‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 2)

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.

Please be aware that this blog post includes details of illegal & taboo sexual acts.

Part 1: Richard Talmer

Richard Talmer (Tarmar) in Amersham Workhouse, 1861.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: RG 9; Piece: 847; Folio: 108; Page: 9; GSU roll: 542710. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.

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 brought people to the workhouse.) 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.

Amersham Union Workhouse (Gilbert Scott Court)

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.

Bucks Herald – Saturday 20 July 1867. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

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.

William Jennings in Amersham Workhouse, 1861.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: RG 9; Piece: 847; Folio: 106; Page: 6; GSU roll: 542710. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.

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.

William Jennings in Aylesbury Gaol, 1851.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: HO107; Piece: 1721; Folio: 419; Page: 7; GSU roll: 193629. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk.

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.

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 29 January 1859. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

When Richard and William were charged with committing an unnatural crime, Richard was about 21, and William about 37.

On 22 July 1867, the Bucks summer assizes opened for business. Newspapers reported in detail on the trials for a wide variety of crimes including attempted murder and highway robbery. Minimal information is given about Richard and William’s trial, but I was shocked to see that this was not a case of homosexual sex, as I had assumed, but of bestiality.

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 27 July 1867. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

The same day, Richard and William were registered on arrival at Aylesbury Gaol following their conviction for ‘Attempt to Commit B-y’. I examined the two other bestiality cases reported in Buckinghamshire in the 1860s and found that in each case, only one person was tried and convicted. What had occurred between Richard and William? Had Richard really been actively involved? The fact that he was only sentenced to three months, compared with William’s 12 months, suggests that his actions had been less serious, or that he was judged to be less responsible, whether due to his age or some other factor. I would not want to know more details of this unpleasant crime, but I must admit I am curious as to how they encountered an animal in the workhouse.

William Jennings and Richard Talmer committed to Bucks County Gaol, 22 July 1867. England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892. Class: HO 27; Piece: 146; Page: 40. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

After William Jennings and Richard Talmer served their sentences of imprisonment with hard labour, 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, Richard would not have William’s company for long; the same quarter that the census was taken, William Jennings died, aged 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 , William and Frances Talmer (Tarmar) in Amersham Workhouse, 1871.
The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 1395; Folio: 56; Page: 19; GSU roll: 828502. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

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.

Richard Talmer in Amersham Workhouse, 1901.

In 1908, Richard Talmer died in Amersham workhouse, from acute catarrhal enteritis exhaustion.

Richard was born and died in Amersham Workhouse and was there for every census from 1851 to 1901. When I started writing this post, I believed that Richard had been charged for the crime of gay sex, and I felt angry and sad about his life-long incarceration. After learning that his crime was bestiality, I had doubts about finishing this article. However, I still can’t help feeling sorry for Richard. 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 before his conviction, and it is likely that such a taboo crime, and his long association with the workhouse, would prevent him from gaining employment.

Given the nature of Richard’s crime, and his decades of isolation and anonymity, I was surprised to see that his 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 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 the Talmer family, and that when he died, both he and his mother Fanny were remembered.

South Bucks Standard – Friday 12 June 1908. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

  1. Education in the Workhouse (Workhouses.org)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_England
  3. 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)

  1. 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.


  2. Such a difficult subject to write about, yet you handled it very delicately and with consideration. Thanks for sharing.


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