My third book, Blood on the Cobbles: a Victorian True-Murder Casebook was published in May 2014.
As with my first two books, it is a collection comprising in the main a number of intriguing but relatively little-known cases, with one or two more-celebrated ones.
The following synopsis was written by the book's copy-editor, Richard Vaughan.
As a follow-up to his first two successful books, A Mix of Murders and Gaslight Villainy, Grahame Farrell’s Blood on the Cobbles is a true gem. If you liked Gaslight Villainy, you will love Farrell’s third work in which he treats us to another broad-spectrum helping of factual Victorian homicide. Here we are party to in-depth and detailed accounts of murder most foul in the form of thirteen superbly researched and written chapters, with Farrell’s ever clear, readable and articulate style portraying Victorian times vividly. This book is one for all true-crime readers seeking a taste of murders from times gone by, and is available for just the price of a coffee.
The demand for coal during the Industrial Revolution had made the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne one of the greatest coaling-stations in the world, almost rivalling the Welsh port of Cardiff as the nexus of Nineteenth-Century coal-based wealth in the United Kingdom. Newcastle’s new prosperity, unequally distributed, and later to be augmented by ship-building, was reflected, in particular, in the magnificent new Central Arcade, a series of grand and imposing buildings, one of which was the Newcastle Savings Bank.
The staff of that institution in 1838, the year in which this first case is set, included the actuary, a kind of senior clerk but with a quainter job-title, one Archibald Bolam, now in his sixteenth year with the bank. He hailed from the Northumberland village of Harbottle but had long been resident in the city. Forty-two-year-old Mr. Bolam, a former schoolmaster, was both competent at his work, and respected – looked up to, even – in his local community.
Like many of us, he had a good side and a bad. The positive side was manifested in his liking for children, his readiness to donate to charity, and his generosity to friends in need – the very pattern of Pickwickian kind-heartedness.
Among those needy friends was Joseph Millie, at fifty-four years of age an older man than Mr. Bolam, and who, on the sudden death of his wife, had found himself faced with the responsibility of caring for the four children of the marriage, the eldest of whom, a daughter, was only fifteen years old. This eldest girl, having been propelled into the role of unofficial mother, was doing her limited best, but the loss of the real mother had been compounded by Joseph Millie’s straitened financial circumstances; he had previously been in the hardware business in nearby South Shields, but, the enterprise having failed, he had been out of work for some considerable time, and the family were now experiencing dire poverty.
Enter, Mr. Archibald Bolam; well-disposed both towards the four Millie offspring and towards Mr. Millie himself, he had used his influence at the Savings Bank to secure for Millie the temporary role of second actuary (for which, read ‘junior clerk’), and in that role Joseph Millie had acquitted himself well, with the result that the job became a permanent one. In consequence, the family’s financial situation and standard of living had slowly but noticeably improved. Bolam would also regularly invite Millie to dine with him at his home, and was liberal in the buying of presents for the Millie children, as well as arranging for food to be sent to them until their father was firmly back on his feet financially.
Although friends, Messrs. Bolam and Millie were very different personalities. Joseph Millie was mild of temper, and had survived his recent poverty with an uncomplaining smile. That mildness was reflected also in his respectful attitude towards his superiors at the bank (including, of course, Mr. Bolam), and in his affectionate treatment of his children.
Archibald Bolam, on the other hand, had a darker side to set against his better qualities. While he could, as we have now witnessed, be kind, and also charming, friendly and affable, he lived almost in a world of extremes; unflinchingly generous one minute, he was prone to sudden outbursts of anger and offensiveness that contrasted sharply with the even flow of Joseph Millie’s temperament. Bolam could at short notice be roused to abusive diatribes against anyone who crossed him, but, when the dark cloud lifted, he would quickly become the friendly and likeable figure whom people had grown to respect.
Unlike Millie, Archibald Bolan had never married, and there is one very good reason why – he was homosexual, in an era when acting on such a predilection was a criminal offence. Had the manager of the Savings Bank known this, of course, then Bolam would have been shown the door, and arrangements made for the termination of his employment, but the manager knew not. Mr, Bolam, while enjoying surreptitious and intimate physical encounters with other like-minded men (and occasionally, perhaps on payment of a bribe or in some cases a ‘fee’, with teenage boys), had become practised at keeping his sexual orientation firmly away from the gaze and condemnation of the mainstream world.
At two o’clock on the dark, chilly morning of Friday, 7th December 1838, a number of late-night strollers passing through the Central Arcade spotted smoke pouring through a window of the Newcastle Savings Bank. Fortunately, one of those in the street at the time was Police Constable Golding, patrolling his beat. He immediately rushed to his local police station to raise the alarm, while a servant girl living upstairs from the bank woke the several other people asleep in different parts of the building. The Fire Brigade was straight away called, and very soon a horse-drawn fire engine brimful of water careered down the arcade and stopped outside the bank.
The fire was intense enough to beat back P C Golding, who had dashed back to the scene and was the first to try to enter the building. However, it was more smoke than flame, and was quickly and easily extinguished, but it had done its work; having forced their way in through the strong outer doors, the fire-fighters found extensive damage to sections of the bank’s interior.
Other police officers, more senior than the worthy Golding, soon arrived, led by Inspector Bell. They were accompanied by the bank’s cashier, Mr. Joseph Armstrong, and as soon as it was safe to do so, they stepped inside the lobby and then into the large main office which contained a number of desks, and whose walls were lined with books, ledgers and files. The wainscoting was badly fire-damaged. The carpet smouldered in places where small pieces of burning wood or paper had landed during the fire.
Lying on the carpet, a good ten feet apart, were two bodies. The nearer one, accidentally discovered in the near-darkness by Mr. Armstrong when he all but tripped over it, lay next to the fire-place, and this body the police examined first. The blood and deep cuts on Joseph Millie’s lifeless face bore witness to a ferocious struggle and a frenzied attack with a blunt instrument. Oddly, inside his pockets were several pieces of coal, and the police quickly concluded that this was an attempt to hasten the burning of the corpse.
Millie was left where he lay while the police turned their attention to the other man. Archibald Bolam had a nasty gash across his neck and close to his throat. But he was still alive. Recovering from unconsciousness, he was soon sufficiently revived to give an account of his ordeal.
He had, he declared, received a series of threatening letters over the course of the previous few weeks, the most recent having been pushed under the door of the bank the previous (Thursday) evening by its unknown author while Mr. Bolam was alone in the building. The letters all promised violence or death against him at his own home. This most recent threat had today caused him to break with his usual practice of eating his evening meal at the bank, and he had instead gone home to dine, as he felt safer there than at the bank, though it is curious why he should have felt more secure in the very place where the death-threats were apparently to be made real.
He had then returned to the bank, arriving there “at half-past seven in the evening, and finding the door locked as I had left it, I opened it, and put the key in my pocket.”
Once inside the bank, he had found “poor Millie lying on the rug, and I thought he had fallen asleep,” and again it is curious that he made no attempt to wake him in order, as his immediate superior, to give him a stern lecture for such behaviour. Perhaps he could argue that his fondness for Millie prompted him to turn a blind eye. He explained that Millie, too, had a key, and, since the second actuary had been there alone outside business hours, he would have locked himself in as a precaution against robbery. So how did his assailant get in?
Rather than immediately confronting the still-sleeping Millie, Mr. Bolam had gone first to his desk, and was about to open it when he heard a noise behind him. He was “in the act of turning around when I received a blow on my right temple from a man in disguise, with his face blackened.”
Stunned by the blow, Bolam had nevertheless immediately gathered his wits about him and had rushed towards a window with the aim of opening it and calling for help, but the intruder had caught up with him and had threatened to kill him there and then if he made a sound.
“He struck me again when I was near the window”, mumbled the actuary hoarsely, “and when I was down, I felt a knife at my throat. Shortly after this, I became insensible for a while.”
He had regained consciousness soon afterwards, but sensibly had lain still and quiet as his attacker rifled through the bank’s contents before making his getaway. Bolam described him as being of less than average height, and as speaking in a voice that was obviously disguised. Was this, coupled with the blackened face, in order to prevent recognition by Bolam, and was he therefore known to the actuary, and perhaps also to Millie, who must have willingly let him into the bank? Having, so he stated, again drifted into unconsciousness as a result of the wound to his neck, Mr. Bolam could remember no more of the ordeal.
The injured man’s assertion that the robber had fled through the front door rather than seeking a rear exit held water – Millie’s own key was missing, and the robber had, it seemed, locked the office door on his way out, then pocketed the key.
But what had been stolen? Bolam said that there was £80 – a substantial sum – of his own money in a safe, as well as £4 10 shillings in his desk. The apparent ransacking that he had heard while feigning unconsciousness had actually caused very little disorder – most of the bank’s books, files, and papers had been left undisturbed. The safe containing Mr. Bolam’s £80 was open, with the key still in it, but the money still in place, along with further sums belonging to the bank itself. The smaller amount that Bolam kept in his desk had also been left untouched. No money whatsoever appeared to have been taken, and it seemed that, despite being so desperate and determined as to kill one bank employee and assault another, the robber had left empty-handed, even though he had had a free run of the premises behind a locked door.
Inspector Bell and his colleagues were immediately suspicious of this account. The robber’s actions seemed to defy logic. Why kill Millie, but merely injure Bolam? And why steal no money?
The officers also considered the actual effect of Mr. Bolam’s injuries: how, if his neck-wound was sustained while he lay in a daze face up on the floor, had the blood from the wound trickled down his waistcoat and shirt and not down each side of his neck? Bolam must have been sitting up when the knife was drawn across his neck. Could he have made the wound himself, and if so, why?
Archibald Bolam was suddenly no longer being viewed as the lucky survivor of a deadly assault, but as the prime suspect in a brutal murder.
At the inquest into Joseph Millie’s death, held at the Blue Posts Inn, Bolam was subjected to an intense questioning by the coroner. His answers were vague, inconsistent and confused, and both coroner and jury wasted little time in sending him for trial for murder.
But if guilty, what was his motive in killing his close friend? The police now needed more concrete evidence against him before they could answer this question, and Superintendent Stevens therefore launched a full-scale investigation, centring on a thorough search of Archibald Bolam’s house.
The search produced a small but damning collection of incriminating evidence, beginning with Joseph Millie’s key to the bank, pocketed therefore not by Bolam’s alleged robber but by the actuary himself. The obvious conclusion was that the robber’s existence was a fabrication. And behind a row of books, the police found a large amount of gold coins – all stolen from the Newcastle Savings Bank. At last, a motive for murder was emerging; Bolam had embezzled funds, and had been discovered, and challenged, by Joseph Millie. Known to have a volatile temper, he had (so thought the police) lost control and attacked his second actuary in a murderous frenzy.
One set of items, however, could not be found; the death-threat letters – the one piece of evidence that could have backed up his story – had one by one been destroyed by him immediately after he received them. Or so he alleged. The police dismissed their existence as a fiction.
A more detailed examination of the bank by Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues unearthed the fact that a number of ledgers and other bank-books had been taken out of the safe and deliberately burnt, possibly to conceal the shortfall in funds.
The very ineffectiveness of the fire was itself suspicious. If the intention of Bolam’s alleged bank-robber had been to destroy not only any trace of attempted theft but also the bodies of Millie and Bolam, then he had been inept to an unbelievable degree; the fire, although having done some damage, could easily have been made more destructive in a way that would have required no specialist knowledge. It had been lit in the waiting room, but the shutters to that room had been left open, as if to ensure that the smoke would be noticed in the street before the flames reached Bolam.
At the same time, the intention had clearly been to burn the body of Joseph Millie beyond recognition, by the equally inept method of stuffing coal in his pockets, in order to disguise the fact that he had been murdered. If the plan had succeeded, it would be assumed that the fire had killed him while he lay insensible after being knocked unconscious by the intruder – a clever move, since Bolam’s survival would have looked unsuspicious if it were believed that Millie, too, had merely been knocked out.
There were also questions to be asked of Bolam’s housekeeper, Mary Walker, who had lied to the police about her master’s movements on the evening of the murder, as well as helping him to wash bloodstains from his clothes. She too had received a grilling at the inquest, and was initially held on suspicion of being an accessory, but there was insufficient evidence against her. Common sense suggested that she was not part of a conspiracy with the actuary, but had merely acted out of mistaken loyalty, and the charge was soon dropped. Archibald Bolam therefore stood alone in the dock at the commencement of his trial at the Northumberland Assizes in Newcastle’s Moot Hall on 30th July 1838, a full seven months after the murder of Joseph Millie.
The presiding judge was Baron Maule, and the Moot Hall was packed to the rafters.
That relatively lengthy delay, requested by his defence counsel, had a deliberate purpose – to cool down the overwhelming public anger toward Bolam and to lessen the possibility of prejudicing the jury’s verdict, after a period of intense trial by journalism of a kind that would be illegal today, one newspaper editor after another having declared in vehement terms in their editorials that Archibald Bolam, despite his plea of ‘Not guilty’ at the start of the trial, was nevertheless the perpetrator.
The evidence outlined above suggests that the editors, however irresponsible their behaviour, were almost certainly right in their assertion of the accused man’s guilt, and, apart from bringing in a succession of favourable character witnesses – seventeen in all, each of whom spoke in glowing terms – there was little or nothing that Bolam’s defence council, Messrs. Dundas and Knowles, could do to gainsay such adverse testimony from the police.
Bolam, who during the seven-month delay had been upbeat and confident of an acquittal, was now nervous, anxious and pessimistic, and the longer the trial went on, the more so he became. He had already given his considerable property in various parts of Northumberland to relatives in order to prevent it being seized, as the law allowed, by the Crown in the event of his execution.
In addition, there was the medical evidence; while Joseph Millie’s jaw had been broken, and twenty heavy blows inflicted on his head with a poker and several well-aimed kicks, with a huge resultant loss of blood, the injuries to Bolam himself were, in contrast, minor in the extreme. The worst – that to the neck – had led to loss of blood but had in no way been life-threatening, and again the question was asked as to why he had been treated with such unlikely leniency after the horrendous death of Millie. The whole episode – the fire, the self-imposed wounds, the non-existent intruder, the coals in the dead man’s pockets – had been a botched attempt at covering up a murder committed in order to conceal theft by a trusted employee.
There was, too, much minor circumstantial evidence of his suspicious behaviour after leaving the bank to clean himself up at home (probably with a view to washing the excessive amount of blood from his clothes and shoes after his attack on Millie) before returning to start the fire and set up his fake crime scene. Every new piece of evidence, however small, added to the picture of a guilty man, and at the end of the trial, in contrast to the damning closing speech of Crown Solicitor Sir Gregory Lewin (who now clearly smelt victory), Dundas and Knowles could only lamely contend, more in hope than expectation, that the evidence was not sufficient for a conviction by attempting to refute the more minor evidence, concluding with an emotional appeal to the humanity of the jury. Standing silent and hiding his inner agony from those watching him, Archibald Bolam prepared for the worst.
But no-one had reckoned with Baron Maule.
It is doubtful if Mr. Dundas and Mr. Knowles themselves could have made a better plea in mitigation for Bolam than did the learned Baron in his summing up to the jury, and indeed one contemporary commentator tartly described the summing up as a very successful speech for the defence.
One by one he dismissed, or found alternative explanations and interpretations for, the main points of the evidence for the prosecution. Genuinely unhappy with the possibility of a murder verdict in this seemingly-cut-and-dried case, Maule didn’t dispute that Bolam had been responsible for the death of Joseph Millie, but who was to say that Millie hadn’t attacked Bolam on some pretext, and that the prisoner, in fear of his very life, had acted in over-zealous self-defence when the passions of both men were overheated? If the jury were to accept this possibility (and in the process dismiss the other main features of the prosecution’s evidence, especially the theft of money and the concealment of Millie’s key!), then they must bring in a verdict not of murder but of manslaughter.
Three hours after retiring to deliberate, the jury, unnerved now by Baron Maule’s clinical dismantling of the Crown’s evidence, returned to deliver its verdict – manslaughter. The packed court was stunned to silence, and Bolam kept his composure while he digested the verdict, then braced himself to hear Baron Maule announce his sentence: the prisoner was to “be transported beyond the sea for the term of his natural life” – to the penal colony in New South Wales.
Strangely, despite the immense public hostility, amounting to blood-lust, towards Bolam in the months leading up to the trial, there was a general feeling of satisfaction with the non-capital verdict. The spectators, like the jury, had clearly been swayed by Baron Maule’s arguments, resulting in applause from the public gallery which was abruptly and unceremoniously suppressed by the court ushers.
The prisoner himself, however, was not so impressed.
“My lord,” he protested, “I regard that sentence as my death.”
Perhaps he should have been more grateful; instead of handing out a death sentence, Baron Maule had provided him with a ticket to Australia.
But to joke in this way is to be facetious; Archibald Bolam knew as well as anyone else in the courtroom that transportation was no back-packer’s holiday but a harsh and dreadful punishment consisting of years of forced labour and often-brutal treatment at the hands of the authorities and occasionally, courtesy of other convicts, and that many of those sent to the penal colonies – especially those unfortunate enough to be shipped to the infamous Norfolk Island – had spoken of their wish that they had been hanged instead. And for a minority who, like Bolam, were sent “for the term of their natural lives”, there was no coming home. His outburst to Baron Maule on hearing the sentence was a cry from the heart.
Side by side with the public vilification of Bolam was a general expression of sympathy for the murdered Joseph Millie and his now-parentless young family. If anyone were going to be spared the workhouse, it was the Millie children, and, in an act that reflected well on Newcastle, a public subscription was launched which eventually collected over a thousand pounds for their upkeep and welfare. They survived their traumatic experience, grew to adulthood, and ultimately started families of their own.
On 31st August 1839, exactly a month after his trial, the disgraced former actuary was taken by sea from Newcastle to London on board the Atwood, and then incarcerated in a prison-hulk, one of the rotting and unseaworthy ships moored in the Thames and Medway estuaries and used to accommodate those of the burgeoning prison population who were scheduled for transportation, although, as the prison population grew, some of those not scheduled for transportation spent their entire sentence incarcerated in one of the hulks. If life in the harshest London prisons such as Newgate was hard, it was every bit as horrendous in the hulks. In the cramped and stuffy conditions of these stationary vessels, disease and filth were everywhere, and no man could trust another. Because the prisoners cooked their own food, there was an ever-present risk that a hulk would catch fire and its inmates be burnt to a cinder. But all this was just the beginning…
After six weeks of this offshore purgatory, Bolam and two hundred and twenty-nine fellow-convicts were taken off the hulk in chains and transferred to a sailing vessel, the Woodbridge, one of twelve convict ships to make the long and arduous journey to the penal colony that year. Conditions aboard the Woodbridge were better than in the hulk but still barely durable, especially for a man like Archibald Bolam who, as a man of education and some refinement, would have found no intellectual stimulation below deck, and no peace from the sounds of fornication between male and female convicts as the Woodbridge ploughed the interminable waves. Nor could he risk violence from the many desperate characters on board, or punishment from the guards, by revealing his homosexuality. Bolam’s voyage to New South Wales was a lonely and painful one.
Finally, on 10th June 1840, after eight grim months at sea, the Woodbridge docked in Botany Bay and the convicts placed their feet on dry land in their new home. An identity-check was made, and each convict replied by giving his name, whereupon the entire intake was marched, shackled and under armed guard, to barracks where they would eat, sleep (in large dormitories) and languish while awaiting allocation to a free settler for years of unpaid labour until – depending on their behaviour – the blessed day when they might receive a pardon.
And here, for a while, we lose sight of Archibald Bolam. Enough is known, however, of the convict system to allow us to speculate on his experiences. As an educated middle-class professional, he would have been in a tiny minority, and is unlikely to have gained any more true friendship, or even much more company, from his fellow-convicts in the barracks than he had done in the hulk or aboard the Woodbridge. His lack of experience in manual work would have made him difficult to allocate to a settler, while his non-manual skills and his learning would have been of relatively little value for as long as he remained in bonded labour. It is just possible, notwithstanding, that those skills and learning secured for him a more comfortable billet during that time.
Of one thing we can be more certain: the relative shortage of female convicts, and their forced isolation from the men in the barracks, meant that male convicts who would not normally have countenanced such an option were sometimes forced into gaining sexual satisfaction with each other. Gay sex was therefore common enough to be a significant, though temporary, feature of convict life, even those who didn’t resort to it desisted from condemning it, and in this one respect Archibald Bolam would have been in his element, and no longer forced by social disapproval to treat his homosexuality as a guilty secret.
In 1848, after eight years as a convicted felon, Bolam, along with several score of others, was granted a pardon by the Governor-General of the colony, the aristocratic Lieutenant Colonel Sir Charles Fitzroy. Bolam’s penal servitude was finally over, and he was a free man again, with the same rights and status (albeit with certain restrictions) as a settler. Like Dickens’s Magwich, however, he could be free only in Australia; he could never return home to England, except on pain of death by hanging. Archibald Bolam of Harbottle, Northumberland, was no longer an Englishman; he was now an Australian.
As a free settler, Bolam could work again in a profession (though banks might perhaps hesitate to take him on) and, with no family to support, he was soon able to buy his own home. He could also once more indulge his intellectual interests, among which was a passion for sundials, both in their aesthetic and functional aspects, a subject about which he wrote occasionally. He also become a supporter of, and regular visitor to, the new Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and nicely combined his joint interests in sundials and botany by presenting an ornamental sundial to that institution.
On Christmas Day, 1863, at his home, 5 O’Connell Street, in the Sydney semi-rural suburb of Newtown, Archibald Bolam, former actuary, embezzler, murder-suspect, and convict, and lately free settler and respected Australian citizen, died aged sixty-seven.
Five years later, transportation as a punishment was brought to an end. The last convict ship arrived at Fremantle in Western Australia on 10th January 1868, carrying Fenian political prisoners and assorted other Irish convicts.
The system had for several years been holding back the economic and social development of those Australian colonies that had accommodated it, while those that never had it (such as South Australia) or had abandoned it earlier, were developing faster than those that clung to it to the end.
But transportation had suited the Government very well, because it combined two core policies; firstly, the desire of those with power and privilege, from the Prime Minister down to the local magistrate, to rid the country of what they saw as surplus criminal or political undesirables whose upkeep in prison was straining public expenditure. The upheavals and poverty brought about by the Industrial Revolution had increased the numbers of those forced to steal to feed themselves and their families, and the prisons were full to bursting; it was simply cheaper to send them to fend for themselves abroad.
The Government’s second motive was the aim of securing the colonising of the new land for Britain. Several decades before Queen Victoria’s accession, transportation had played a vital part in scuppering the colonial ambitions of France in the direction of Australia.
But economic recovery, the reduction in the number of crimes punishable by transportation, and the reform of the British prison system in 1842, all rendered transportation no longer necessary. After 1842, British prisons were no longer merely holding-centres for those awaiting either execution or transportation but places where non-capital sentences were served. Sending convict ships on long voyages to the other side of the world was now proving no less costly than incarcerating convicted felons at home.
Transportation, for all its brutality, at least held the promise of eventual settler status as a reward for good behaviour, and the relative labour-shortage in Australia compared to the labour market in Britain meant that wages for both manual and non-manual jobs were higher than back home. Archibald Bolam could perhaps think himself lucky, and he certainly owed a debt of gratitude to Baron Maule for not ordering his hanging. He may have endured the inhuman conditions of the hulk, the convict ship and the barracks, suffered the hardship and indignity of forced labour, and pined for his lost homeland, but at least, unlike those sent by the French penal system to rot on Devil’s Island, he had a second chance, and he took it.
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