At the end of every year, throughout the Victorian period, the Chief Constable of Berkshire released the annual crime figures for Reading and the surrounding villages. In December 1896, he revealed that the town had ‘gained an unenviable notoriety.’ The salacious details were published in the Berkshire Chronicle.
One hundred and twenty years ago, the quiet idyll of this rural Berkshire town was shattered by the discovery of Amelia Dyer’s tiny victims in the river Thames at Caversham. The infamous baby farmer had moved to Reading the previous summer and it was here that her heinous crimes finally came to light. The shocked Victorian residents followed the dreadful events as they unfolded and Amelia Dyer was hanged at Newgate later that year.
The Berkshire Chronicle also described how Reading Prison had been ‘a venue of an execution’ during the same year, with the hanging of trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who had been found guilty at the Berkshire Assizes of murdering his wife. His crime of passion was immortalised in The Ballad of Reading Goal, by Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated in the prison at the same time.
A more ‘festive’ crime was mentioned next in the report. On Christmas Day, Arthur Haslam ‘startled the neighbourhood of Goring’ by firing a weapon into the sitting room, where his friends and family were celebrating. Fortunately, no one was injured but Arthur was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. His motive for such a desperate act was not reported.
According to the newspaper, ‘burglars usually meet with a warm reception in Reading’ and two men named Brady and Worsdale, ‘who for a while had startled the peaceful inhabitants of the town by their repeated attempts to plunder’, were both sent down for seven years, after being ‘cleverly caught’ by Constable Scotcher. The reporter hoped that this would serve as ‘a warning to these gentry’.
In other crimes committed throughout the year, Frederick Hope Higgs was ‘ordered to wear her Majesty’s “uniform”’, for four years, for ‘his cruel fraud on an unwary servant girl’, from whom he had obtained £80 with the promise of marrying her. William Jones was sentenced to three years for plundering the poor boxes and drinking the communion wine in churches at Moulsford and Streatley. Jones ‘did not live long to enjoy the bountiful fare of a convict’ and died whilst behind bars. Other fraudsters operating in the town were Henry Mayers, a ‘past master in advertising’ who embezzled many ‘simple persons’ out of £1,000; and James Hunt, who created a bogus Medical Aid Society.
The journalist concluded that all these criminals were ‘“stars” in their particular department’ and that ‘the town may be thankful that they will partake of their Christmas fare in the safe seclusion of one of her Majesty’s prisons’. Let’s hope 1897 was a more peaceful year in Berkshire!
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Many thanks for all your interest in my work this year – I have very much appreciated your support, and I’ll be back soon with more ‘new’ cases.
Very best wishes for a happy and ‘safe’ 2017!