If you’ve ever watched the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, you’ll know that sooner or later, the path of genealogy will lead to an ancestor with a less than edifying bit of family history.
And so it was the case when my cousin and fellow genealogy enthusiast came across the story of the events at (our great-great-great grandfather) Henry Bentham’s yard in 1875. This story appeared in the The Wigan Observer and District Advertiser in July 1875. It concerns the inquest in Standish, relating to death of a 14 year-old boy, Charles Renshaw.
DEATH FROM A BLOW WITH A BRUSH AT STANDISH
Mr. Gilbertson, district county coroner, held an inquest at the Wheat Sheaf Inn, Standish, yesterday evening, on the body of Charles Renshaw, who died on Thursday morning from the effects of injuries inflicted the previous Tuesday by a man of the name of Thomas Healey. Mr. Super Intendant Beetham, Chorley, was present. Healey was present in custody.
Ann Bentham, wife of Henry Bentham, grocer, Standish, said the deceased lived with her as a servant for the last two years. He was about 14 years of age; and had told her that his father was a hairdresser and was in Australia, and that his mother, who was addicted to drinking, was in Liverpool. On Tuesday last he went out about half-past seven in the evening, and was brought home about half-past nine o’clock; but she did not see him till the following morning. He was then insensible, and he grew worse and died Thursday morning.
Seth Ollerton, Standish, son of John Ollerton, collier, Standish said he knew the deceased. He was with him near the Wheat Sheaf when the omnibus came up, about half past eight o’clock on Tuesday evening. They afterwards went into the yard, and witness and deceased and some other boys began to unfasten the horses. Wm. Bentham, or as he was called ‘Billy Dog’, who was the driver, got hold of the deceased and put him down on the ground, and rubbed his head with some straw.
The prisoner, Thos. Healey, was present, and got hold of the driver’s whip and laid on deceased with it, after telling him he had no business in the yard. Deceased refused to go out, and picked up half a brick and threw it at the prisoner, striking him on the back of the hand. Bentham, the driver, came up and took the whip from prisoner, who seized a brush that was standing at the stable door and going up to where the deceased was, struck him on the back of the head with it.
Witness was close by at the time, and could see that the deceased had another piece of brick in his hand, ready to throw at the prisoner. Deceased fell on the ground after receiving the blow with the brush, and blood came from his nose. A woman who lived in the street opposite, came and lifted the deceased up.
James Grounds and Edward Pennington were present in the yard at the time:
“We were driven twice out of the yard by you and we came in a third time, and were told by you that it was time we were at home and in bed. We went outside the gate way and deceased cursed the prisoner, and said he would not go away for him.
“Prisoner then took up the brush and said he would make him go, and struck deceased with it. All of the boys ran away but the deceased. The deceased told me that he had had a pint of whiskey that day.” – The Coroner: “I cannot put that down.” – The Sergeant of Police: “Mrs. Bentham can prove he had had no drink.”
James Grounds (13), son of James Grounds, shop keeper, Shevington, said he lived with the deceased at Bentham’s. He was with him on Tuesday night, and waited about at Chadwick’s till the omnibus from Wigan came, about 23 minutes after eight o’clock. They followed it into the Wheat Sheaf yard, and deceased began to act as if he were drunk. “‘Billy Dog’ rubbed deceased’s face with straw, and prisoner seized a whip and struck him with it. Deceased thereupon seized a stone or brick and threw it at him, and the driver took the whip from prisoner, saying he could lay on with the brush.”
Prisoner accordingly went to the stable door and got the brush, and the deceased meanwhile picked up half a brick. Witness went into the stable, and when he came out deceased was lying on the ground, near the gateway, bleeding from the nose and mouth. Prisoner said he had dazed deceased. – By the prisoner: “There were ten boys in the yard. Deceased told me he had had a sup of drink, but he did not seem to be the worse for it, as he ran a race with me a short time before this.”
Mary Sutton, wife of Robert Sutton, Standish, labourer, said she lived opposite the gateway leading to the stable yard of the Wheat Sheaf. She saw the prisoner whip the boys out of the yard at about nine o’clock on Tuesday night, and amongst others the deceased, who stood at the gateway, while the others ran away. “Prisoner whipped the deceased twice, and after the latter had thrown at stone, which hit the prisoner on the hand, he went towards the stable and returned with the brush and struck the deceased in the back of the head. The deceased fell down, and witness ran across the road and saw he was bleeding from the nose and mouth. He did not speak; and he was carried away.”
John L. Price, surgeon, Standish, said he was sent for to attend the deceased shortly after nine on Tuesday night. On arriving at the Wheat Sheaf yard he found the deceased, who was insensible, supported by two men. A plank was procured and the boy laid upon it, his head being raised by some straw. He was bleeding from the nose and mouth, and he seemed in a dangerous state. There was some ashes about his face, and on washing away the dirt he found a swelling behind the left ear.
Finding that the boy did not rally he got four men to carry him to his own home. He last saw him at nine o’clock the night previous to his death. The deceased never regained consciousness. He had made a post-mortem examination of the deceased’s body, and found a fracture of the skull at the point behind the ear where the bones meet. Death resulted from compression of the brain caused by the fracture of the skull, and might have been caused by a blow.
The Coroner summed up the evidence, and recommended a verdict of manslaughter, but the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
Henry Bentham doesn’t come out of this story particularly well, as the owner/operator of the Omnibus – his 1871 census entry under ‘Occupation’ was ‘Grocer and Omnibus Proprietor’. His wife Ann (née Grounds) seems to have been more connected with the grocery mentioned in the census. Her brother James was also grocer, in Shevington and it is his son James (Ann’s nephew) who is the 13 year-old lodger mentioned in the story.
Henry and Ann’s eldest son, William sounds like a particularly undesirable person. Aside from cultivating the nickname ‘Billy Dog’, it is he who, at best, fails stop stop Healey from attacking the boy – and may even have encouraged that kind of behaviour. These event take place two years before the publication of Black Beauty, a story of common Victorian attitudes to animal welfare. One can only imagine if ‘Billy Dog’ was the kind of horse owner that compelled Anna Sewell to comment on the horse cruelty of the day.
Henry and Anne’s second son and William’s younger brother was James Bentham, my great-great grandfather. You can read about his exploits as he travelled across the United States, 37 years later. Their youngest brother, George had his own tale to tell of travels in North America, which I’m still researching.
Rather depressingly, this incident paints a picture of the cheapness of life and the inevitability of casual violence against children in the 1870s. Incredibly, the jury delivered a verdict of accidental death and weren’t invited to consider any charge greater than manslaughter. It’s worth considering that the facts established in this case might today support a charge of murder. Almost forty years after the publication of Oliver Twist, many of the themes that Dickens explores in that novel still seem to exist in Standish. ‘Billy Dog’ seems similar in nature to ‘Bill Sikes’, the story’s main antagonist – even though the accused in this case is his sidekick Thomas Healy. Charles Renshaw, while not an orphan, is said to have been abandoned by an absent father and a feckless mother. As with ‘Nancy’, he meets a brutal end at the hands of an abusive man.