Chasing a Petty Criminal Through Records

Here in the searchroom, an intriguing newspaper article from the West Sussex Gazette (28 March 1861) has sparked off a research journey into the tumultuous life of John Young from Chichester.

wsg john young 1861
West Sussex Gazette, 28th March 1861.

The article describes how John, who was helping to clear up debris from the collapsed Cathedral spire, got into a fight and assaulted a police officer attempting to restrain him. He then proceeded to bite the foreman. You can see why this individual interested us.

Spire clapse.png
Spire collapse, 1861.

As the West Sussex Gazette journalist states, this was just one of many times John was arrested for assault. It was from here that I began to dig deeper to find out more.

The first thing I did was to look at a Chichester City Police charge register for 1858-1862. As I expected, I found John’s arrest for the above offence. I also found an earlier offence, in November 1860, for assaulting two police officers.

The register gave John’s age as 21, making his birth year around 1840. It also listed him as being from Chichester. With this information, I searched through the parish transcripts for the city and found his baptism registered on 8th March 1840 in St. Peter the Less. His parents are listed as Diana (from Ireland) and William Young, a stone mason (a well-respected career).

This is where Ancestry’s censuses came in handy.

john young bench book
Charge Register, 1861.

By knowing his biographical details, I was able to find that he was living in Priory Street, Chichester, in 1841. He was then living at 35 Chapel Street, Chichester, in 1851. But, in the 1861 census John is recorded as a prisoner in Petworth House of Correction as a result of the assault at the Cathedral.

Now that I knew a bit more of John’s biography, I took a look at the Chichester City Bench Books. It seems that John was first arrested aged 12 for “damaging shrubs” in the Cathedral garden, sentenced to the House of Correction, but ultimately excused. I found a pattern of arrests for John, mostly for assault, and sometimes for drunkenness.

I looked up one particular arrest for drunkenness in the West Sussex Gazette, and found an article describing how he was found very intoxicated at 4pm by Chichester Cross, causing a scene. It appears that John was a troubled young man with struggles we probably won’t uncover. This was the experience for many people in the Victorian period, when employment opportunities were limited and living conditions often harsh and unsanitary.

I started to wonder what happened to John when he was older. Again I searched the censuses on Ancestry and found John Young living with his wife Hannah, their baby, and John’s mother in 1871. Interestingly, they were residing in Lambeth in London. It was not uncommon for people to up sticks and move to London for better work opportunities.

So, somewhere between 1861, when John is in Petworth House of Correction, and 1871, he met Hannah and started a new life in London. From looking at their marriage banns on Ancestry, it is possible they met through Hannah’s father who is described as a bricklayer just like John. Sadly, Hannah is listed as a widow on the 1881 census which means John would have died fairly young, in his mid-thirties.

It is great that I was able to discover such a lot about John’s life from online sources such as Ancestry. Yet, it was from the resources available in the Records Office that gave me a better idea of what John’s life was like in Chichester, and it all started with an intriguing newspaper article!

Alice Millard, Research Assistant

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