Damaging and Stealing Crops in late Nineteenth Century Meldreth

A section of Chiswick End, showing land owned by Mr Fordham (on which Fordham's Cottage still stands)
A Map of the Parish of Meldreth in the County of Cambridge, 1820, by Edward Gibbons
Whaddon village in the early 1900s when it used to be within the Meldreth borders - Mr Saunders' fields were evidently in this vicinity
Robert H Clark postcard

In the late nineteenth century in rural communities such as Meldreth, court records reveal that there were frequent prosecutions for offences that would be considered trivial by modern standards because of the very low value of the goods stolen. Today prosecution would not usually be considered to be in the public interest and less formal sanctions outside the court process, such as a police caution, would be used, particularly for first offenders. However, offences such as minor damage to crops or their theft were often brought before the courts at that time with the clear intention of reinforcing the need to protect the interests of farmers and landowners. Where a theft took place from an employer the likelihood of prosecution was increased even though the offence might amount to no more than “petty pilfering”, as in the 1893 case below. See also the ‘Pecks, Bushels and Prison’ breach of trust case elsewhere on this website.

Here is a selection of such cases illustrating the typical penalties which they attracted; all of them reported by the Royston Crow:

Melbourn Petty Sessions, January 11th, 1877

‘Monday last – before J E Fordham Esq., R Pyne, E K Fordham and Wm. Burrell, Esqurs.

Frederick Waldock and Arthur Mead, labourers, both of Meldreth, were charged with damaging growing wheat, the property of George Warren, at Meldreth on 18th December last, by walking on and trampling down the same. Both defendants were convicted and each ordered to pay within seven days a fine, damage, and costs, 8s.(shillings), and in default to be imprisoned for seven days hard labour.

Joseph Searle, Walter Green, Walter Verey, Arthur Dash, Thomas Wing, John Farnham, William Jude, Frederick Waldock and Jethro Jude, labourers of Meldreth (and two others from Melbourn), were charged with damaging growing clover seed, the property of George Warren, at Meldreth on 21st December last by walking on and trampling down the same. All the defendants were convicted and each ordered to pay within seven days a fine, damage and costs, 4s.6d (4 shillings and 6 pence), and in default to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for seven days (see ‘Cutting and Maiming at Meldreth’, also on this website, for what ‘hard labour’ involved).

Both the above charges arose in consequence of defendants persisting in walking on the lands of Mr Warren to and from their work at some coprolite pits (see the Coprolite Industry in Meldreth, also on this website, which suggests where the coprolite workings may have been), instead of walking on the road set aside for the use of the public.’ (note: the average weekly wage in the 1870s for coprolite workers was £2-£3 compared with 7s. (35p) to 14s. (70p) per week for an agricultural labourer).

Melbourn Petty Sessions, 28th May 1884

‘Frederick Waldock, James Batman, John King and Henry Plum, all young men, were charged with damaging growing wheat at Meldreth, the property of Mr Henry Fordham and doing damage to the amount of 6d (note: the exact location of this offence is unknown though a Mr Fordham owned land in Chiswick End, Meldreth). The defendants all pleaded guilty.

Police Sergeant Quincy said from numerous complaints which had been made from the farmers, he went across to Mr Smith’s (Mr Fordham’s foreman) on the Sunday morning and he found the defendants crossing the field of growing wheat. At first they refused to give their names. There had been a general complaint of young men going about on Sunday mornings and doing mischief. The defendants were fined 3s.6d., damage 6d., and 3s. costs each. They applied for time and said they were hard working chaps.’

Melbourn Petty Sessions, November 24th 1893

‘Monday last before E Snow Fordham, Esq. (chairman), D B Balding, F M B Johns and W A Fordham, Esqs for stealing carrots:

John Pateman was charged with stealing 17 carrots, the property of Mr W J Sanders, his master, at Meldreth on 30th October (note: Kelly’s Directory for 1892 lists Walter J Saunders as a farmer in Meldreth – probably the same person). Defendant said he was guilty. Walter John Sanders, farmer, of Meldreth said on 30th October the defendant was in his employ taking up carrots. The carrots produced were worth 6d. and they were similar to those Pateman was getting up.

PS Ding said, in consequence of a complaint made to him, he, on Monday 30th October, went to the road leading from Meldreth to Whaddon and at quarter to six in the evening he met the defendant who was carrying a basket on his shoulder, coming from the direction of the field where the carrots grew.

The witness stopped him and asked him what he had got in the basket. He replied, “nothing.” The witness examined it and found it contained the carrots now produced. He also produced three or four others from his pockets. He said, “I brought them from Mr Sanders’ field.” The witness took possession of the carrots. On the same evening he showed them to Mr Sanders who identified them as his…..The defendant now elected to have the case dealt with summarily by the Bench, in preference to going for trial and pleaded guilty to the charge, and added, “I wish I was not.”

Mr Sanders, in answer to the Bench, said the defendant had frequently worked for him and was in regular work up to the time he left him. The Chairman said it was a paltry theft. The carrots could not be of much value and he was in no urgent need of food. It must be understood that petty pilfering by persons taking up carrots or potatoes was really stealing and farmers must be protected. He would be fined 5s. including costs.’

Note: with thanks to Linda Clarke for her help in researching these cases

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