When I think of the Victorian era, the images in my head are torn between the splendour of the architecture and grandeur of the upper classes, and the destitution and squalor of the poverty-stricken lower classes. Southampton in the Victorian age had both, from the impressive South Western Hotel that catered for society’s finest, to the slums where those in the hotel would consider society’s dregs to reside. Crime was rife in Southampton around this time, and when doing some other research, I read about a lad named James Mason. At ten years old Mason was already being described as an ‘old offender’, that is, someone who has been up before the court bench a number of times. But Mason is in no way unique, he was one of many who had a difficult upbringing and a colourful childhood. The newspaper archives are absolutely jam-packed with tales of children committing crimes.
James Albert Mason was born in Romsey in 1864, the first son of James and Martha Mason. By 1871, James the elder is absent from the family, and Martha describes herself as a widow. By the middle of the decade the family had moved to Southampton, and it was in 1874 we first find a ten-year-old Mason in trouble, when he was charged with begging. Martha told the court that her boy was ‘very bad’, and that he had begged for a halfpence and consequently spent it, having already sold the coat from his own back. The court was told that Mason was much neglected by his mother, but was very intelligent, and would do well if properly cared for. He had been found begging at two o’clock in the morning, and Martha was not at home. On another occasion he had been taken in to the police station, but his mother was out drinking. She told the court that she would be very glad if her son could be sent away, and she’d pay something towards it. Sent away he was not, and she was warned that if he was found on the streets again then she would be apprehended.
Martha herself was charged with stealing in 1875 when she picked the pocket of a man she was with, and again in 1876 when she stole a purse containing nine shillings and six pence from a man called Edward Mansbridge. He had ordered a drink at the Army and Navy beerhouse on East Street when Martha pulled him into another room and shut the door behind them. He ‘got away’, before realising that his purse was missing. When the police apprehended her at her house, they found her lying on the floor tipsy, and she claimed that she was so drunk she could not remember anything. She was with another man at this point, and on this man the police found seven shillings and six pence. Martha Mason, a laundress by trade, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour. I suspect that Martha was probably working as a prostitute at this time, and it is no surprise that her son James would also turn to petty crime.
James Mason again appeared in court in January 1875, a few months after being described as a neglected child.
JUVENILE DELINQUENTS – Ellis Howse, John Knox, James Mason, and Thomas Biddlecombe, four boys, were charged with wilfully damaging the plate glass windows of Mr. Bishop, hatter, and Mr. W. Alexander, jeweller, of the High-street, doing damage to the amount of £4. Howse, Mason, and Biddlecombe, who are old offenders, were remanded until Monday, in order for further inquiries to be made, and Knox, who appeared for the first time as a prisoner, was also ordered to come up on Monday, as were some other boys who had been concerned in the affair, but who were not in custody.
Monday came, the boys went to court, but they were dismissed with a caution due to a lack of evidence. Ten-year-old Mason and his mates are already ‘old offenders’ by now. Thomas Biddlecombe lived in the same place as Mason, St George’s Court, and was often in trouble. In 1873 alone, the nine-year-old Biddlecombe was in trouble for destroying some fencing at the docks (along with four other ‘dirty looking boys’), for stealing peas from a railway wagon in the docks, and on another occasion for stealing sugar from the same. On the same day he was in the dock for stealing the peas, the Magistrates also sentenced a woman named Ellen Wren to three months in prison. Wren and a man named Thomas Anderson had violently assaulted a soldier on French Street after she had accused him of calling her a bastard. She kicked him in the stomach as he sat on a seat. He got up, and Wren punched him in the mouth and head, cutting him badly. In 1894, Ellen Wren’s filthy, naked, body was found in a tiny attic in a Simnel Street brothel, and the cause of death was given by the Coroner at the inquest as ‘suffocation, probably due to excessive alcohol’. She had been living in the loft, which was only four or five feet high, surrounded by rubbish, and living off scraps of food. The conditions surrounding her death shocked the people of Southampton, and it acted as a catalyst for change, paving the way for slum clearance schemes around the turn of the century. Simnel Street, one of Southampton’s most notorious slums, was mostly demolished and rebuilt.
Back in 1873, the day after Biddlecombe was in the dock for the sugar theft, the Magistrates had before them two women from St George’s Court. They heard how Catherine Murphy, a young Irishwoman, had violently assaulted Mary Ann Cooper. Apparently, Cooper’s son had got in a fight with Murphy’s brother, so Murphy struck Cooper with two quick blows, leaving her with a ‘most dreadful black eye’. James Mason and Thomas Biddlecombe both lived in St George’s Court, and the area would have been a typical overcrowded rookery. St George’s Court was tucked away at the bottom of St George’s Street, a street that still exists today, although the boys would not recognise it, the location of the court now being covered by Debenhams.
In June 1875, James Mason, along with Frederick Allen, Alfred Stroud (who would later be sent to a reformatory after being convicted of several offences including twice stealing sugar from the docks), Daniel Brian, James Clark, and Daniel Murphy, all lads under twelve years of age, were charged with stealing some old bags from a paper manufacturers’ store. It is unclear whether they were punished or not.
In August, Mason again appeared before the bench, and this time he did not get away with a caution.
YOUNG DELINQUENTS – James Mason, aged 10 years, living in St. George’s-court, Houndwell, was charged with entering an unoccupied house, 25, Chichester-terrace, and stealing some gas fittings, the property of Mr. Charles Rogers. There were two other boys in court who were concerned with the robbery, but too young to be charged with the theft. Mason was sent to prison for twenty-one days, with hard labour, the others being reprimanded.
Mason did not learn his lesson in prison. Several months later, in January 1876, he was in trouble again. Along with George Harper, he was charged with stealing a purse from an eight-year-old girl called Alice Gregory on the railway bridge near Marsh Lane. A lad named William Baker gave evidence. He said that Mason saw her with the purse, and he told her he’d take it from her, which he did before running off. Baker chased him down and caught him. Harper was given a caution, but Inspector Harris told the court that Mason was a ‘very bad boy’ and that he had been at the station for about half a dozen robberies already. He was again sent to prison for twenty-one days, but this time he was also to have ten strokes with the birch rod as an additional punishment. His mother, Martha, asked to go to prison in her son’s place, but the request was denied, and the judge stated that if he appeared again he’d be sent to a reformatory. For some reason, Mason shouted “murder!” as he left the dock.
He appeared to go straight for a while, appearing again in the newspaper in August 1877 when he was sent to prison for seven days for ill-treating a donkey in Porter’s Meadow, which is now known as Queen’s Park. His friend Samuel Holloway was also sent to prison for three days, as they had chased the donkey, thrown stones at it, and poked it with a stick. This was apparently happening fairly frequently in Southampton at the time, with the mayor already having received four letters complaining about this kind of behaviour, with young boys apparently terrorising poor donkeys all over the town.
So, what happened to James Mason? In 1881 he’s an out-of-work labourer living in a lodging house in Alverstoke near Portsmouth with sixteen others, and perhaps it was a difficulty in finding work that led him to join the Hampshire Regiment in 1883. Mason joined up aged nineteen, and standing at just under 5ft 5in tall, is described as having brown hair, brown eyes, and a dark complexion. He has scars at the front and at the back of his right chest. Interestingly, when asked whether he had ever previously been imprisoned, he lied and told the Army he had not.
He was punished for going absent without leave within a year of his service, but three months later the regiment was shipped to Malta, where they spent seven months. From Malta, Mason went to East India, where he took part in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. After spending nearly six years out east, Mason came home and transferred to the reserve, taking a job as a labourer in Southampton Docks and moving in with his sister in Edward Place, a stone’s throw from his old stomping ground at St George’s Court. He was still living there ten years later in 1901, and in 1911 he was with his wife, Annie, on Grove Street, another poor area in the Chapel district. I am unsure as to what happened to him after this, although there is a death record for a James Mason of the correct age in 1918. Thomas Biddlecombe seemed to avoid trouble in his later years, he had a family and worked as a ship’s stoker for a while. He then got a job working as a labourer in Southampton Docks. It looks as if Biddlecombe died in 1928.
Newspaper reports from that time are littered with tales of unsavoury characters, terrible violence, drunkenness, theft, indecency, shootings, stabbings, murder. Whilst James Mason was not unique in the sense that there were countless children causing trouble on the streets, his life does give us a small insight into the hardships faced by so many families at that time, not just in Southampton, but in industrial towns and cities all over the country.