William Robert Hubbleday, my great-great grandfather who fought in the New Zealand Wars, had a younger brother called Robert who had been born in Holborn, London in 1851. He eventually followed William Robert into the army but this proved to be a disastrous step. Although enlisting was a common route out of poverty, in his case, it precipitated a decline in his fortunes.
Robert had been 14 when his father died in 1865, leaving the family in dire straits. Robert, unlike his elder brother, had not followed in the footsteps of previous generations of Hubbleday menfolk and learnt the trade of shoemaking. Instead, he lived on his wits as a hawker, making a living from selling goods in the street. For a few years, the money he earned probably helped to support his mother and younger sister, Jane, but this didn’t last long. As described in a previous blog, his sister was placed in a home for destitute girls and his mother went into the Holborn workhouse, beginning a period of over thirty years of moving from one such institution to another.
Robert, however, had reason to hope for better luck. He had fallen in love with a girl called Hannah Perkins. She was two years younger than him and was a willow weaver from Bethnal Green who probably worked in one of the many furniture factories in that area. As far as we can tell, her family led a respectable life but this had not been true in the previous generation. Hannah’s father had a steady job as a carter, carrying goods around the city in a horse-drawn cart, but her grandfather, David, had been a thief.
In 1840, David Morehouse Perkins had been tried at the Old Bailey for stealing a large amount of money from the owner of a draper’s shop. There is a verbatim account of the court proceedings in which several witnesses describe seeing him leaving the premises with a cash box wrapped up in a red handkerchief and wearing no shoes. His shoes were recovered by the police from behind a door at the scene of the theft and were matched to another pair of shoes at Perkins’s house. Part of his downfall was that he had a large bunion on one of his feet which meant that his shoes had a distinctive shape.
He was held in Newgate Prison until his trial, at which he was found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He was then consigned to one of the infamous hulks moored in the Thames awaiting his transfer to a convict ship.
Robert may not have known or cared about these events which had occurred before he was born. He was intent on marrying Hannah and the wedding took place in 1869 when he was 18 years old and Hannah only 16. He gave his occupation as a hawker and his deceased father’s as a cordwainer. He was living near the famous Bunhill Fields Cemetery, which was not far from Bethnal Green where Hannah lived.
Two years after the wedding, the 1871 census shows that Robert and Hannah had set up house in Finsbury. Robert’s occupation was now listed as a ‘general dealer’, which was probably a slightly posher way of saying hawker. The census enumerator had spelt the surname as hubbiday and Hannah had given her name as Ann but, strangely, no occupation was listed against her name. Also unusually for the age, the marriage had not produced any children.
Even more unexpectedly, just a few months after the census had been taken, Robert, for reasons unknown, enlisted in the Royal Artillery at Woolwich.
As far as we can tell, he never saw his wife again after joining the army. She may have died, perhaps in childbirth, or she may have left him. Sadly, I can find no trace of what happened to her. Elements of Robert’s subsequent life, on the other hand, have been captured in a newspaper article and a number of public records.
He came to the attention of the newspapers within a year of joining the army. In March 1872, he decided he had made a mistake in joining up and so chose to desert. With a fellow recruit, he made his way north out of London and after three days on the road had nearly reached Dunstable in Bedfordshire. It was at this point that Robert followed in the steps of his wife’s grandfather by launching a career as a thief. A full account of what occurred was carried in The Luton Times and Advertiser.
ROBBERY AT HOUGHTON REGIS
Albert Ackroyd (19), and Robert Hubbeday (21), tramps, were charged with stealing a sovereign at Houghton Regis on the 20th of March, 1872, the property of Thomas Grace, innkeeper, Houghton Regis. The prisoners were further charged with deserting from the 21st Brigade, No. 3 Battery, Royal Artillery, at Woolwich, on the 17th March 1872. Hannah, wife of Thomas Grace, Houghton Regis, said the prisoner went to her house and asked for some cheese and a pint of beer. She had taken a sovereign and a shilling for a ton of coal a very few minutes before. She made a memorandum of the money on a slate, and put the money by the side of it. A few minutes after they had gone she missed the money, and then sent to the police. She was sure the prisoners were the young men who came in.
P.C. Champkin took the prisoners into custody at Hockliffe. They told him they had not stopped at any house since they left St. Alban’s. Witness replied – “If so, you will be all right.” He brought them to Mrs. Grace, who identified them as the two men who had been to her house. Witness then searched Hubbeday, and found a sovereign in his scarf. It had been put in a hole and dropped in. He then charged them with stealing it. They did not resist. At the police station Hubbeday said – “We did have it, and we’ll plead guilty to it; what could you expect of two poor fellows hard up on the road? I saw the sovereign in the bar.”
The prisoners pleaded guilty. Mr Smyth thought that desertion was the beginning of their wrong doing. For stealing they would be sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour; it was a great pity that likely young men like them should do this, if they had remained they might have done well, and if they went back he hoped they would do better. The prisoners also pleaded guilty to deserting on the 17th, and were informed that the Horse Guards would be communicated with.Luton Times and Advertiser, 25 March, 1872
Robert served his six weeks of hard labour in Bedford County Gaol and was then taken back to Woolwich under escort to face a court martial in May. He was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment and then there is no further record of his army service. He is unlikely to have been dismissed so he might have served, almost certainly unhappily, the remainder of the time he had signed up for. Alternatively, he may well have deserted again and not been found.
In fact, Robert did a very good job of disappearing from the sight of officialdom for the rest of the century. He does not appear in any of the censuses which were taken every decade and it is only at the beginning of the 20th Century that his name suddenly turns up. It is then that we can see why he was keen to remain hidden. He wanted to hide his movements from the police and had been using a number of aliases. Some of the aliases might simply have come about because he was illiterate and didn’t know how to spell his surname. However, the surname ‘Hodges’ is interesting because it was the name of his father’s stepfather.
Although the first offence which is listed above is dated 1897, it is likely that Robert was involved in petty crime well before this. The twelve summary convictions which are mentioned suggest that he was an inveterate thief and receiver of stolen goods. He had been repeatedly sentenced to short terms of imprisonment by the stipendiary magistrates at various London police courts and must have been a well-known figure.
In June 1902, he received a longer sentence of eight months’ hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in West London for stealing a case and 15 jackets from Pickfords Limited. His police record described him as a ‘dealer’, which presumably referred to the occupation of ‘general dealer’ which he had given for himself in the 1871 census. In another record in the same year, he was, more surprisingly, described as a London painter. On another occasion, he was listed as a London costermonger.
If proof were needed that crime was a way of life for him, it was provided by his inclusion in the Register of Habitual Criminals in 1902. This was an annual document circulated between police forces. From it we learn that Robert was nearly five feet and eight inches tall, with a fresh complexion, grey hair and brown eyes and that he had several scars on the back of his head, on an eyebrow, on his nose and on a finger. His date of birth, however, was incorrectly stated as 1841 instead of 1851.
After being released from Wormwood Scrubs in February 1903, he was back inside the prison in April. This time it was for receiving stolen goods: nine shawls.
There are no more police or prison records for Robert after 1903 but he lived for another 18 years. It is very likely that he spent quite a lot of that time in various workhouses, just as his mother had, but it is not possible to verify his identity.
The final record which we have for him documents his death, aged 70, in December 1921 when he was living at 81 Westmoreland Place, Shoreditch. He was buried at City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery, where his mother and father had also been buried. Despite apparently living for many years as Robert Hodges, he departed this life with the name he had been given: Robert Hubbleday.