Borough Court Records: Crime, Punishment & Bastardy in Batley – Part 2, “Kissing Cousins?”

This is the second part of my Batley Borough Court records series. Part 1 can be found here.

Mary Jennings was my 2x great grandmother’s sister, the daughter of Ann Hallas and Herod Jennings. She was born on 16 May 1858, probably in Hartshead, and baptised on 18 May 1859 at St Mary’s, Mirfield.

By the time of the 1881 census her father, Herod, was dead. She lived at Clark Green[1], Batley with her widowed mother Ann who headed the household, and brothers William and James.

Relation Frank Thornton, a 23 year-old coal miner from Hartshead, was also present that census night.  Ann’s sister Louisa Hallas and her husband George Thornton had a son, Franklin, born on the 31 January 1858. Baptised at St Mary’s, Mirfield, on the same day as Mary, his name was often shortened in records to Frank. I assumed this was the man in the Jennings household.

There was a final member of the household that 3 April night: A one-year-old girl named Sarah Ann. She is described on the form as daughter. However Ann at this stage was 56 and a widow for over three years.  Without a birth certificate I worked on the theory Sarah Ann was Ann’s granddaughter. Her birth was registered in Q2 1880, but it’s a case of another too costly certificate to satisfy idle curiosity. Subsequent censuses proved the theory though.

On 24 April 1890 Mary Jennings married 32 year-old mill hand William Blackwell at Batley Parish church. In the censuses of 1891 (Batley) and 1901 (Sherburn in Elmet), Sarah Ann is living in William and Mary’s home, described as “daughter”.

Batley Parish Church – photo by Jane Roberts

But I still did not know who Sarah Ann’s father was…..until I looked at the Batley Borough Court records. On 2 July 1880, shortly after Sarah Ann’s birth, Mary Jennings was named as the claimant and Frank Thornton the defendant in a bastardy case. The hearing was adjourned until 5 July when, in Frank’s absence, an order was made for him to pay 3s per week until the child reached 13 years of age. As well as court costs, he also had to pay £1 10s for the birth expenses.

There now followed a regular procession of non-payment cases. Newspaper reports and prison records flesh out the sorry story. The Batley Borough Court records made tracing these additional sources so much easier. The newspapers involved are not online, so no Optical Character Recognition (OCR) search help here. The prison records only provide the prisoner’s name, so that first court case name lead was crucial for searching these.

The first of the non-payment cases in response to the 5 July 1880 award occurred on 13 May 1881, just over a month after the census. Mary, according to a note in the register margins, was destitute. The upshot was a two month prison sentence for Frank. He served his sentence at Wakefield. The “Nominal Register” prison record provides a description. Frank had received no education and worked as a collier. He stood at s shade over 5’10” with brown hair. The entry also shows he had four previous convictions, with the reference given to his last prison register entry, enabling backtracking.

Another method of looking at convictions is via the “Index to [Nominal] Registers”.  These may span a number of years. It means you can track the references to all previous prison register entries in that time span in one go. They too provide a basic description and birthplace of the prisoner. The Index has not been catalogued in the Ancestry search, but I found it a useful complementary check because some of the “Nominal Registers” have missing volumes which the Index can help fill.

Anyway back to Mary and Frank. Clearly the prison sentence shock failed because he was in court again on 22 May 1882. By then he owed £10 6s in bastardy arrears and, in addition to costs, the court ordered him to pay £1 immediately and thereafter 8s a week to pay off the outstanding balance. It seems this was complied with. There is no record of a custodial imposition.

There was an interval of nearly four years before a very intense period of court activity adjudicating on the disputed domestic matters of Mary and Frank. On 8 January 1886 Frank owed 13 weeks-worth of payments. At 3s a week, this amounted to £1 19s according to the Court register. Another month’s jail sentence followed.

On 8 February 1886, within a couple of days of ending this January one-month prison sentence Frank appeared at the Borough Court once more. He needed to show cause why he should not be sent to prison in default of complying with the bastardy order. His arrears were recorded at £2 2s[2].  Frank said he had no means of paying.  A further 14 day committal followed for him, unless he could find a bondsman that day.  No bondsman was forthcoming, so it was back to Wakefield prison for Frank.

But that did not mark the end. Released from prison on Saturday 20 February, he was immediately apprehended on the same charge. He found himself bounced back into court again on Monday 22 February. Even the newspaper reports now referred to him in sympathetic tones as “the poor man“. Arrears were listed as £1 19s[3] so presumably he had managed to pay a small amount. Frank now promised to pay all the money. He faced a further one month jail sentence, but this was suspended for 28 days to allow him to fulfil his promise to make his payments. It seems he managed it, as there is no imprisonment record.

So who was Frank Thornton? Did the relation comment in the 1881 census refer to him being the nephew of Ann and cousin of Mary, as I initially thought? Was it a reference to Sarah Ann’s paternity? Or was it both? I’ve used censuses, GRO indexes, prison records and newspaper reports to try to pinpoint him.

Including the names Frank, Franklin and Francis in any searches there are a number of “possibles”. However in terms of Hartshead/Mirfield-born alternatives, the birthplace given in prison registers, other than cousin Frank, there appears to be just one. But there is a slight discrepancy with the year of birth (1860) of this alternative, and his occupation does not fit. So it can be discounted. Bringing me back to Mary’s cousin.

Ignoring the birthplace given in the prison records and extending beyond Hartshead/Mirfield does produce other options, but again the stumbling block is job description. There are no feasible coal-miners, although jobs could change. But even allowing for a career switch, why would I want to ignore the birthplace anyway? This is consistent in the prison records.

Extending the search to his other custodial sentences and newspaper coverage of them, including one in 1879 for assaulting a police officer, I still cannot definitively point to Frank being the son of George and Louisa Thornton. However, the evidence so far leads me to think that Sarah Ann’s father was indeed Mary’s cousin. But there is no absolute proof, certainly no reference in the newspapers.

It appears Frank married in Q2 of 1882 (another certificate on my long wish list). Maybe this was the reason behind the May 1882 non-payment. By the time of the 1886 sequence of court cases he had a young family, which again may have strained finances and resulted in him trying to avoid obligations for this first child. By the time of the 1891 census the Thornton family were living near Barnsley and by 1901 they had settled in the north east of England.

So once more the Batley Borough Court records have provided leads and a potential solution to a family paternity mystery, but with quite a different outcome from the previous case. If indeed the father of Mary’s child was her cousin, as it seems, one can only wonder at the strains this whole situation placed on wider family.

There is a third case, with yet another twist, here.

Sources:

  • Batley Borough Court Records – West Yorkshire Archives
  • Batley News” and “Batley Reporter” newspapers, various dates in February 1886
  • Parish Registers – Parish Churches of St Mary’s, Mirfield and All Saints, Batley – available online at http://home.ancestry.co.uk/
  • Censuses – 1861-1911
  • GRO Indexes
  • West Riding Prison Records, “Wakefield Index to [Nominal] Registers” and “Nominal Registers” – available online at http://home.ancestry.co.uk/

[1] The modern spelling is Clerk Green
[2] £2 6s reported in the newspapers
[3] £2 3s in the newspaper reports

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