Woodville exhibition reveals secrets of prisoners

PUBLISHED: 10:32 13 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:55 13 March 2014

John Walker was sent to seven years in prison for

John Walker was sent to seven years in prison for "stealing a quantity of onions".


Crime and punishment in the Victorian era is the focus of a photographic exhibition which opened this week. Hayley Anderson spoke to organiser Neil Chandler about the mugshots on display.

William Fleckney sent to five years penal servitude at the age of 16.William Fleckney sent to five years penal servitude at the age of 16.

Murder, fraud – and stealing onions. These were just a few of the crimes that hundreds of people were sent to prison for during the 1800s.

And an initiative led by the governor of Bedford prison, Robert Evan Roberts, means we know what some of those convicted looked like thanks to their mugshots.

Mr Roberts came up with the idea in the 1850s that all convicted criminals should have their photographs taken so they could be easily identified if they were to commit any other crimes.

Now these photographs are being displayed at a Gaolhouse 1859 exhibition at The Woodville theatre, Woodville Place, Gravesend, until April 20.

More than 200 criminals were put in prison, from murderers to onion thieves.More than 200 criminals were put in prison, from murderers to onion thieves.

Theatre general manager and exhibition organiser Neil Chandler, said: “It is really interesting to look through the different pictures.

“It also marks the start of police records as the photographs are kept with details of the crimes committed.”

Copies of these records, including the first known mugshots, are kept by the Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service but the vault has been opened and its secrets revealed for this special exhibition.

Work on the exhibition began in 2012 after Neil read a newspaper article on the work of the Bedford and Luton archives.

“I was on the train home when I read all about these records and thought we’re always looking for something to exhibit and many people are intrigued by crime and punishment,” said Neil.

The records reveal that in 1873, 34-year-old John Walker, who previously committed other crimes such as stealing potatoes and assault, was sentenced to seven years in prison for “stealing a quantity of onions” on September 13.

This was the same sentence received by William Craddock and Robert Jordan 10 years earlier when they murdered a man named Frederick Budd.

Other convictions in the exhibition include Thomas Brooks, sentenced for seven years for “maliciously” killing a sheep, and George Henry Charles Perry, who was given 18 months for pretending to be a priest.

Elsewhere William Fleckney was sentenced to five years penal servitude for murdering George Barrat, at the age of 16.

“It was awful to think that children were committing such horrible and gruesome crimes like murder,” said Neil.

“But I think one of the more interesting cases for me was the one with George Perry, as he took advantage of people’s trust and that’s why he was sent to prison for so long.”

Neil was surprised at the low numbers of hangings. One one of those convicted and sentenced to death was Lucy Ellis, who murdered a 21-year-old woman in 1876.

She was to be buried in the grounds of the gaol.

“When I went through the archives, I was actually quite surprised that there were so few hangings.

“A few were sentenced to death, but it was going out of fashion and the main concern was just to keep criminals under lock and key.”

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