Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury: How tragic Sarah paid a terrible price for seduction

Ross Gilfillan's book looks at Victorian London. 'Burglaries are rife, shoplifting is carried on in

Ross Gilfillan's book looks at Victorian London. 'Burglaries are rife, shoplifting is carried on in West End stores and people fall victim to all kinds of frauds and ingenious swindles. Pornographers proliferate...' - Credit: Archant

For a writer fascinated by the dark side of Victorian society, a chance discovery in a west Suffolk graveyard was more than Ross Gilfillan could have dreamed of. His new book takes STEVEN RUSSELL into the world of pickpockets, conmen and murderers

The pathetic tale of a Suffolk servant – “a slight girl with large, child-like eyes” – must in some small way have helped change Britain’s attitude to the death penalty, suggests a Sudbury author.

Sarah Lloyd was working for a woman in Hadleigh when she fell under the spell of plumber and joiner Joseph Clark. “He promises to marry her, but Clark’s attachment seems to have been formed for his own purposes,” Ross Gilfillan tells us in his new book, Crime and Punishment in Victorian London – A Street Level View of the City’s Underworld.

“He wants to rob Mrs Syer and, fatally, Sarah agrees to go along with his plan and lets Clark into her mistress’s house, where the trinkets are stolen and a small fire is started in the stairwell.”

Neighbours quickly put out the flames and Sarah is apprehended at her mother’s house nearby. The 21-year-old, said to be “a decent individual of good character”, is convicted of burglary.

“For reasons which remain unclear, Joseph Clark, very much the instigator of these crimes, is acquitted, while Sarah is condemned to death.”

A middle-aged lawyer and magistrate called Capel Lofft is shocked. He’s already forging a reputation among London’s political and literary elite for supporting a raft of radical causes “from American independence and the French Revolution to the nascent anti-slavery movement”.

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Horrified by what he sees as grave injustice, he launches a campaign – firing off letters to newspapers, starting a petition and seeking the backing of influential folk.

“Here, perhaps he sees not only a chance of saving a wronged and helpless girl, but the opportunity of making changes to the system of judicial punishment known as the Bloody Code.

“After long years in which some 200 crimes, many as paltry as Sarah’s, were punishable by death, the Code is on its last legs and might just need one last push.”

But it cuts no ice with the Duke of Portland, the Home Secretary, “who has confirmed the order for Sarah’s execution, on the grounds that ‘the object of punishment is example’.

“A change in the system at this time would have seemed a mad, dangerous move by many, the property-owning classes in particular. The last 30 years have been tumultuous and have seen too many people upsetting the social order and forgetting their places.”

On a wet and windy April morning in 1800, holding an umbrella, she’s taken by cart to Tay Fen fields, outside Bury St Edmunds. A big crowd waits.

“Sarah’s predicament has become something of a cause célèbre…” says Ross. “Capel Lofft makes a five-minute speech in which he denounces the government and what he sees as a travesty of justice – and wins the support of the crowd.

“Lofft must know that his inflammatory words will lose him his position as a magistrate, but Sarah’s case has excited his passions.”

He’s powerless, though.

The hangman completes his preparations, the cart moves off “and Sarah pitches forward. After a minute, she moves her hands to her chest, twice, and then is still”.

Ross says visitors to St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds can just about make out an epitaph on a wall in the graveyard. It says the stone chronicles the fall “of unguarded youth, by the allurements of vice and the treacherous snares of seduction”.

Sarah “suffered just but ignominious death” after becoming “the instrument… of the crimes of robbery and house burning. These were her last words: ‘May my example be a warning to thousands.’”

Ross believes the servant was playing a small and tragic part “in a slow movement of change” and says the first decades of the 1800s would bring “reductions in the enormous number of crimes punishable by death, discretionary powers handed to judges and alternative approaches to dealing with matters of crime and punishment”.

The 200 capital crimes on the books in 1800 had been cut to a handful by the middle of the 19th Century. “Criminals no longer upped their game on the grounds that they ‘might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ and juries were less likely to let off a man to avoid seeing him hang.

“Capital punishment continued to be applied, but executions (after 1868) no longer made grisly spectacles and provided free entertainment outside the walls of Newgate (the London prison).”

Sarah’s sad story is just one episode in the book, which draws on research by journalist Henry Mayhew and his articles about London’s poor and dispossessed. “It’s completely fascinating,” says Ross.

Mayhew’s colourful accounts spotlighted the lives of people like “pure” finders (who collected dog excrement for use by tanners) and the toshers (who crawled through sewers, looking for dropped coins).

There were also the bare-footed mudlarks – “children who risk septicaemia and disease on the muddy banks of the Thames in their search for bits of iron, lengths of old rope, lumps of coal or anything else which might turn a penny”.

Ross says his book “is likely to appeal to fans of TV’s Ripper Street, or readers of The Suspicions of Mister Whycher. It also seems to appeal to people involved in researching their family history. I’m told that 155 copies were sold at the recent Who Do You Think You Are Live show (at London’s Olympia”.

Even at the time, writers realised the attraction for middle-class readers. “Charles Dickens knew the value of bringing the seamier side of London on to his pages.” Dickens “shocked readers with stories of callous fiends preying on homeless children, tragic suicides fished from the Thames and the brutal murder of Nancy by the thuggish burglar Bill Sykes”.

Ross’s book looks mainly at the 1850s and 1860s – a period when, across the city, “watches, purses and handkerchiefs have been disappearing from pockets, goods are migrating from warehouses, off docks and out of shop windows. Burglaries are rife, shoplifting is carried on in West End stores and people fall victim to all kinds of frauds and ingenious swindles.

“Pornographers proliferate – most notably in Holywell Street – and an estimated 80,000 prostitutes are operating, a great many quite openly, on the streets of the capital. The vulnerable are robbed in dark alleys and a new kind of mugging called garrotting, in which the victim is half-strangled from behind while being stripped of his possessions, is fascinating the editors of newspapers.”

The characters who pop up include people like Dick, 31 – a well-read and intelligent son of a church minister whose life had an air of Oliver Twist about it. He rebelled against his Wesleyan upbringing and at the age of nine left Shrewsbury for London, where he became a pickpocket used to regular spells in jail.

Mayhew wrote about overcrowded lodging-houses often run by unscrupulous (and rich) landlords. He mentions a bowl filled from a bucket for a morning wash. “‘In the water’, Mayhew says, ‘were, floating alive, bugs and lice, which my informant was convinced had fallen from the ceiling, shaken off by the tread of someone walking in the rickety apartments above’.”

In 1853, the Constabulary Commissioners tried to quantify crime. According to John Binny, a colleague of Henry Mayhew, “there were in the Metropolis... 107 burglars, 110 housebreakers, 38 highway robbers, 773 pickpockets, 3,657 sneaks-men or common thieves, 11 horse stealers and 141 dog stealers, three forgers, 28 coiners and 317 utterers of base coin, 141 swindlers and obtainers of goods under false pretences and 182 cheats, 343 receivers of stolen goods, 2,768 habitual rioters, 1,205 vagrants, 50 begging letter writers, 86 bearers of begging letters, 6,371 prostitutes” – and another 470 “not otherwise described”.

But murders caused the most outrage – and few more than “baby farmer” and trained nurse Amelia Dyer. “Convicted of the murder of a single child, Dyer may be responsible for the deaths of as many as 400 children,” says Ross.

She was one of the women who, for money, took on the children of unmarried mothers. “They promise then to raise the child as one of their own, thus freeing the mother of the severe stigma and encumbrance of keeping the child herself.”

Ross explains that some baby farmers realised that if a child were neglected and then starves, money would be saved.

Dyer also hastened the end by strangling children with edging tape.

For her, there was more to it than hard cash, Ross suggests.

“Her sadistic nature is clearly revealed in a comment she made after her arrest. ‘I used to like to watch them with the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them’.”

The killer was hanged in the summer of 1896.

• Crime and Punishment in Victorian London is published by Pen and Sword Books at £12.99

Ross Gilfillan: From Sheffield to Sudbury

• Born in Sheffield

• Grew up there and in the Peak District of Derbyshire

• Was writing stories by the age of nine or 10

These were 20-page sagas about a gang of superhero dogs or secret agents

•1981-1984: Read English literature at what is now London Metropolitan University

•Was a news reporter in Twickenham

• High London house prices prompted a move to East Anglia

• Settled in Sudbury in 1992

• That year saw a visit of American Second World War fliers

‘This was probably what inspired my first serious writing since childhood. I visited the old air bases, wrote to GI brides and veteran US aircrew and wrote a 130,000-word novel called Annie and the Big Gas Birds.

‘But I had much to learn about the craft of writing – how to show instead of tell, for instance – and the book was turned down by pretty much every agent in London. They were encouraging, though, and I looked about for another idea.’

• Wrote a story about a boy from Missouri brought up to believe he was illegitimately sired by Charles Dickens. Twenty-four years later, Billy Talbot is sent to meet the writer in New York, but en route encounters a charismatic conman pretending to be Dickens

The Snake Oil Dickens Man was published by 4th Estate in 1998

• Ross begins a 12-year spell writing book reviews for a national newspaper

• Novel The Edge of the Crowd is published in 2001. It’s set in 1851, in London’s squalid East End

• He works as a magazine editor

• Has three grown-up children

• Losing It: The Growing Pains of a Teenage Vampire – ‘a rather riotous black comedy about teenagers coming to terms with life, love and death’ – was published by Lodestone Books three days before Crime and Punishment in Victorian London

Hard labour: The plight of our young thieves

One thing that struck Ross Gilfillan about Victorian Britain was how so many crimes “seem so paltry and the sentences so disproportionately heavy, especially in the cases of children”.

He cites some young offenders featured in David T Hawkins’s Criminal Ancestors, A Guide to Historical Records in England and Wales. The book includes their official photographs.

“In 1871, 11-year old William Watts has a heavy brow and an anxious expression. For stealing 20 ploughshares, William received one month’s hard labour.

“Mary Ann Barber, 12, stole a hat and a pair of boots. She sits prim and erect for the long exposure. Her hair is clean and brushed and parted in the middle.

“She sits with her lands clasped on her lap, with no idea that her crime will earn her a month’s hard labour and then five years in Doncaster’s reformatory school.”

Glossary of criminal slang

Bug hunters: robbers of drunks

Chavy: child

Dollymop: amateur prostitute

Jug: prison

Mudlarks: scavengers of items from riverbanks or berthed ships

Skinners: women who steal the clothes of children

Snow gatherers: thieves who steal washing from hedges

Star glazing: cutting holes in shop windows to steal goods

Up the spout: to pawn something

• Source: Crime and Punishment in Victorian London

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