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Hard Labour for Stealing a box of figs

Hard Labour for Stealing a box of figs

James William Hempson

James William Hempson was just 13 years old when he was convicted of simple larceny, under the Juvenile Offenders Act, for stealing a box of figs. The eldest son of William and Jane Eliza (nee Hoare) Hempson, James William was born Brixton on 8 April 1859 and just prior to his conviction in 1873, the 1871 census records the Hempson family at 5 Elizabeth Street, Brixton1.

Windmill Street Map

James’ father, William, was an engine fitter and the family home, when James was convinced and sentenced to Wandsworth Gaol on 25 January 1873, was recorded as 20 Windmill Street, Brixton. This area is noted on the Charles Booth Maps Descriptive of London Poverty two decades later in 1898 as ‘Fairly Comfortable: Good ordinary earnings (see ADM 188 96). James was sentenced to four days hard labour for his crime and ‘whipped 10 strokes with birch’ (see James William Hempson). Judicial birching in twentieth century Britain was used much more often as a fairly minor punishment for male juveniles, typically for petty larceny such as James’ crime, rather than as a serious penalty for adult men. This was applied to boys aged up to 14 in England and Wales, and up to 16 in Scotland. In this juvenile version, the birch was much lighter and smaller, and the birch was administered privately by a policeman, usually immediately after the magistrate’s court hearing, either in a room in the court building or at the nearest police station.

James William Hempson joined the Royal Navy in early 1875, shortly before his father, William, passed away aged just 40 in 1875 leaving his widow, Jane, to bring up a young family. James’ service record highlights a few issues during his four year service including three periods in prison, two specifically noted in Kingston and Bermuda. The last reference on the Register of Seaman’s service states that his character was ‘S only’ [satisfactory only] and ‘run from lead’, suggesting he ran away from the Naval Barracks in 1879.

James does not appear at the family home of 205 Mayall Road, Brixton in 1881 and his whereabouts for the next few decades are unclear though in 1901 and 1911, he is an inmate at Lambeth Workhouse – a widower – with his occupation referred to as ‘general labourer’ in 1901 and ‘formerly ordinary seaman, merchant service’ in 1911. There is no evidence in the GRO BMD indexes of any marriage of James or James William Hempson.

In 1898, future star of the silent screen Charles Chaplin (then aged eight) briefly became an inmate of the Lambeth workhouse, before being transferred to the Norwood Schools. It is just possible that James may have crossed paths with young Charles in the workhouse, before he became famous.

Admitted to the Bow Institution on 29 January 1924, James died of broncho pneumonia in 1927 and was buried at Tooting Cemetery, aged 682. It would seem that he spent at least the last thirty years of his life – nearly half his life time – in institutions.

James Hempson Death


  1. Charles Booth, Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9 

  2. Board of Guardians; Constance Road Workhouse; Call Number: CABG/189/004. 

About Kirsty Gray

Kirsty Gray
Kirsty Gray Managing Director: Family Wise Limited, Chair: Society for One-Place Studies, Director of English Studies: National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Author: Pen and Sword Books and freelance author for various publications across the globe.

2 comments

  1. This really slams home the old adage, “Spare the rod, spoil the child”. Disgraceful and heart wrenching. My great grandmother and a younger sister suffered the fate of being banished to a wayward girls institution simply because her mother died and left 6 children and her father could only care for 4 of them. I have been to the Internet site of that institution and read the horrible stories of injustice… One young girl of 12 tried to kill herself by swallowing straight pins… horrific…

    Great article, Kirsty. Thank God today we do more ENcouraging than DIScouraging where our children are concerned.

  2. Interesting to hear the rest of the story after knowing the beginning of his “life of crime.” In researching one of my relatives, I found an article in a 1909 Lexington, Kentucky newspaper about a black man who stole a pair of $4 shoes. He was convicted and sentenced to 4 yrs in the penitentiary. Hard to believe! Of course, we live in a different age – I hope.

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