A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877

"Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook", from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

“Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook”, from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

One Monday morning in August 1877, the atmosphere at Littledean Police Court was lightened considerably by the appearance of two “respectable-looking” married women, Sabrina Cole and Susan Phelps, who were accused of assaulting a Lydbrook grocer by pouring tar over him, then pelting him with clods of turf. Another woman, Maria Phelps, was also charged, but did not appear in court. The case was, according to The Citizen newspaper, “of a most amusing character”.

The complainant, James Cook, worked for the Lydbrook Store Company, and would go  round houses to take orders and collect money for goods which had been bought on account. He had become unpopular with the local housewives through persuading them to buy groceries on credit, then demanding payment soon after the goods had been received.

On 23 July, Cook had gone out on his rounds as usual, and while he was inside the house of his second customer, he heard two of the defendants calling in a hostile manner for him to come out. He went to the gate and persuaded them to go away, but while he was visiting his next customer, an invalid who was lying in bed in a downstairs room, the three accused women came inside and caught hold of him. As they tried to drag Cook outside, he clung onto the bedpost, much to the consternation of the poor lady in the bed.  The description of this scene caused outbursts of laughter in the courtroom.

After a struggle, the women got Cook outside, where he was met by a small crowd, one of whom was a boy holding a kettle containing cold tar. One of the Phelps women dipped a brush into the tar and gave Cook a good coating. The other Mrs Phelps then poured the remaining contents of the kettle over his head. To finish, a tar-covered rag was tied round his neck. As he left the scene as quickly as he was able, the women and some boys pelted him with turfs and – according to Cook – with stones.

Sabrina Cole, who had helped to drag the grocer outside, but hadn’t taken part in the tarring, was fined five shillings and costs, while the two Phelps women each had to pay ten shillings and costs. The court also awarded Cook damages of 30 shillings for his ruined clothes, the payment of which was to be shared between the three defendants.

The newspaper reports on the case ended with the women being led away, protesting at their treatment, while their husbands stepped forward to pay their fines. However, it transpired later that one of the men, George Cole, refused to pay, and as a consequence, his wife was sent to Gloucester prison. A few weeks later, Sabrina Cole found herself in court again, this time on a charge of attempting to poison her husband.  This part of the story is told in my next post, Poison in the Pepper Box.


The Citizen, 15 August 1877, Gloucester Journal, 18 August 1877, Illustrated Police News, 1 September 1877 (all via the British Newspaper Archive website).


What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Seamen in 19th century Gloucester

Gloucester Docks, 1842 (ancestryimages.com)

Gloucester Docks, 1842 (ancestryimages.com)

The first story in my latest book, Gloucester Murder & Crime, is about a French sailor who in 1873 was fatally stabbed by a ship’s carpenter from Dantzic, outside the Barley Mow public house in Lower Southgate Street. For decades before this incident, sailors and seamen from many parts of the world had become a common sight in the city, as their vessels came into the docks to unload their cargoes. Unsurprisingly, men such as these who were away from home and had plenty of free time on their hands frequently got into drink-fuelled fights, either with each other or with the locals, although it was rare for such disagreements to end in a fatality.

In February 1858, the Gloucester Journal printed a letter from “A Citizen of Gloucester”, which bemoaned the increase of vice in the city, with not even Sunday being respected. The writer felt that visiting seamen were largely to blame, describing how “bodies of intoxicated sailors sally out of some low saloon or public-house, and disturb the congregations at the different chapels and churches in the city with their obscene songs and swearing, under the very noses of the police.” He had also witnessed a scene one Wednesday night, outside the “Ramping Cat” in Northgate Street, in which a crowd gathered to watch a sailor drag a prostitute by her hair down Hare Lane.

The fact that sailors coming onshore frequently carried knives was a cause of particular concern in Gloucester. In January 1858, four Greek sailors were charged with assaulting some women and creating a disturbance in Commercial Street. When some bystanders intervened, one of the sailors drew a large dagger, but he was pinioned by a policeman who came up behind him. In October 1862, two young men from the country came to the mop fair in Gloucester, and fell into company with two “ladies”, who invited them back to their lodgings. As they walked down Worcester Street, they met with two American sailors, with whom the girls had been drinking earlier, and a fight started. One of the sailors pulled out a knife and cut the face of one of the young men.

By the mid-1870s, the types of blade which sailors were carrying was causing alarm throughout the country, and the Pall Mall Gazette reported in March 1877 that at the annual meeting of the directors of the Gloucester Sailors’ Home in Ladybellegate Street, several of these new types of weapon were exhibited. One in particular, known as a “rib tickler” had such a sharp point that it needed a metal-tipped sheath to ensure that the wearer was not wounded by it. It was pointed out that no seaman need a knife as sharp as this for his work, so there was no need for him to carry such a weapon.

Establishments such as the Sailors’ Home and the Mariners Church at the docks provided much-needed spiritual, and often practical, support to visiting seamen, but the temptations faced by men who came onshore after being at sea for a long period could never be completely eradicated. The captain of a foreign vessel who was asked to interpret for two of his crew, who found themselves before the city petty sessions in 1899 after becoming involved in a fracas in Bristol Road, put the dilemma of his charges in simple terms, which were repeated in The Citizen:

“The captain said the men were safe at sea, but were quite spoiled when they got hold of some whiskey, and did not know ‘what’s why’.”

A defence which could have been applied to many of the seamen who found themselves in a bit of trouble after a visit to Gloucester in the nineteenth century.