Borough Court Records: Crime, Punishment & Bastardy in Batley – Part 1

In my murderous assaults post I mentioned I would be undertaking a series of archives visits focusing on the Batley Borough Court registers to try to establish a fuller picture of court cases involving my ancestors.

The records are held at the Wakefield branch of West Yorkshire Archives. The office closed on 13 May 2016 in preparation for the move to a new building in early 2017. More details are here. So it was something of a race against time to complete this work. But I am pleased to report I did get there in the end. 

The registers are not available online – no, contrary to what some would hope, not everything is! So it is a case of visiting the archives and going through each register page by page. For me it’s a joyful experience, especially with a set of information-rich records for my family history like these proved to be.

West Yorkshire Archives, Wakefield Office – Photo by Jane Roberts

The Batley Borough Court records run from 1872-1974, 116 volumes in total. However with the 100 year legal restriction access limit, I only (!) had to go through 58 of them.

And it has been wonderfully, and unexpectedly, enlightening.

The registers contain columns giving information such as:

  • the date of the case;
  • name of informant/complainant;
  • name of the defendant and age if under 16;
  • nature of offence;
  • adjudication; and
  • the names of the Justices.

There are also other pertinent notes, for example if the fine was paid and, if not, when the custodial sentence was imposed.

Whilst the registers give only the bare bones, they do lead on to other sources, from bmd and employment records to prison registers and newspapers. And because you have a date for the case it is a short-cut for newspaper searching, especially for those “not online” papers, or where online newspaper optical character recognition (OCR) is problematical.

It also pays to check the other cases heard that day as they may be linked to the “partners in crime” of ancestors. 

The cases brought before the court cover the run-of-the-mill drunk and riotous or obscene language cases; incidents of stealing; animal cruelty; failure to send children to school; wilful damage; employees taking employers to court on non-payment of wages (from these I’ve learned the name of the stone mason who employed my 2x great grandfather William Gavan); to attempted suicide and more serious assault, indecent assault, rape and murder cases, some of which are referred onto a higher court. There are a fair few children brought before the Justices and punishments ranged from birch-strikes to reformatory and industrial school sentences. Smallpox vaccination exemptions, applications for children to perform in theatrical productions and beer selling licence transfers and applications also feature.

There are also more domestic-centred cases including married couple disputes, separation orders, orders relating to married women’s property, child neglect accusations, and unmarried mothers claiming maintenance payments for their illegitimate children – crucially providing the name of the father. These maintenance orders were lodged with the petty sessions, or other jurisdiction, local to the mother up to one year after the child’s birth. In these cases the burden of proof was very much weighted in favour of the mother, for obvious money-saving reasons.

Three women connected with my family history appear in this latter set of cases. All three cases have contrasting elements and outcomes, and will feature in three separate posts. This is the first.

Sarah Gavan was born in Kidderminster in June 1857, the third daughter of my 2x great grandparents William and Bridget Gavan (Knavesay). She was baptised in the town’s Catholic chapel on 5 July 1857. Within three years the family relocated to Batley.

On 19 September 1875 Sarah gave birth to her first child, a son named John Thomas. He was baptised at St Mary of the Angels RC church on 3 October 1875. The baptismal register entry starts to records a father’s name, “Thoma“, but this is scored out and there is no surname for him. Sarah was unmarried. But clearly the child’s father was common knowledge.

I am curious to see a birth certificate for John Thomas, to see if his father officially acknowledged him here. From 1875 the reputed father had to be present at the registration to formally consent to his name being included on the certificate. As the Act stated “The name, surname and occupation of an illegitimate child must not be entered except at the joint request of the father and mother; in which case both the father and mother must sign the entry as informants“.

Looking at the GRO indexes, I can’t see a relevant birth registration for a John Thomas Gavan (or variant). Interestingly the Dewsbury Registration District does have a birth registered for a John Thomas Connell in Q4 1875 Vol 9b Page 625. This is a possible, given subsequent research including bmds and the 1881 census onwards. I would love to look at this to see if it did relate to Sarah’s son, and if so why he is not registered under Gavan: Was “Thomas” from the baptismal register present to jointly register is son’s birth as it appears. Oh for the long awaited certificate price-reduction!

As indicated, my search of the Batley Borough Court records adds an additional layer of paternal proof and a new dimension to events. On 10 November 1875 Thomas Connell appeared before the court on a bastardy charge and was ordered to pay Sarah Gavan 3s a week from their child’s birth until the age of 14.

Payments were occasionally difficult for Irish-born pit-worker Thomas, and his parental responsibility not always diligently complied with. Perhaps his court appearances and fines played a part.

It appears that he, and a number of other coal miners, were taken to court in 1876 by their Batley colliery employer James Critchley for absenting themselves from service without appropriate notice. In Thomas’ case this was from 17-24 January, and his employer sought compensation of 17s 6d. The case was heard at Batley Borough Court on 26 January 1876 and Thomas, who failed to appear, was found guilty and ordered to pay. The incident was reported fully in the local papers.

Weeks later, on 28 February 1876, there is another court register entry with Sarah in the role of complainant against Thomas. The entry merely says bastardy, so presumably this is for arrears. The obvious conclusion is the colliery episode and subsequent fine played a part in his financial difficulties and failure to pay.

The next entry for a case between Sarah and Thomas was on 24 June 1878. This was adjourned for four weeks, until 22 July 1878. The July entry also contains an adjournment note.

After that nothing – because within the month the two were wed. Less than three years after John Thomas’ birth the couple married on 17 August 1878 at St Mary’s. They went on to have at least eight more children before Sarah’s death in 1907.

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley – photo by Jane Roberts

The Borough Court register was a crucial part of evidence in ascertaining the paternity of Sarah’s baby . None of these bastardy cases against Thomas made it to the local papers, as far as I discovered.  Contrast this with the next family court case. To be continued

Sources:

  • Batley Borough Court Registers (P/11) – West Yorkshire Archives
  • Batley Cemetery Register (unconsecrated)
  • Batley Reporter” and “Dewsbury Reporter” newspapers of 29 January 1876
  • Census – 1861-1911
  • GRO indexes
  • Parish Registers – St Ambrose, Kidderminster & St Mary of the Angels, Batley
  • My ancestor was a bastard” by Ruth Paley

 

 

 

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