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Monday, 13 January 2014

Book Review: Yorkshire Villans: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Margaret Drinkall

This slim volume (141 pages) discusses crimes of various natures committed within the three 'Riding' areas that made up Yorkshire in the nineteenth century. As a consequence, you occasionally get references to places, like Middlesbrough, which were considered part of Yorkshire then but are no longer. The book is split into thirteen crime sections: Highway Robbery, Riots and Treason, Forgery and Counterfeiting, Stealing, Arson and Explosions, Child Murder, Manslaughter, Poaching, Burglary, Breach of Promise, Bigamy, Poisoning and Murder. Of course, there are crossovers between chapters but, on the whole, this categorisation works.

Drinkall covers dozens of crimes, from the routine to the odd and suspicious. Naturally, it's the latter that kept my interest, especially the stupidity of some people sticking close to the area of their crime or even, in the case of one poisoner, seemingly striking again. The wealth of little human stories in these pages obviously only give the information that can be found in official records. It makes for a tantalising read.

Some of my 'favourite' cases, if you can call them that, are: the explosion of a package thrown through the window of a house in Sheffield in 1861, the death of a Jane Gowland's illegitimate baby near York in 1839 and its subsequent discovery and the bizarre dismissal of charges against a servant accused of murdering her elderly Wakefield employer in 1860 in a case involving forged wills and exhumation. I think the saddest case in these pages, though, is to be found in the case of a mouse that finally roared. Joseph Dobson had endured years of hardship thanks to his father, still handing over money from his wages after he was married. In 1843 his father threatened to kill his wife for complaining about this deduction and Dobson took it a serious threat - shooting his father and going to the gallows for it. Of all the cases found within these pages, that may be the one that lingers with me.

Overall, this is a very interesting book for anyone interested in Yorkshire crime of the nineteenth century and the little eccentricities of the law which occasionally occurred. There is much in these pages to dispel the idea that sensation fiction was not, at least sometimes, drawn from life. For reference, see the chapters on bigamy and murder!

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