Of Chickens and Feather Beds

The King vs John Heath.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS 30/01 Epiphany 1824.

What do chickens and feather beds have in common? Well, not much apart from the fact that chickens are a type of bird, and feather beds utilise feathers from the bird family. In 1823, however, they held another connection: they were both components of a series of unconnected but bizarre crimes between October and November in Warwickshire.

Lying on a table…[were] two dead fowls.1

This was the scene Joseph Chillingsworth, constable of Aston, walked in on the 19th October 1823 at the house of Mrs Perry, a widow.

Two prisoners (William Perry, 19, and Jacob Perry, 17), incidentally the sons of Mrs Perry, were standing behind the table. They claimed no one else was in the house after Chillingsworth asked them. However, just then he heard a noise of fowls coming from the cellar, noises “as if they were being killed” and immediately rushed off to the direction of the cellar. He met the other two prisoners (John Heath, 19, and William Wilkes, 19) coming up from the cellar, and then recovered the bodies of four chickens.

A ludicrous crime?

It may seem a faintly ludicrous crime now, but at the time crimes of this nature were treated seriously, partly because animals and livestock of this sort were part of the livelihood of people. If their livelihood was lost, and the victim was unable to support themselves, they became the responsibility of the parish – something the parish wanted to avoid at all costs. Due to this crimes of this nature were a felony, and in this case the persons responsible all received Transportation punishments for 7 years.2

The question is, why did these teenagers do it? The fact that all four prisoners were young, and two of them in question were the sons of Mrs Perry, the victim, suggests that the motive was not money or sustenance (as was often the case).
Similarly, in a case exactly a month later in Birmingham, John Loveday, 20, was caught stealing (with help from Jarratt Stevens, 19, Benjamin Grittus, 15, and John Bird, 17) a feather bed from his own house.3 Various neighbours noted that it was done while it was still light outside, suggesting that Loveday did not care if he was caught.

A strange case

It’s a strange case, especially since the bed was moved to the house of Ann Bayliss, one of the witnesses of the crime. When William Goodwin (a watchman of Birmingham) apprehended Loveday at around 11 o’clock at night, he (Loveday) reportedly laughed and said he didn’t care. In the calendar of prisoners database, records show that all four prisoners were acquitted of the crime,4 suggesting that the crime was less serious in nature, though it is still classed as a felony on the deposition. This indicates that it may have been a small act of rebellion or, perhaps even a prank.

The two crimes share similarities – the prisoners include the children of the victim – but also differences in the types of crime. The chickens were murdered, a serious crime because that affected a persons’ livelihood. This was a situation unable to be reversed whilst the feather bed was stolen but returned. This may have been why the sentencing in both cases were so different, even if the intentions motivating the crimes in both cases may have been similar.


1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference QS 30/01, Epiphany
2 Calendar of Prisoners database, 1824
3 QS 30/01 Epiphany
4 Prisoner of Calendar database, 1824

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