Nowadays, we sometimes feel we’re fighting a losing battle against the Waterfurlong pigeons, rabbits, muntjac deer and sparrows but the biggest threat to our gardening ancestors’ produce came in human form. Children.
The long summer holidays when school was out and crops coming in was prime season in the ongoing battle between gardeners and scrumpers and nearly all the thefts dutifully recorded by the Stamford Mercury took place between mid July and early September. Unsuprisingly, summer fruits seem to have been the biggest lure, with peas a close second. The ‘apricots down the privy’ case of August 1870 was typical:
'John Cox and Joseph Andrew Mountain, who gave their ages as 13 and 11 years respectively, were charged with stealing apricots from Mr Horace Wright's garden. Thomas William Bryan, a lad apparently younger than the others, was also placed at the bar on the same charge, but Mr Atter, who appeared for the prosecution, withdrew proceedings against him, and instead called him witness to convict the others.
Bryan deposed that on the previous afternoon they were all together near Waterfurlong, when Cox asked Mountain and the witness to go into the prosecutor's garden and get some apricots. The witness did not go, but Cox and Mountain did, and they got in by going through Mr Roberts' stack-yard and climbing the garden wall. They went after apricots, and gave the witness two. They hid some in a stack and put some down a privy.
William Robinson, a lad in Mr Roberts' employ, deposed that he met Cox, Mountain, and Bryan coming from the stack-yard: they were eating apricots. When they saw Robinson they ran away. He found the apricots produced (a nice basketful) under the clover stack, and some that were green and unfit for eating were in the privy.
Mr Wright having deposed to losing fruit, Mr Atter asked the Bench, in the event of conviction, to punish the boys and not their parents. The Mayor said there had been a great deal of garden robbing about Stamford, and the Magistrates had long wished for an opportunity of putting it down. The defendants had been caught in the act, and they ought to consider themselves getting off uncommonly well with only three weeks’ imprisonment. If they appeared again it was highly probable they would be whipped with a birch rod. Cox, who was respectably dressed, fainted on being taken to the cell.'(1)
Thefts didn’t always involve produce. Pigeons, bees, tools and telescopes were some of the other targets. The following case from 1892 involved ‘two of the most mischievous boys in Stamford’ stealing lemonade from the summerhouse of local bank manager Tom Sandall:
'George William Morley of 11 Bath Row, Frederick Baxter of High St, St Martin’s and Justin James McCartney Simpson of 1 Brook’s Court, all 14 years of age, were charged on remand, with stealing 19 bottles of lemonade, value 9s 6d, the property of Mr T Sandall, bank manager, on 13th. Mr Sandall said he occupied a garden in Water-Furlong from the summerhouse of which the lemonade was taken. The door of the summerhouse was not locked. He found five empty lemonade bottles, the others having been taken away. From footmarks in the garden he thought the persons who had taken the lemonade had climbed over the back wall. Inspector Clarke said that Simpson was brought to the police station by PC Hill. The boy said he did not know anything about the lemonade. The other defendants were in custody and both said “We all three went into the garden and got the lemonade and Simpson had his share of it.” Simpson then said “Yes, I was with them.” PS Smith said that on Saturday he saw Morley and asked him to account for his movements on the previous night. He said he was with Simpson and Baxter on the Tinwell Road. The witness charged him with going into Mr Sandall’s garden and Morley denied it.
Afterwards he acknowledged that he went with the others and they drank all the lemonade behind Rutland Terrace and on Tinwell Road. The witness found about 12 broken lemonade bottles on Tinwell Road. The witness also saw Baxter, who said he had been drawn into the mess by the other boys. A letter from Miss Monro, of the High School for Girls, stated that Baxter had been in her employ and she had always found him to be honest. Insp Clarke said that Morley had been convicted a year ago of wilful damage. This boy bore a very bad character; Indeed, he was one of the most mischievous boys in Stamford, as also was Simpson. They had no complaints regarding Baxter. Whenever there was any damage done in the town it was generally traced to four boys, of whom two were Morley and Simpson.
The Bench convicted defendants of the theft and the parents were bound over in £10 each for the good behaviour of the boys. Mr Michelson said the bench had been hesitating whether to send the boys to a reformatory or not.'(1)
The Stamford magistrates seem to have been shockingly hard on young offenders, sometimes leading to crime victims begging the Bench to exercise leniency. Admittedly, garden theft was technically a capital offence, but then so was ‘being out at night with a blackened face’, ‘being in the company of gypsies for a month’, ‘damaging trees’ and ‘taking away a maid or a widow for the sake of her fortune.’ In other parts of the country, children seem more often to have been dismissed with a stiff warning.
Read more about Waterfurlong life in our article Gardeners-v-Scrumpers.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph of lemonade bottles kind courtesy of Vintage Matters. © Copyright Paul Cody.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018