12 Days of Criminal Christmas: A Missing Dog in Brierley Hill

“On Christmas Day, Mr Cole Northall, a butcher, of the Delph, Brierley Hill, near Birmingham, left home with his family in the afternoon.

“On returning at nine in the evening he discovered that the house had been entered by thieves.

“It was found that some dressing drawers upstairs had been opened by a chisel, and that £15 in gold and £8 9s in silver had been taken. A silver watch had been taken.

“A dog left in the house was also missing.”

Source: Liverpool Mercury, 1 January 1858

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: When A Festive Party Went Wrong

480px-László_Self-portrait_with_beer-pot_1891Many Victorian families seem to have spent Christmas Day either getting drunk, or being drunk.

This was not helped when families decided to make life easier for themselves by spending the day at the local pub.

On Christmas Day, 1845, a group had gathered at a pub run by the mother of Philip Payne. Payne was among those present, together with Robert Nicholls, who was a friend or relative.

Philip Payne later said that Nicholls, himself, and others had ‘formed a very convivial party on Christmas Day’, but that while they were playing cards, Payne told a joke about Robert Nicholls’ marriage, which the man in question took offence to.

Nicholls’ reaction was to hit Payne in the face, flooring him. Others in the company, who appear to have been somewhat under the influence of drink by this point, then eagerly joined in, striking Nicholls again, despite him being unconscious.

When The Morning Post published an account of the party – following Nicholls being charged with assault – it mocked the victim, noting:

“the unfortunate jester with matrimonial feelings had good reason to regret that he had not adopted the wise old plan of dining at home at such a season.”

Source: The Morning Post, 27 December 1845. Illustration: “Self-portrait with beer-pot” by Philip de Laszlo.



12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Christmas In Another World

“They said before the Justice that I should keep my Christmas in another World, for they were determined to hang me.”

Statement of Esther Burnham, sentenced to death for pocketpicking at the Old Bailey, 4 December 1741

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Theft of a Christmas Tree

Victoria and Albert with their Christmas tree in 1848

Victoria and Albert with their Christmas tree in 1848

In 1839, in the week before Christmas, several people were brought before the magistrates at Worship Street Police Office in Shoreditch, charged with entering various gardens in order to break and destroy evergreen trees and shrubs.

One of those accused was an 11 year old boy, named Booth, who worked at the Queen’s Printing Office on a wage of eight shillings a week.

He was charged with stealing a tree – but not just any tree. It was described as:

“a most beautiful holly of the small silver-leaved species, of six years’ growth and full of berries.”

Booth was found guilty, and received a ‘severe lecture’ from the magistrate, Mr Broughton, before he received his sentence.

He was ordered to pay a fine of 40 shillings – 20s for wilful damage and another 20s to cover the value of the tree – or face imprisonment. The fine represented five weeks’ wages.

Whether or not Booth was able to find the fine, it did not make a happy Christmas for him.

Source: The Charter, 22 December 1839

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Industry and Idleness

ginOn 17 January 1801, farmer John Shore went on trial at the Old Bailey, charged with the murder of his wife Mary by dragging her ‘from one chamber to another’. Their servant, Elizabeth Turner, gave evidence, saying:

“I remember…the prisoner left his house in the morning, and returned in the evening. After he went out my mistress was in the kitchen preparing for old Christmas Day. She had during the afternoon drank three quarterns of gin. She was far from being intoxicated; she knew what she was about.

“My master returned about half after nine… The prisoner said he supposed she was drunk. He went up stairs. I heard my mistress cry out, I heard her cry “O Lord!” He came down for something to fasten the door with; he used to fasten her in this room when she was in liquor.”

The next day, Mary was found dead in this room, covered in bruises and vomit. The jury heard that John Shore was an ‘industrious, sober man’ – a clear comparison being made to his wife, who was in the habit of drinking.

He was found not guilty, with the press noting that ‘the prisoner is a respectable, decent looking old man’; the fact that he regularly locked his wife in a room was not deemed to be particularly noteworthy.

Source: The Morning Post, 17 January 1801

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: The Murder of the Norwood Hermit

An American hermit

An American hermit

Mathews (first name unrecorded) was a 70-year-old widower known as the Norwood Hermit. For 28 years, he had lived in a cave created from earth, fern and wood on Sydenham Common, having been given leave to do so by the governors of Dulwich Common.

He earned a living doing gardening for members of the local gentry, who liked and trusted him. On Sundays, he would sell beer from his cave, and made a fair bit of money, as people would visit out of curiosity for his way of life as much as for the beer.

Around 1797, his cave was broken into, he was beaten, and had his money stolen. This led him to start sleeping in other people’s stables or haylofts for security. After about 18 months, he returned to his cave.

But in December 1802, he was discovered dead near the entrance to the cave, with his jaw broken and a bad wound to his cheek. The press reported:

“The body was discovered by some boys, who, at Christmas time had always made a practice of paying the old man a visit; he was covered with fern and under his arm was an oaken branch about six or seven feet long, which it is supposed the villains put into the cave in order to hook him out…it appears likely the hook had been hitched into his mouth, there being a hole of the size of it quite through the cheek.”

Mathews had been seen with money in the French Horn inn in Dulwich the night before his body was discovered; three men were later questioned, taken from a nearby ‘vagrant tenant encampment’, and a ‘gypsy by the name of Spraggs is in custody on suspicion of being the murderer’.


Christmas Cheer was not in evidence in this part of Surrey in 1802, with a vulnerable man being targeted by others who were not part of mainstream society. I wonder how good a Christmas the boys who found Mathews’ body had, too, with that memory to live with. Perhaps, to them, it simply became a story to tell others – “Guess what happened to me last Christmas…”.

Source: The Morning Post, 5 January 1803

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Criminals Named Christmas

Christmas was a fairly common first name for those in the past – I wonder why people don’t tend to call their children that now, when there are some far more bizarre names being used?

Merry Christmas! Or not, seeing as he was in a debtors' prison.

Merry Christmas! Or not, seeing as he was in a debtors’ prison.

There are a couple of Christmas criminals in the archives, including Christmas Jones, who was sent to the Marshalsea Prison for debt on 9 January 1815, and discharged a month later.

Christmas Allen was acquitted of larceny at the Norwich Quarter Sessions in July 1819; his 17 year old son, also named Christmas, then appeared at the January County Sessions, also charged with larceny, but was less lucky than his parent, being found guilty and sent to prison for four months.

Christmas appears to have been a particularly popular name in Norfolk, with the Quarter Sessions records also recording a Christmas Asker, Christmas Betts, Christmas Bloomfield, Christmas Brett, Christmas Brummage and others.


This echoes research done into the surname Christmas, which has similarly found a particular focus on East Anglian families.

The best Norfolk criminal’s name I’ve found, though, has to be Christmas Crisp, who in 1837, aged 30, received six months in prison for larceny. In 1846, he was then acquitted of another larceny, before settling down to ag lab work.

In 1851, Christmas was living with his wife and children in Wallington. His children all had ordinary names – Sarah, William, Ann, George, James, and, um, Christmas Crisp junior.

I’ve not found any Christmases who committed their crimes on the appropriate day, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…