Periodically the pay per view family history websites offer free access weekends. One such offer gave me the opportunity to search the British Newspapers 1710 – 1953.
Imagine my surprise when I found two articles that included references to my great grandfather James Swadling. I eagerly opened the documents. What had been written about him? What? He had been arrested and remanded on charges of embezzlement! No it couldn’t be true.
The first article published in the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper dated Sunday 13th October 1895 stated that “A well know official named James Swadling, in the employ of the Patent Shaft Company, was today charged with embezzling money belonging to his employers. It had been the prisoner’s duty to pay the wages at collieries belonging to the company, and an examination of accounts showed that he had appropriated considerable sums of money. Prisoner was remanded. His arrest caused a concaternation in the town.”
The second, much shorter, article was published in the Birmingham Daily Post dated Monday 14th October 1895 and headed CHARGE OF EMBEZZLEMENT. It continued, “At a special court, on Saturday, James Swadling, of Windmill Street, Wednesbury, was remanded until tomorrow on a charge of embezzling sums of money, the property of his late employers, the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company”.
I was in shock. My great grandfather embezzling money? It couldn’t be true! I searched in vain for further articles about the case but there were no other references. So what was the outcome? Surely he was innocent and it was a mistake. But how could I find out about the case?
In October last year I managed to get in touch with members of the Wednesbury family history society and a gentleman named Ian offered to check out the records at his local library the next time he was there. I eagerly awaited his findings.
On the 10th February 2014 the wait was over. I received a letter from Ian. He included a photocopy of an article he had found entitled FRAUD BY A WEDNESBURY CLERK in the Midland Advertiser dated Saturday 19th October 1895. So I was about to find out the truth.
As I read the article it appeared that James had attended the Police Court in Wednesbury before the Stipendiary or Magistrate on the charge of embezzling two sums of money from his employers. He was employed as a pay clerk and would go to Millfield Colliery near Wednesbury every Saturday and pay the men’s wages. His modus operandi or habit of working his crime was to add up the columns in the pay book and make the totals greater than they were while he was preparing the wages for the men. Sometimes it would be five shillings and sometimes it would be ten shillings and this money he would keep for himself. Although this had been happening for a couple of years or so the prosecution only extended over two fortnights ending the 14th and 28th of September when the deficiencies of £2 and 10 shillings and £4 and 5 shillings were shown. When he was asked about the discrepancies in his pay book. He explained how he had acquired the money. It transpired that James had formed the habit of attending horse racing and practising betting.
James had been employed by the Patent Shaft and Axletree Company for twenty years and was a trusted employee. The company stated that this betrayal of their trust deserved severe punishment and they wanted the case dealt with as quickly as it could but they wanted sufficient punishment that would then deter others from further offences.
James pleaded guilty to the charges and read a statement to the effect that his difficulties began with the breaking up of his home, owing to becoming surety or guarantor for a friend. He took the first 10s when he found he was short of money and when it wasn’t detected he had taken more money from time to time. He deeply regretted that he had given less consideration to the Company and his wife and children than he had given to others and asked the magistrate to deal with him under the First Offenders Act. This act enabled a magistrate to place a guilty person on probation and not give them a prison sentence. Unfortunately for James the magistrate didn’t give him a suspended sentence and probation. He sent him to gaol for four calendar months with hard labour.
I may never find out where James was incarcerated but I do know what might have happened to him while he was in goal. He might have become one of the many prisoners who were used as cheap labour and involved in manual tasks such as digging in quarries or helping with road building. The ethos behind manual labour was to teach prisoner the value of hard work, to stop prisoners being idle, remove the temptation for them to get into mischief and deter them from committing further crimes.
He would possibly have been segregated from the other prisoners and more serious form of punishment could have been the treadmill or the crank handle. Both were laborious and seemed to serve no purpose. The treadmill was a set of revolving steps, placed in the cell, that the prisoner would walk on for many hours at a time only stopping for a few minutes rest periodically. The crank handle was also placed in the cell and the prisoner would sit for hours just turning the handle
Over the years I have often wondered why some of my ancestors had moved from one place to another. In 1901 James and his wife Emily and their family were living at 82 Willes Street, Winson Green a suburb of Birmingham. Had his brush with the law or the shame of his crime been the reason why James left Wednesbury. Or had he been incarcerated at Winson Green prison on Winson Green Road in Birmingham and been granted probation for being a model prison but had to stay close by. Or was it just coincidence that he moved to a house that was only one and half miles from Winson Green Prison? That I will never know but what I do know is that James and his family stayed in the Winson Green area for over thirty years until he and Emily went to live with their youngest daughter Dora when they could now longer look after themselves.