A curious case of child stealing in nineteenth-century London

At the beginning of March 1821 a gentleman naming himself as Mr Probus, a minister of the Episcopal Church, took lodgings at the house of an undertaker, no. 12 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Mr Probus was around 35 years of age, slender with a sallow complexion marked by small-pox scars, dark haired and with, as was realised too late, an ‘insinuating’ manner of address. He applied for a smart and genteel looking boy to wait on and be a companion to a young gentleman at a fine boarding-school (nearly equal to a college, he claimed) in the city of Lincoln. The boy would be brought up in a most respectable manner and given a first-class education, in return for doing little more than fetching fruit and pastries for the young gentlemen from a nearby village. He was inundated with applications.

JMW Turner's birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. © The Trustees of the British Museum
JMW Turner’s birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Mrs Mary Ann Hurrell was the wife of a somewhat impoverished boot and shoemaker who lived at no. 27 Upper Ogle Street, Foley-lace, and at 36 Goodge Street, Marylebone. (Perhaps one address was her home and one her husband’s business premises?) She had two children from a previous marriage, a son named Benjamin Hawthorn aged 13 years and his sister, Georgiana, aged 11. Benjamin, a fine looking lad, had a good singing voice and Georgiana, every bit as charming as her brother, was articled to Mr Warburton, a professor of dancing in Burton Crescent. Mrs Hurrell saw Mr Probus’ advertisement and thought it would be an ideal opportunity for Benjamin. Accordingly, mother and son waited upon the minister on the 3rd March.

(c) National Trust, Wimpole Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
At the shoemakers shop, British School, c.1825. (c) National Trust, Wimpole Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mr Probus was especially taken with Benjamin and put his mother’s apprehensions at rest, saying that his own son was a pupil at the Lincoln academy. A Dr Nutall was to give young Benjamin a character reference but Mr Probus called on the Hurrell’s a few days later to say that he had met with a gentleman who knew Dr Nutall, who had given him every satisfaction concerning Benjamin, and there was no longer any need to call on him. The next day Mrs Hurrell took her son to Mr Probus’ lodgings where the young lad was fitted out with a new suit of clothes provided by Probus, who asked if Benjamin might stay with him that night (he had taken a bed for him at the next house). If any alarm bells were ringing for Mrs Hurrell, she ignored them.

The next day Benjamin told his mother that Mr Probus’ son was not at the Lincoln academy but had in fact died six months earlier, of water on the brain. Mr Probus now proposed to adopt Benjamin as a replacement for his own son and to bring him up as a gentleman, and also confessed that it was he who owned the boarding-school. He then asked if Mrs Hurrell would bring Georgiana to his house as he wished to ‘make her a present of a handsome dress’. The gullible woman duly did as she was bid, despite the ever-changing story, and left her two children alone with Probus. On her return, little Georgiana was so richly attired that her mother hardly recognised her.

Innocence: Head of a Young Girl by William Etty, c.1820; Paintings Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/innocence-head-of-a-young-girl-32746
Innocence: Head of a Young Girl by William Etty, c.1820; Victoria and Albert Museum

Probus now wanted to take both children with him to Lincoln, promising to care for them as if they were his own and to place Georgiana with a friend of his in Lincoln who kept a school. To this the Hurrell’s consented, believing that they were giving the two children a chance to be brought up in a genteel fashion, and the little party left London for Lincoln the next day with promises to write at every opportunity. The first letter Mrs Hurrell received was dated the 17th March but written from York, not Lincoln.

Old Ouse Bridge, York by G. Wilson, c.1820; Fairfax House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-ouse-bridge-york-9734
Old Ouse Bridge, York by G. Wilson, c.1820; Fairfax House

Mr Probus had swiftly abandoned any attempt at maintaining his deception. Signing himself as F[rederick] Williams, he told the wretched mother that her daughter, now renamed Caroline, was dancing on the York stage and that he ‘could sooner part with my life than with [the children]’. Georgiana added a few lines to the letter from her new ‘dear papa’ and said that they were happy. She signed herself Caroline.

Mr Hurrell replied to the letter and asked for the two children to be returned to their home but the only answer was another letter dated the 10th April, briefly saying they were too busy to write more than once a month, were all well but leaving York and asking the Hurrell’s to address any future letters to the Rev. F. Williams at Mr Smith’s, shoemaker, Stonegate, York. On the 3rd May the Hurrell’s received another letter, in the handwriting of Mr Probus aka Williams but signed by ‘Benjamin and Georgiana Frederick Jameson’ (the trio’s new surname) and written from Hull where they were performing and making a great deal of money. Their ‘father’ performed slight-of-hand tricks, Georgiana danced and Benjamin sang, to the admiration of all. They enclosed a paragraph from a Hull newspaper.

There is now performing at the Music Hall, Albion-street, in this town, a Miss Jameson, only nine years of age, a most beautiful and interesting child, In dancing she is, for her age, unrivalled, and her singing is admirable; Mr. Jameson’s slight-of-hand performance gives the greatest satisfaction; and Master Jameson, as a singer, though only 13 years old, is a second Braham. Mr. J. and his interesting young family will perform in Leeds this present Saturday evening, and on Monday and Tuesday next, when they will quit Leeds for Wakefield.

Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 11th May 1821.
Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 11th May 1821.

The Hurrell’s received no further communication and, worried that their children might be carried out of the country, scraped together enough money to allow Mr Hurrell to travel north in search of his stepchildren. He set off on the 1st July, heading first to York where he found that the ‘Reverend Williams’ had made a large sum of money from their exploits upon the stage before absconding the city, leaving behind a quantity of unpaid debts with the local tradesmen. Mr Hurrell tracked them to Leeds, Wakefield, Hull, Lincoln, Boston and Stamford where the ‘Reverend Williams’ had become Munro Ridgway, then to Coventry, Leicester, Doncaster and Birmingham. The imposter frequently changed his name and his supposed character, defrauding shopkeepers as he went. The trail went cold and a heartbroken Mr Hurrell returned to London and his wife. They applied to the Magistrates, who asked that the case might receive some publicity in the hope that the children could be traced, but could offer little else in the way of assistance. Mrs Hurrell, it was recorded, left the office in tears.

Stamford Mercury, 15th June 1821.
Stamford Mercury, 15th June 1821.

But the publicity had the desired effect!  On the 12th August the little troop were recognised in Billesdon, Leicestershire and the imposter was soon safely in custody in Leicester gaol. Mr Hurrell hurried there to a tearful but joyful reunion with his two step-children. Money was found for Georgiana to return to London by coach but Benjamin and his step-father had to walk the distance. But eventually they were all home and reunited. Mr Probus, alias Williams had been convicted under the Vagrant Act and, unless anyone he had defrauded acted to prosecute him, he stood to get clean away with his crime as the Hurrell’s were too poor to afford to prosecute him, much as they wished to do so. With no further mention of the fraudster in the newspapers, it would appear that is exactly what happened.

N.B. Joseph Hurrell married the widowed (and pregnant) Mary Ann Hawthorne on 18th February 1817 at St James’s in Westminster. At least three children were born to the couple, William Flower Hurrell on the 5th June 1817 and Oscar and Maria who both seemed to have died as infants. Benjamin may be the Benjamin Workman Hawthorn who was born c.1809. He grew up to be a piano forte tuner and maker and also a professor of music, relocating to Doncaster where he died in 1869.

Sources:

Stamford Mercury, 17th August 1821

Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, 27th August 1821

 

Header image: ‘The Wellington Coach’ (The Newcastle-York-London Mail) by John Cordrey, c.1818. Ferens Art Gallery.

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