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John Walker - Convicted for Stealing Onions
1873

The Case of Cooper Vs Walker - 1873-4

Crime and punishment in the 1800's – stealing (larceny)

The following is an outline of the events of 1873/4 and is accompanied by links to all the relevant documents. The originals of these are, in most cases, available at the Bedford County Record Office. For an explanation of any unfamiliar terms such as recognizance please refer to the glossary.

The story concerns a market gardener of Beeston, Robert Cooper, an agricultural labourer John Walker and the theft of some onions. (See Trial document 1)
The census return of 1851 for Girtford near Sandy shows John Walker, then a boy of 10 years old, living with his parents William and Mary. He was the youngest of four children, Thomas (15) Daniel (13) and Sarah (12). His recorded occupation was not that of scholar (pupil) as might have been expected but agricultural labourer.

The earliest known conviction for John was in 1861 when a charge of assault was proved and he was sentenced to 2 calendar months imprisonment. He seems to have been set fair for a life of crime and indeed between September 1861 and March 1874 he had 14 convictions for petty offences.

Robert Cooper had quite a different background. The census return of 1871 for Beeston, also near Sandy, records a young man or 27 living with his 24 year old wife, Elizabeth and their three young children John (4), Charles (3) and Maud, a year old. The Coopers were prosperous enough to employ a living-in servant Jane Martin. This prosperity was based on market gardening and Cooper owned the 43 acres that he worked.

On 13th September 1873, Cooper was sitting near the hedge bordering one of his fields. There were heaps of onions lying in the field where they had been pulled and Cooper watched as John Walker who, until the previous day had worked for him, gleaned onions. Walker took about a peck from each heap and then kicked the heap so the disturbance was not obvious. He put the onions into a sack he had with him. This went on until Walker had collected about two bushels of onions (a considerable amount), when he tied up the sack and walked off in the direction of his house.

Cooper followed Walker, took the onions away from him and told him that he would prosecute. Walker asked for forgiveness. Cooper informed Police Constable Joseph Newton PC No.17 stationed at Northill, and obtained a warrant for the arrest of John Walker. The crime was the theft of onions valued at between 4 and 5 shillings.

Constable Newton visited Walker's house in the evening and found only his wife at home. She denied having seen him since the morning. However when the house was searched Constable Newton found onions "Like the same as Mr. Cooper's, the same sort, the Brown Intermediom". (See Trial documents 2 and 3)

Walker was then taken before a local magistrate for a preliminary examination. Since the onions were valued at between 4 and 5 shillings the offence was one of Grand larceny, goods worth under a shilling would have counted as Petty larceny. On the evidence the magistrate decided that there was a case to answer and, although could have tried him summarily since the offence was larceny, Walker was remanded to appear at the Bedford Easter Quarter Sessions. After 6 months possibly spent in custody, he was finally brought to trial.

The case of " Regina on the Prosecution of Robert Cooper v John Walker" was one of larceny and evidence was sworn before Robert Henry Linsell and Richard Folliott Scott on 1st April 1874. They were satisfied that Cooper had a case against Walker. A warrant was issued and Walker was received into custody on 2nd April 1874.

It was obviously important to ensure that both private prosecutor and any witnesses attend the court; thus recognizances were demanded from both Robert Cooper who was preferring the [[Bill of Indictment]] and PC Newton, who was to give evidence. This was despite Newton's status. The sums concerned were considerable being £20 and £10 respectively. 

The Bill of indictment was endorsed as a 'True Bill' and Walker appeared for trial on 8th April 1874 before John Harvey and William Stuart. His plea of guilty was accepted but evidence was still called. (See Tial Document 4, 5 and 6)

Among the evidence was the disclosure that Walker had also been convicted under the alias of 'Mulls'. Evidence was given by the Governor of Bedford Prison, Robert Evans Roberts, as to previous convictions and the apparent failure of punishment to deter Walker from further Crime. He felt that society should be "delivered from his malpractices for some time". 

It is not therefore surprising, in light of these remarks, to find that a sentence of seven years' penal servitude and seven years' police supervision was passed on John Walker. He was taken away to the prison to await disposal. There he was photographed and a full physical description recorded for the files being compiled by the Governor. On 19th May 1874, he was removed to Pentonville to begin his sentence.

There is also a version of this information available as a word document and a copy of the original documents- see below.


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