Browsing the Calendar of Prisoners Index, as you do, I came across an entry which intrigued me. The crime was listed as ‘Assault and Rescue of a Prisoner’.1 Now, I was envisaging a daring and desperate prison-break, like you’d see in the movies – all dynamite and getaway horses. Of course, the reality is never what you expect…2
A fowl deed
On 13th November 1857, Nathan Smith, aged 19, had been drinking. At about 4.30pm, he got into a conversation with the landlord of the Rugby Tavern, a man named William Henry Hawkins. It seems Mr. Hawkins was in possession of a rather fine young game cock – a cockerel well suited for fighting (although cockfighting was illegal by this date). Mr. Smith wanted to buy it – to what end we know not – but Mr. Hawkins refused to sell.
Nathan Smith was not to be deterred. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Hawkins spotted him walking down the road ‘with a fowl in his possession’. I’m not sure how he thought he would get away with carrying off a cockerel in broad daylight, but there we are! Mr. Hawkins intervened, taking the bird away, telling Mr. Smith to ‘go about his business’, and giving him a kick for good measure.
Things turned ugly
It was then that things turned a bit ugly. Three Mr. Fletchers – Henry, James and Charles – were nearby. Henry and his two sons must have seen the citizen’s arrest, and were having none of it. They set upon Mr. Hawkins; one of them knocked him twice to the ground with their stick, and the rest began beating him.
Presumably they somehow managed to ‘rescue’ Mr. Smith from his captor, but it was all in vain – he was later apprehended by Police Constable Wright.
Mr. Smith was given an excellent character reference in court. His defence was that he had been drinking and didn’t mean to steal the bird, but to take it on a ‘spree’. Unfortunately, this didn’t entirely impress the jury – his actions earned him six weeks imprisonment with hard labour (although it could have been worse).
As for the Fletchers, their desperate gambit backfired in the end – if they had intended to save Mr. Smith from imprisonment, they failed in their task. In fact, each was slapped with a hefty 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.
What were the Fletchers doing outside the Rugby Tavern? Did they think they were rescuing a friend, or simply getting involved in a street brawl? Did they know the bird was stolen by Mr. Smith, or did they think Mr. Hawkins was stealing it himself? Maybe it was all an illegal cockfighting ring and they were in on the gig? Would they have got involved if they knew it would land them in prison for a whole year? We will never know. But one thing we do know – drunkenly stealing a cockerel is never going to end well…!
1 Warwickshire County Record Office, Quarter Sessions, document reference QS 26/2/bundle 6
2 Leamington Courier, 10 January 1857