A Stolen Waistcoat on the Canal

Footpath from Rugby to Brownsover village over the Oxford canal by the Wooden bridge. 1900
IMAGE LOCATION: (Rugby Library)
Reference: RUG, T. 386. 48. 7., img: 6072
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Imagine the scene: it was midnight on 1st August 1876 and Hugh Glover, a boatman from Gloucester, was busy getting through a lock on the canal at Aston. He was leading his horse along the tow path, when a man came up to him and tried to persuade him to buy a donkey for 4s. He refused and the man asked for 6d, which he said he hadn’t got. There was a small gang of youths with the man on the tow path. Here’s an extract from Glover’s evidence:

The Prisoner and the others put the donkey onto the deck of the Boat and afterwards pushed him into the Canal. The Prisoner then came to me on the lock side and hit me in the mouth. He said I’ll drown you, I ran for a Policeman, he followed me, I escaped from him. He pushed the horse into the Canal. 1

The steerer of the boat, Frederick Freeman from near Gloucester, was on a plank steering the boat out of the lock. The Prisoner and his gang jumped into the cabin of the boat. Two of them walked Frederick along the plank and shoved him into the canal. He scrambled back onto the boat and saw the Prisoner leaving the cabin. ‘I fired a pistol to call the Police and I found two Policemen. In the meantime the Prisoner and the others got away.’

Stolen Waistcoat

When Glover got back on the boat he found his red plush waistcoat was missing from the cabin. The next morning another boatman – James Ballinger of Thimblemill Lane, Aston – saw William Johnson at Gravelly Hill wearing a red plush waistcoat. In the evening, Ballinger went with local Police Constable John Miller to point out Johnson who was sitting on the side of a boat. The policeman got onto the boat whereupon Johnson jumped onto the tow path and then into the canal. PC Miller ‘told the Prisoner he might as well come out of the Canal as I should wait for him’. He arrested Johnson and charged him with assaulting Glover and stealing the waistcoat.

The Court Case

The formal charge against William Johnson was for stealing a waistcoat worth £1 2s 6d. It’s an interesting reflection on the values of the time that he was not charged with assault: property appears to have been more important than people. In normal times I would check a document at the County Record Office to find out what happened to William Johnson in Court, but during the present lockdown I cannot visit so will just have to leave you wondering – watch this space for an update!

I found this fascinating case whilst working for the County Record Office’s Warwickshire Bytes project (in order to help keep me occupied during the pandemic). Volunteers work at home indexing documents including depositions: evidence relating to cases heard at 19th-century Quarter Sessions in Warwick and Coventry. These depositions include evidence from the victim, witnesses and police officers and – as you can see – give a unique insight into colourful local life at the time.

1 Quarter Session Deposition: Warwickshire County Record Office, QS 30/53/4 case 12. 

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