In Part 1, Fanny Talmer, a young unmarried woman from a Buckinghamshire hamlet, gave birth to two boys in Amersham workhouse — Richard in 1845 and Henry in 1850. Tragically, Henry died at nine weeks of age, and following an inquest, Fanny was charged with his murder. After several harrowing weeks in Aylesbury Gaol, and a trial at the Assizes, she was acquitted, and returned to the workhouse. Fanny and Richard were both recorded there just two weeks later in the 1851 census. It’s possible that Richard had not lived outside of the workhouse since his birth. In 1855, Fanny’s luck changed, when she married a local labourer. However, after only three years of marriage, she died of tuberculosis. Although Richard’s step-father was still alive in 1861, Richard was once again (or still?) in Amersham workhouse when the 1861 census was taken. Effectively an orphan, he seems to have been all alone in the world.
Part II: Richard Talmer
Growing up in the workhouse
When the 1861 Enumeration Book was filled out for Amersham Union Workhouse, there were nearly 200 paupers housed there, along with the workhouse master and matron (husband and wife), nurse, porter, and schoolmaster. Richard, aged 15, was a scholar, as were 61 other girls and boys aged 3-15 (the only exceptions in this age range being a 4-year-old whose place of birth was unknown (perhaps she had learning difficulties?), and a 15-year-old girl who was a domestic servant). The Poor Law Act of 1834 had many flaws, but it did require unions to hire a schoolmaster or schoolmistress, and to provide workhouse children with 3 hours of schooling per day.1 Richard was, in some ways, lucky to receive an education at this age, as few children attended school after 12, and nearly half of primary age children in England and Wales in this period still had no access to education at all.2 The workhouse schoolmaster was not much older than Richard — the 20-year-old son of a Sussex schoolmaster. (Later in his career he worked as a Relieving Officer, so I like to think that he was sympathetic to the difficult circumstances that forced people to seek poor law relief). The rest of the day, Richard, on the cusp of adulthood, probably would have been put to work doing manual labour, though he may also have been trained in industrial work, in preparation for life outside the workhouse.
Unfortunately, the next record I have of Richard isn’t a workhouse discharge, apprenticeship, employment record, or even a marriage. Instead, on 20 July 1867, Richard’s name appeared in the papers, publicly accused of a shocking and serious crime.
Richard was to be tried at Bucks Summer Assizes, which was to start on 22 July. What was this crime that he had committed with William Jennings, and that was so serious that it would be tried at the Assizes?
An unnatural crime
An ‘unnatural crime’, ‘unnatural act’, or ‘crime against nature’ was used euphemistically for a range of sexual activities (and also for suicide and child murder), but as a legal term, ‘unnatural crime’ was synonymous with buggery or sodomy — usually between people (regardless of consent), and, rarely, in cases of bestiality. Although noone had been executed for sodomy since 1838, it was only six years earlier that the Crimes Against the Person Act of 1861 had revoked the death penalty for this sexual act and replaced it with a minimum of 10 years’ hard labour, and as much as life imprisonment.
Technically, sodomy applied to oral as well as anal sex, and to heterosexual as well as homosexual unions. However, ‘convictions between men for sodomy were by far the most common and well publicised.’3 The newspaper report showed that Richard had been charged with another man. If intercourse with penetration could be proven, Richard faced a long prison sentence, even life. Even if he was acquitted, his name had been publicly and humiliatingly associated with a sex act with a man or beast; both were seen as abominations.
Who was William Jennings?
William Jennings, who faced trial with Richard, was another long-term or repeat inmate of Amersham workhouse. In 1861, when William was a workhouse schoolboy, William was also enumerated at the workhouse — a 31-year-old unmarried sawyer from Chesham. In 1867, when Richard and William were charged together with committing an unnatural crime, Richard was about 21, and William about 37.
William had also been in trouble with the law before. In the 1851 census he was a prisoner in Aylesbury Gaol. I’ve not been able to find out what his crime was.
A search of historic newspapers revealed that William had also been committed to Aylesbury Gaol in 1859, sentenced to 21 days for ‘misbehaviour in the workhouse’. The gaol receiving books record that William was a wood splitter, age 29.
Trial & Punishment
On 22 July 1867, the Bucks Summer Assizes opened for business.
Newspapers reported in detail on the trials heard that day for a wide variety of crimes including attempted murder and highway robbery. When it came to Jennings’ and Talmer’s case, newspapers revealed little about their crime, simply reporting their sentence — 12 months for Jennings and 3 months with hard labour for Talmer. However, although newspapers refrained from salacious details, I was shocked by one headline:
I had assumed that the men had been accused of homosexual sex. Had they in fact been charged with a sexual crime involving an animal? I examined other ‘bestiality’ cases reported in Buckinghamshire newspapers in the 1860s and found that there were just two (thankfully), and in each case, only one person was tried and convicted.
When I first researched and wrote this blog post in April 2021, I took the newspaper headline literally, with the same meaning of bestiality as we understand it today. However, I have since reviewed surviving records from the trial, at the National Archives, and thanks to this additional research, I now know that my original hunch was correct; Talmer and Jennings had been charged with the crime — as it was then — of homosexual sex.
Reading the indictment increased my sadness and anger at how the two men had been treated. Like Fanny, William and Richard were subjected to language that was fanatically religious:
‘the said Richard Talmer, not having the fear of God before his eyes nor regarding the order of nature but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature was consenting to and did permit and suffer the said William Jennings … to have a venereal affair with the said Richard Talmer and then and there to carnally know him … and with him the said Richard Talmer … to commit and perpetrate the most detestable horrid and abominable crime called Buggery … to the great displeasure of Almight God to the great scandal of all human kind.’
The bombastic phrases stuffed with moral outrage and dripping with disgust were repeated several times over. Listening to the indictment before the judge, jury, and presumably friends, family, members of the public and newspaper reporters, must have been humiliating in the extreme.
According to notes added to the indictment, the men were found ‘not guilt of the felony [but] guilty of attempt to commit the same.’ The distinction was critical; if proven to have committed the act fully, the men could have faced life imprisonment.
Richard and William were tried and sentenced together. However, the fact that Richard was only sentenced to three months, compared with William’s 12 months, suggests that his actions he was judged to be less responsible, whether due to his age or some other factor. It is impossible for me to know what the relationship was between the two men; whether a one-off encounter or one of many, it could have been anything from abuse to mutual romantic love. Records also don’t tell me how their intimacy was discovered, though privacy in the workhouse must have been hard to come by.
The same day they were sentenced, they were registered on arrival at Aylesbury Gaol following their conviction for ‘Attempt to Commit B-y’. Their time in prison would be physically gruelling. The 1865 Prisons Act stated that prisons should be ‘
hard labour, hard fare and hard board‘, and the men would have possibly been put to work on stone breaking, quarrying, or road building.
Richard had received an education and would have been able to read, so I take a modicum of comfort in the likelihood that he had no access to newspapers in gaol, and therefore didn’t have to endure seeing his name associated with an act that was viewed as bestial. However, I can imagine that his treatment in prison, by both officers and inmates, was extremely unpleasant.
After William Jennings and Richard Talmer served their sentences, it’s very likely that they immediately returned to the workhouse. In 1871, both men were enumerated there again — William a 41-year-old sawyer and Richard a 25-year-old Ag Lab. In spite of Richard’s stated occupation, I have no evidence that he ever worked in the outside world. If the men were friends or lovers, Richard would not have William’s company for long; the same quarter that the census was taken, William Jennings died, aged just 41.
However, for the first time since he was a child, Richard was with family members, as his grandparents William and Frances Talmer had (sadly) joined him at the workhouse. Nevertheless, though the three appear together, the inmates were enumerated alphabetically, so they may not have had a warm relationship. Frances died in 1876, and Richard and his grandfather were still in the workhouse in 1881, that time appearing on separate pages. William passed away in 1885 aged about 90.
Richard was still in the workhouse in the censuses of 1891 and 1901. In 1901, his place of birth was unknown, and a note in the last column (illegible to me) suggests that his health was failing.
In 1908, Richard Talmer died in Amersham workhouse, from acute catarrhal enteritis exhaustion. He was 62 years old. My 1st cousin 4x removed was born and died in Amersham Workhouse and was there for every census from 1851 to 1901.
Richard’s story is truly tragic. He was born into poverty and stigma, and his unmarried mother was so overwhelmed after having a second illegitimate baby that she probably caused that baby’s death. When he was a little boy, his mother spent months away from him in prison, and just a few years later she seems to have left him in the workhouse when she married. Richard was able to be a ‘scholar’ at the age of 15, so it’s unlikely that he had any mental disabilities, and he was described as an Ag Lab, so seems to have been physically able. However, he may well have been institutionalised at a young age, and it is likely that such a taboo crime, and his long association with the workhouse, would prevent him from gaining employment or any other support in his local community. It’s incredibly sad that Richard may have stayed in the workhouse for his entire adult life, anonymous and isolated, simply because he was gay.
Therefore, I was very surprised to see that Richard’s death was mentioned in a local newspaper. The notice of his death among other local obituaries was discreet, since it only included the workhouse’s street: ‘Whieldon Street, Amersham.’ However, elsewhere in the same paper, a notice of his death was also given by the workhouse Board of Guardians. I noted that in spite of Richard living his entire life in Amersham workhouse, he was said to be formerly of Great Missenden. By this time, my direct Talmer ancestors had moved from The Lee to nearby Great Missenden. I like to think that this tiny detail meant that Richard was still connected to his family, and that when he died, both he and his mother Fanny were remembered.
In 1867, Richard Talmer’s personal affairs brought him public shame and a criminal sentence, and were likely to have kept him in the workhouse for the rest of his life. Richard’s trial was held on 22 July 1867. On 21 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 in England and Wales finally made it possible for two consenting men over the age of 21 to have sex privately without breaking the law.
- Education in the Workhouse (Workhouses.org)
- The Buggery Act 1533 (British Library article
Featured image = A convict sitting in a bare room on a stool with some work in his hands. Lithograph by Paul Renouard. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Wellcome Collection.
5 thoughts on “‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 2)”
Not an easy story to tell but like you, I feel some sympathy for Richard. The odds were really stacked against him and you wonder if he ever had the chance of a happy life. Who knows the full story and whether he was really guilty of the crime? I have never heard of a fit and able-bodied person spending their whole life in the workhouse. One hopes it was home to him.
Thanks, Jude. I have wondered how rare this was. It’s a strange and sad story. As you say, I hope he did have some happiness.
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Such a difficult subject to write about, yet you handled it very delicately and with consideration. Thanks for sharing.
Wow – what difficult lives Fanny and Richard lived. Thank you for sharing their stories.
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