Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

110: Joseph Denny: in, out and in prison 1873-1895

Caroline Bressey in her ‘Victorian Photography and the Mapping of the Black Presence in Britain’ in Jan Marsh (ed.), Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2005) reproduced one of sixteen photographs of black men in two albums of pictures taken at London’s Pentonville Prison in March-April 1881. She observes all the written records ignore the appearance, colour, ethnicity etc of these men and asks if racial prejudice played a part in their arrest or sentence. In the case of Joseph Denny, seen in a pose dated 7 April 1881, a search in contemporary newspapers reveals details of a somewhat strange man.

Joseph Denny was thirty when he appeared at the Old Bailey on 12 January 1881 when he pleaded guilty of stealing £25 and clothing from a house. The Morning Post reported on 5 February 1881 he had ‘a very extraordinary career of crime’ with a file of 27 sheets. The Times of that date noted this and that the ‘black man’ was sentenced for eight years. An earlier sentence had seen him serve seven years for his conduct ‘was so bad that he was required to serve the whole sentence’ (no remission for good behaviour). He was to be flogged but ‘on account of the state of his health this was not carried out’. He had been on a bread-and-water diet for 720 days. Denny asked ‘Why don’t you send me to the gallows right away? I shall be sure to do something. I shall commit murder before I am done!’ (The Times, 5 February 1881 p 11).

A rope was found inside Dartmoor prison in August 1890, which led to a search when the warders found Denny, who had been released a year before and had gone to sea where he brooded on his treatment by the chief warder. He broke INTO the prison aiming to murder that man and to rescue two prisoners. He got tangled up in the rope that pulled the entry bell, hence the search and the discoveries (Birmingham Daily Post 18 August 1890). He was Joseph Denny alias George Adolphus Gordon, born in Barbados. He said he had been put in irons because he was a man of colour and spoke his mind. The magistrate warned him several times to be careful of what he said in the court (Pall Mall Gazette 20 August 1890). The Times (18 August 1890 p 8) said he was Joseph Denney a coloured man (who said he was actually Gordon) of Barbados and that he had served eight years for felony in London (mainly in Dartmoor) and seven years for manslaughter in Liverpool. He was sent back to prison for a year (Daily News 3 December 1890). See also www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk Dartmoor Prison Escapes for the names of the warder and the prisoners. Denny was charged with stealing a sheep, in December 1890. The census of 1891 notes he was in Broadmoor (the prison for the criminal insane) and had been born in Barbados.

One year later the Hampshire Advertiser reported that ‘an old friend’ Denny had been charged with stealing a coat from the Sailors’ Home in Southampton. Denny ‘enjoyed the scarce privilege of having broken into Dartmoor’. He had served seven and fourteen years and ‘constantly broke the prison rules’. Aged 45 he was returned to prison for nine months – to be followed by five years’ supervision – obliged to report his whereabouts to the police.

An Uncle Tom’s Cabin theatrical show in Bishop Auckland in October 1895 employed Robert Hedley who was Joseph Hedley Denny or Denney, aged 49. He was paid twelve shillings a week. The authorities in Southampton wanted him. The court was informed he had served eighteen years in prison including eight for attacking a prison warder in Dartmoor. The nine months sentence in Southampton was noted, and it was suggested he had set fire to a coffee plantation in the West Indies, possibly in Jamaica (Northern Echo, Darlington, 11 October and 15 October 1895; Yorkshire Herald, York, 15 October 1895).

As a career criminal Denny was a failure. His violence led to lengthy spells in prison. A full list of his trials and a comparison between his punishments and those of whites would be interesting. But as Bressey noted, the written evidence is often without mention of colour or ethnicity.

Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives. English Prison Biography 1830-1914 (London: Pimlico, 1999) is a good place to start understanding the horrors of the prisons where Denny spent so much of his adult years. Prisoners are generally mute but middle-class veterans including Oscar Wilde, murderer Florence Maybrick, and white collar criminals Jabez Balfour and George Bidwell wrote about their experiences, which Priestley uses along with memoirs by prison officials, reformers, and government reports.

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