Posts Tagged ‘Essex’

Phoebe was born in 1834 in Colchester. The date of her birth is unknown, as is that of her christening, if there ever was one. She went on to have one of the most interesting lives of any of my ancestors. Reading between the lines and there are many lines, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a life beset by scandal and maybe it was. One thing is certain, it was a hard life, but oh the stories she could have told!


Phoebe was the 3rd child, one of six, of George Henry Gusterson and his wife Susan. George was an army man, at least for a short while. His first child was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia – now Canada – and his second at Chatham Army Barracks in Kent. Although I have no details of his service, it seems likely that he left the army around 1830 and the family settled in Colchester, the place of his birth.


They lived around North Hill in Colchester. For at least some of the time they most likely lived in a dwelling behind the houses and businesses on North Hill – a house or rooms off a courtyard which was no doubt cramped and perhaps a little squalid. George worked as a labourer. Over time he had various jobs which included working at the local iron foundry and as a bricklayer.


At the age of seventeen, Phoebe was working as a housemaid to a butcher and his family. She was listed on the 1851 census as being resident at the butcher’s house so it was a live-in position. At this time, her parents only had three children still living at home easing the burden on the household.


Phoebe’s adventures began in November 1854 when she married a Thomas Barrell. He was a soldier, a private in the infantry and fourteen years her senior. At the time of their marriage, his place of residence was recorded as the Wagon and Horses Inn. I have no idea if he was local although that seems unlikely; I can find no trace of him.


In June 1856 Phoebe’s father was in court on a serious charge (those of you who have read my previous family history blogs will know that my ancestors are quite familiar with court proceedings). He was charged with having “ill-treated his wife” and having “threatened to murder her”.  The story was helpfully recounted in the The Essex Standard at the time:

Colchester Town Hall. Monday, June 9. Before the Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. George Henry Gusterson was brought up on a warrant, charged with having ill-treated his wife on Friday evening last and threatened to murder her. – It appeared that he had been for about two years out of employment, during which time he was mainly supported by the unremitting labour of his wife. Several times he has threatened to murder her, and on Thursday night his conduct was such that she was compelled to leave her home. On Friday night she returned to the house for some things, when the defendant received her with the greatest apparent affection; but after she had entered the house he fastened the door, and declared with an oath that he would murder her. Hearing her screams her son attempted to break open the door, upon which defendant struck her several times with a screw-driver, and she became insensible. – The Bench asked if he was in the habit of getting drunk; but the complainant (who seemed to feel keenly being driven to the necessity of appealing to the law for protection) begged not to be pressed to answer the question. – Defendant subjected his wife to a lengthy cross-examination, and endeavoured to show that he was the most ill-used of husbands; that he, not his wife, ought to be the complainant; and that notwithstanding the greatest provocation he always behaved kindly to his wife. – The Bench, however, considered the case proved, and ordered defendant to enter into his own recognizances in £20 to keep the peace for six months, and to find one surety in £10.”

The son who tried to break down the door was only twelve years old at the time! As it happens, George was unable to find surety and was committed to prison for six months. Six months!! That seems an unduly lenient sentence for threatening to murder someone.


Amazingly enough, in September of the same year he was back in court, this time to be discharged on the request of his long-suffering wife:

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – SEPT. 11. Before the Mayor and J. Chaplin, Esq. Mr. Abell applied on behalf of Mrs. Gusterson for the discharge of her husband, George Henry Gusterton [sic], who, it will be remembered, was committed to prison on the 9th June last, in default of finding surety for his good behaviour to his wife for six months. Having given a solemn promise to behave better to her for the future, his wife wished him to be set at liberty. – The Bench having acceded to this request, the prisoner was brought up into the Court and addressed by the Mayor, who said at the earnest request of his wife the Bench had consented to his liberation. He had much to thank his wife for, especially after the treatment she had received at his hands, and he hoped he would properly appreciate it. Whatever he did, let him shun drink; it was drink that had brought him to his present position. It had been to him a curse, and would continue so, unless he endeavoured in the most determined manner to free himself from it. – Gusterson thanked the Bench for their kindness, and having entered into his own recognizances for his future behaviour, left the Court with his wife.”

Maybe encouraged by the misdemeanours of her father Phoebe embarked on something quite remarkable. With her husband, Thomas, now presumably dead, most likely in the Crimea (sadly something I cannot ascertain), she married again.


In 1854, Britain had declared war on Russia following Russian incursions into the Crimea. Struggling to recruit sufficient soldiers at home the British fell back on the time-honoured tradition of hiring foreign recruits. The majority came from the German states, eager for action, many deserting their own army. Known as the British German Legion or Anglo-German Legion, the mercenaries saw little or no action as the war ended. Many were still being trained and Britain was contractually obliged to pay them their dues. In 1856, around 10,000 legionnaires were billeted at Barrack field in Colchester Garrison. Having committed the treasonous act of swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria they faced difficulties with repatriation and the British Government decided to resettle some of them, in the Cape Colony in South Africa, known then as British Kaffraria, to help protect the Eastern Cape Frontier. They wanted married men so they gave the men permission to marry any woman who was willing to join him on the adventure. In the end, less than 2,500 men volunteered for resettlement and the number of married soldiers that arrived in the Cape was far fewer than that, less than 400, and the colony struggled from the very start, not helped by the lies and exaggerations they were told about the settlement in order to make the idea seem more appealing.


One of Colchester’s oldest photos, taken in 1856, of the British German Legion’s encampment by the Garrison Church in Colchester. Source: Essex County Standard.


On 16 November 1856 Phoebe married a Carl Formhals on board the depot ship HMS Britannia in a mass wedding with a number of other couples. Her younger sister Sarah also married a German, Heinrich Langefeldt, her marriage taking place in the Garrison Church on 19 October 1856.


Carl was actually Prussian, from a town called Arnsberg. He was 5’4”, blonde and a butcher by trade. He enlisted in the British German Legion in November 1855 aged just 21.


Phoebe and Carl sailed for South Africa on 19 November 1856 and arrived in the Cape on 28 February 1857. They took a circuitous route, chasing trade winds across the Atlantic, then turning south down the coast of Brazil before crossing to the Cape. Three months on board a ship must have felt like an eternity.


On arriving in South Africa, after camping in a tented village overlooking the mouth of the Buffalo River close to the hamlet of East London, they were moved to Fort Murray, a three-day march away. The women and children rode on ox wagons with the baggage while the soldiers walked. Of course, by this time the legionnaires realised that British Kaffraria was not what they’d been promised. It was nothing like Germany – it was hot, there was a lack of proper roads and the forts were not stone castles but earthen constructions. When they arrived in Fort Murray they once again had to make do with tents. During these early days, and later on, many died from dysentery.


The legion was broken up into three regiments and after two months they left Fort Murray to settle into various villages. Sarah and her husband settled in Stutterheim where he was granted land and it is possible that this is also where Phoebe and Carl settled but there is no record.


There seemed to be some confusion about how the men should be ordered. Were they soldiers who were becoming settlers or were they settlers who had been soldiers? Apart from the weekly parade they were left to their own devices and did very little. There was dissent, money was a problem, soldiers starting deserting. Many seemed uninterested in constructing permanent homes. There were relatively few married men and no prospect of any women for the unmarried ones and therein lay the main problem.


The soldiers received full pay for a year; a whole 11 months longer than originally promised thanks to lies fed back to Britain by those in charge about uprisings and threatened wars. After that the soldiers were reduced to half-pay which made their lives unsustainable. By way of a solution to this and to help rid the colony of those soldiers who were uninterested in settling and thus causing problems, they were offered the opportunity to volunteer to serve in India where a “mutiny” had occurred. Around 45% of the settlers volunteered and by August 1858 they had left. Those who stayed were once again able to receive full pay. Further German immigrants were brought over and the colony started to flourish.


Phoebe and Carl stayed in South Africa as did her sister, Sarah, and her husband. Phoebe had two children, Charles in 1859 and Bertha in 1860. Carl purchased his discharge from the legion on 31 August 1859.


In 1861 Phoebe Formhals was back in Colchester, England, with her two children in tow, living with her mother and two siblings. The census lists her as married but her husband is not there. There is no record of when, how or why Phoebe returned to England. What happened to Carl is a secret that Phoebe may very well have taken to her grave.


Phoebe’s father was living elsewhere with a woman listed as “housekeeper”. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t; however, I doubt she was his housekeeper if this was her profession. In his daughter’s absence he had been in court again, this time on the charge of obtaining charitable contributions under false pretences. For this he served two months of hard labour. He died in 1865 in the workhouse. A sorry end to a sorry tale.


From the time she arrived back in England and until she married for a third and final time, Phoebe worked as a tailoress. On the 1871 census she reverted to her first married name, Barrell, and was calling herself a widow. Was she a widow? Who knows. She may have wished to distance herself from the German surname since anti-German sentiment began to make an appearance in Britain in the 1870s following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war.


On 1 Jun 1873 Phoebe married Joseph Slade, another soldier. He had served in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and quite possibly the Crimea, and was living in the Colchester Garrison. The marriage certificate records Phoebe as Phoebe Barrell, widow. It makes no mention of her previous husband.


When Phoebe’s children married they both named their father as Charles Barrell, Charles being the anglicised form of Carl. On Charles’ marriage certificate his father’s profession was recorded as being a publican, which he most definitely was not, and on Bertha’s, it was correctly recorded as soldier.


Phoebe and Joseph remained together until her death in 1898. They had a child, William, in 1880, no doubt rather unexpectedly given Phoebe’s age (45-46). On the 1881 census Joseph is listed as an army pensioner so had at some point in the intervening years left the army. Another ten years passed and Joseph was working as a labourer at Colchester Garrison which afforded them accommodation within the barracks; however, Phoebe is sadly noted as being paralysed – to what degree it doesn’t say. She died on 22 May 1898 aged 64. Her death certificate lists the causes of death as rheumatoid arthritis and debility plus something that is frustratingly illegible. It says she had suffered from arthritis for 18 years and debility for two. Given the adventures she had and the hardships she must have faced, 64 seems like a good age.


So for all intents and purposes Carl Formhals never existed, or at least that’s the impression Phoebe seems to have been hoping to give. The German surname was erased from the collective family memory and, although we knew her children were born in South Africa, the mass wedding was just a rumour. It was only when I started delving into her past that we found out the truth. But what is the truth? What happened to Carl? Did he return to Germany? There is no record of him remaining in South Africa but that means very little. A man with the same name, birth year and birthplace married in Germany in 1861 but the name isn’t uncommon enough for me to make any assumptions and I don’t have access to any other records to be able to delve further. Did Phoebe commit bigamy?


Phoebe and Carl’s daughter, Bertha (pictured below), was my great x 2 grandmother. When she was eligible to receive an old age pension from the government she experienced some difficulty proving her age because she had no proof of her birth. There was no official recording of births and such-like in the Cape Colony.


The rather wonderful looking Bertha Mary Ann Hunwicke (née Formhals but known as Barrell). Family archive.


So, a tiny part of me is German, or more accurately, Prussian. Whatever the reasons for Phoebe and Carl parting ways I am very proud to call them my ancestors. I think they were brave and adventurous, especially Phoebe. Imagine the stories she could tell.


The story of the Eastern Cape’s German Settlers can be found here:




As an aside it is interesting to note that Phoebe’s elder brother, also George Henry Gusterson, seems to have been of the same ilk as his father. On 11 November 1856, five days before Phoebe married Carl Formhals, her brother was in court on charges of ill-using his wife. He had used a familiar threat: murder.

COLCHESTER TOWN HALL. – Nov. 6. Before Mayor and S. G. Cooke. Esq. MATRIMONIAL DISAGREEMENT. – George Henry Gusterson, jun., was summoned for ill-using his wife. – Mr Abell for defendant. Complainant stated that she had been married to defendant four or five years, and about two months ago he left her in London after selling off the furniture, and she did not know where he was till a week afterwards, when, on his promising to behave better to her, she came to Colchester and lived with him. On Friday last he struck her in the face with his fist, and threatened to murder her. On Monday last, when she returned from the Court, after applying for a summons, he repeated his threatening language. – A neighbour, Mrs Brooker, a respectable woman, spoke to hearing defendant make use of threatening language towards his wife on various occasions. Mr Abell, for defendant, called Eliza Hardwick, who stated that she had heard complainant speak to her husband about another woman, when defendant replied that he would knock her head through the wall. She had heard complainant tell her child not to love her father. – In answer to a question by the Clerk to the Magistrates, this witness admitted that she had been brought into the station-house off the pavement when intoxicated. – The Mayor asked complainant if there was any prospect of their living peaceably together after this? – Complainant. No, Sir: this is the fourth time he has treated me thus, and I wish to be separated from him. – Mr Cooke. We cannot do anything of that kind: our business is, if possible, to set man and wife together. – The Mayor, We might sit here all day if we were to separate married people who wished to part. – The Bench then required defendant to find two sureties in £10 each to keep the peace towards his wife; and the required sureties being forthcoming defendant was discharged.”

George Henry Gusterson, jun. disappears from all records after this and his wife is living in London with her daughter by 1861 and is recorded as a widow. Again, was she? Who knows.




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Fishing smacks off the coast of Mersea, Essex in 2004 (edited by me). Source.


For other craft our prouder river shows,
Hoys, pinks, and sloops; brigs, brigantines and snows:
Nor angler we on our wide stream descry,
But one poor dredger where his oysters lie;
He, cold and wet, and driving with the tide,
Beats his weak arms against his tarry side,
Then drains the remnant of diluted gin,
To aid the warmth that languishes within,
Renewing oft his poor attempts to beat
His tingling fingers into gathering heat.”

Extract from The Borough by George Crabbe (1754 – 1832)


If you read my previous post about The Smiths of Tollesbury you will be aware that they didn’t exactly live within the law. Of course, they were by no means the only people to live a less than, shall we say, blameless life. The times in which they lived and the lives to which they were born were hard and unforgiving so it’s no surprise that they looked to make money any way they could, and sought solace in the bottom of a tankard of beer.


After writing about them previously I did some further research. At the last count, Thomas and Mary Ann Smith (it seems she had a middle name) had 11 children. Of those children I’m aware of three that died before they were 5 years old. For some unknown reason only the first four births and then the last were registered. The other six were unregistered as far as I can tell. Additionally, the three youngest appear not to have been christened. The registering of births was the responsibility of the local registrar who in these cases seems to have been a little inept. It wasn’t until 1875 that the law was changed making registration of children’s births compulsory and the responsibility of the parents.


I’ve also found a couple of new and interesting stories regarding the family. For this I owe the local Essex press a debt of gratitude as they seem to have recorded every single case that took place in the local courts, thus providing me with a rather colourful history of a family that otherwise may well have been overlooked as simply poor and uninteresting.


In 1853, a possibly pregnant Mary Ann, who I’d previously thought of as down-trodden and put upon, made a court appearance of her own. She accused her next door neighbour of assault. As the case proceeded it became apparent that Mary Ann had not been assaulted at all. She had, in fact, been the one doing the assaulting and the case was therefore dismissed. What she did and why she did it will forever remain a mystery as the details were not reported. I wonder what sort of woman she was…


In 1861, Mary Ann had to go through something that no mother should ever have to face. Her nine year old daughter, Selina Alice, was assaulted by a 42 year old man called Isaac Rootkin. The paper reported that he was accused of and pleaded guilty to “assault with intent to abuse” and that he had “a previous conviction for a similar offence”. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour which seems a lenient punishment for what he did. Ever curious to know the whole story, I looked up the details of his previous conviction. Four years before assaulting Selina, Isaac Rootkin, a builder’s labourer, had been sentenced to just 18 months’ hard labour for “carnally abusing” a little girl of 11 years old. Reading between the lines I’m assuming that Selina’s assault was less horrific than that of the first unfortunate child but, of course, I don’t know that for sure.


Both these assaults took place in a time when the words we now use to describe crimes such as these and the people who commit them were unknown. People were punished more severely for crimes such as larceny and robbery than they were for what we would now refer to as child sex abuse and paedophilia. Having spent so long in the company of the Smiths and having fallen in love with their wayward exploits, reading about Selina saddened me very much. I know she lived to be at least twenty but after that I’ve so far been unable to trace a marriage or a death. I shall continue to search.


In 1870, Mary Ann did something that must have shocked the people that knew her. She remarried following the death of her first husband Thomas. Now of course remarriage is nothing unusual even if it is to a man who encourages your sons to steal oysters and who will, in the future, be accused of piracy (more on that later). William Crabb was considerably younger than Mary Ann, but even that is not that shocking until you realise that he’d also been widowed … his deceased first wife being none other than Thomas and Mary Ann Smith’s eldest daughter, also Mary Ann Smith.


William Crabb married the daughter in 1866 in the parish church in Tollesbury. She died approximately nine months later. I don’t have the death certificate but it does seem likely that she died in childbirth or from complications with a pregnancy. Anyway, as you may have already realised William Crabb marrying his mother-in-law was illegal. In fact, a marriage of this kind only became legal in the UK in 1986 so they were over 100 years too early. Unsurprisingly the wedding took place in the local registry office in nearby Maldon where they were probably unknown. It could never have taken place in the local church where plenty of people would have known of a few “lawful impediments”! Mary Ann’s brother, Henry Biggs, was a witness at the registry office implying that at least her family were happy with the arrangement, or at least happy to let it go ahead. The marriage was, of course, void so legally they were never married.


And so to the piracy. Unfortunately we’re not talking eye-patches, skull and cross-bones, buried treasure and Jack Sparrow here. No, nothing so glamorous! In 1894, William Crabb and several other men were charged that “on the high seas, [they] did piratically and feloniously assault William John Barker, master mariner, of Burnham” on board his ship, the Emmeline, putting him “in fear of his life”. Apparently they “piratically, feloniously, and violently did steal from [him] a cargo of oyster shells”, and other items that were “the goods and chattels of certain subjects of our Lady the Queen.” There were other men charged as well in regards to offences on another boat.


It seems the case was very high-profile in the local area and at least 200 people came to see the proceedings. The court was crowded as were its precincts. The majority of the people attending were fishermen from Tollesbury. The alleged offences took place near Brightlingsea, another town further along the coast also known for its oyster fishing.


1904 map showing Tollesbury, Brightlingsea and Burnham (all circled in red).
Click for larger version.


In the springtime fishermen from Burnham-on-Crouch were “in the habit of taking culch1 and shell from the grounds … off Brightlingsea, said to be common property, to sell for the purpose of oyster culture”. This habit caused great upset amongst the fishermen of Tollesbury and the surrounding area because “the taking of the shell destroys the spat which in the season affords a living to them”. They had allegedly threatened the Burnham men on several occasions and although no threats had actually been carried out, things had been “a bit lively”.


Allegedly four Burnham boats were on the point of returning home when three Tollesbury vessels, each with two or three hands, were seen to be bearing down on them. One of the boats drew up alongside the Emmeline and upon touching it “some twenty or thirty men jumped up from the deck, and armed with sticks and shovels proceeded to board the Burnham boat”. The other two Tollesbury vessels likewise attached themselves to other Burnham boats. The fourth Burnham boat approached the others to see what was amiss and found herself similarly threatened. On pulling up alongside this fourth vessel, the Tollesbury men found themselves faced with a gun and an angry Burnham man threatening to “blow out the brains of any man who attempted to board”. The gun was allegedly unloaded but the boat was allowed to leave with its hoard. The three “captured” boats were driven onto the sand about three miles away from where the culch was gathered and their hoard thrown overboard. The Burnham men were threatened with a similar fate should they say anything about the affair. The paper reports that “various other picturesque incidents were narrated by the learned Counsel, one being to the effect that the Tollesbury men insisted on their captives supplying them with cocoa, tobacco, and various articles”. The Burnham men were set free a few hours later. It was made clear that “no blood was spilt, neither were any lives lost”.


To be found guilty of piracy could have resulted in the men being sentenced to penal servitude for life. There was some debate as to whether this was an act of piracy at all or simply a farce. Reading it all now, it does seem a little farcical but then put yourself in the shoes of the men finding themselves outnumbered and no longer in control of their boats.


The issue the Tollesbury fishermen had was that they believed removing the culch inflicted great damage to the fishery which was said to be worth a quarter of a million pounds. The Burnham men admitted to taking oyster brood for which the Tollesbury and Mersea Company alone had paid £14,578 in six years. Of course, the ground from which the Burnham men had been taking culch was a public one so they had committed no offence; however, several witnesses attested to it being the “best breeding ground in the Kingdom”. Any sums paid for oyster brood would have been paid to whoever caught the brood and it was said that two or three hundred boats worked the grounds, so removing culch permanently was “ruinous to the fishery”.


It’s not hard to understand why the Tollesbury men felt so strongly about this situation. Judging by the report in the paper it appears that the case descended into a bit of a farce, but, to cut a long story short, parts of which I’m a little unsure about, William Crabb and the other men on his boat were found not guilty.


So, I can only conclude that the people of Tollesbury were passionate and fiercely protective of their livelihoods. Mary Ann may have had a lot of worry and strife caused by her children and her wayward husband, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she supported them wholeheartedly in maybe not all but at least some of their many misdemeanours. Putting food on the table and a roof over their heads was no doubt the most important thing. I’d like to think that the one thing she objected to was their money being wasted on beer.


I do still intend to somehow fictionalise the story of the Smiths and give it some colour and depth. There’s so much raw material that is amusing, heartbreaking and even bewildering that I may struggle to know where to start!



1Culch – the rocks, crushed shells, and other sea detritus that create an oyster bed, where oyster spawn can attach themselves.


The poet quoted at the beginning of this post is not, as far as I know, any relation to William Crabb; however, George Crabbe was from Suffolk which neighbours Essex, so anything is possible!


I found this blog by Michael Halminski which describes how oysters spawn and goes a long way to explaining the fury of the Tollesbury men in finding the Burnham men removing the culch.



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Tide coming in at Tollesbury, Essex. My photo.


The old luxurious Romans vaunts did make
Of gustful Oysters took in Lucrine Lake:
Your Essex better hath, and such perchance
As tempted Cæser first to pass from France.
How did those ancient Worthies captive all
The humbled world unto their Capitol!
Yet from it’s highest Towers could not survey
So rich a Countrey as (from Holt) you may.
The noble Brutus, vertuous Portia,
Luckless Antonius, chast Octavia,
Soul-fix’d Paulina to her murther’d Lord
(The learned Seneca) such worthes afford
As have astonish’d Ages; yet your best
Of wives may justly with them all contest.
You then enjoying a full Fortune, and
The delicacies may eat of Sea and land;
Your dayes spend at a house of so fair site,
And (with a so deserving wife) each night:
Consider (since that you possess all this)
If y’are not happy, who the Devil is?”

To my Brother in Law Colonel Will. Nevil. – Aston Cockayne (1608 – 1684)


Thomas Smith of Tollesbury in Essex first went to sea in 1830 when he was just nine years old. He was born to be an Oyster Dredger. His father before him and his sons after him were men of the sea, of the mudflats and saltings; they were sailors of fishing smacks.


Thomas married Mary Biggs in 1841 when he was 20 and she was just 16. They started a family and between 1842 and 1866 had 10 children, at least two dying in infancy and others dying at very young ages. Life must have been hard.


Family tree – click for enlarged version (then click again to magnify). My image.


Tollesbury lies at the mouth of the River Blackwater on the Essex coast and its main trade was, for generations, oysters. Unfortunately, oysters could not be dredged all year round so money had to be earned elsewhere. Men found work on the land or as regular fishermen. Some crewed boats as part of the Merchant Navy, while others, having gained notoriety for their skill as smacksmen, crewed yachts and even took part in races. Despite the opportunities, finding work would no doubt have been difficult.


As well as oyster dredging, Thomas spent time in the Merchant Navy. Sadly he died in the late 1860s and it seems most likely that this happened at sea, although I am yet to confirm this.


Mary remarried in 1870, probably in desperate need of support for both her and her family. Her new husband was William Crabb, a man 16 years her junior and I sometimes wonder if she came to regret her second marriage.


In November 1883, William, along with Mary’s two youngest sons Uriah and Herbert, was in court. Herbert, aged just 17 was charged with stealing “a quantity of oyster brood”, with a value of sixpence. These oysters were the property of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company and Herbert was seen with his brother and stepfather in their smack, The Margaret, a few metres south of the company grounds. Herbert left the boat and made his way onto the company’s ground, which was marked out by beacons. He was witnessed picking up oyster brood. When approached by a watchman he denied being on the company’s ground despite his footprints telling a different story. Herbert returned eight brood to his accuser who maintained in court that there were between 14 and 18 in his bucket.


William was called as a witness and stated that the company’s ground was covered with water, the implication being that Herbert couldn’t have stolen the oysters if the tide was in. Uriah, also called to the witness stand, stated that Herbert had “got brood from the swashway about the company’s ground,” but when cross-examined admitted he hadn’t actually seen his brother pick any up. Herbert being found innocent was dependent on the testimony of his brother and stepfather. Unsurprisingly he was found guilty, fined 40 shillings and ordered to pay costs of 11 shillings and sixpence.


William and Uriah were also charged, but with damaging oyster beds rather than stealing. They both pleaded guilty and were fined £1 and costs of 8 shillings, the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Company stating that they “did not wish to punish these men.”


In May 1885 Uriah was back in court, this time accused of stealing 4,500 oysters from layings belonging to a Mr Adam Elisha Chatterson. The prosecutor stated that he’d found evidence that his oyster pits had been disturbed: 27 places where sheards had been used for getting up oysters, strange footmarks, and signs that a bag had been dragged down to the water. The value of oysters stolen, he said, was about £20. When cross-examined he stated that “the prisoner is a dredgerman, and I have known him since he was a boy. I have never heard he is half-witted; he is too sharp for me.”


A witness testified that his boat had been used without his permission. A watchman called to the witness stand stated that he’d seen Uriah with his stepfather, William, and another man, in the boat in question. Another dredgerman testified that some days after the alleged event took place, he had a conversation with Uriah who admitted going down to the prosecutor’s pits, in the said boat, and leaving a pair of sheards in it. Under cross-examination the witness admitted that he himself had been convicted of unlawfully dredging for oysters. He also admitted that before he spoke to Uriah he’d heard there was a reward out for information thus discrediting himself. Yet another witness testified that Uriah had admitted to him that he had stolen oysters from the prosecutor. Finally, William Crabb defended his stepson by testifying that he was with Uriah and the other man at the time in question, but in their own boat and that Uriah had at no time gone to the prosecutor’s pits. He was also discredited due to a previous conviction and the fact that Uriah was his stepson.


The case was summed up by the barrister for the defence stating that the robbery was a very extensive one and it could not be found that Uriah had had any dealings in oysters. He said that Uriah was half-witted and that no reliance could be placed on the statements he’d made to two witnesses.


Uriah was found not guilty and was discharged. This case fails to explain who actually stole the oysters and if the old adage “there’s no smoke without fire” is true then it’s likely that Uriah was possibly coerced or the only one naïve enough to boast about what he’d been doing. And half-witted?


Woodrolfe Creek, Tollesbury, at low tide. My photo.


In November 1888, William Crabb was in court without his stepsons, charged with unlawfully dredging for oysters, which by his own admission in 1885, was not the first time he’d been charged with this offence. The case involved debates about initials marked on an oyster dredge identifying it as belonging to William. He was found guilty, and, together with his accomplice, a Mr Levi King, sentenced to three months’ hard labour. The judge had wanted to send them down for four months, but the law would not allow.


In January 1890 Uriah was in court again, this time charged with being drunk and disorderly. It seems he had too much festive spirit as the incident occurred in Tollesbury on Christmas Day 1889. Another court case in the following July sheds a little more light on this incident. It seems Uriah was not alone in his carousing. His eldest brother Thomas was also charged with the same offence, committed on the same day, but, having been away, most likely with the Merchant Navy, could not be served with a summons until July. The report of Thomas’ case provides a little more information. The police constable reporting the incident said that Thomas used “very bad language” and had caused “a great disturbance.” On being asked to go home he behaved very violently towards the constable. Both men were fined, although Thomas was fined considerably more than his younger brother.


Just over two years later, in 1893, the brothers were at it again. This time they were drunk and disorderly in a village just down the road from Tollesbury. Neither actually appeared in court but were found guilty in their absence and fined in default of seven days’ hard labour. The police sergeant who reported them had ordered them to go home but Thomas was heard advising Uriah not to go saying, “I don’t care for any ****** policeman.”


Three years later, in 1896, the same thing happened again; both brothers were in court charged with being drunk and disorderly. They were again fined, this time in default of 10 days’ hard labour.


In February 1898 Thomas was in court again, but this time he was alone. He was charged with stealing a purse containing £2 and 10 shillings which belonged to William Crabb, with whom he was lodging, and who failed to appear in court to give evidence. A police sergeant stated that this was no doubt because Thomas had offered to repay the money, but that if William were to accept this offer he would be compounding an alleged felony. No mention was made of William’s relationship to Thomas and the case was adjourned so William could be subpoenaed.


Back in court a few days later William appeared and testified that Thomas was his stepson. Thomas admitted taking the money and hoped that William would forgive him. He said he would “go to sea and bring home money and pay it.” He said he always came home with good character, and whatever made him take the money he didn’t know. Bursting into tears he said, “It’s the drink, sir.”  Thomas went on to say, “Yes sir, I was drunk, and mother asked me to stay at the house rather than sleep in the street.” He was given one month’s imprisonment and told that, had it not been for his good character, it would have been a good deal more.


What happened to Thomas once he’d served his time is not known; however, Uriah appeared in court once more in September 1914. The headline in the local paper expressed some surprise: AFTER 18 YEARS. It had indeed been 18 years since Uriah was last in court on charges of drunkenness and this time the story gives a little more insight into Uriah’s character. In actual fact, his case was straightforward. He’d been seen coming out of a pub in a drunken condition. He was found guilty and fined. It was the case that came after his that explained things a little more clearly.


This is the news story as reported in The Essex Newsman:


Arising out of the previous case, Henry James Worsby, landlord of the King’s Head, Tollesbury, was summoned for allowing drunkenness, and for selling intoxicating liquor to a drunken person, at Tollesbury.

Mr. S. Wortley prosecuted; Mr. H. W. Jones defended.

Mrs. Barbara Gurton, wife of the landlord of the Hope public-house, Tollesbury, said that about two o’clock on August 17 she refused to serve a man named Uriah Smith, as he was not sober.

Cross-examined: Smith was eccentric, and always walked a bit “tottery”.

John May, bootmaker, Tollesbury, said he saw Smith between two and three o’clock on Aug. 17, and the man was drunk. About an hour and a half afterwards he saw him again. He was then staggering, and pitching on his toes.

Mrs. Blake, wife of Thomas Blake, landlord of the Plough and Sail, Tollesbury, said she refused to serve Smith on the afternoon in question, because of his condition; and James Collins, landlord of the Victoria, Tollesbury, said Smith was a bit “rolly.”

Wm. Crabb, West Street, Tollesbury, said Smith, who lodged with him, went home the worse for drink on August 17.

For the defence the defendant and his wife, George William Osborne, and Alfred J. Gurton, of Tollesbury, gave evidence to the effect that defendant and his wife refused to serve Smith, as it was a practice among publicans of Tollesbury not to serve him when there were any young men present, as they frequently treated him to drink, made fun of him, and had occasionally blacked his face. On the day in question defendant was not drunk when he went in the King’s Head, but there was a number of men present. He sat in the house, but was not served.

The case was dismissed.”

From this story it seems likely that Uriah Smith could have been a person that people referred to as “half-witted” as they did in 1885 when considering if he was capable of stealing 4,500 oysters. Maybe he wasn’t as bright or as clever as his brothers; undoubtedly he was gullible and naïve and someone that others took advantage of either to further their own gains or simply for their own entertainment. I rather suspect that he was a useful person to have around if you wanted to break the law or needed an amusing drinking partner.


Modern day fishing boats moored at Tollesbury. My photo.


So what of the others?


Mary, despite her sons and husband probably running her ragged and giving her far too many reasons to worry, lived to the ripe old age of 89, outliving all but two of her children according to the 1911 census. She died in 1914.


William Crabb, died in 1925. Curiously on the 1911 census, which he completed himself, he lists himself as a Boot Repairer. Maybe he found it to be a more lucrative profession than dredging for oysters, legally or otherwise.


Norris Smith, not mentioned before because it seems he never got into trouble with the law, married and had three children. Sadly he died in 1897 serving on board a steam yacht near Crete in the Mediterranean. The cause of death was recorded as syncope (loss of consciousness) owing to immersion.


Norris’ eldest son, also Norris, was involved in a humorous court case in 1899. The Essex Standard certainly found it amusing:


At the Maldon County Court the other day, before the REGISTRAR (Mr. J. C. Freeman) Walter Lock, a horseman, of Woodham Mortimer, sued Norris Smith, a lad of 19, a dredgerman, of Tollesbury, for £1., 10s, board and lodgings.

The REGISTRAR asked the defendant Smith if he were any relation to the plaintiff.

Defendant. He married my mother.

An old man then stood up in the Court.

The REGISTRAR. Well, what relation are you? (Laughter.)

The man, William Crabb. I married his father’s mother. I am step-grandfather to the defendant. (Laughter.)

The two parties then agreed to wait till the Judge arrived and have the case tried before him.

The REGISTRAR. I am not sorry. (Laughter.)

The plaintiff, before His Honour Judge Paterson, said defendant came to live with him last December and had stopped till January, offering to pay 6s. a week for board and lodgings. On January 17 he paid 6s. and on the 28th he paid another 7s. He left soon after, when five weeks’ pay was owing. Defendant would not do anything. He did not work “half his time”.

His HONOUR. Who’s he got to support him?

Plaintiff. He’s old enough to support himself.

The defendant said that when he left the plaintiff forgave him the money that was owing and in addition presented him with 5s.

His HONOUR. How do you live?

Defendant. I don’t know what you mean? (Laughter.)

The JUDGE. Who supports you?

Defendant. I support myself.

The JUDGE. What do you earn?

Defendant. Last week I earned 6d., and the week before 7d. (Laughter.) My best week I earned 8s. When I came away plaintiff said he did not want anything.

The JUDGE. This is a strange story altogether. (Laughter.) How is the lad to live?

William Crabb. He will have to go on credit. (Laughter.)

His HONOUR. No, no.

Judgment was given against the defendant for 15s., to be paid at the rate of  2s. a month.”

This case makes a little more sense when you realise that the reason Norris stopped lodging with his stepfather was because his mother died. Walter Lock was his stepfather. Why William Crabb found it necessary to be in court is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’d been there so often for one reason or another, he grew to like it. Maybe I’m being unfair and he was there simply to support his step-grandson.


Herbert Smith, the youngest son of Mary and Thomas Smith, never got into trouble again after falling foul of his stepfather’s influence in 1883. He died when he was just 43 in 1910, leaving behind a wife and four children: Herbert, who was lost at sea when he was a young man; Charles, who went on to become a grocer, owning his own shop; Henry, who grew up sailing the fishing smacks and crewing racing yachts, but who sadly suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his right arm and leg during the Battle of the Somme, lived out his life in Tollesbury, minus his leg; and Ruth, who married a rather dashing young Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and spent World War I living on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where my grandmother was born.


Tollesbury today is a large village with a thriving marina and yacht club. If you take a walk, or drive, down to the marina, take a moment to gaze over the mud flats and think about the men who risked fines, or even prison, to steal a few oysters. It must have been a tough life, probably with little reward if you didn’t have your own oyster pits. The life of any kind of fisherman is a tough one and I know from other research I’ve done that life as a Merchant Seaman could be dangerous and traumatic. I think we can forgive them a little alcoholic relief.


All information on the various court cases was obtained from the British Newspaper Archive.

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