Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

112: Somewhat Unexpected: Four Individuals in England in 1864

Most people never appear in law courts: they are not victims of crime, accused of crimes, asked to detail what they had witnessed, or called to serve on a jury. Despite this, on-going investigations in Victorian newspapers have a value in the documentation of people of African descent in Britain for these sources sometimes reveal occupations and locations that are somewhat unexpected.

Colchester’s Essex Standard of 22 April 1864 reported on William Henry Williams ‘alias Robinson, a mulatto’ who had been charged with obtaining 6s 6d by false pretences. He had told the landlord of the Angel Inn, High Street, that he was a barber by trade and wanted to start ‘a little business at the Hythe’ but lacked funds and had a sick wife. The money (£0.35p) was handed over, then the landlord discovered that his wife was not ill and started legal proceedings. Having then found out that the money had been used for the purpose stated, he asked the court to release the prisoner, who was discharged.

The name of the man who was associated with a bogus doctor has not come down to us. The Isle of Wight Observer of 23 April 1864 warned readers of a ‘tall person who pretends to be a doctor’ and frightened women into purchasing ‘some nostrum’ was accompanied ‘by mulatto who pretends to be his servant’. They had victimised several innkeepers in Ryde ‘by decamping without paying their bills’.

Mary Ann Syson of 29 Stanhope Street, Cheltenham had been living with a labourer named Joseph Hooper, having known him for seven years. Her husband Richard, an itinerant vendor of water cress, had left her some years earlier. Hooper and Syson lived in one of Cheltenham’s slums. She was ‘a mulatto woman’. On the way back from the pub on Saturday 7 May 1864 Hooper stabbed her three times in the throat. When arrested he said ‘If I had not done it to she [sic], she’d have done it to me’. Reports appeared in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent on page 6 of the issue of 10 May 1864; and in the Liverpool Mercury (12 May), North Wales Chronicle (14 May) and the Birmingham District Post (19 May). The case was sent to the assize court where it was heard on 8 August 1864. Hooper was aged 28, and his victim and paramour was now named Sysum and described as a widow. She denied calling him names. The jury found him guilty of wounding and he was sentenced to five years. The judge remarked that had the jury found Hooper guilty of intent to murder he would have been satisfied. The surnames Syson and Sysum are unusual but Mary Ann’s origins have not been traced. Two women, both named Mary Ann Syson, died in Nottingham in the 1900s [one aged 62 in 1902, the other aged 65 in 1909] and Mary Ann Sysum is recorded as dying in London aged 85 in 1902. The two Sysons would have been rather young to have known knife-wielding Hooper for seven years by 1864, and Sysum would have been in her mid-forties then.

We know less about Ben Chase who was arrested in Exeter and charged with stealing the then-colossal sum of £22 (four months income for a labouring man) which he had taken from his employer Mary Jordan who owned a ‘menagerie caravan’ according to Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post of 3 August 1864.

These four individuals in England in 1864 were not living in large cities or ports. That a black barber was active in Colchester, a black man was assumed to be the servant of a professional man, another worked for a travelling menagerie, and the water cress salesman’s wife of Cheltenham was coloured are unexpected.

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