returned to Wandsworth, where with his wife Gertrude he moved to Wandle House in Twilley Street, which was only a very short walk from Iron Mill Road. He died in 1962, and now lies in Wandsworth Cemetery with Gertrude at his side.
Dodging the fight
Robert Symes was the son of a ‘hammerman’ or blacksmith. After school he worked as a carman — a delivery driver — and then for a florist and nurseryman by the name of Robert Neal. He was brave enough to enlist at the very beginning of the First World War. Unfortunately he appears to have regretted this immediately, and he went on to have a very chequered military career, with frequent punishments for failing to obey orders and for desertion.
He was sent to Egypt for the remainder of his service, only to be infected with malaria. After the war he returned to Wandsworth to work as a dustman and to live in Wardley Street, which was just off Garrett Lane, and a short distance from George Harrold.
As for their victims, poor Ernest Budd died aged only fifteen. Arthur Sweet started life as a mining engineer’s clerk and later became a horticultural draughtsman.
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