George Firmin at the Old Bailey in 1838

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September 14, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

I’m going to assume that George Firmin, the grandfather of Aunt Kate, was the owner of a puncheon that was stolen in 1838 and that he appeared in court to testify about the theft. The Old Bailey Online has over two hundred years of court records that are searchable by name.  There are 22 cases that include a witness,  a victim, a juror, or an accused person by the name of Firmin – and many more if you include alternate spellings.  The Firmin cases date from 1690 to 1910.  Some of the others would be interesting to research more;  this one is the most promising in terms of a clear connection as name, location, and occupation all tie into the family of John Firmin, carman.

The scene in court might have looked something like this:

The Old Bailey about 1808.

The Old Bailey about 1808 from a plate in the Microcosm of London via Wikimedia.

George Firmin’s testimony is very brief, mostly to say that the puncheon in question was safely stored by six in the evening on the day of the theft.  Our George, Aunt Kate’s grandfather, would have been 18 at the time of the trial.  Much of the testimony comes from Joseph Calthorpe Chapman who refers to George as “my master.”  At 18, George seems a bit young to be in charge of his own business, but he most likely left school about age 12 and it’s possible that this a branch of his father’s business or that his father had provided the capital for him to set up the business.

The stolen puncheon was stored in a carman’s yard in Church Lane in Whitechapel – the owner of the yard is not identified.  Church Lane ran directly in front of St Mary Whitechapel.  George Firmin & his father John would have been familiar with the area but no other evidence ties them to this exact location at this precise time.

The defendants are a father & son both named Peter Willson. They attempted to sell the puncheon to John Chaplin of Cullum-Street, and claimed that they had bought it from a third party, George Webster, who did not testify.  Before they could deliver the item and complete the sale they were seen rolling the puncheon down the street by Joseph Chapman who recognized the puncheon – which makes me wonder what would be distinctive enough about a cask that one would recognize it in the dark from a distance?  It’s after six at night in November, even if there are streetlights it’s got to be dark.

This map from 1837 shows some of the places named in the trial.  Church Lane is in the upper right of this snippet. The Willsons were rolling the puncheon down Swan Street when they were spotted by Chapman.  Young Peter met his father at the corner of Mansel and Prescot Streets.  On later maps Haydon Street is shown as the lower portion of Haydon Square and as running through to intersect Mansel Street.  Cullum Street, where Chaplin lived, is about a half mile to the west, inside the City wall.  Altogether from the yard off Church Lane to Chaplin’s residence would be about a mile to be rolling the puncheon.

Cary's map of 1837 from

Cary’s map of 1837 from
Locations mentioned in relationship to the theft of a puncheon from George Firmin in 1838.

About two miles to the east and off the map is Limehouse where the elder Peter Willson ran an errand before returning to fetch the puncheon to show it to Chaplin.

The younger Peter Willson was judged not guilty; his father’s sentence was three months. I’m not certain if this sentence was typical for the period or not.

The only glimpse of George’s personality is when he volunteers that he understands that the younger Peter Willson is industrious and sober.  That’s not much to go on as the wording is rather stereotypical for the era.  On the other hand, it’s interesting to speculate how well the parties involved knew each other.  Certainly this character reference may have affected the verdict.

What else can we glean? George was the owner of an empty puncheon.  We don’t know his occupation or what type of goods he might have shipped or stored except that the term puncheon strongly implies wine or spirits. Only a few years later, in 1843, he will be a dealer in coal and manufacturer of coal tar derived products.  There’s just not quite enough detail to connect the dots yet.

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