You never know when a secret, long buried in the past, will come to light. As a result of the indexing of record sources, you can stumble across information about an ancestor that you would never have looked for ordinarily. This happened to me one day when a new, tantalising, green leaf on Ancestry appeared for my great grandfather, Josiah Thomas Simeon Bullock. It linked him to the database, Gloucestershire England, Prison Records, 1728-1914. What on earth had my otherwise respectable great grandfather done to be sent to prison? Of course, I had to find out. In this article, I will be telling you about what I discovered and the research I undertook to piece together the story.
Josiah is one of my railway ancestors. Born in Hanwell, Middlesex in 1867, he was the eldest son of James Bullock and his wife Catherine Redman. (I tell the story of Josiah’s half-sister, Hannah, in my article, The Unknown Sister). Josiah grew up in Worcestershire, where his father was the station master at Wyre Forest. By the time of the 1881 census, he was already assisting his father at the station, as he is recorded as a 13 year old railway clerk. However, he must have left home not long afterwards, as according to the staff registers, he entered service with the Great Western Railway (G.W.R.) in May 1882 as a lad porter. He was paid the princely sum of ten shillings a week and was based at the goods station of Tetbury Road, Gloucestershire. This was situated on the Cheltenham branch line that connected the town to Swindon. In May 1882, Tetbury Road was closed to passengers and became solely a goods station. Additional staff were probably needed and Josiah had been taken on. The staff register records Josiah’s wages and every year, on the anniversary of his engagement, May 30, they went up by a shilling a week. In April 1886 he became a porter, and this promotion earned him a wage of fifteen shillings a week. There is only one more notation for his entry in the staff register ledger book:
In May 1887, Josiah left the service of the Great Western Railway Company. However, this brief statement hid a rather shocking truth: Josiah had, in fact, been dismissed by his employers and sent to prison! This is why he appeared in the Gloucestershire England, Prison Records, 1728-1914 database. According to these records, on May 23 1887, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock was convicted at the court in Cirencester of stealing a pair of boots from his employers and sentenced to one month in prison. He was a 19 year old porter, 5′ 8″ with light brown hair: his education was described as imperfect. His birthplace was noted as Hanwell and he was a member of the Church of England. He had no prior convictions and was discharged on June 22 1887 after serving his time:
Records of the Cirencester Petty Sessions Division 1872-1997 are held by Gloucestershire Archives. Minutes for the court exist between 1885-1973 and registers for the period 1880-1997. These would be worth seeking out for full information on Josiah’s trial.
On Ancestry, there is another database covering Gloucester Prison that includes photographs of prisoners: Returns of Habitual Criminals and Albums of Prisoners’ Photographs for the County Gaol 1882-1906. Potentially Josiah could have featured in these records, as it covers the period of his incarceration but sadly, no photograph of him is included. However, luckily, I do have one photograph of Josiah as a young man in my family records. The photograph below was probably taken when Josiah got married the following year, in 1888:
I now knew that Josiah had been convicted for stealing a pair of boots. Why did he do it and were there any extenuating circumstances? Newspapers can be an excellent source if you want to discover more information on a criminal case. Disappointingly, I initially found nothing when I searched the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) under the name Josiah Bullock. I therefore searched only under Bullock, focussing on May 1887, and came up trumps. The reason for my initial difficulty became apparent. Josiah’s name was reported in the newspapers as Thomas Seymour Bullock, rather than Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock. Were Chinese whispers at play? I found that much the same story was reported in no fewer than eight different newspapers and the mistake was perpetuated in each. One of the most detailed reports appeared in the North Wiltshire Herald:
A Foolish Young Fellow
Thomas Seymour Bullock, 19, son of respectable parents at Wire Forest, Worcestershire, was brought up in custody charged with having, between May 14th and 26th, in the parish of Coates, feloniously stolen a pair of boots, the property of the Great Western Railway Company, his employers. – Inspector Saunders, of Paddington, were present for the company – P.S. Evans, of the Wilts police, Kemble, said on the 19th inst. he was informed a pair of new boots was hid in the bank near the Tetbury Road railway station. He searched the vicinity and found a pair of heavy nailed boots concealed in the ivy near the goods shed. In reply to his question, Mr Gingell, goods clerk at the station, said he did not know any boots had been missed. Subsequently witness went to Mr Davis’s shop at Kemble and Miss Davis showed him a box of nine pairs of boots, corresponding exactly with the pair he had found in the ivy. He was also shown the invoice for ten pair of boots. On Friday morning last he reported to Mr Gingell the result of the enquiries, and accompanied him to Tetbury Road railway station. In his hearing Gingell asked Bullock if he knew anything of the missing boots, and the prisoner replied that he did not. Gingell remarked “We must see Lewis,” another porter, and turned to go away. As they did Bullock called them back, and said “I don’t wish anyone else to suffer for me.” Witness remarked “You had better tell the truth and fetch the boots.” After some time Bullock fetched the boots from the place where they were hid, and said he was guilty of stealing them, and no one else had anything to do with it. – Witness remained with the prisoner until the arrival of P.S. Cooke. – Mr. William Thomas Gingell, clerk in the employ of the G.W.R. Company at Tetbury Road, produced an invoice of the box of boots for Mr Davis, checked by prisoner without remark, and so delivered. Witness also had the custody of the goods receipt book kept by Tetbury Road, and in it, in the prisoner’s handwriting, was the entry: “Cirencester. Davis. One box of boots from Cirencester.” The entry was the 25th April, and the delivery was on the 26th. On the 14th May witness received a claim for the missing boots. – Miss Petulia Davis, daughter of Mr. Davis, shopkeeper of Kemble, produced the invoice for ten pairs of boots. On the delivering of the box from Tetbury Road it contained only nine pairs of boots. They were sent for by a boy. The goods were supplied by Ford and Son, Bristol, and invoiced at 7 s. 9d. per pair. The nine pairs delivered were the same as the one pair found and now produced. – P.S. Cooke said on Friday last, in consequence of instructions received from Superintendent Morgan, he went to the goods station of the Great Western Railway at Tetbury Road, and in the office saw the prisoner, who Gingell gave into custody on the charge of stealing a pair of boots. Witness told Bullock he would have to accompany him to Cirencester on that charge. Prisoner commenced to make at statement, upon which witness stopped and cautioned him, and at that time prisoner did not continue his statement. On the way to Kemble, they met Inspector Kirk, who said to prisoner “What’s up with you then?” Bullock replied “I have been doing something I ought not to have done;” and Mr. Kirk enquired, “Well, what’s that?” Prisoner said “I stole a pair of boots from the box that came to Tetbury Road station for Mr. Davis, of Kemble, and I am very sorry I was foolish enough to do so.” When at Tetbury Road, prisoner pointed to a parcel, and said “that’s the pair of boots.” Witness now produced them. – Supt. Morgan said the prisoner had been in the company’s employ five years, and nothing was known against him. – In reply to the charge Bullock pleaded guilty and elected to be dealt with by the Bench. – The Chairman said the Railway Company must be protected, as the goods of the public were absolutely at the mercy of the railway servants. Morally, it was no greater offence than stealing from anyone else, but the Bench had to consider prisoner’s position. He would have to undergo one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. The Chairman added that in such cases the Company should be represented by a solicitor. – Mr. Saunders admitted the respect due to the Bench, but explained that in the present case there was not sufficient time to instruct a solicitor.North Wiltshire Herald, dated May 27 1887
The title of the article, “A Foolish Young Fellow”, seems rather apt. Whilst working in the goods office one day, Josiah sees a box come in that contains ten pairs of boots. They are shiny and new. Perhaps his own were rather shabby, were too tight or had holes that let in the water. Maybe he thought that one pair would never be missed and tucked it into a bag when no one was looking. Where could he hide them? Nearby, in all the thick undergrowth of the embankment, close to the goods shed, where he could retrieve them at a later date. Unfortunately for him, it appears that someone was watching when he hid the boots amongst the ivy and reported the matter to the police who came to Tetbury Road station to investigate. P.S. Evans made a search and found the boots but left them where they were, no doubt hoping that the thief would be caught when he came back to claim them.
Meanwhile, P.S. Evans visits Mr Davis’ shop in Kemble, and speaks to Petulia Davis, the daughter of Mr Davis, who shows him the box of boots, which contains only nine pairs. Their design matches perfectly with the pair he had found in the undergrowth. According to Petulia Davis, each pair of boots had the cost price of 7 s. 9d., but the retail price would obviously have been more. In his job, Josiah would have had to wear a uniform, which would have included work boots. According to the railway experts I have consulted, it is likely that he would have had to pay for his own uniform and boots, with the cost deducted from his pay. At the time, Josiah was earning 15 s. a week so the boots alone would cost the best part of his weekly wages. You can see the temptation!
Back at Tetbury Road Station, P.S. Evans meets with Mr Gingell, the goods clerk, who asked Josiah if he knew anything about the missing boots. At first, Josiah denies any knowledge, but when his colleague, Lewis, was going to be questioned, he decides to come clean and admit his guilt. Josiah did the honourable thing and took responsibility for his actions, not wanting Lewis to be implicated. He went to fetch the boots and the invoice for the boots was checked with the receipt, which in Josiah’s handwriting, stated that ten pairs of boots had been received. Josiah realises how stupid he has been and wants to confess all but Mr Gingell cautions him to say nothing. You can imagine how frightened Josiah must have been after being taken into custody, knowing that he would soon be appearing in court with every prospect of being sent to prison. Josiah stood trial at the Court of Petty Sessions in Cirencester, just over a week later, on May 23 1887. It was said that he had worked for G.W.R. for five years, which tallies perfectly with his employment records that state that he had joined the company in May 1882. He had no prior convictions before he had committed his rash act. It is clear that G.W.R. took a dim view of theft by an employee because it harmed their reputation with the public, thereby increasing the seriousness of the offence. The verdict was announced and the court sentences Josiah to one month’s hard labour. He was sent to serve out his time at Gloucester Prison.
So what was Josiah’s experience of prison? Gloucester Prison had been established in 1791 but in 1878, it became ‘Her Majesty’s Prison Gloucester’, when its administration was taken over by the Government. The prison was situated in the city centre on a site of around three acres and at this time, it could accommodate 377 inmates, (327 male and 50 female). It must have seemed very grim and forbidding when Josiah entered its walls. The Prison Commissioners, in their report of November 1879, commented that not all of the accommodation was in good condition, and the whole building was “utterly unfit for the modern requirements of a prison”. It was also a place of death with executions taking place from time to time in the prison yard.
When he first arrived, Josiah would have been taken to the gatehouse where he would have been searched and had his personal belongings removed. If deemed necessary, he would have been given a bath. Then, he was put into the lazaretto cells to be examined by the prison surgeon. This was to ensure that he didn’t have any contagious disease. He would then be assigned a class. At the time, prisoners were separated into different classes, the idea being that first time offenders, for example, were kept apart from hardened criminals. Josiah would have been put into the penitentiary part of the prison complex which housed those sentenced to imprisonment for three months or less. Under the prison system, imprisonment consisted of four stages, with the first, at the start of a prisoner’s sentence, being the most severe. This was to encourage hard work and good behaviour. Prisoners could be promoted into the next, more lenient state, if they obtained sufficient marks, which were awarded for completing daily work tasks. However, they had to spend at least twenty eight days in one stage before they could progress to the next. Of course, for prisoners like Josiah, in effect this meant that you didn’t have a chance to progress beyond the first, more severe stage, because you were serving a short sentence of no more than a month. It must have been a huge shock to Josiah. In this first stage, he would have been kept in solitary confinement in his cell for much of his time. He would also have slept on a hard bed made of wooden planks, with no mattress, for the first fourteen days of his sentence. Most difficult of all, he had to perform hard labour in silence for six to ten hours a day.
Every day, Josiah would be woken by a bell at six o’clock in the morning, (it would be sunrise in the winter). After getting up, making his bed and washing, Josiah would then be called for chapel by another bell. After prayers and a roll call, his cleanliness would be checked and bread would be distributed. The prison diet was fairly limited and the authorities were keen to ensure that it was not any better than the fare served in workhouses. The amount and type of food you received depended on your class and whether you were doing hard labour. Apart from a daily allowance of bread, Josiah might have received some soup “gruel” for dinner, perhaps meat once or twice a week, and suet pudding or potatoes. During the day, the prisoners were supervised by prison officers called ‘turnkeys’, (as it was their job to lock and unlock the cell doors and gates in the prison). Those that had work would carry out their tasks and in between some time could be spent exercising in the airing yards. The prisoners would be locked up for the night at sunset. On Sunday there was no work but you had to attend chapel.
Prisoners wore a uniform made from coarse material with a badge, so they could be identified if they escaped. After 1878, the uniform is believed to have included broad arrows, which also marked the clothing as government property. If any friends or family of Josiah wished to visit him, they would have had to obtain permission by writing to a magistrate, and even then, they would only be able to talk to him through two gratings placed six feet apart. A prison staff member would sit in between to listen and observe. It seems unlikely that Josiah received any visitors so it must have been a terribly lonely time for him, isolated with little human contact.
As Josiah was sentenced to hard labour, he probably spent many hours of his day on the treadmill. At Gloucester, a treadmill was introduced in 1822 which could accommodate a large amount of prisoners at a time. Treadmills had been designed as a means of punishment a few years earlier by an English engineer named Sir William Cubitt, the son of a miller. A treadmill harnessed the muscle power of prisoners to produce useful work and would also cure idleness. The treadmill that Cubitt designed rotated around a horizontal axis, which required the user to step upwards. It was like walking up an endless staircase. The Gloucester Journal in 1823 reported that in Gloucester Prison, the wheel could accommodate thirty six men at a time, eighteen on each side. Every two minutes, two men stepped off and were replaced by two others, all in an environment of strict silence and discipline. In some prisons, treadmills were purely punitive but in Gloucester, the treadmill was used to grind corn to make flour, to bruise barley and to pump water. Treadmills remained in use in prisons for most of the nineteenth century and the treadmill in Gloucester Prison was only removed in 1902.
You can imagine Josiah’s relief when he was finally released from prison after one month’s incarceration. I think he must have felt chastened and exhausted but relieved to have his freedom back. With no job to return to, he did the only thing he could and went back home to his parents in Worcestershire. I did wonder if they knew about Josiah’s prison term but given the widespread newspaper coverage and his father’s own railway employment, presumably they had heard the news. Although Josiah was nineteen years old, and had previously lived away from the family home for at least five years, it’s interesting to note that the newspaper articles all mentioned his background. He was described as “the son of respectable parents” and his home village of Wire [Wyre] Forest was also reported. The emphasis was that this young fellow came from a good family, inferring that the theft of the boots was a solitary act that was out of character.
A little over a year later, on October 11th 1888, Josiah got married to my great grandmother in the church of Trinity, Far Forest, Worcestershire. He was just 20 years old whilst she was ten years older. If Josiah hadn’t been sent to prison and gone home to his parents, they might never have met. Josiah had to reinvent himself and he found a new job as an agent for the Prudential Assurance Society, selling life insurance. No doubt he had grown up a lot as a result of his prison experience and was determined to become a responsible and respected member of society. However, the attractions of the railways never left him for by the time of my grandfather’s birth, in January 1893, he was working once more for the G.W.R. in Swindon, Wiltshire. Despite his past, he had been taken on by them again. He then worked for a short period as a signalman for the Midland and Southwestern Junction Railway in Marlborough, Wiltshire before moving to Wantage, where he became the goods manager and in time, the general manager for the Wantage Tramway. (More information on his life at this time can be found in A Wiltshire Childhood and A Berkshire Boyhood). He was able to put his youthful indiscretion firmly in the past and went on to have a successful career. I wonder whether his wife or children ever knew that he had been to prison? Certainly, it was never talked about in the family and I myself might have remained ignorant about it if it hadn’t been for that little green leaf. Nevertheless, it must have been an experience that Josiah never forgot. It would have stayed with him for the rest of his life.
© Judith Batchelor 2021
I am indebted to Gill Evans for her book, “A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950”, which was a great help for my research into Gloucester Prison.
7 thoughts on “The Pair of Boots”
Another beautifully woven story Jude, all taken from one shaky leaf hint, it just shows the value of not dismissing these hints without first checking. I am really pleased that one youthful mistake did not blot his copybook for the rest of his life and that he was able to carve out a successful career for himself.
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Thank you! People can get rather cross about irrelevant hints appearing but there can be some gems.
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Another great story, Jude! I’m so glad that Josiah went on to have a successful, and hopefully, happy life. The justice system certainly was unforgiving back in those days. My great, great grandfather was incarcerated in the Borough Gaol in Liverpoo,l according to the 1841 census, as a debtor. You have inspired me to find out more about his time there. So glad you decided to pursue the “shaky leaf”.
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Many thanks! It would be interesting to find out about your great great grandfather’s time in the Liverpool Gaol. Debtors were usually kept separately from the other prisoners and better treated. Still, it seems crazy to lock people up for debt, making it impossible for them to earn any money.