Tuesday 6 January 2015

A Life Out of Balance

A small bit of research recently uncovered a truly unexpected result; something worthy of a soap-opera finale. It is said that Lady Justice is blind, and hence impartial, but sometimes she is blind in a different sense.

Back in Harsh Times, I introduced an historical character of Nottingham, Henry Pearson, who had somehow confused the concepts of a police record and a world record. Just following him in the local newspapers revealed that he had been convicted almost 90 times, and that he probably saw more of the Nottingham prison than of his own family:

Nottingham House of Correction, c1895
Figure 1 - Nottingham House of Correction, c1895.[1]

Such was his reputation that the newspaper reports used phrases such as “one of the most notorious characters known to Nottingham”, “a disgrace to the community”, and “the laziest vagabond in Nottingham”.

It’s hard to avoid his convictions due to their sheer number, and even Ancestry lists a couple of them:

  • 14 Apr 1887 at the Easter General Quarter Sessions: Offence of “Larceny Simple — Prior Convictions”. Sentenced to “3 Cal. Months — hard labour”.[2]
  • 17 Oct 1887 at the General Quarter Sessions, Shire Hall. Offence of “Larceny Simple — before convicted of felony”. Sentenced to “3 months”.[3] This corresponds with his arrest for stealing a quantity of cotton waste from the Great Northern Railway Company, as reported in the table of newspaper reports, linked above.

The newspapers continued to yield small reports that I’d previously overlooked, such as Henry being charged with drunk & disorderly, and of assaulting P.C. (Police Constable) Stevens at 12:30am in St. Michael’s Street. He was sentenced to one month prison for this.[4]

At the time of writing, the Nottinghamshire Archives was closed for major work to extend it. However, the staff undertook some limited research to find how much of Henry’s criminal record still survives. It seems that the Borough Quarter Sessions books from 1899 onwards have not survived, and the surviving ones are very bulky unindexed volumes. However, the following details of summary convictions at Petty Sessions were noted:

Easter Sessions 1896.[5]
24 Mar 1896
Drunk and disorderly.
Midsummer Sessions 1896.[6]
24 Apr 1896
Drunk and disorderly.
Michaelmas (Autumn) Sessions 1898.[7]
22 Jul 1898
Obstructing the highway.
Epiphany (January) Sessions 1899.[8]
22 Dec 1898
Drunk and disorderly.

Of the eight volumes spanning 1872–1899, this search included only the 1898–1899 volume, and as far as p.142 in the 1896–1898 volume (about ¼ of the way through).

As these offences were filed under the Petty Sessions, it was decided to search those instead as they would contain more details, and some were actually indexed by the name of the defendant. These registers however, do not commence until 1887, and then there are two main sets of registers: 120 for court no. 1, and 122 for court no. 2. From 1907, there is another set of 4 registers for a court no. 3.

The above 1896 references were checked to establish if these tallied, and this revealed the following details:

24 Mar 1896 [court no. 1][9]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: drunk and disorderly
Sentence: 15/- [shillings] or 10 days H[ard] L[abour]

24 Apr 1896 [court no. 2][10]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: drunk and disorderly
Sentence: 15/- [shillings] or 14 days H[ard] L[abour]

Having established the expected correlation, the intention was to use the indexes to proceed through each of the registers but it was quickly found that some were only partially indexed and some not indexed at all. Clearly, it would take a massive research exercise to uncover details of Henry’s every conviction. The goal of this research was mainly to determine the availability of further information and so a full search was not undertaken. One last search was performed at the beginning of the registers for each court.

14 Feb 1887 [court no. 1][11]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: stealing beef
Sentence: remanded until 21st inst

21 Feb 1887 [court no. 1][12]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: stealing beef
Sentence: sent to No.2 court

This referral to court no. 2 on 21 Feb 1887 could not be found on this or the subsequent few days, perhaps because this case was deferred.

7 Jan 1887 [court no. 2][13]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: allowing dog at large unmuzzled
Sentence: no appearance, 2/6 P[oor] B[ox]

21 Jan 1887 [court no. 2][14]
Name: Henry Pearson
Offence: allowing dog at large unmuzzled
Sentence: Withdrawn

Most of Henry’s convictions were for dunk & disorderly, and for fighting or assault. He certainly had a problem with authority and several of the assaults involved members of the police force. The first case reported in the newspaper occurred when he was about 18 or 19, but he already had previous convictions by then. Some of his convictions, though, possibly suggest that he was deliberately targeted by the police. Charges such as “sliding on the causeway” (3 Feb 1879) and “found sleeping in an outhouse in a yard” (24 Feb 1888) seem to have gone beyond that necessary for the keeping of law and order.

In amongst the cases of drink and violence can be seen a sad and derelict home-life. My previous blog-post showed that although Henry did not marry Rebecca Belshaw until about 1900, the newspaper report of 6 Sep 1889 suggested that she had already given birth to several illegitimate children, and also that he had been keeping company with her for some time before that. The following table summarises the birth dates of Rebecca’s children based on census and civil-registration data.

Rebecca Belshaw

Frank Belshaw

Laura Belshaw

Rose Belshaw
Cannot identify birth registration.
Ellen Belshaw
Died 1891 aged 8 months.
Henry Belshaw

Kate Belshaw

Annie Belshaw
Died 1897 aged 1 month.
William Pearson

Lily Pearson
21 Mar 1905
At 14 Holland’s Yard.

That same newspaper report explained that Henry had come home, struck Rebecca, and kicked her, inflicting a number of bruises and a black eye.[15] She stated that she had only received 9d (9 pence) from him in the last fortnight. Henry was sentenced to prison for 2 months.

Digging a little deeper found an earlier reference of Henry assaulting Rebecca Bellshaw [sic], and giving her a black eye, on 24 Jul 1880. He was found 15s (15 shillings) or 14 days for this.[16] Hence, he was with Rebecca from the birth of her first child, and was most likely the father of all of her children, even though they did not marry for a further 20 years, and even though all the Belshaw children were listed as step-children in the 1911 census. It’s worth mentioning that Henry and Rebecca did not appear to be avid church-goers. With the exception of Annie Belshaw, whose baptism on 31 Dec 1896 at Nottingham St Catherine was probably because she was a sickly child[17], I can find no evidence of any baptisms, or even of their marriage having occurred in a church.

In June of 1907, Henry was prosecuted by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) at the Nottingham Summons Court.[18] Henry, living at 14 Holland’s Yard, Kelly Street, Sneinton, was charged with having neglected his three children, Kate (12), William (5), and Lily (1¾), in such a manner as to cause them unnecessary suffering and injury to their health, on and before May 21st. He was described by the prosecution as “a thoroughly bad lot, being a thief, an habitual drunkard, and a man who has never seen to do a stroke of honest work”. It was stated that he often turned the wife and children out of the house without food or money while he ate a good meal, and this was corroborated by the NSPCC Inspector. Praise was given to Rebecca for doing as best she could to look after the children. In view of the seriousness, Henry was sent to prison for three months.

In January of 1908, Henry — still at Holland’s Yard — was again prosecuted by the NSPCC at the Summons Court.[19] The prosecution said this was the worst case heard in the court for a long time. When accused of being idle, Henry openly threatened the prosecution:

“Pearson was able to earn good money when he chose to work, but he never did any, and had it not been for the charity of neighbours, and the fact that Mrs. Pearson was an excellent mother, the children would have been reduced to starvation. Mr. Lucas [prosecuting for the NSPCC] referred to defendant as an idle scamp, whereupon Pearson exclaimed, ‘You’re a liar, calling me an idle scamp. I’d give you something if I’d got you out side.’”

It was suggested that following his previous three-month sentence he had immediately started drinking again, and had been in an almost continual state of insobriety since. He was sentenced to a further six months in prison.

In March of 1909, Henry was yet again prosecuted by the NSPCC.[20] The prosecution admitted that the previous three-month and six-month sentences had had no effect at all. Evidence was presented that his three young children (he apparently “had five altogether”) had been persistently neglected, kept in a dirty condition, and not supplied with sufficient food. Henry was sentenced to a further six months with hard labour.

The NSPCC were obviously very concerned for the welfare of the children as they were back in court in November 1913.[21] The same Mr. C. E. W. Lucas prosecuted for the NSPCC as on the previous three occasions. Henry — now at 35 Stanhope Street — was charged with neglecting his two young children aged 11 [William] and seven [Lily] respectively. Rebecca and her “crippled daughter” (unnamed) toiled long hours doing lace work for around 6s per week, and she stated that this was not enough to live on. The school attendance officer explained that the children had received 1,230 breakfasts and 1,599 dinners from the education authority at some cost to the city. In view of his previous 87 convictions, he was sent for trial to the Quarter Sessions.

Something must have happened at this point because the newspaper reports of his court appearances just stopped. Finally, at the age of 55 (the newspaper said 62), might he have become a reformed man? The next mention I could find was associated with the death of his wife on 21 Mar 1933 — some 20 years later — at 6 Camden Street, aged 74, of ‘Heart failure. Fatty degeneration. High blood pressure. Kidney disease’.[22] Henry was present at her death.

Moving forwards another couple of years to 1935, though, reveals a very interesting newspaper report of a Henry Pearson of about the right age (76) being arrested for drunkenness.[23] This poor old man could barely stand, partly through intoxication after being “out with the boys” and partly due to his frail legs. Both the magistrate and the newspaper report treated the whole incident in a light-hearted fashion and I include a full transcription of the report to illustrate the tone:




“I was not drunk—it’s my legs,” said 76-year-old Henry Pearson, of Elford-rise, when evidence was given before the Nottingham magistrates to-day that he was lying helplessly drunk in Goose-gate at 4.15 on Saturday afternoon.

P.c. Collins stated that after making his discovery he lifted Henry, only to find that he could not stand.

P.c. West corroborated as to defendant’s condition when he was brought to the police station.

Then came Henry’s explanation in a duologue with the chairman (Ald. Sir Albert Atkey). He is frail and rather deaf, and he was invited to stand close to the witness box.

“I am 76,” he pointed out. “ I had been with some friends and was the youngest of the four. If I’ve done wrong I want punishing, but it’s my legs that fail me.”

Sir Albert: You say it was your legs? — I’m certain it was. They do fail me.

What are you doing for it?—Nothing, it’s old age creeping on, I expect.

Later he assured the bench that he would give his word, as a man, that nothing of the kind would occur again.

Sir Albert: Look after your legs, will you?

Henry continued to talk of the time he had spent with “the boys,” and finally confessed: “Well, I must  have got a bit over the mark.”


It was stated that it was his first appearance, and Sir Albert remarked: “It would be a pity to have a mark against you at 76, wouldn’t it?’’

“So it would, sir” agreed Henry, with great heartiness.

“All right, we’ll let you go this time,” replied the chairman, with a twinkle in his eye.

And Henry went—that is, as quickly as those legs of his would carry him!

Surely this frail old man, joking with the magistrate about his time spent with his even-older drinking companions, could not be the habitual drunkard and lazy vagabond of over 20 years previous. Surely it could not be the man who was always fighting — sometimes with the police — and who would leave his family destitute and hungry while he ate his meals.

The last section about this being his first offence initially persuaded me that it couldn’t be the same person, but it would be all too easy to miss a good story by making such a rash assumption.

Moving forwards in time a little more finds the death of the notorious Henry Pearson on 24 Apr 1938 at the City Hospital, aged 79, of ‘Cardiac failure. Myocardial degeneration. Chronic bronchitis. Senility’.[24] I know this is the right Henry since the informant was his daughter, Kate Belshaw. However, his normal address was given as 91 Elford Rise, off Windmill Lane, and that matches the addresses of the 76-year-old Henry appearing in court in 1935.

Elford Rise had about 120 households but the chances of finding another Henry Pearson of this same advanced age on that same road was very slim. However, just to be sure, I checked for the deaths of all Henry Pearsons of a vaguely similar year of birth (1855–1860) in the same county, and they all died well before 1935, except for two distant outliers: one aged 81 in Newark (1938) and one aged 85 in Mansfield (1940), neither of which could be linked to Nottingham.

So, it would appear that the court system had completely forgotten about the old Henry Pearson, and that the magistrate had fallen for an amusing tale told by a frail 76-year-old who had simply been having a good time with his friends. They had not made the connection to his real past. I am sure that he really did leave the court “as quickly as those legs of his would carry him”, and I can almost hear his wheezing chuckle as he realised he had finally got one over on the courts, and he probably gave one last gesticulation as he left the building. I bet he got great mileage out of the story with his drinking companions that evening.

UPDATE -- A later article (see http://parallax-viewpoint.blogspot.com/2015/04/like-father-like-son.html) showed that Laura Belshaw and Rose Belshaw were actually the same person.

UPDATE -- A possible explanation for Henry's reduced newspaper coverage was army service: {Nottm Evening Post, 16/10/1917}: Army case dismissed against Henry, alias William Clayton, for fraudulently claiming money (‘separation allowance’, normally taken from a soldier’s pay) from them after he was discharged. Henry was formerly in the Robin Hoods but later transferred to the RDC. He was discharged as medically unfit but of good character. -- Thanks to John Ellis for pointing me to that.

[1] Nottingham House of Correction, St John’s Street, c1895. Also known as St John’s Prison as it was built on land formerly occupied by a hospital dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Picture by A. W. Bird. Displayed by permission of picturethepast.org.uk. Image Ref: NTGM017628.
[2] "England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892", database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 4 Jan 2015), entry for "Henry Pearson" of "Nottingham" on 14 Apr 1887; citing HO 27, Piece: 207, Page: 340, Entry: 6, The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[3] "England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892", entry for "Henry Pearson" of "Nottingham" on 17 Oct 1887; citing HO 27, Piece: 207, Page: 350, Entry: 2, TNA.
[4] “To-Days Police News”, Nottingham Evening Post (12 Jan 1885): p.3.
[5] Nottingham Borough Quarter Sessions Record Book 1896–1898, transcription by Notts. Archives, document ref: CA 3292, entry for "Henry Pearson", 24 Mar 1896, p.30; Notts. Archives.
[6] CA 3292, entry for "Henry Pearson", 24 Apr 1896, p.58.
[7] Nottingham Borough Quarter Sessions Record Book 1898–1899, transcription by Notts. Archives, document ref: CA 3293, entry for "Henry Pearson", 22 Jul 1898, p.49.
[8] CA 3293, entry for "Henry Pearson", 22 Dec 1898, p.154.
[9] Nottingham Borough Petty Sessions Record Book including March 1896 [Court no.1], transcription by Notts. Archives, document ref: C/PS/CA/1/38, entry for "Henry Pearson", 24 Mar 1896; volume is indexed by defendant’s name.
[10] Nottingham Borough Petty Sessions Record Book including April 1896 [Court no.1], document ref: C/PS/CA/1/39, entry for "Henry Pearson", 24 Mar 1896; volume is indexed by defendant’s name.
[11] Nottingham Borough Petty Sessions Record Book commencing January 1887 [Court no.1], transcription by Notts. Archives, document ref: C/PS/CA/1/1, entry for "Henry Pearson", 14 Feb 1887.
[12] C/PS/CA/1/1, entry for "Henry Pearson", 21 Feb 1887.
[13] Nottingham Borough Petty Sessions Record Book commencing January 1887 [Court no.2], transcription by Notts. Archives, document ref: C/PS/CA/2/1, entry for "Henry Pearson", 7 Jan 1887.
[14] C/PS/CA/2/1, entry for "Henry Pearson", 21 Jan 1887.
[15] “Cruelty to a Woman”, Nottingham Evening Post (6 Sep 1889): p.3.
[16] “Police Intelligence”, Nottingham Evening Post (30 Jul 1880): p.2.
[17] Nottinghamshire Family History Society (NottsFHS), Parish Register Baptism Transcriptions, CD-ROM, database (Nottingham, 1 Jan 2013), database version 6.0, entry for Annie Belshaw, 31 Dec 1896. NottsFHS, Parish Register Burial Transcriptions, CD-ROM, database (Nottingham, 1 Jan 2013), database version 6.0, entry for Annie Belshaw, 5 Jan1897.
[18] “Shocking Neglect of Children”, Nottingham Evening Post (6 Jun 1907): p.5.
[19] “A Disgrace to the Community”, Nottingham Evening Post (21 Jan 1908): p.5.
[20] “A Worthless Vagabond”, Nottingham Evening Post (15 Mar 1909): p.7.
[21] “A Worthless Vagabond”, Nottingham Evening Post (31 Dec 1913): p.7.
[22] England, death certificate for Rebecca Pearson; citing 7b/292/269, registered Nottingham 1933/Jun [Q2]; General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[23] “OUT WITH THE BOYS — AT 76!”, Nottingham Evening Post (13 May 1935): p.7.
[24] England, death certificate for Henry Pearson; citing 7b/321/298, registered Nottingham 1938/Jun [Q2]; GRO.

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