By Anne Lockyer
After I had been researching our family history for some time, many years ago, I discovered my GG Grandfather John Lockyer had had a second family. Excitedly, I told my father. ‘I know’, was his response, much to my amazement. Why had he not told me? ‘We don’t talk about him’, was the response. Well, of course, I had to! ‘He was carrying on with another woman whilst his wife was dying’ was the reply. So I accepted that. It was obvious by the census returns that his children were being brought up by their maternal grandma. I carried on researching, fascinated by this man, keen to know more about him and what he looked like.
Fast forward many decades, and the digitisation of newspapers allows a name to be put in and information to pop back out. In fact there was lots of news popping back out on the name John Lockyer, and none of it good! Some of it was obviously my ancestor as in ‘A bad husband’ in June 1868, where he was sentenced to one month’s hard labour, having been charged with neglecting to maintain his wife and four children. He had boarded a ship bound for America, which unfortunately for him had encountered a storm so fierce it had forced the ship back to Bristol, where the police were waiting for him. He is quoted as saying he hoped they would all be dead before he came out, but whether he was referring to the magistrates or his family is in some doubt between the papers which reported it! He was also prosecuted twice for not ensuring his children went to school.
But the various reports of other court appearances? I was prepared to admit it was the same man appearing each time, and he sounded a bad lot, but there was insufficient evidence to prove it was ‘my’ John: there was another man of the same name in the city. There were names that were related to the family, though, as in the drunk and disorderly spree in 1852. Or the fact that the theft of a pump in November1858 involved John Lockyer and a young man who was the step-brother of ‘my’ John’s wife, in the street in which John lived. ‘You are in denial’ said my husband. ‘I’m being a good researcher, and going to look for more evidence’ I replied.
Sometimes John was lucky, as in September 1858, where he was discharged from a charge of stealing a load of staples with several others who received bail. Or the ‘Suspicious case of apple stealing’ in 1860 where the evidence was not strong enough to convict, despite PC 139’s efforts, because all three suspects kept to the same story of having bought them.
Sometimes he was just stupid, as in 1859 he appears under the heading ‘No escape from justice’ having turned up at the police station to ask about a pawn ticket, was recognised and promptly arrested for the theft of the pump 6 months previously. (The mugshot was taken in 1875 in Pentonville Prison).
He was certainly becoming well known to the local police, partly because he seemed prone to become ‘very disorderly, and upon being taken into custody he assaulted the officer’ as in 1862. He seems to have a drink problem, pleading ‘a drop of drink’ as being the reason he was tempted to steal two planks of wood in 1867. PC 139 obviously had his eye on him, as in Aug 1868 he followed him and two others to find John was stealing timber from the docks again.
His luck was beginning to run out, though. In 1869 he pleads: ‘a strange man gave him the rope to get it weighed. He preferred, however, to plead guilty rather than be committed for trial.’ This puzzled me, until I found that he was being given shorter sentences from the magistrates (of 4-6 weeks) than he would get from a judge. This time he was given three months hard labour because he had been previously convicted. The magistrates had begun to recognise the familiar face (what did he look like, I wondered? Was he mine, as I uneasily suspected he could be?)
The final entry for this man was in 1875, when he was charged with stealing metal from a boatyard. The Superintendent of police was involved this time, determined to get their man. He proved John had been several times previously convicted. John pleaded guilty, but said he was ‘driven to it through want, having been out of work for a considerable time.’ The magistrates had had enough of this reprobate, and committed John and his accomplice to the Quarter Sessions, where he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude followed by five years supervision.
I was disappointed to find no further information existed in Bristol Record Office, so where next? It seemed Kew might hold more details, so armed with my camera a visit to Kew followed, and with the help of a very determined archivist I located the file relating to this John Lockyer. As I looked at the first page, all doubts were banished: the address, age, wife’s details, all fitted ‘my’ John. Details of his height, weight, health, physical description and lack of education all followed. But on turning over the page my shock was greater still to be confronted by a photo of him in his prison garb, complete with arrows. He was not at all as I had imagined him, and thankfully, not like any member of my family!
So now I wanted to know more about his experiences. He had been sent to Pentonville for 9 months to undergo the dreaded ‘Separate system’, which was known to make men go mad or commit suicide. He was put in the infirmary at first to cure various ills. He was then sent on to Dartmoor, where his lack of education and skills in any trade were worked on and he came out heavier and healthier than when he went in.
His father had been a Burgess in the city of Bristol, but died when John was just 6 years old. His mother is recorded as receiving charity for a year after, and in 1841 they were living in one room with 5 others, in a house in which 43 are recorded altogether. In 1861 John, wife and two small children are living in a court described in 1850: ‘in describing this court, your reporters feel the difficulty of conveying anything like an approach to the actual truth, without incurring the risk of employing terms unsuited to the medium of a public journal, and at variance with the decorous restraints imposed by propriety and good taste.’
Without in anyway belittling the crimes of the man, I began to feel sympathy and understanding for the hardship he and his family suffered in a time when there were no welfare benefits. He appears to have mended his ways to some extent as there are no more mentions of him in the papers or courts after he was pardoned in 1880.
His sons, however, had little to do with him, and thanks to the good influence of their maternal grandmother and her strong Irish Catholic beliefs, didn’t follow his bad example. Neither did he set a precedent for future generations. My father never heard this story, as he died before I discovered most of this information. I assume he had no idea of the truth, his younger siblings certainly didn’t. But I feel proud to add that on my father’s war record his testimonial reads: ‘He is clean, smart and sober in his habits and absolutely trustworthy’.
Prisoners taking exercise in Pentonville, masked to keep them from communicating in anyway.