This is a story of 1833 Bridport. Arson had taken place but the punishment meted out to the perpetrator was much more extreme than would be considered now. It is a true story of earlier life with disastrous consequences and is not for the faint-hearted.
In 1832 Bridport had suffered a number of fires, thought to be arson. Then in early 1833 there was another which destroyed eight properties in Irish Lane (now King Street) adjacent to Folly Mill Lane. Some were thatched houses and about thirty people had to vacate their beds and homes. There had been an attempt to set fire there only two or three weeks earlier. The properties would have been adjacent to the present East Street car park near Folly Mill Lane.
The late Basil Short gave a lecture in the Unitarian Chapel in 1993 and much of this detail is drawn from his notes held in the Bridport Museum Local History Centre. Basil Short was formerly the Unitarian Minister in Bridport and an extra-mural local history lecturer of Bristol University.
The main victim was John Follett, a flax comber, with his combing shop in Irish Lane close to his house. His garden adjoined that of the Wilkins family with their house forty yards towards Folly Mill. Thomas Wilkins was a carpenter with a sideline of twine spinning, with rates of 19s 6d in 1826, the same as Dr Giles Roberts, so not desperately poor. His eldest son, Sylvester Symes Wilkins aged 15 years was a shoemaker and had been a choir boy in St Mary’s Church and attended Sunday School there. In December 1832 he received a prize for good reading and conduct. So why did Sylvester, a “good boy” reasonably educated, from a comfortable home, become involved in arson.
The fire commenced just after 10pm on Monday 25th February 1833 and shortly after the fire bell rang and there were cries of “fire”. It was a dark, wet night and the boys had run away.
John Follett said he had previously found his flax on fire and he had seen three boys, whom he identified, in his garden several times. On his oath and others, three boys were committed to prison by a warrant dated 5th March 1833, by Joseph Gundry, esq., Justice of the Borough of Bridport. The Prison Book records that 15-year-old Sylvester Wilkins (Prison no. 325) was 5ft 5ins. tall, David Fudge Curme, a 17-year-old printer (no. 326) was 5ft 2 ins., both admitted on 5th March 1833. John Middleton (no. 334) a 17-year-old shoemaker, also 5ft 2 ins., was brought to prison on 9th March. Wilkins was described as having brown hair, grey eyes, of sallow complexion with dimpled chin and pock-marked face and with a scar on his left hand, near his thumb. But he must have been thin and underweight, as will appear later.
There were two judges at the trial, the Hon Sir James Allan and Hon Sir Joseph Littledale of the Westminster Courts. David Curme admitted his guilt, but offered King’s Evidence against Wilkins saying “Last Michaelmas Fair Wilkins said it would make a good fire and asked for help….but they would not….weeks later in the “Antelope” he asked again. We bought 1/2d of tobacco and Middleton lit a pipe”. However, Middleton denied responsibility on the occasion of the fire. Curme also said “Sylvester pulled off some thatch and put some oiled paper in the hole….he called me and took a match from his pocket and lighted it at the pipe which I had in my hand. He then set light to the oiled paper. We then came away….then heard the fire bell ringing and he could not help laughing”.
Sylvester Wilkins admitted firing Mr Follett’s house but did not know why. On the subject of numerous earlier fires in the town, he knew of them, but was not responsible for them.
At the Lent Assizes on 9th March 1833 the Jury found Wilkins guilty of arson but recommended mercy. However, the Judge ignored this plea, being keen to set an example by capital punishment.
Following the trial Sylvester wrote several letters from prison, we are told “in a good hand”, wishing his parents well, with prayers and so on. He asked for Andrew Symes Partridge, David Hodder, George Clapp, William Hallett, David Lang and James Foss Woodward to be his bearers. One assumes these were young men of about his age, perhaps fellow choirboys. He also asked for his co-defendants to attend his funeral.
Wilkins was executed at noon on Saturday 30th March 1833 at Dorchester Gaol. The executioner attached lead “mercy weights” to his legs to hasten his end as otherwise, his lightness might have prolonged his hold on life. This was common with underweight victims. Some time ago Bridport Museum had a representation of Wilkins on display but this has now been placed in the store.
A contemporary local diarist, Maria Carter, of West Street, Bridport wrote on Sunday 31st March “Rev Broadley 15th chap. of Corinthians 33rd verse. A very good sermon respecting the boy that was hung yesterday”. Surprisingly she does not mention the fires or the subsequent funeral.
Basil Short recorded that the funeral was on Good Friday at St Mary’s Church, Bridport, a grand affair with the streets lined with townspeople. 2,000 people filed past the body as it returned to Bridport. The Burials Register for St Mary’s, record no 668 show Sylvester Wilkins, buried on 5th April, aged 15 years, service conducted by Rev Robert Broadley.
Neither of Sylvester’s friends, David Curme or John Middleton appear in the 1841 or 1851 Census Record Indexes, so they had probably left the area. The Wilkins family continued to live in Bridport, Thomas Wilkins was still a carpenter, aged 65 in 1851. His wife Ann was a dressmaker, aged 63 and Augustus a tailor of 27. Hezekiah was living in Bradpole aged 24. John Follett was living in Bothenhampton in 1851, still a comber.
Basil Short suggested that Silvestor Wilkins may have “got into bad company”, perhaps easily led and obviously fascinated by fire. It is surprising that such a quiet boy, given a prize for good conduct only a year before should end in this way. It was also suggested that no one expected such a youngster to hang.
So far we have not mentioned the “Bridport Dagger” but surely the hempen noose, made in Bridport, must have been used by the hangman.
Nowadays we might expect processions, protests outside the then gaol and marches in opposition to the extreme sentence. We live in a peaceful area and trust that the horrific acts we see on TV cease and do not reach here.
Bridport History Society does not meet in August. We look forward to seeing you in September.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.