A career in crime

Edwin Ansell received several mentions in the local press, but not for anything of renown, as Jackie Hendry discovered.

Prison photo of Edwin, wearing the uniform of the 8th Regiment of Foot (courtesy of Staffordshire Archives)
Finding a criminal in the family was not really what I had in mind. I had toyed with discovering a tenuous link to a title; perhaps a loose association with Ansell’s Brewery; or, who knows, even a flimsy connection with royalty? Over time, though, I discovered I had infamy, and not fame, in my genes. My great-great-uncle Edwin was the family black sheep who, in the 1870s, received four incarcerations and who had had, as the Staffordshire Sentinel put it, ‘an extraordinary career in crime’.

Born in 1852 in Hanley, Staffordshire, Edward Hammersley Ansell, aka Edwin, was the eldest of three brothers – my great-great-grandfather, William, was the youngest. What led Uncle Edwin into crime I can only speculate, as the family was not poverty-stricken; all had jobs in the pottery industry.

Nevertheless, Edwin first tripped up at the age of 18, in June 1870, when he and an accomplice, William Powell, broke into the Old Hall Earthenware Company Works and stole ‘a quantity of china…value £3 8s 7d, and several sponges, value 7s 6d’, as reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel. They gave away some china to three lady friends in a disreputable part of Stafford, and sold some vases to a Mrs Walters who owned a crockery shop. 

However, within days they were arrested, along with a third man implicated in the crime, and also a Mrs Walters, who all appeared before Hanley Sessions. The Sentinel reported that ‘Ansell’s demeanour in court was very brazen’, and a witness said the men were “rough-looking.” Mrs Walters and the third man were discharged, but Edwin and Powell were committed for trial. At the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace at Stafford in July, they received 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour at Stafford Gaol.

Three years later, however, Uncle Edwin committed another crime. In December 1873, he stole 9s 7d from an Ann Crumps in Hanley. For this, he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour. His second crime had now earned him an ignominious place on the National Register of Habitual Criminals. Sometime between his release in April 1874 and 1876 he joined the army, as Military Desertion records on Ancestry reveal he deserted the 22nd Foot Regiment on 1 February 1876.

Wakes Week

Edwin then turned up in the local press again in April 1877. He was now back in the family home, and had stolen a watch, chain, and ring, valued at £2 7s, from his brother, Arthur. The Sentinel reported that on a tip-off from a neighbour, Edwin’s mother tracked him to the Lamb Inn. She asked him for the items, but he produced a pawn ticket instead. Uncle Edwin had already pawned the watch for 10s 6d, and the ring for 3s, lying that the items were his property. He then sold the chain for 2s 6d to the manager of the People’s Music Hall who happened to be at the Lamb at the time. Edwin had told the manager that he had bought the chain “last wakes week” for 10s 6d. He was arrested and sent for trial, but because of Arthur’s attempts to screen him, he was found not guilty. 

Later that year, in October, Edwin broke into the family home and stole his father’s gold watch, valued at £4. An arrest warrant was issued, but Edwin absconded and enlisted in the Rifle Brigade. However, he was recognised by the enlisting Sergeant as having deserted the 22nd Foot Regiment, and was sent to Manchester Gaol to await an army escort. The Staffordshire Sentinel reported that Edwin was subsequently court-martialled for having enlisted into the Rifle Brigade,‘after being discharged from two other regiments in consequence of bad conduct’. He was sentenced to 168 days’ imprisonment.

After completing this sentence, Edwin was immediately arrested in May 1878 to answer the charges about the theft of his father’s watch. Although Edwin’s father now sought to withdraw the charges, Hanley Bench decided that because of Edwin’s previous convictions they ‘doubted whether they would be doing their duty to the public in releasing him’. Nevertheless, Edwin was discharged on the understanding he would appear before the Bench when called.

But Edwin didn’t leave it at that. A month later he broke into his parents’ house and stole his father’s gold watch a second time. A neighbour saw Edwin kick the door in. The Staffordshire Sentinel of July 1878 reported that while Edwin’s parents informed the police, and an arrest warrant issued, Edwin pawned the watch and absconded. He then attempted to enlist again under the false name of Anderson. He was found out and swiftly sent to trial on the charge of stealing the watch, receiving 18 months in Stafford Gaol.

Staffordshire Archives has a prison photo of Edwin from January 1880, but there are no further criminal records for him. It seems his ‘career in crime’ lasted eight years. Edwin appears in census and GRO records 15 years later, revealing that he married a Yorkshire widow, Eliza Greaves, in 1895, and was an integral part of her family. He lived and worked in Rotherham as a maltster and oven cleaner until his death, of influenza, in 1922. 

It’s good to know that great-great-uncle Edwin eventually found a new life, and a new career. And I was thinking, since Uncle Edwin was a maltster, perhaps there is a connection to Ansell’s Brewery after all…?

Hard labour in a Victorian prison

Doing time in the 1800s was tough, with hard labour being done in isolation and silence. The labour, however, may have had some purpose or use, such as in the building of roads or as an opportunity for prisoners to earn money. Stafford Gaol’s treadwheel was turned by prisoners which powered the prison’s corn mill and pumped water from wells. There was religious instruction and perhaps the opportunity to learn reading and writing.  

However, the 1865 Prisons Act made prison life tougher through ‘hard labour, hard fare, and hard board’: labour became pointless; food became unpalatable; and hard planks replaced hammocks. The treadwheel now served no purpose except to occupy prisoners in its turning for up to ten hours a day. Other pointless tasks included crank labour – turning a handle up to 15,000 turns per day; the shot drill – carrying a weighty cannonball so far to the right, putting it down and repeating with another ball in strict order; picking oakum – separating strands of tarred rope. 

A report of 1895, however, recognised the importance of prisoner reform and in 1898 the treadmill was abolished, and isolation was no longer than a month. Hard labour was abolished in 1948.