Prisoner No.39 (on bail)

On a gloomy winter day late in 1849, Samuel Whitehead Hearfield was trudging along the muddy path beside a river. The horse he was leading plodded patiently behind him, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he could just see the barge it pulled gliding silently over the water. It had been raining all day. His clothes were sodden. He was wet, cold, and miserable. Life, he thought, could not get much worse than this.

Storris Farm House 1947

Samuel had grown up as the youngest of eight children on a prosperous farm near Burley in Wharfedale. Storris House had been the family farm since his father had moved there, fifteen years before Samuel was born, and it was to stay in the family for almost a century. Today, the land is owned by Otley Golf Club, and although the farmhouse and outbuildings are long gone, one lone gatepost has for some reason been left where it was placed two hundred years before.

Gatepost from Storris Farm

His parents were in their fifties when Samuel was born. His eldest brother John was then 21, and worked full-time on the farm he would one day take over. His older sisters Eden and Tryphena had disappeared from his life before he was ten, when they married local farmers and moved away. Shortly afterwards his brother James went off to Wakefield to learn to be a butcher, and then his clever brother Joseph married a local girl and left the farm to earn a better living as a clerk.

Their father died of heart disease at the age of 63, in the summer of 1837, and their mother died a month or so later. Samuel was 17. His brothers John and William took over the running of the farm, helped by their sister Mary. He helped too.

James and Joseph had by now made their way to Hull, the one doing well as a butcher, the other steadily working his way up in the office of a shipping company. Samuel too wanted to escape. He didn't much like the life of a farm labourer, though he had no other real skills to speak of, so he would stay on the farm for the rest of his life unless he did something about it.

The idea came on one of his regular visits to Otley, the market town a couple of miles away. He noticed for the first time that there were four tallow chandlers in the town. Yet in Skipton, ten miles to the west, there was only one. All four tallow chandlers in Otley seemed to be making a living, but there seemed to be a gap in the market in the countryside further west. Samuel decided to fill it. Capital wasn't a problem - the farm was doing well, and he could persuade his brothers to let him have enough money to get started. He set up his own tallow chandler's business in Skipton.

A farmer needs to make productive use of every part of his animals, not just their meat and skins. Tallow chandlers helped by buying the animal carcasses and boiling them down for fat, which was then used to make cheap candles. It was an unpleasant trade. The process generated such sickeningly nasty smells that nobody enjoyed living close to the town slaughterhouse. But candles were the only source of lighting for many people, and sold well even though they burned with a sooty, acrid flame. Richer people preferred candles made of beeswax, and later of paraffin wax.

Some of the fat could be used to make soap, though there wasn't much demand for it. Soap was a luxury. It had been taxed as a luxury - at 50% - since Samuel's great-great-grandfather's day. Farmers commonly made small amounts for their own use by adding wood ashes to boiling fat, and skimming off the curd that formed on the top. But cleanliness was not particularly important to anyone at the time. The tax was only abolished (in 1853) when Parliament decided that the country would be healthier if people washed more. Perhaps it had just dawned on the law-makers that the food they ate and the clothes they wore were handled by people who rarely washed their hands.

Now that he was earning his own living, Samuel felt in a position to propose marriage to Ellen Blakeborough, the girl he had been courting for some time. She was the daughter of Richard Blakeborough, a well-to-do master clock and watch maker in Otley with substantial premises in the Market Square. Ellen was 20, but looked younger - two years earlier, at the last Census, she had passed for 15. She married Samuel shortly after her twenty-first birthday, in the autumn of 1843.

At first things went well. Ellen soon found that she was pregnant, and their son John was born just before Christmas 1844. They christened him a month later at the brand-new parish church of Saint John the Evangelist in Skipton. It had been a difficult birth, and the midwife was clumsy. Ellen took some time to recover, and even longer to come to terms with the brutal fact that John would be their only child.

As the relationship between Samuel and his wife deteriorated, so did the business. Why it failed so completely and so quickly is not known. Candle-making had been a thriving industry. But the future lay with gas-lighting, and candle sales were already starting to decline. Fewer and fewer people wished to continue lighting their homes with tallow candles when they could get a cleaner, brighter and cheaper light by burning gas instead. The Skipton Gas Light and Coke Company was well established by 1853 - in February of that year they managed to run out of coal! The manager wrote in desperation to a mining company in Lancashire, begging for a barge-load of coal to be sent along the canal to them immediately, and asking almost as an afterthought how much it would cost. (They were charged ten shillings a ton - well above the usual market price).

Samuel seems to have been one of those optimistic souls who trust people on sight and hope that somehow everything will work out. Setting up the business he did, at the time and place he did, was asking for trouble. Failure was really only a matter of time.

Children have to be fed, so Ellen took their son and went home to her parents in Otley. Young John found himself living in a watch-maker's house, and began to learn the pleasures of tinkering with machinery.

Samuel was forced to consider his options. The idea of going back to the farm was intolerable - he knew what his brothers would say. He cast about for work, but discovered that he seemed to have no marketable skills. With no money, no home and, for the present at least, no family, he had to take what he could get. Eventually he met someone who told him he'd heard there was work over at Thorne, miles away at the back of beyond near the Lincolnshire border. A man was needed to walk along the towpath and lead the horses that pulled the barges along the River Don. The pay was insultingly low, but he would have a roof over his head and at least one meal a day. He took the job.

Dutch river near Hull

By Christmas 1849 Samuel had never been so lonely in his life. The one benefit of his occupation was that it gave him plenty of time to think. He spent hours brooding about the run of bad luck that had brought him so low. He wished he'd learned a trade. He missed his family. He even missed his older brothers. Surely one of them would help get him back on his feet.

He wrote to his brother James and explained his situation. James was well-established as a butcher in Hull. He had taken out a mortgage of 100 on a butcher's shop on the corner of Waterhouse Lane and Myton Street in 1835 from a Richard Jarvis, and a further mortgage of 200 on the same shop some three years later from a widow named Martha Quickfall, and by now the loan was almost repaid. He'd joined an organisation of local businessmen and was well-connected to the City Council. Hull was a thriving city, and his younger brother should have no problem in finding work. He wrote back to Samuel and told him so, adding that Samuel would naturally be welcome to come and live with him and his family until he found a place of his own, though space was tight and he might have to share the children's bed.

Samuel was greatly cheered by his brother's letter. At last his luck had turned. He felt the need to share his good fortune with someone, so when he sat down to eat that night he told the stranger sitting next to him all about it. The man seemed interested, and insisted on buying him a drink to celebrate. One drink turned into several, and Samuel found himself telling this big, cheerful, friendly man about his business, and his bad luck, and how his wife had left him, and how his rich brother, the butcher in Hull, was going to help him. By the end of the evening Samuel had learned that his new friend Mark Bennett dealt in this and that, mostly horses, buying and selling, and that he was not short of money. When Mark promised to look him up in Hull in a couple of weeks, Samuel was delighted.

So Samuel gave notice to his employer and set off to walk the forty miles to Hull. James was pleased to see him after such a long time. James' wife Rachel was less welcoming - to her, he was just extra work on top of helping in the shop and looking after her three young children. But she was civil enough, and they gave him a meal and a place to sleep. The next morning James told him where he would find some casual labouring work, and Samuel soon fell into a routine. Being a labourer again was not quite what he'd had in mind, but he was back with family and he was eating better than he had since he'd left the farm. He never seemed to have much money in his pocket, but that was normal for him.

One evening, Mark Bennett turned up at the shop, accompanied by another man he introduced as John Mitchell, a good friend of his. Was there any chance of accommodation for the two of them, just for a week or so? James explained that there was no room at all in the house, but if they wished they could share the family's evening meal - provided, of course, that they paid their way.

It was a good week for Samuel. Every night after supper he and his new friends would walk through the town, often stopping at a public house for refreshment, and the best part was that Samuel was almost never allowed to buy the drinks.

On the Friday evening, Mark announced that he'd have to be on his way in the morning. There was a horse fair across the river in Lincolnshire the following week that he wanted to attend, but he planned to be back within a fortnight. The two men strolled back along Whitefriargate towards Bennett's lodgings. It was about half past seven, and the shopkeepers were beginning to think about closing for the night. They paused outside the window of Bell's the ironmonger's, where Mark Bennett's eye was caught by a display of knives and forks. They were priced at only five shillings for a set of six, a real bargain, and he was sure he'd be able to sell them for more than that to some farmer at the fair.

Seeing the men's interest, the shopkeeper came to the doorway and began chatting to them. Mark said he was sure that the cutlery was not made in Sheffield - it looked to him like a cheap imitation, from Bristol or somewhere like that. Mr. Bell smiled, and declined to haggle over the price, so in the end Mark shrugged and pulled a roll of five-pound notes from his pocket. He peeled off the top one and held it out. It was a note of the Brighton Union Bank. Bell looked at it dubiously, and asked if the gentleman didn't perhaps, have a note from somewhere closer than Brighton? Bennett flicked through the roll and pulled out a Bank of England note. It had been issued by the Bristol branch, but that was where the knives and forks were from, too, haha. Bell was still reluctant. He objected that Bristol was just as far away as Brighton. Bennett said he was sure the note was a good one, didn't he trust them?

*   *   *

That was a good question. A bank note, after all, was just a piece of paper. It might be what it claimed to be, or it might be ... just a worthless piece of paper.

A bank is a business that borrows your money, lends it to somebody else, and charges both of you for the privilege. Banks have been around since the time of Charles II, and even in Samuel's day, traders were accustomed to accepting paper instead of gold. The system saved time and effort, though Macaulay quotes a bitter description of bankers by "old-fashioned merchants" of the 1600s:

These usurers played at hazard with what had been earned by the industry and saved by the thrift of other men. If the dice turned up well, the knave who kept the cash became an alderman: if they turned up ill, the dupe who furnished the cash became a bankrupt.

The Bank of England, though, was special. It had been set up as long ago as 1694 to soak up a million pounds of loose capital that was sloshing around in the country, and lend it to the government to help pay for the war with France. At that time a million pounds was a huge amount of money - it was about a fifth of what the government spent in a year.

Seeing a good rate of interest, and a negligible risk that the Bank could be allowed to fail, depositors rushed to invest. The million pound target was reached in ten days.

Depositors were given hand-written receipts in exchange for their money. Fifty years later, business had grown to the point where the Bank decided that it would be more efficient to keep a stock of pre-printed receipts. These were in standard denominations, ranging from 1,000 down to 20. Later, when wars had led to a shortage of gold, the Bank introduced 10, 5 and even 1 receipts. A Bank official still had to fill in the name of the payee and sign each one to make it valid before it was handed over to a depositor.

The next big step came in 1833, when the Bank proclaimed that since each note represented money that someone had deposited, a note was much the same thing as the money itself, so it could be used instead of money. Bank notes became 'legal tender', which effectively prevented the depositor from going along to the Bank and asking for his money back. He would simply be told that the note was his money.

Forgery was a problem, even though the notes were printed on special paper. Trying to spend forged money was felt to be such a threat to the State that nothing less than the death penalty would be an adequate deterrent. It was employed, too. The last man to be executed for forging bank notes was hanged in 1829. A few years later the enlightened government of the day decided that this punishment was too severe. Instead, convicted forgers should simply be banished to Australia. But there was no sympathy for the unfortunate trader who accepted a worthless piece of paper. He should have been more careful who he trusted. The Bank would certainly not redeem forgeries.

Anyone with capital could found a bank, and soon most major towns had one or two. They naturally followed the example of the Bank of England and issued their own pre-printed receipts. But since these country banks depended on being trusted, they were prepared, initially at least, to honour the few notes of theirs that turned out to be forged. This meant that the notes of a local bank were often preferred to those of the Bank of England. The further these notes travelled from their home town, however, the more reluctant traders were to accept them. To turn a note back into gold could involve an inconveniently long journey.

So in 1850 traders were quite used to seeing bank notes from all over the country, and to making judgements about which notes they would take. They had to be careful - 5 then would be worth over 300 today - and the decision wasn't always easy, as each banknote was unique.

5 Bank of England banknote

Bell the shopkeeper took the five-pound note with some misgivings and sent his son out to get change. Whilst his customers waited they looked at a display of clasp knives, and Bennett decided he'd buy one of these too. At ten shillings the knife wasn't cheap, but it was well-made and it might prove useful. Horse fairs attract all sorts of unscrupulous people, and it was sensible to be prepared. They left the shop and agreed to meet in the morning.

Samuel had of course forgotten to ask his friend Mark to pay for all the meals he and John Mitchell had eaten that week. Rachel had not, and when Samuel left the house on the Saturday morning she made a point of reminding him. Mark laughed when Samuel hesitantly brought up the matter, and handed over a five-pound note, saying that he would trust him with the change for the few days he'd be away. Then he shook Samuel's hand, picked up his bag, and strode off towards the ferry.

It was a fine Saturday, and Samuel had five pounds in his pocket. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had this much money. None of it actually belonged to him, but that was a mere detail. He felt rich! He wandered along Lowgate, John Mitchell at his side, and thought about what he'd like to buy. They were passing Percival's, the hatters, and Samuel decided on the spur of the moment to buy a hat.

They went into the shop, and Samuel began examining Mr. Percival's splendid range of hats. Eventually he found one he liked. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the five-pound note that Mark had given him, and held it out to the shopkeeper with a flourish. He noticed without much interest that it was from the Brighton Union Bank, It was, in fact, the same note from the Brighton Union Bank that the ironmonger had refused the previous evening.

Mr. Percival took it, looked at it, and frowned. Did the gentleman have anything smaller? The hat after all was very reasonably priced at only six shillings. No, the gentleman didn't. Percival turned and spoke quietly to his assistant, who nodded and disappeared into the back of the shop. John Mitchell began edging towards the door. Percival explained smoothly that he'd just sent the boy to get change. Mitchell opened the door and muttered that he'd just remembered he had to meet Mark at the ferry. He left abruptly. Samuel was perplexed.

The door opened again and a policeman came in, closely followed by the shop assistant. Percival drew himself up, pointed dramatically at Samuel, and declared that this customer had presented to him a banknote that was obviously forged! He must be taken into custody at once! The policeman advanced grim-faced towards Samuel and grabbed hold of him, telling him he was under arrest. Arrest? Forgery? This was all a mistake, it wasn't even his bank note, as his friend Mitchell would surely confirm ...

*   *   *

Samuel was led away and locked up. He knew - everybody knew - that forging bank notes was a serious crime. Did they still hang people for it? But he was no forger, all he'd done was to try and buy a hat! He was an honest working man of good character, this was all nothing to do with him, it was a mistake, surely they could see that? They couldn't.

He managed to get a message to James, who was horrified at the new fine mess his brother had got himself into, and promised to help in any way he could.

Samuel made a statement to the police, explaining how the bank note had come into his possession, and how he had happened to meet Bennett in the first place, and what Bennett looked like, and where Bennett would be in the next few days. The police were quite interested. One of them mentioned that a man with the same description as his friend Bennett had been buying things with forged five-pound notes all over Hull for the past week. The police would like to talk to Mr. Bennett.

Police-constable Bentley was armed with descriptions of Bennett and Mitchell and despatched to Lincolnshire to look for them. They were not hard to find. Bennett had done a deal with a local farmer at the fair, agreeing to buy a horse for 9-10s., and had taken the farmer to a nearby public house to seal the bargain with a drink. Naturally, he'd paid for the horse with two forged 5 notes. Then PC Bentley came into the bar and spotted him. Bennett jumped to his feet in panic at the sight of a large policeman moving purposefully towards him, but the room was too crowded for a quick dash to the door. He seized a fire-poker and brandished it above his head, shouting that he'd knock down any man who tried to stop him leaving.

When the fight was over, six men were holding him down, and PC Bentley carefully removed an open clasp knife from Bennett's hand. He also took charge of the 54 gold sovereigns he found in Bennett's pockets. This time Mitchell was unable to slip away, and both prisoners were escorted back to Hull police station.

It was through James' intervention that when the case came to the Magistrates' Court two weeks later, no lesser person than the Hull Town Clerk rose to defend Samuel. Bennett and Mitchell were in the dock beside him. The prosecution case was simple. Mr. Percival described how Samuel and John Mitchell had come into his shop to buy a hat with a note he recognised as a forgery, and how he'd had Samuel arrested. Mr. West, managing director of the Brighton Union Bank, agreed that the note was forged.

The case for the defence was equally simple. According to the Hull Advertiser, Mr. Thompson, the Town Clerk, said that

... he saw nothing in the evidence to affect Hearfield criminally. It had not been shown that Hearfield knew that the note was a forged one, and such being the case he scarcely thought it necessary to give a history of the transaction; but being instructed to do so, he might state that the prisoner for whom he appeared was the brother of a respectable butcher in this town, and also of the managing clerk of a mercantile firm ...

and went on to relate how Samuel and Bennett had met, how Samuel had come to Hull to find a better job through the good offices of his brother James, and how Samuel had ended up in possession of the forged note. He concluded that Samuel

... was surprised to be apprehended for an act of which he had no intention.

All this cut no ice with the magistrates. The prisoners were remanded for another week. Forgery was much too serious a crime to be dealt with at the level of a Magistrates' Court, so the case against Samuel and Bennett was set down to be heard at the next sitting of the Assize Court, to be held in York Castle the following July. The magistrates had no objection to Samuel being freed on bail, but he had to spend another two weeks in a cell before his brothers were able to raise the two sureties of 20 demanded by the Court.

His trial at York Assizes focused on the one provable crime - Samuel and Bennett had defrauded Mr. Bell the ironmonger. The Bank of England five-pound note that Bennett had used to pay for the goods was definitely a forgery.

This time Samuel had no friend to speak up for him. He had no money to pay lawyers, and he was forced to defend himself. Bennett's lawyer offered the plausible defence that

... his client, who was a dealer in cattle and horses, had received the notes in the ordinary course of his trade, and had paid them again without any guilty knowledge of their being counterfeit.

Samuel took the same line when his turn came, and called as his character witness the solicitor who had handled the legal side of setting up the tallow chandler's business, all that time ago. The witness told the Court, rather helplessly, that Samuel

... was the son of a respectable farmer, and bore a good character seven years since, when he knew him

which may or may not have done any good.

No evidence was offered that either man was actually a forger, only that they had been caught trying to spend counterfeit notes as if they were genuine. That was quite sufficient. The jury found both prisoners guilty as charged.

York Assize Court judgement document on forgery 1850

After some conferring, the Court passed sentence. The Judge looked at Mark Bennett, and announced that he should be transported to Australia for fifteen years. Transportation was much worse than prison. It meant the end of any contact with family or friends.

Samuel waited in silence to hear what his own fate would be. The Judge stared at him, then announced that he had decided to sentence Samuel Whitehead Hearfield to a period of eighteen ... months ... of hard labour in the House of Correction. Eighteen months - but not eighteen years, and thank God, not transportation. Numbly, Prisoner No.39 allowed himself to be led away to prison. It had been built just next to the graveyard.

Hull Jail today

But Samuel's life was not over. Ellen came to Hull, took a room, and made straw hats for a living whilst she waited for him. When he was released, Samuel took up James' offer and learned how to be a butcher. He opened a shop in North Street, and made a living from it. Their son John - my great-grandfather - became a watchmaker. Later, they all moved to Leeds.

[This story emerged gradually over years of research. It began with finding Samuel recorded in the 1851 Census as a prisoner in Hull jail, and led via the pages of the Hull Advertiser to the discovery of the Assize trial judgement, on a parchment scroll in the dusty archives of the PRO at Kew.]

Copyright John Hearfield, 2007