Shoemaker Libels a Butler, 1853

23 July 1853

[Judge's remarks to the Grand Jury] There was also in the calendar a charge of a very serious nature indeed in the shape of a libel, and a more aggravated libel could scarcely be conceived than that of charging a man with a nameless offence. The libel consisted in publishing this charge by means of posting placards and writing upon the walls; and the question for the grand jury would be, whether they were satisfied from the evidence of the prosecutor that he was the person who so posted the libel, charging the prosecutor with a detestable offence – if so, the offence was complete – and they would have to say whether there was any reasonable doubt in their minds of the crime with which the prisoner was charged being brought home to him. . . .

Robert Jermy (37), was indicted on the charge of having, on the 22nd of April last, written and published a false, scandalous, and defamatory libel concering William Whellum, of Lakenham.
          Mr. Palmer prosecuted, and Mr. Power defended the prisoner.
          Mr. Palmer, in opening the case, said that the indictment in this case charged the defendant with having published a false, scandalous, malicious, and defamatory libel on the plaintiff in these words – "Beware of William Whellum of the Grove; he is a sodomite." The prosecutor was butler to Mrs. Sutton, of the Grove, Lakenham, and the prisoner was a shoemaker living in this city, with whose sister-in-law the prosecutor had been engaged; but the engagement was not carried into effect, and the consequence was, a series of abominable libels upon the prosecutor, which were suspected to be the work of the prisoner at the bar. The walls also in the neighborhood of the Grove were chalked with libellous matter, and the prosecutor also received several letters containing the same charges, and written in a style resembling print. A watch was set, and the result was, that the authorship of some of these chalkings was brought home to the prisoner, who was apprehended, taken before the magistrates, and bound over to keep the peace. It was hoped that from these proceedings, the libels would cease, and during the three months for which the sureties were given, very few of these libellous writings appeare,d but no sooner had the term expired than the annoyance became as great as before. On the morning of Friday, the 22nd April last, about two o'clock the prosecutor himself was on the watch, when he saw the prisoner posting upon the palings near the Grove, two placards containing libellous matter. He secured the placards, and they would be produced in court.
          William Whellum, the prosecutor, deposed – I am butler to Mrs. Sutton, the daughter of Sir Robert Harvey, who lives at the Grove, in Lakenham. I have been in her service twelve years. I know the prisoner. He is a shoemaker, living at Prospect-place. I was engaged to his sister-in-law, but that engagement was broken off last April twelvemonth. I broke it off in consequence of receiving anonymous letters. I have frequently received such letters since. I have frequently seen writing on the walls, referring to me, by my mistress's residence. The writing always appeared to be in the same hand, except on the 9th and 10th of this month. I set a person named Hambling, to watch. On the 21st of March, the prisoner was apprehended and held in sureties for three months. During that time the annoyance was not so frequent, but did not cease altogether. On the 4th of April, some similar writing was seen, and some similar letters were received. On the morning of the 22nd of April, between one and two in the morning, I left my mistress's house to watch, and about two o'clock I saw the prisoner put two placards on the boarded fence. I was only about ten yards off. It was a moonlight night, and the gas also was lighted. I took both of the placards down. They were written in a printed style. I said to him, "Now you'll admit I have caught you?" He said, "You may go to hell." On the same morning, at seven o'clock, I received a letter by the post, and another the next morning. In the last letter a separate pice of paper was also enclosed.
          (These papers were all put in and handed first to the judge and afterwards to the jury, by whom the writing on each was compared, the one with the other.)
          Cross-examined – It was about the 23rd of February, 1852, that he first received these communications through the post. His acquaintance with the prisoner begun subsequently – in May of the same year. Had received ten or twelve letters before he knew the prisoner, but the first simply charged him with sitting in church with another female. Had received more than one hundred letters altogether, and his friends also had received some. He wrote to the young woman to whom he was engaged, and who was then in London, accusing her of having sent these letters, but he in reply, received an abusive anonymous letter which had been posted in Norwich. On the 15th of May, when witness first saw the prisoner, he came up to witness and said, "I think I know you." Witness said, "Oh, do you?" and prisoner replied, "Yes, and I'm damned if I don't let you know me before I have done with you." Witness said, "I suppose you are the man who has been writing these letters," and the prisoner only shook his head and looked very guilty. In June 1852, he saw the prisoner, and asked him, "Do you know me now?" Employed a man named Hambling first on the 23rd of last February, and paid him 3s. a night for watching. Hambling took some letters with him to try and find out the hand-writing. The coachman saw witness go out on the morning of the 22nd of April. Hambling began on the 15th of February, and on the 1st of March he caught the prisoner. Believed he had paid him about 5 altogether.
          Hambling, a wool-comber, confirmed the prosecutor's evidence, and stated that on the morning of the 25th April last, he was on watch on the Southwell-road, near the Grove, and saw the prisoner in the centre of the road. The prisoner went to the railway bridge, which witness had passed less than five minutes previously. There was then no chalk upon the wall, but ten minutes after he had seen the prisoner at the bridge, witness went there again, and saw the words – "Sodomite Whellum," in two places. Did not see a single other person about at the time. On the 1st of March he had caught the prisoner at the Crescent, writing "Sodomite;" the words – "Beware of William Whellum of the Grove. He is a Sodomite." He was writing the last word when witness cuaght him. This word was in the same hand-writing, he had no doubt, as that which he subsequently saw on the bridge.
          In cross-examination the witness adhered to his statement, and denied that an elleged conversation, in hwich he was said to have taken part, had transpired at the Cherry Tree, Lakenham. He stated also that on eht emorning of the 17th of February, he saw the prisoner on the Southwell road write – "Bewa–" when, observing witness, he ran away.
          The case for the prosecution closed with the reading of the placards already referred to and some of the letters, the language of which was so filthy and disgusting that we cannot publish it.
          Mr. Power, in reply, urged that no ground had been shown on which the prisoner could have been induced to commit the offence charged; and he contended that the testimony of the prosecutor and his witness was not to be relied upon, as he should prove by the evidence of Mr. Young, the landlord of the Chrry Tree, and James Baldwin, that the conversation which Hambling had denied had really taken place, and that Hambling had produced some letters, and offered "20 to any person who would swear that they were in Jermy's handwriting." This, Mr. Power urged, showed that the evidence for the prosecution was false, inasmuch as if the prosecutor himself had, as he said, seen the prisoner post the placards, and if Hambling has really seen him in the act of writing the libels as he professed, surely there would have been no need to be so anxious to get a person to swear that the letters which Whellum had received were in Jermy's handwriting. He pointed out some apparent inconsistencies in the evidence given, and complained of this having been made a criminal instead of a civil charge, to prevent the prisoner's being called to contradict for hiumself the statements of the prosecutor.
          William Youngs deposed – I am the landlord of the Cherry Tree, at Lakenham. I remember Hambling's coming to my house. He pulled out a great number of letters – more than ten – some in writing and some in printing. He said he "would give anybody 20 if they would sear that they were in Jermy's handwriting." He said so more than once, twice, or thrice. Believed James Baldwin was present at the time. He also stated "that Sir Robert Harvey found him money to go on with his case," and that he had had Jermy before the magistrates and fine him, and the case having been shown up in the newspapers, Lady Harvey had seen it, and had told Sir Robert that his protegé had been defeated. The housemaid had tried to scrape an acquaintance with Whellum, but he had rejected him."
          Cross-examined – Some of the letters were in very good running hand, and witness told Hambling that Jermy could not write so well.
          James Baldwin confirmed a part of the evidence of the last witness.
          Mr. Duffield, shoe-manufacturer, Mr. Elisha Leist, Mr. William Youngs, butcher, and Mr. F. Baynes, gave the prisoner an excellent character.
          Mr. Palmer Replied, and his Lordship summed up, leaving the jury to decide this question only, whether the piece of paper containing the libel and sent by letter to the prisoner was written or composed and sent by the prisoner. The other publications – namely, the writings on the wall, &c., were not mentioned in the indictment for some cause unknown to his lordship. Some of these writings might have been included in the indictment, as there was positive evidence before the Court alleging that the prisoner was the person who was the author of them.
          The jury deliberated for about twenty minutes, and then, being unable to agree, retired in the custody of a bailiff, and the Court was adjourned to the Shirehall, the only other city prisoner having already been arraigned before Chief Justice Jervis. The jury came to agreement in about an hour, when they repaired to the Shirehall, and returned before Mr. Baron Parke a verdict of guilty, accompanying it with a recommendation to mercy, in consequence of his previous good character.
          His lordship, in sentencing the prisoner, commented on the serious nature of the crime of which he had been found guilty, and said that but for the restraint of a clause in an Act of Parliament, which he believed never contemplated a case of this particular nature, and which gave him power to impose a fine, but did not enable him to pass a sentence of more than twelve months' imprisonment – had it not been for this, and for the recommendation of the jury to mercy, he should certainly have sentenced him to two years' imprisonment. Under the circumstances, however, he would impose a fine, which, on application to the treasurer, would be paid to the prosecutor, to recompense him for the trouble and expense of bringing him to justice. The sentence was that he be fined 20, and be imprisoned in the city jail for the period of ten calendar months – and that he be further imprisoned till the said fine be paid. (Norfolk News)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Shoemaker Libels a Butler, 1853", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 14 November 2018 <>.

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