ou are in [Themes] [Crimes] [Burglary at James Woodham's watchmakers, 1831]

The Woodham family ran their clock and watchmaking business from the lovely timber-framed property that is now 1 High Street for over 150 years, from 1737-1892. For more see Woodham family and 1 High Street.

The business had been started by Edward Woodham, but when he died in 1777 it was taken over by his eldest son James Woodham who had apprenticed in London and was well renowned.

James Woodham I died in 1809, after which the business was carried on by his eldest son, another James Woodham - we will call him James Woodham II.

The business was well established and very successful. However, this success brought with it the real threat of burglary. One such burglary took place on Friday 14 Oct 1831. A summary of the story follows, but you can also read the full reports in the Transcripts of the Reading Mercury.

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The burglary:

The burglary took place on the night of Friday 14-15 October 1831. The front shop door onto the High Street was forced open by an iron bar and the intruders managed to steal about a hundred watches, which were in a willow basket, together with jewellery, a number of gold seals, chains, pins, brooches, and rings, amounting in value to over £250 (equivalent to well over £30,000 in 2020). James Woodham II and his family heard nothing untoward during the night, and the crime was discovered by one of his sons, possibly his eldest son Edward aged 13 years, when he came to open up the shop in the morning.

The villains were apprehended and charged:

At about 6 o'clock in the morning, William Smith, a labourer at Vernham Dean, saw two men, one dressed as a sailor, and the other with a long blue coat, walking on the road from Hungerford. The taller man was carrying a willow basket on his neck, seemingly with something heavy in it.

In due course these two men were arrested and charged with the burglary. They were:

- John Dickenson alias George Harris, 25, labourer and

- George Cantell alias Vezey, 23, mason,

Three other men were charged with handling and receiving the stolen goods:

- Robert Taylor, 30, labourer, 

- George Kiff alias Jacob Levi, 58, labourer, and

- Aaron Ashman alias Colvid alias Covid, 23, hawker.

The case came to court at the Reading Lent Assizes in February 1832, when the chain of events had been clarified.

Robert Taylor had been arrested in Bath after the others by Ralph Dodd, a local constable, having been found some of James Woodham's jewellery in his possession. He was, in essence, a fence, a middle-man who received the stolen goods and was to pass them on. He gave evidence that on the Monday before the robbery (Monday 10 Oct 1831), Dickenson and Cantell had called for him at his lodgings in Avon Street, Bath, and told him they were going to a superchovey’s (meaning a watchmaker’s) at Hungerford, and asked Taylor to join them, but he could not. On the Saturday after (Saturday 15 Oct 1831) Dickenson and Cantell had returned to Bath, Dickenson being dressed as a sailor and Cantell with a long blue coat. 

Robert Taylor gave evidence that he had sold on most of the stolen goods to George Kiff and to Aaron Ashman.

We learn that Dickenson and Cantell had also asked Ashman to join them on the burglary, but, in a humorous aside, during cross questioning, it was revealded that the reason Aaron Ashman had not joined Dickenson and Cantell was that he was lame, and that his lameness was the result of walking the day previous from Shepton Mallet gaol, where he had been prisoner for the previous three months!

The prisoners all denied their guilt, but all four were convicted. Dickenson and Cantell were sentenced to death, whilst Kiff and Ashman were sentenced to transportation to Australia for 14 years. It is unclear what happened to Taylor.

A plea for support of The Woodhams:

In the same edition (5 Mar 1832) that reported the trial, the newspaper made an impassioned plea to its "more wealthy readers" to offer financial support to The Woodhams, who has recovered only about £2 or the £250 loss. It added that "Mr Woodham’s case is an exceedingly distressing one: he was an honest industrious tradesman, maintaining, by the “sweat of his brow” and his small capital, his family in respectability, till the hand of villainy, in the dead of night, bereft him of his little all."  They added "we trust the hint will not be lost upon some of his rich philanthropic neighbours, who are so well able to rescue him from the disheartening prospective which his ruined fortune must of necessity impart.”

John Dickenson's escape - temporarily!

This was not the end of the story, however, as it transpires that John Dickenson, sentenced to death, managed to escape from Reading gaol!

The Reading Mercury of Monday 20 Aug 1832 gave an account of this later trial at the Warwick Assizes:

At these Assizes, on Monday last, John Mitford, George Harris and Joseph Morgan were indicted for breaking and entering the dwelling-house of William Ashbrook, at Birmingham, on the 6th May, and stealing thereout various articles.

Morgan was acquitted, but Mitford and Harris were found guilty and sentenced to death.

John Mitford's real name was said to be John Davis, and he had escaped from Reading gaol on the previous 21st March. This John Mitford, alias John Davis was the same John Dickenson, alias George Harris, alias George Sims (yes five aliases!) who was in Reading gaol following his death sentence for the burglary at James Woodham's shop.

It was explained that John Dickenson had managed to escape from Reading gaol, and then walked in a state of nudity to Wargrave, through Twyford, where, in a barn, he concealed himself the whole of the next day. Whilst he was hiding under some straw, he heard two thrashers talking of his escape from gaol and the reward offered for his re-capture.

He walked on through Henley the next night and on to the Marlow road aiming to get to Birmingham. By this time he had managed to beg for some clothes, so he was decent!

He was planning to get to America; his hands, however, he said, were “always itching for something” and sure enough he carried out another burglary in Birmingham for which he was again arrested.

Undaunted, Dickenson made every efforrt to escape from Birmingham prison too. He was confined in an upstairs cell, constructed entirely of stone, with an iron bedstead shelving from the side. Using only an iron nail or some such crude tool, he managed to loosen the stones under his bedstead, which he removed and then squeezed through the gap, and let himself down into the ward below. He achieved this so quietly that he did not wake the head-turnkey, whose was sleeping in the adjacent room to Dickenson's cell.

Having reached the outer ward-door, he set about burning it down. He had carefully ensured that the open fire under the copper stove in the ward was kept alight, and in the night he took two of the glowing embers from the fire and lit his handkerchief that he had placed under the door. Whilst the door was burning he made a strong rope of his shirt by tearing it into strips and twisting them.

Fortunately, however, he was detected by the night watchman of the gaol, the alarm was raised and Dickenson was secured and immediately fettered with a 32lbs iron weight which, for security, was still on him.

We do not know his eventual fate. 

See also:

Woodham family

Clocks and Watches

- Clock and watchmakers

1 High Street

- Crimes

- Reading Mercury 20 Feb 1832

- Reading Mercury 5 Mar 1832

- Reading Mercury 25 Jun 1832

- Reading Mercury 20 Aug 1832

Transcripts of the Reports in the Reading Mercury:

The Reading Mercury of 20 Feb 1832 reported that the Lent Assizes were about to take place.

“Sir Joseph Littledale and Sir W E Taunton, his Majesty’s Judges appointed to hold the Lent Assizes for this county, will open their commission on Friday next, at two o’clock in the afternoon. Their Lordships will be received at Sonning-lane-end by the High-Sherriff, Thomas Mills Goodlake, Esq. and escorted into the town; and, after the preliminary formalities have been gone through in the Town-hall, will attend Divine Service at St Lawrence’s Church. The business of the Courts will not commence till 10 o’clock on Saturday morning.

The calendar contains the names of twenty-six prisoners (including), as follows:-

- George Cantell alias Vezey, 23, mason, John Dickenson alias George Harris, 25, George Kiff alias Jacob Levi, 58 and Robert Taylor, 30, labourers, charged with having, in the night of the 13th or morning of the 14th October last (1831), feloniously broken open the dwelling-house of James Woodham, Hungerford (now 1 High Street), and stolen thereout various watches, watch-keys, rings, and other articles of jewellery.
- Aaron Ashman alias Colvid alias Covid, 23, hawker, for having received certain watches and various articles of jewellery the property of James Woodham, of Hungerford, knowing the same to have been stolen.”

When the Reading Mercury (of 5 March 1832) came to report the outcome of the trial, it stated:

“George Cantell alias Vezey, John Dickenson alias George Harris, George Kiff alias Jacob Levi, and Aaron Ashman alias Colvid, were indicted, the two former for breaking and entering the dwelling-house of James Woodham, at Hungerford, and stealing a number of watches, jewellery articles &c. and the two latter for receiving the same, knowing them to have been stolen.

It appeared from the evidence of the prosecutor and his son, that on the night of the 13th Oct. the house and property were perfectly safe. On coming down in the morning, the boy found the shop door open, and above a hundred watches, which were in a willow basket stolen, together with a number of gold seals, chains, pins, brooches, and rings, amounting in value to upwards of £250. The door was forced open apparently by an iron bar.

William Smith, a labourer at Vernham Dean, saw two men, one dressed as a sailor, and the other with a long blue coat, walking on the road from Hungerford, about six o’clock in the morning of the robbery. The tallest carried a willow basket on his neck, seemingly with something heavy in it.

Ralph Dodd, constable of Bath, proved apprehending Robt. Taylor with some jewellery in his possession, which Mr Woodham recognised as his.

Robert Taylor, who had been committed with the prisoners, was admitted evidence. It appeared he was the person by whom the property was transferred from the thieves to the receivers. On the Monday before the robbery, Dickenson and Cantell called for him at his lodgings in Avon-street, Bath, and told hm they were going to a superchovey’s (meaning a watchmaker’s) at Hungerford, and wished him to go with them, but he could not. On the Saturday after they returned to Bath, Dickenson being dressed as a sailor and Cantell with a long blue coat; witness sold for them to Kiff and Ashman several parcels of watches, cases, and jewellery. This man was under examination upwards of an hour, during which he particularised the property that passed between his hands, and which corresponded with that lost by Mr Woodham.

Mr Curwood, who appeared for Ashman, in cross-examining Taylor, elicited from him that he had been a voyage to the West Indies, and that he had not paid for the passage himself; on the question being plainly put, he admitted his trip across the ocean was what is vulgarly called being transported. The learned counsel also humorously extracted from him the fact, that the reason he did not accompany Dickenson and Cantell to Hungerford was that he was lame, - and that his lameness was occasioned by walking the day previous from Shepton Mallet gaol, where he had suffered durance vile for three months.

The prisoners all denied their guilt. Cantell alluded to a curious document that had been made out against him, and which deprived him he said of the means of procuring witnesses who could prove his innocence. When he was apprehended, he had £7 1s in his pocket, which the constable took possession of; he subsequently deducted from it £3 10s 8d as the charge for conveying him from Hungerford to Abingdon gaol, incidental expenses included.

All the prisoners were convicted: against Dickenson and Cantell sentence of Death was recorded; Kiff and Ashman each received judgement of 14 years’ transportation.”

The same edition of the Reading Mercury added:

“In our assize report we have given the case of the robbery at Mr Woodham’s, silversmith and watchmaker, of Hungerford, in which the parties accused have been convicted, and awarded the severity of sentence which their crime so justly merited. We would now call the attention of our more wealthy readers to the circumstances of our unfortunate prosecutor, who appears to have lost almost the whole of his property, not having recovered more than the value of £2 out of about £250. From the observations we caught of the learned Judge upon the trial, Mr Woodham’s case is an exceedingly distressing one: he was an honest industrious tradesman, maintaining, by the “sweat of his brow” and his small capital, his family in respectability, till the hand of villainy, in the dead of night, bereft him of his little all. We feel ourselves doing no more than an act of common humanity in making these facts known: at the same time we trust the hint will not be lost upon some of his rich philanthropic neighbours, who are so well able to rescue him from the disheartening prospective which his ruined fortune must of necessity impart.”

This was not the end of the story, as it transpires that John Dickenson, sentenced to death, managed to escape from gaol! The Reading Mercury of 20th August 1832 records:

Warwick Assizes:

At these Assizes, on Monday last, John Mitford, George Harris and Joseph Morgan were indicted for breaking and entering the dwelling-house of William Ashbrook, at Birmingham, on the 6th May, and stealing thereout various articles.

Morgan was acquitted; the others were found guilty, and had sentences of death recorded against them, the learned Judge (Mr Baron Vaughan) at the same time regretting that then new law prevented him from leaving so daring an offender as Mitford as a public example.
John Mitford, whose real name is supposed to be John Davis, is the man who made his escape from Reading gaol, on the 21st March last, where he was under judgement of death recorded, by the names of John Dickenson, alias George Harris, alias George Sims, for a burglary in the house of James Woodham, at Hungerford.

Mr Eastaff, the governor, was in attendance at Warwick, to take charge of the prisoner in case of an acquittal, and he gleaned some interesting particulars of his career since his escape, which shew the resoluteness of his character and the depravity of his mind.

Being clear of the boundaries of our gaol, in a state of nudity he walked to Wargrave, through Twyford, where, in a barn, he concealed himself the whole of the next day; and where, whilst hid under some straw, he heard two thrashers talking of his escape, the reward offered for his re-capture, and how much they should like to meet with him.

At night he passed through Henley, on to the Marlow road, but again returned and bent his course for Birmingham, which place he reached, after begging some clothes on the road.

It was his intention to get to America; his hands, however, he said, were “always itching for something,” and he was apprehended for the robbery at Birmingham.

It was only by his wonderful ingenuity that his contrivances eluded the strict surveillance of the officers of the Berks county gaol: he has since displayed his bravery and his mechanical powers in the prison in which he is now a convict, though not with so much success.
He was confined in an upstairs cell, constructed entirely of stone, with an iron bedstead shelving from the side: with the assistance only of a nail or some such rude instrument, he loosened the stones under the bedstead, which having removed, he got through, and let himself down into the ward: this was effected with so much caution, that the head-turnkey, whose sleeping-room adjoined Dickenson’s cell, heard not the least noise.

Having reached the outer ward-door, his next object was to burn his way through, and he very deliberately set to work to accomplish this by procuring two or three live embers from the copper-stove in the ward (which it is supposed he had taken means to preserve the previous day), and then thrusting his handkerchief under the door set fire to it. To prevent the light being seen, he suspended his rug over the door, and his blanket over the turnkey’s window; and during the progress of the burning he made a strong rope of his shirt by tearing it into strips and twisting them.

Fortunately, however, he was detected by the night watchman of the gaol, and an alarm was given, he was secured, and immediately fettered with 32lbs weight of iron, which, for security, is kept on him up to the present time.”