My husband and I were watching the Gary Linekar episode of Who Do You Think You Are last night. And, as is usual with this programme, I was researching the lines as they appeared on screen. But in this case I got rather sidetracked into our own family history, and made quite a big discovery.
One of Gary’s ancestors was convicted for stealing fowl, which were found cooking in the pot afterwards. And this reminded me of my husband’s distant uncles in Suffolk, who were described in 1838 as “notorious theives”. But I’d only found one newspaper reference to them – were there more? So I fired up the British Newspaper Archive on my iPad (I have a rolling subscription for that site), and searched for
“william sharman” AND wortham
to look for one of the uncles. What I found was remarkably similar to Gary’s story, but with a less happy ending. I found the detailed court case report of the 1838 trial, and it told me so much more about these people.
The Ipswich Journal, Saturday 27 October 1838
SUFFOLK MICHAELMAS SESSIONS
IPSWICH, Saturday, October 20
STEALING TURKEYS AT WORTHAM – William Sharman, 25, Zachariah Sharman, 23, both shoemakers, and John Day, alias Garrod, labourer, were charged with having on the 9th of August last, stolen seven turkeys, the property of Mr Charles Marshall, farmer, of Wortham … From the evidence it appeared that the turkeys were left safe in the cart lodge of the prosecutor on the evening of the 8th August. A noise was heard during the night, but Mr Marshall did not get up to ascertain the cause. He found, however, on the following morning, at 6 o’clock, that the turkeys had been stolen, and the heads wrung off and left in the yard. Suspicion having fallen upon William Sharman, the prosecutor went to his cottage, and found in a field of wheat, just opposite the window, the bones of one of the birds, and in the house an iron pot, containing the bodies of six turkeys whole, and part of another. The whole had been flayed and prepared for being cooked. Mr Marshall procured the assistance of Thirkettle, the constable, and when the latter approached the house, William Sharman attempted to walk away, in the direction of Botesdale; but was ultimately apprehended and brought back to his cottage, when it was searched, under the authority of a warrant, for that purpose. The pot, containing the turkeys, was shown to William Sharman, and in answer to the question, “What do you think of these?” he observed, “What is done cannot be undone.” As regarded the other prisoners it was shewn by the testimony of Mr Henry Scarfe, who keeps a public house at Wortham, that the three prisoners who had been drinking at his house, left it about ten o’clock in the evening, on which the robbery was effected. They were also seen together between 7 and 8 o’clock, and Mrs Elizabeth Frost, who lived next door to William Sharman, proved that she saw two men pass her door and go into the yard, and from thence into the road leading into the field of wheat. Mrs Jemima Keeble, of Burgate, saw Day and Zachariah Sharman “pop down” in the wheat. She inquired of the former “what he was after?” but he made no answer. The court was of opinion that no case had been made out against Day and Zachariah Sharman. Mr O’Malley addressed the Jury in behalf of William Sharman, remarking that there was no evidence to prove that he ever was in the neighbourhood of the prosectutor’s yard; and that in order to convict they must be satisfied that the turkeys found in his possession were the identical turkeys stolen from Mr Marshall. The case was one of mere doubt and suspicion, but that was not sufficient to warrant a conviction. The Jury found the prisoner, William Sharman, Guilty, and he having been previously convicted of felony at the Sessions at Ipswich, in June 1837, was sentenced to be transported for seven years. There was another charge against the prisoner, of having stolen a hurdle and stake, the property of Mr J. Nunn, of Wortham, upon which no evidence was offered. Day and Zachariah Sharman, after a wholesome admonition, were ordered to be discharged, the Chairman observing that these depredations would soon be put an end to, if the people only paid a proper police rate.
Whether William was actually transported, or sent to a convict ship, or even imprisoned locally, we had had no idea that he had gone through anything like this. This was because he appears in later years in the census, back in Wortham, and lived to a ripe old age. But he’s missing in 1841, not recorded in the census with his wife and three young sons. And there’s a gap of 5 or 6 years between the known births of some of his children. So maybe he was transported after all, but returned home later. I thought we had seen a sketch of what he looked like, in the collection of drawings and paintings by the Wortham parish vicar Richard Cobbold. I was wrong, but William and family (including his “afflicted” wife) get a brief mention in the notes that the vicar wrote about parishioners, as does his brother James Salter. William Sharman died in 1894. Zachariah Sharman had died in 1845. Their younger brother Israel Sharman (1816-1891) was my husband’s great great grandfather.
One thing that was really good about the Who Do You Think You Are programme is that it put such actions into context, explaining how much poverty many were living through, and why they needed to poach or otherwise steal food. So although the story was initially amusing, with the birds found cooking in the accused’s pot, it quickly took on a more sinister aspect. Having said that, Gary’s ancestor, like my husband’s, was clearly known for this kind of thing, so authorities knew exactly where to look first for evidence of the crime.