“The old cow got round it”

Several months ago I came across this record from the County of Cambridge, titled “RETURN of all Persons Committed, or Bailed to appear for Trial, or Indicted at the Summer Assizes held at The County Court on the 21st day of July 1852, shewing the nature of their Offences, and the result of the Proceedings.”[1]

Cambridge summer assizes 1852
(Click on image to enlarge)

I was naturally curious to know more about the crime and punishment, and more importantly which John Casbon it referred to. Here is a summary of the case I found on The British Newspaper Archive.[2]

Bury Norwich Post 28Jul1852 John Casbon arson Meldreth2
Bury and Norwich Post – Wednesday 28 July 1852 (Click on image to enlarge) Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

My goodness – this was a 10-year old boy! Sentenced to 7 years’ transportation! From what I understand, this means being sent to Australia as a prisoner. The sentence seems pretty extreme to me.

FYI, haulm is defined as “the stems or tops of crop plants (as peas or potatoes) especially after the crop has been gathered.”[3] Lucifer is an old term for a match. The fact that the jury “recommended him to the mercy of his Lordship” and the judge explained that “it depended on his own conduct whether or no the sentence was carried out” suggests that the judge would consider a more lenient punishment.

Putting the punishment aside for just a moment, there’s an element of humor to the story. I can just see the boy telling his story, first blaming it on the cow, and eventually getting around to something closer to the truth.

Based on the fact that this occurred in Meldreth, and his age, the boy was most likely John Casbon, son of William and Ann (Barnes) Casbon, baptized July 16, 1843 in Meldreth.[4]

1843 John Casbon Bp Meld
Baptismal Record: “Feby 16th / John Son of / William  Ann / Casbon / Meldreth / Labourer / Edw Williams Curate
(Click on image to enlarge)

John’s grandfather John was the brother of my 4th great grandfather Isaac.

John’s father William is listed in the 1851 census as an ‘Ag[ricultural] Laborer’[5] (as were the majority of our Meldreth ancestors), meaning he worked for wages and was not an independent landowner.[6] Agricultural Laborers were among the lower working classes in British society. Wages and employment were not guaranteed, depending on economic conditions, crop yields, physical ability, etc. Agricultural laborers were not given the right to vote in England until 1884.[7]

Getting back to young John and his sentence, here’s the sequence of events I’ve been able to piece together concerning his conviction and punishment. He was convicted on July 21st, 1852[8]. The court summary reads as follows[9]:

J Casbon b1842 Meld formal sentence Jul1852
Court summary of John Casbon’s conviction and sentence (Click on image to enlarge)

County of Cambridge
At the Assizes and General Delivery of the Gaol of our Lady the Queen holden at the County Courts in and for the County of Cambridge on Wednesday the 21st day of July in the 16th year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lady Victoria by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen Defender of the Faith Before certain Justices of our said Lady the Queen assigned to deliver her Gaol of the said County of the Prisoners therein bring.
Whereas at this present Session of Gaol Delivery John Casbon is and stands Convicted of Arson.
It is thereupon ordered and adjuidged by this court that the above named Convict be Transported beyond the Seas to such place as her Majesty by the advice of her Privy Concil shall think fit to direct and appoint for the Term of Seven Years

By the Court
Alex.r Edgell
Deputy Clerk of the Crown for the Norfolk Circuit.

The judge in the case expressed his intent that John should be sent to the Penitentiary and “then being discharged after a year or two” depending on his conduct while in prison.[10]

He was initially imprisoned in the Cambridge jail (or gaol), known as The Castle, and in November of that year was transferred to Millbank prison in London.[11] On Dec 20, 1852 he was “removed under a Conditional Pardon to the Philanthropic Institution, Redhill near Reigate Surrey.”[12] This institution was a working farm established in 1849 with the noble goal of reforming juvenile offenders.[13]

In October 1853, a group of citizens from Meldreth petitioned the Secretary of State for the Home Department with this letter.[14]

ltr from citizens of Meldreth
(Click on image to enlarge)

To the Right Honorable the Secretary of State for the Home Department.
        We the undersigned inhabitants of the parish of Meldreth in the county of Cambridge desire respectfully and earnestly to solicit your Lordhip’s attention, while we intercede in behalf of a poor little boy of this parish, John Casbon by name, now suffering imprisonment at the Philanthropic Farm, Redhill, Surrey.
        The circumstances of his case are these. In July 1852 he was committed to Cambridge gaol for having set fire to a stack of haum or stubble in this parish – was soon afterwards tried and convicted of the above offense, and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation – and has since been imprisoned at Cambridge, Milbank Penitentiary, & now at Redhill. We have reason to believe that this poor lad never intended to commit the very serious offence of which he was found guilty. On leaving home that day he had taken with him some lucifer matches, to play with, we imagine, as children are too frequently allowed to do. He was afterwards employed to drive home some cows to his father’s master’s – while doing so, the cows ran through an open gateway into an adjoining field, where stood the stack of haum, the boy after them – and while chasing them round the stack, he struck a match or matches against a stone he was carrying, threw both down together, thus set fire to the haum. He then drove home the cows, never thinking of the mischief he had done. When soon afterwards charged with the offence, he at once admitted what he had done – and we sincerely believe that there was neither malice, nor premeditation, nor an actual intention of setting fire to the stack.
        His sentence was thought a very severe one, at the time, even in this neighborhood, where incendiary fires have unhappily so much prevailed; and we are therefore induced now to plead in his behalf – 1st., in consideration of the parents, who are respectable laboring poor, and have taken their misfortune most seriously to heart 2nd., of his own tender age, (having only just before completed his tenth year) and his good conduct since he has been in prison, as it has been reported to us – and because also we fear that he is more likely to come out of prison worse, rather than better, after a longer intercourse with the too generally depressed inmates of a gaol – and lastly, because we cannot but think the lad has now sufficiently atoned for his thoughtless, careless, though very serious offence; and that the ends of justice are more likely to be attained by an early remission of the remainder of his term of imprisonment than by his continuing to suffer the full penalty of his sentence.
        We therefore again earnestly entreat your Lordship’s merciful consideration of this case; and beg to subscribe ourselves your Lordship’s most obedient humble servants –

Meldreth, Oct.r 24th. 1853

     Thos. Fogg, Vicar of Meldreth.                                  William Flitton, Prosecutor
     William Waller Farmer & Churchwarden
     Charles Ellis Farmer & Churchwarden                    John Burr Farmer
     Benjamin Howard Farmer                                        William Clear Do
     Joseph Scruby Maltster                                              Henry Clear Do
     Simeon Mortlock Meldreth                                        William Stockbridge
     Benjamin Wallis Farmer                                           Benjamin Hale
     William Chamberlain
     Thomas Jackson Farmer                                            Alfred Badger R.O.R.B.D.M
     William Blott Farmer                                                Mynot Titchmarsh ? Farmer
     George Palmer Farmer                                              Thomas Dickason Titchmarsh, Farmer
     Thomas Howard Farmer
     George Charter Farmer                                             William Flitton Meldreth Prosecutor
     Mynot Titchmarsh Miller
     Joseph Pryor                                                               John Cayzer Schoolmaster
     Thomas Baker, Wheelwright                                    Nathan Driver Farmer
     Joseph Wood                                                               James Wing   John Unwin
     John Adcock   Wiliam East                                       Rich’d Wallis   Humphrey Course
     John Clemmons Baker                                               Edward Hale   William Jordan
     James Plumb, Carpenter                                           John Hale

I find the letter to be quite moving. Even the prosecutor (i.e., Mr Flitton, the man who suffered damages from the fire) signed the letter – twice!

Apparently the Home Secretary was not moved. His response was “Inform Mr Fogg that it appears very undesirable to remove this Boy from the Institution where he now is & where he will receive proper Instruction.”[15]

I haven’t been able to locate records stating when John was released from the Philanthropic Institution. I can say that later in life he married and moved to the London area, where he died in 1927.[16] It’s possible that he has living descendants.

[1] “England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892.” Ancestry http://www.ancestry.com [accessed 10 August 2016]
[2] “Arson at Meldreth.” Bury and Norwich Post – Wednesday 28 July 1852. The British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000156/18520728/067/0004 [accessed 22 September 2016]
[3] “haulm.” Merriam-Webster http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haulm [accessed 30 September 2016]
[4] Church of England. “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877” microfilm #1040542, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
[5] “1851 Census of England and Wales.” FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:SGRW-194 [accessed 4 August 2016]
[6] “Agriculture and the Labourer.” Cambridgeshire History http://www.cambridgeshirehistory.com/People/agriculturallabourers.html [accessed 5 October 2016]
[7] “The Reform Acts.” The Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/history/hist2.html [accessed 5 October 2016]
[8] “England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892.” [accessed 10 August 2016]
[9] “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.” Findmypast http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=tna%2fccc%2f2f%2fpcom5%2f00002848 [accessed 30 September 2016]
[10] “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.” findmypast http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=tna%2fccc%2f2c%2fho18%2f00267333 [accessed 4 October 2016]
[11] “Removal of Convicts.” The Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 13 November 1852. The British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000421/18521113/041/0005?browse=true [accessed 25 September 2016]
[12] “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.” [accessed 4 October 2016]
[13] “Philanthropic Society Southwark, London/Redhill, Surrey.” Children’s Homes http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/Philanthropic/ [accessed 5 October 2016]
[14] “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.” [accessed 4 October 2016]
[15] “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.” [accessed 4 October 2016]
[16] “England & Wales Deaths 1837-2007”, findmypast http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=bmd%2fd%2f1927%2f1%2faz%2f000195%2f138 [accessed 30 September 2016]

6 thoughts on ““The old cow got round it””

  1. It’s tempting to get distracted, but I will rely on attentive readers like you to notice those details. Like you, I enjoy browsing through these old newspapers! Thanks.

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