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John Dennison, Organ Grinder, 1888

The story of the organ grinder John Dennison, who regularly picked up boys, taught them to sing and play the organette, and took them to Tunbridge Wells, Hastings, Brighton and other seaside resorts collecting donations. He didn't give them a fair share of the takings, but he bought them new clothes and gave them everything they could possibly desire, "chicken and ham, cakes, piles of sweets, plenty of pocket-money, and sea-baths." They considered themselves lucky to be taken up by him, at least until their voices broke, when he found new lads to replace them. In May 1888 he was charged with kidnapping two boys, though he demonstrated that they came to him of their own free will. But he pleaded guilty to "gross misdemeanours" with three boys, and was sentenced to twenty months' imprisonment with hard labour. The case aroused popular interest because he kept a diary, recording his earnings and documenting in detail the life of an itinerant musician.

8 May 1888

JOHN DENNISON is a financialist, a man of imagination, and what is better, understands human nature in all its complicated aspects. At present he is under remand for having kidnapped two boys, but as the case is sub judice we will make no comments upon it. He may be acquitted, or he may be convicted; with that at present we are not concerned. We owe him a debt of gratitude, in any case, for the light which certain papers, found in his possession, throw on that interesting subject – the earnings of itinerant musicians. No wonder, if the case of John Dennison be a typical one that the ears of the public are feasted from morning till night with nominally – gratuitous – melody. The inspector found among the property of the accused a "takings book," and a diary. It is rare, we should imagine, that an itinerant musician troubles himself with accounts, but John Dennison is evidently an exceptional man. It appears from these documents that he, and two boys – whom he used to beg, borrow, or steal – used to earn about £4 a week. Thus the following items appear in the account-book: "Brighton, six weeks, £24 3s. 2d.; Tunbridge Wells, one month, £16 4s; Hastings, one month, £16 16s 9d." So much for the account book. The diary, however, throws more light on the details. It appears that John Dennison had not to work very hard for his money. All he did was to stand at a distance, and draw out his snuff-box as a signal when a collection was to be made by his auxiliaries. This does not seem a very laborious manner of earning £20 a month; but then it must be remembeed that the general always has an easy time of it. Napoleon only stood at a distance and gave signals and directions; so did the man with the snuff-box, and the genius of one was clearly little inferior to that of the other. This was evident from the diary. Why such a book was kept is difficult to understand, but here are a few extracts from it: "Left Margate with my nice, well behaved boys. Visited Shakespere's [sic[ Cliff, and the boys were delighted. Went out for two hours and a-half and made 22s." No wonder the "boys" were delighted – a great many people would be to make 22s. in two hours and a half – but we wonder what their share of the profits was. "Dick said, 'Ain't we lucky boys to be with you, for you to show us all these splendid sights.'" It might be thought the luck was on the other side, but the old man was appreciative; he writes: "Such language from good little boys was very touching to me. We did very well; the boys were much appreciated, and even kised by the women, who cried when they head how beautifully they sang 'The Wandering Boy.' Went to Ryde and made 25s. in three hours." The sentiment and finance it may thus be seen, are closely blended. But why did John Dennison commit these remarks to paper? There is the mystery. On the face of it he appears a subtle combination of Mr. Chadband and Mr. Fagin. (Eastern Daily Press)

11 May 1888

The extraordinary charge of kidnapping boys which was investigated by the Westminster police magistrate the other day shows that a system which was supposed to be peculiar to the natal land of most organ grinders may flourish, and be made to return very fair pecuniary profits, in England also. A well dressed elderly man named Dennison was charged with having decoyed away a boy of 11, the son of a widow, with the design of training him to sing and play an organette at seaside resorts, as a means of "raising the wind." The lad's mother – a Mrs Booker – stated that, seeing an advertisement for "respectable boys, wanted to sing a little, wages 10s to 12s a week," she sent her two boys to the address given, which was that of Dennison. He came back with them, and tried to prevail upon her to let him have the youths, assuring her that "he always treated the boys under him with the greatest kindness, and that they had everything they could possibly desire – chicken and ham, cake, sweets, plenty of pocket money, and sea baths." Despite these allurements, as soon as Mrs Booker comprehended that the business was in reality begging, she ordered the man out of her house. According to her account, however, he hovered about the place for several days, and then one of Mrs Booker's sons suddenly disappeared. When, by the help of the police, the youngster was recovered, he was found in Dennison's room at Battersea, learning a song, but minus his boots. The furnishing of the plqce included an organette and several pasteboard placards displaying the words, "We are orphans, and get our living by music," and on Dennison's person were found a number of letters from boys who had answered his advertisements, as well as a diary containing some very interesting records. One of these – referring to a visit paid by the company to Dover – finished thus:– "Went out for two hours and a half and mde 22s. We did very well. At every station the boys were much appreciated, and even kissed by the women, who cried when they heard how beautifully they sang 'The Wandering Boy.'" An account book showed that six weeks' minstrelsy on Brighton beach had realised £22 3s 2d, and a month at Hastings £16 9s 6d. Mr Dennison's musico-philanthropic wanderings are for the present interrupted by a sojourn in bridewell, for the Magistrate remanded him in custody, and certified that it was a proper case for the Treasury to prosecute. (Dundee Courier)

16 May 1888

John Dennis, 65, a well-dressed man, described as of no occupation, and giving the address where he was arrested – 10, Stanmer-street, Battersea-park-road, has been charged at Westminsteer, before Mr. Partridge, with unlawfully taking away a child named Alfred Booker, aged 11, from the care and custody of his mother, a widow residing at 55, Vauxhall-bridge-road. The prosecutor deposed that on the 19th of April she saw an advertisement in a daily newspaper, which was in the following terms, and identical to one which had since appeared, with the exception of the name and address: "Boys, respectable, wanted to sing a little; not over 14. Wages, 10s. to 12s. a week." She wrote to the address given – A Mrs. Britten, in Charlisle-street, Edgware-road, and sent her two boys, George, aged thirteen, and Alfred, aged twelve. There they were away from home a long time, and when they came back the prisoner accompanied them, and said he always treated the boys he had under him with the greatest kindness, and that they had everything they could possibly desire, "chicken and ham, cakes, piles of sweets, plenty of pocket-money, and sea-baths." (Laughter.) She could not quite understand what he was leading up to, and told him to come to the point at once. She said, "Do you want them for begging purposes?" He replied, "Oh, no; I only want them to sing songs on the beach, and hymns when they go round the squares. (Laughter.) I send them round with the plate, but I am never seen with them. I stand a little way off." She at once ordered him out of the house, telling him that her boys were not intended for beggars. He left the house, but two days afterwards she saw him get in a tram-car outside her house, and at aonther interval of a few days she again saw him in the same locality, but she did not speak to him. On the 3rd inst. her son Alfred left hoome in the afternoon to go to school, and he should have been back at four o'clock, but he never returnes, and, becoming very much distressed, she communicated with the police. Subsequently she accompanied Detective Leach to Stanmer-street, Battersea, and there found her boy in the prisoner's room learning a song. The little fellow had no boots on, and prisoner said they had gone to be repaired. The boy commenced to cry, and said, "Oh, mother, I was going to run away. I wanted to run away this afternoon when we were out with the organ." Cross-examined by the prisoner, Mrs. Booker denied that her son said, "Oh, mother, forgive me; I won't go away again."
          George Leach, a detective officer of the B Division said from information he obtained, and in consequence of an advertisement which appeared in the Daily Chronicle, he went to 10, Stanmer-street, Battersea, with Mrs. Booker. In an upper room they found the prisoner, Alfted Booker, and another boy, named Lawrence. Prisoner was told by witness that he was a police officer, and that he should take him into custody for stealing the younger lad. Prisoner's reply was, "The boy came here of his own free will and accord." In the room was an organette and a number of song-books, and several cardboard placards, on which, in large type,was printed, "We are orphans, and get our living by our music." At the station, when the prisoner was searched, a number of letters from boys who had answered his advertisement were found on him, besides photographs, account books, and his diary. The latter was apparently a complete record of his operations last autumn, and Mr. Safford, the chief clerk, read some extracts in court as follows:–

Left Margate on the 8th of Jul, and went for two days to Ramsgate with my three well-behaved boys. Went on to Canterbury. Did very well at all places. . . . Visited a beautiful, romantic, shady grove, and then went up to the Castle at Dover. Saw all over it, and talked for three-quarters of an hour with the soldier at the flagstaff. Then we went to the canteen, and the boys were asked to sing, which they did very prettily. The soldiers said they were to come again on the Tuesday following, which was their pay day. . . . Visited Shakespeare's Cliff, and the boys were delighted. Went out for two hours and a half and made 22s. Dick said, "Ain't we lucky boys to be with you for you to show us all these splendid sights?" . . . Such language from good little boys was very touching to me. . . . We did very well, and at every station the boys were much appreciated, and even kissed by the women, who cried when they heard how beautifully they sang "The Wandering Boy." . . . At Portsmouth the boys sang "God Save the Queen," and the sailors, to show they loyalty, gave most liberally, and encouraed others to do the same. They then went on to Ryde, and the boys made 23s. in three hours.

Other matters in the diary had reference to leaving boys whose voices had broken in country places, and going to London to get a fresh supply. There was likewise a reference to the "new boy, Frederick Lawrence, being very stubborn" at Bristol, and making a complaint to the superintendent of police there. The takings-book, which the officer Leach produced, showed that six weeks in Brighton in October realised £24 3s. 2d.; Tunbridge Wells, one month, £26 4s., and a month at Hastings £16 9s. 6d. It appeared that the boys had 3d. or 4d. as pocket money given to them on Saturday nights; and the lad Lawrence informed the police that he and another boy got as much as 30s. at Reading in one afternoon and evening, and that the prisoner's custom was to stand a little apart and give the signal for a collection by taking out his snuff-box. Prisoner had only been at his previous lodgings a day or two, in the name of Lucas, and before that he lived for a short time in Carlisle-street, Edgware-road, in the name of Brithan. Mr. Partridge remanded him in custody, and certified that it was a proper case for the Treasury to prosecute. (Buxton Herald)

18 May 1888

At Westminster, John Dennison, 65, a well-dressed man, formerly a sergeant in the army, and since discharged from the Corps of Commissionaires, has been placed in the dock and charged on remand with stealing a boy named Alfred Booker from his mother, a widow, living in Vauxhall Bridge-road. Mr. Angus Lewis prosecuted for the Treasury, and Mr. W. Doveton Smyth defended. Mr. Lewis stated that inquiries had taken place since the prisoner had been in custody, and Dennison would now be further charged under the 11th Section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, with misdemeanours of a disgraceful character, which rendered him liable to be imprisoned for each offence for a term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour. Alfred booker, a boy aged 11, detailed the circumstances under which he went to the prisoner's room, at Stanmer-street, Battersea Park-road, after an advertisement giving that address had appeared in a daily newspaper. Previous to this his (the boy's) mother had refused her consent to the prisoner to take him. He was with the prisoner two days, and played an organ alternatvely with a boy named Lawrence. They went out together in the streets, and witness took 3s. on one afternoon in a box which was labelled, "We are orphans, and get our living by our music." Prisoner looked on while they played, and afterwards went to a quiet spot and emptied the money-box. Some questions were then put to the witness in support of the more serious charge, and he said that he slept with the prisoner and another boy, and gave evidence of a nature which does not admit of publication. Mr. Smyth urged that each charge should be taken separately. A misdemeanour could not be included in an indictment for felony. Mr. Partridge said he should admit all the facts. Mr. Smyth then cross-examined the boy, who said that he went to Battesea because his sister showed him the prisoner's second advertisement in the newspaper. He knew his mother had told the prisoner that her boys should not go to him to be beggars, but he went to him because he had been promised chicken and ham and plenty of sweets. He told the prisoner that his mother had altered her mind, and let him go. He was with the prisoner one might and two days. When his mother came with the detective to claim him, he said that he was going to run away at the first opportunity. Re-examined: The boy said that he heard the prisoner "holloa" at the boy Lawrence, and then he wanted to leave, but could not do so because he had no boots. Prisoner said that they had gone to be repaired. Mr. Partridge here remarked that he had received a letter from a lady, who informed him that she lost her boy in 1883, and had never seen him since, although she heard that he was with a man singing at Weston-super-Mare. He had handed the communication to the police. Mr. Lewis informed the magistrate that the prisoner could not have taken this boy, as he was in prison at the time serving a sentence of penal servitude for felony* George Booker, thirteen yars of age, said he accompanied his brother Alfred to Carlisle-street, Edgware-road, an address which the prisoner gave in his first advertisement. He promised them sweets, sea-baths, and every delicacy, and told them that he took all his boys to "see Blondin" [
Charles Blondin, famous French tightrope artist who had crossed Niagra Falls on a tightrope, now performing in London] and to theatres. Prisoner went hom with them, and, after an interview with witness's mother, she ordered him out of the house. Mr. Partridge: You did not go [to] the prisoner afterwards? Witness: No, sir. And I did not know my brother intended to go to him. Walter Frederick Lawrence, a boy between fourteen and fifteen years of age, said he was an orphan, and went to the prisoner on the 8th February this year in response to an advertisement for a boy who could sing. Prisoner promised to pay him 15s. a week, but he never had anything more thna a few coppers – 6d. was the most. Witness went out with the organette with other boys, and played at Reading, Bristol, Bath, Cheltenham, &c. He was engaged to sing Sankey's hymns, and sometimes he obtained from £1 to 30s. a day. They were very successful at Reading, but at some other places the takings were not more than 5s a day. He had plenty to eat and drink, and prisoner gave him clothes at Reading and Leighton Buzzard. Mr. Partridge said he should commit prisoner for trial for the child-stealing, and Mr. Lewis stated that he would go into other charges against the prisoner. The boy lawrence was then recalled to give evidence on the misdemeanour charges. The witness gave particulars of the alleged assaults, which, he said, were frequently repeated, and, from the prisoner's admission, perpetrated on other lads. Mr. Partridge committed the prisoner for trial on the charge of child-stealing, but remande dhim, without bail, on the charges under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. (Mansfield Reporter)

[On 9 January 1882 Dennison had been convicted and sentenced to five years' penal servitude for stealing a portmanteau at Paddington Railway Station. According to prison registers, he was sent to Pentonville Prison on 17 July, then transferred to Woking Prison on 19 October 1882; he was released, from Millbank Prison, on 30 December 1885. While in prison, he practised the trade of a tailor. His two accomplices, charged with receiving stolen goods, were Elizabeth Dennison (age 40) and Arthur Snell Dennison (age 24), whose exact relationship to him is unclear; they were sent to the House of Correction for six and fifteen months respectively.]

19 May 1888

KIDNAPPED BOYS. – John Dennison, who was remanded on the accusation of stealing a boy named Alfred Brooker, has been further charged at the Westminster Police-court with offences which render him liable to two years' hard labour, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. It will be remembered that Dennison travelled about with boys, making money by their singing. His "takings-book" showed that he made £16 9s. 6d. at Hastings. (Hastings and St Leonards Observere)

2 June 1888

CONVICTION OF A VAGABOND. – At the Central Criminal Court on Thursday [31 May], John Dennison, aged 66, was charged with enticing and detaining Alfred Brooker, a child under 14, with intent to deprive his mother of the custody of him, and who was indicted for acts of misdemeanour with other boys. [In the prison records they are named William Frith, Richard Waters, and Walter Fredereick Lawrence.] Prisoner pleaded guilty to counts in the latter indictment. The grand jury ignored the bill charging prisoner with stealing the child. It will be remembered that the prisoner went about the country (visiting Reading among other places) with the lads, who sang in the streets. The Common Serjeant sentenced prisoner to 20 months' hard labour. [He was sent to Pentonville Prison.] (Reading Mercury)

Other News

2 July 1888

DUNDEE – ALLEGED INDECENT CONDUCT. – In the Police Court on Saturday, two men, Robert Wilson, carver, Kinnaird Street, and David Henderson, clerk, Bell Street, aged 23 and 30 years of age respectively, were remanded to the Sheriff, charged with having contravened Section 11 of the Criminal Law Anmendment Act, 1885. The accused, who appeared to be respectable men, are alleged to have been guilty of an act of gross indecency. (Aberdeen Free Press)

7 July 1888

THE ALLEGED CASE OF GROSS INDECENCY – BAIL FIXED. – On Wednesday the two men, Robert Wilson, carver, Kinnaird Street, and David Wilson, clerk, Bell Street, who, on Saturday, were remitted from the Police to the Sheriff Court charged with having contravened section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, presented a petition to Sheriff Campbell Smith asking to be liberated on bail. Bail was fixed at £6 each. (Aberdeen Press and Journal)

12 July 1888

THE ALLEGED CASE OF GROSS INDECENCY. – David Henderson and Robert Wilson, who were sometime ago apprehended on a charge of gross indecency, and who were liberated on bail of £6 each, should have appeared for trial before Sheriff Campbell Smith in the Dundee Sheriff Court yesterday. They both failed to appear, however, and their bail was declared forfeited, and the Sheriff granted warrants for their apprehension. (Dundee Courier)

14 August 1888

George Collier (38), desdribed as a clerk in holy orders, and George King (17), groom, were charged with committing an act of gross indecency with each other at Hove. King was discharged. Collier, previously convicted on a similar charge, was sentenced to 20 months' hard labour. (Mid Sussex Times)

29 December 1888

William Lisle Smith, on bail, was indicted for committing acts of gross indecency with Tom Stubbs, on September 30th. Mr. Rawlinson prosecuted, and Mr. Mathews and the Hon. Bernard Coleridge defended. The accused is the son of a person of independent means residing at Whitby, and had been for eight years in the service of the National Provincial Bank. Stubbs was a seaman on board the steamer Princess Beatrice, and the alleged offences occurred during a voyage from Cowes to Southampton. The rector of the parish where prisoner's parents live spoke of him as a good, moral, and religious young man, and he received an excellent character from others. The Jury acquitted the prisoner, the Judge concurring in the Verdict. (Hampshire Chronicle)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "John Dennison, Organ Grinder, 1888", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 17 April 2020 <>.

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