1908: Boy Desperado – Imitating a Notorious “Bergler”

Saturday 13th June 1908: Nine year old John Alfred Williams appears at the police court in Shrewsbury charged with shop breaking and theft. 

A well known young miscreant in Shrewsbury, he had been in constant trouble with the law, but this time – inspired by a famous burglar – his hilarious attempt to throw the police off the scent hit the national papers.

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Nottingham Evening Post – Monday 15 June 1908 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Chief Constable Baxter outlined the case to the magistrates…

On Saturday the 23rd May a shopkeeper on Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury, Mr Attfield of Messrs A. and H.G. Attfield, corn merchants, reported that 6 shillings and 10d had been taken from their till.

Suspicions were soon aroused as to the culprit when young John was seen buying a couple of toy guns and some story books. Police constable Weaver spoke to the young lad who confessed to stealing the money. He said he’d been to Mr Attfield’s twice that day, the first time Mr Attfield was in, but the second time he wasn’t.

Wyle Cop
Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury where John stole from the corn merchants.

Not one to miss out on such an opportunity he went straight to a draw, from which he’d nicked from money before, and took out a hand full of silver coins.

The Chief Constable continued…

He explained that John Alfred Williams was the son of a plate layer and lived at 59 Abbey Forgate.

He went to the Abbey National School nearby but had been in the habit of thieving for a long time. He stole from his parents, picked the pockets of their lodgers, and had also broken into the Abbey Restoration Fund box. He constantly played truant and often slept out.

The Abbey National School – Picture: Richard Tisdale

But it was what he’d done three days after the Wyle Cop theft that made the headlines. On Tuesday 26th May he broke into the premises of Mr. Shields, a tailor, on Abbey Forgate, and ran amok.

He damaged a clock, threw a pair of trousers and a bundle of silk into tub of water, bored holes through a door, and left the following note on a table…

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Nottingham Evening Post – Monday 15 June 1908 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Who was Charles Peace?

He was a famous burglar in Victorian times who took to a life of crime after suffering an industrial accident as a boy.

He was originally from Sheffield, born in 1832, and whilst there he became obsessed with his neighbours wife. He shot the neighbour dead and legged it to London. It was here where he carried out his crime spree before eventually being arrested and linked with the murder back home before being hanged in 1879.

John Aldred William’s Sentence

After giving all the evidence the Chief Constable said that the boy was “absolutely incorrigible”  and the parents couldn’t do anything to control him, despite frequently reporting his exploits to the police, who’d cautioned him to no avail.

The Mayor, who was the magistrate, said he couldn’t believe that a boy of nine couldn’t be controlled, and passed a brutal sentence as you can see from the clipping below.

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Nottingham Evening Post – Monday 15 June 1908 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

What happened to John Alfred Williams?

He was born in Coventry in 1898 but moved to Bayston Hill soon after and can be seen in the 1901 census living with his mum Margaret Williams. His father Thomas Sidney Williams was a soldier serving in the Shropshire Mounted Infantry and at the time of the census was serving in South Africa in the Boer War.

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Thomas returned home after the war and got a job on the railways. The family moved to Abbey Forgate which is where young John got into trouble.

John apparently continued his bad behaviour and by the time of the 1911 census, when he was 12 years old, he was an “inmate” of the Salop Police Court Mission at St Julian’s Friars with at least five other boys.

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His parents however had moved to Malehurst Bank, Minsterley.

In 1914 The Great War began, and being a former soldier his father Thomas went to fight. John signed up too when he was 16 and served as a musician. 

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Thomas, a well seasoned soldier, survived up until the 10th May 1918 when he was killed in action on the battlefields at Flanders in Belgium. His mother Margaret died in 1935.

John however wasn’t killed and later went on to serve in India and Afghanistan being awarded a number of campaign medals.

But sadly his life was prematurely cut short in Liverpool as you can see from this service record.

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He finished normal service and moved to Liverpool, and in 1922 married Ellen Carter. He remained an army reserve and worked as a Cotton Porter; a job loading and unloading ships, work he would have picked up daily. But in January 1926 his health took a horrid turn. He began to lose weight, he was getting severe stomach pains and he was soon taken to the infirmary at the workhouse on Mill Road. Sadly he died and a post mortem examination put his death down to a perforated duodenal ulcer, general peritonitis, and septic pneumonia. Heart broken, destitute, but perhaps fortunately childless, his wife Ellen was taken in by the Christian Endeavour Organisation. She devoted herself to God, and never remarried or had any children, and died in 1994.

Despite a tough life it seems that John Alfred Williams had become a more than capable man, and the character, sense of humour and bravery he showed as a boy no doubt served him well in the horrors of war, but having survived that, it was a cruel illness that snatched him away too early from a loving wife. It would take another World War before the NHS was founded, something that no doubt would have helped John Alfred Williams, and his family, fulfil a full and fruitful life.

NOTE. Please feel free to share the stories that I dig up and cover in the blog, and if you do, please share the link (don’t copy and paste the article) as that way I will know that people are reading and enjoying the stories and I will do more.
Thank you,
Richard Tisdale

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