Guilty as charged

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On the 25th of January 1888, Thomas Stentiford of Rack Street, Exeter was arrested by Detective Sergeant John Dymond on a magistrate's warrant. The charge was that he had neglected to maintain his wife and children whereby they had, under the Poor Law,  become chargeable to the Exeter Union.

Preston Street, Exeter in 1896

Preston Street, Exeter in 1896. The turning into Rack Street can be seen on the left. This area housed the very poorest people of Exeter

Courtesy of Peter Thomas


Thomas was taken to the Police Station in nearby Waterbeer Street where details of his arrest were recorded in a great ledger - one of Exeter's Police Charge Books which still exist today.

He was searched and found to be in possession of a small purse containing a single coin - a florin - equivalent to 24p today. This was formally taken into the possession of Detective Dymond. He had nothing else - no pipe or tobacco or any of the objects commonly found in the pockets of a working man - just this single coin in a little purse.

Later that day, he was taken before a Magistrate - Joseph Thomas Wilcox - and sentenced to one month's hard labour. The treadmill, picking oakum and stone-breaking were common activities proscribed for prisoners sentenced to hard labour.  No money was earned by the prisoner during the sentence and it is  very difficult to see how such a sentence was useful in contributing to the support of Thomas's family.


The hand crank

The hand crank provided a repetitive and completely useless activity. Adults had to do 1,800 turns every hour for a minimum of 10 hours and juveniles slightly less. The crank could be adjusted by warders outside the cell if they felt the prisoner wasn't working hard enough.


Readers first met Thomas Stentiford in Issue 2 and may scarcely have noticed his existence. He was a son of William Stentiford and Elizabeth May of Chawleigh, six of whose twelve children died in childhood. Thomas must have been a tough little chap to survive a childhood passed in abject poverty.

He was born at the end of 1852 and baptised on 2 Jan 1853 at Chawleigh. In the summer of 1878 he met and married a local girl called Mary Jane Harris - in the 1881 census we can see that they had set up home in Horn Court in Chawleigh and that he called her "Jane". Sadly, just weeks after the census was taken, Mary Jane died at the age of 27 and Thomas became a widower.

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