The long arm of the law

Some of those in our Victorian Lives database had parents with backgrounds that were more out of the ordinary than others. Alfred Preston was one.  We meet Alfred’s mother, before Alfred had been born, in Bodmin Jail in November 1848. Mary Ann Preston, then aged 22, and her brother Thomas, a 19 year-old sawyer, were arrested and charged with possession of a stolen watch, flute case and other items. Mary was four feet eleven inches in height, with dark eyes, hair and complexion and able to read and write. The pair were acquitted at the Lent assizes in the following March.

They were fortunate as, at the next Lent assizes the year after in 1850, Mary Ann’s husband William Preston was found guilty of burglary and stealing 20 gold and silver watches from William Budge of Callington and a timepiece and three dozen watchchains from Josiah Wadge of the same town. He was sentenced to 15 years transportation. This crime had taken place in October 1848 and was clearly connected to the charge of possession laid against Mary Ann and her brother. However, William had absconded, fleeing to Jersey in the Channel Islands, where he had married Mary Ann back in 1846. He was eventually apprehended on Jersey in November 1849.

Account of the case in the Royal Cornwall Gazette

After her acquittal, Mary Ann had followed him to Jersey, where Alfred was born in July 1849. In the 1851 census the one-year old Alfred was found at Back Lane, Callington in the household of his grandmother Ann Deacon (no relation!) Mary Ann is there described as ‘married’ and working as a soap boiler. But there is also a ‘visitor’ – Henry Pomeroy, an agricultural labourer. Yet Mary Ann and Henry had got married in Devonport in January 1851, three months earlier. Were they keeping their marriage quiet? If the family story that Mary Ann’s first husband died in October 1851 at Gibraltar is true then she was still legally married to William Preston when she married Henry in January 1851.

After a spell as a mine labourer, Henry Pomeroy went into the growing market gardening business at Calstock, which boomed after the railway expanded the market for fruit from the Tamar Valley. On growing up, Alfred followed his step-father into market gardening. However, after marrying 18-year old Grace Barkle in 1873, Alfred and his wife left for the mining settlement of Moonta in South Australia. It’s not clear what he did there but, somewhat ironically, he was recorded in 1877 as the victim of larceny. The pair, now with five children, returned to Calstock in the mid-1880s, where he went back into the market gardening business.

Alfred wasn’t finished with the law however. In 1895 he was involved in a civil case in a dispute with his half-brother Samuel over disputed money after the dissolution of their fruit-growing partnership. Alfred lost the case. Nevertheless. he went on to have a long and relatively comfortable life, which ended in Calstock in 1936, when he was aged 86. Alfred left an estate of £442 (equivalent to £31,500 nowadays).

Alfred Preston – from Purcell/Preston family tree on Ancestry

(Thanks to Barbara Schenck for unearthing the story of Alfred’s father’s criminal career and the details of Alfred’s later life.)

7 thoughts on “The long arm of the law

  1. Burglariously! Wonderful new (old) word.

    I wonder if William Preston was deported to Australia (that is what transportation means, right?) and if his son Alfred deliberately emigrated there to be with him.

    It is really great to have a photo of one of your people, too.


    1. William’s possible deportation to Australia and his son Alfred (My Gt Grandfather) following him was what I thought until I found the details of his being sent to Gibraltar.


  2. My great great grandfather, James Watts, (Copperhouse 1806) was sent to Bodmin for three months in February 1844 for “running away and leaving his wife (Jane Simmons) chargeable to the care of Phillack parish”. I assume that in that situation she would have been sent to the Redruth Poor Law Union, of which Phillack was a participating member. James was committed to Bodmin by “William Hockin, clerk”. I believe the William Hockins, father and son, were an Episcopal priest in Phillack and an official in Hayle, respectively. Following this episode, James and Jane headed to Plymouth, where he was a cordwainer. They had two children, but then Jane and one of the children seem to have disappeared during the Plymouth health and sanitary crises of 1848-50 (cholera, small pox, scarlet fever). James appears to have lit out to Abergavenney with a new 17 year old wife, Mary Jane Lukes, by 1850 before returning to Plymouth. My great grandmother Hannah Amelia Watts was born in Devonport in 1864 and the family relocated to Cornwall Road, Waterloo, London in 1875, where she later married my great grandfather Ernst Gustave Muhlpfordt, a German waiter at the Metropole. My grandfather William Henry Milford was born in London. The family was forced to leave the UK at the outset of WW1 under the Aliens Restriction Act and came to New York, where my grandfather enlisted in the US Army and became a machine gunner in France.

    I have seen the James Watts prison entry in the Cornwall OPC, but reading your most recent post, I realize that more information might be available either in newspaper (Royal Cornwall Gazette) or court proceeding records (assizes?). Have you a suggestion in this regard and how such records are accessed? I have enjoyed this most recent series of articles immensely.

    Richard Milford



    1. Gale Primary Sources has the Royal Cornwall Gazette for most years from 1803 to 1901 and also the Cornishman while the RCG is also available at The British Newspaper Archive. Both these are subscription access although the second has some free pages available. The BNA also has a very limited number of pages from 1862 to 1900 from the most comprehensive Cornish newspaper of the time – the West Briton.


  3. Alfred was my Gt Grandfather. I have been telling the same story to my customers at my Micro Pub, The Cornish Ancestor in Callington where I now live. William Preston after his sentencing was sent to Bath Gaol and the onwards to Woolwich, London and put on a ship to Gibraltar where he was put on a Prison Hulk. He arrived there February 1851. Prisoners worked for long hours, many involved in building the harbour walls. He met his demise in about October 1851. Whether he tried to escape of was the result of an accident, who knows.

    Liked by 1 person

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