Cornelius Willoughby was the very first criminal I found in my family tree. At the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, I read the original transcript of his trial at the Quarter Sessions in 1844.
‘Nell’, as he was known, hadn’t had the easiest of childhoods. Born in 1824 amid the turbulent and harsh landscape of rural Britain, his early years were even worst than most. By the time he reached adulthood, he had lost four siblings and his mother. He had also spent time in the dreaded workhouse.
So it was perhaps no surprise that the first crime he was arrested for was theft. On 17 May 1844, Cornelius’s stepmother discovered him at home boiling potatoes for his breakfast. Instantly she recognised them (by the purple peelings!) as the property of Thomas Maslin, publican of the Fighting Cocks in Fyfield, where Nell had been employed to grind malt. Working in the loft with the stored food, the temptation had been too much for him.
Martha Willoughby handed her stepson straight over to the police. At his trial, his merciless stepmother testified how the prisoner pared and boiled the potatoes eating them. She signed her deposition with a cross. Perhaps she was angry that he hadn’t shared them with the rest of the starving family. Whatever her motivation, she would have been pleased when Nell was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Whilst young Nell could be forgiven for his crime of hunger, it was the first of a series of petty offences. Two years later, he was bound over to keep the peace after it was alleged that he had assaulted the parish clerk’s wife, Lucy Pope, a neighbour of the Willoughbys and the recipient of the potato rinds in the earlier case – Martha had given them to her for her pigs.
There was obviously a long running feud with the Pope family, because in 1847, Cornelius was sentenced to two weeks for ‘injuring a hay rick’, belonging to William Pope, husband of Lucy. The final trial was later that year, when he was convicted of breaking windows. I haven’t found the details of the case yet but I can hazard a guess at who the victim might have been.
Cornelius Willoughby’s career of crime is still patchy. I haven’t managed to track down the documents of the other four trials and after 1847 he completely disappears from the records. Maybe he died or was transported, but there is no evidence of either. It is time for another trip to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and I’ll update you on my sleuthing progress. In the meantime, if you come across Cornelius anywhere, please do let me know…
Wicked Stepmother is available on e-book via Amazon