Enthusiasms No 48
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
In the annals of ballad and song dissemination the following example has a certain appeal. A report appeared in The Berkshire Chronicle for 31st March 1860 outlining a case heard before the County Bench in which Henry Butler 'of Kintbury', a was:
charged with unlawfully and by fraud and force detaining a boy, aged 9 years, son of James Sturgess, of Kintbury. The prisoner is a blind man and gets his living by singing and alms.Henry Butler, the report continued, had apparently engaged the boy to lead him from place to place for a payment of 6s. for three weeks' work. He had undertaken to return the boy at the end of this period but did not do so, whereupon the parents, becoming anxious, 'applied to the magistrates for advice'. Subsequently, Henry Butler was apprehended - 'at Bromwich, near Birmingham'. When examined by magistrates the boy said that he had not been kept against his will and so Henry Butler was discharged.1
No Henry Butler appears in census returns for Kintbury in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871. There is no record of him in the Kintbury Register between 1761-1842. It has not yet been possible to discover any court records either. However, there is a Jessie Sturgess in the 1851 census, aged 2, and son to James and Eliza Sturgess of Kintbury, and who may well have been the boy in question. There are no other census records of any Jessie Sturgess in the area or of any other Sturgess boy who might fit the bill.
A second report offers a slightly different version of events without actually contributing to full discovery. The Reading Mercury for 31st March 18602, described Henry Butler as 'a young man, totally blind' - thus dispensing with any possibly notional portrait consistent with reports of old blind harpers being led to and fro in Ireland or, closer to home, of the blind man selling ballads at work in the vicinity of executions in Exeter as described by James Cossins - and cited in a separate article on this site.3 Apparently Henry Butler had friends who were 'labouring people living at Kintbury' which circumstance may just help understand his non-appearance in records, being a likely visitor only and, in any case, following a peripatetic calling.
The boy (not named), 'of rather diminutive stature', when questioned, said that he was well satisfied with the treatment that he had received, and had not expressed any wish to the prisoner to return home. He stated that:
persons had occasionally given the prisoner and himself beer and gin, and on two or three occasions he became intoxicated from the effects of such. The prisoner sometimes sung (sic) in the streets, and also begged at various houses.The father said that he had several times made enquiry but that he had not taken active measures until a fortnight before the current enquiry.
Henry Butler said that he would have brought the boy home when he said that he would but that there was an incident involving his dog that had prevented him from doing so. At The Travellers Friend, Crookham Common - this is a pub which has long associations with travelling people and is even nowadays spoken of in the same conjunction - the dog was refused and Henry Butler had spent the money saved for paying the father through staying with his dog. This suggests that he had asked for lodging for the dog whilst he himself continued to travel although the point is not at all clear.
But another journey was undertaken during which the boy:
had a bad foot, and not being able to wear his shoe, they were hindered again for some time, but he intended to have taken the boy to his parents next Saturday week.Henry Butler avowed that he had written twice to a friend at Titcombe to ask that the latter should tell Mr Sturgess of his intention. Titcomb, it should be remarked, is at a similar distance to Kintbury as is Crookham Common and actually over beyond a local high-spot, Inkpen gibbet. So the story, particularly taking into account the necessity for following set postal delivery channels and then the need for contact to have been made between the friend and the Sturgess family, is a little shaky. (* see below) Nonetheless, the Bench apparently believed Henry Butler although the Chairman warned him that should his story prove false, then he was liable to seven years in prison.
The Chairman also noted that a gentleman at Hungerford had taught the prisoner to read (a blind man?) but it seemed that he was 'no better for the kind treatment he had received, and that he had turned his learning to a bad purpose' (him a writer too). The various loose ends do not really add up unless one were to assume that the Chairman felt obliged to deliver a moral lesson and had wished the case away as quickly as possible. The Bench also expressed surprise that 'Sturges' (the name is spelt variously in records) 'should allow his boy to be taken away from his home in such a manner'. We, in turn, might speculate that beer and gin and occasional inebriation could have been a greater experience and attraction that crow-scaring or picking stones in a field. And what the Bench may have known about the lives of the lower orders and how they viewed them could earn our scepticism.
The case, then, remains as unresolved anecdote. It looks, though, as if we can successfully claim that songs and ballads were distributed in the vicinity and that Henry Butler was made in similar mould to certain other travelling repositories such as Coventry Tom, described elsewhere on this site.4
Clearly, in Henry Butler's case, the two newspapers concerned were selective in their reportage - there may even be more information available. Finally, The Berkshire Chronicle, it is worth noting, indicated that in order that Henry Butler could be got back from Bromwich, 'the boy's father was ordered to pay the railway expenses for him'.
Roly Brown - 29.9.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France
* Put it down to fading eyesight, a mix-up in the mind and an enthusiasm that ran away with me. Whatever: in connection with Henry Butler I gave out duff information. I had contrived to associate Henry Butler's 'Titcomb' with 'Tidcombe' but this association was a misleading one. A recent re-examination of an Ordnance Survey map of the area (large-scale) revealed a Titcomb hamlet just to the south of Kintbury. This makes better sense of Henry Butler's story and I apologise for the error.
More happily, in addition, gentle insistence in correspondence from a friend has unearthed the possibility that a Henry Butler living in Newbury at the time of the reported incident may have been the man in question. As I wrote before, such leads will be pursued.
2. The Reading Mercury, 31st March 1860, p.4.
3. See Coventry Tom, MT article 118; and the original reference in James Cossins: Reminiscences of Exeter fifty years ago (Exeter, Pollard, 1878), pp.39-40.
4. See again Coventry Tom. Needless to say, investigation continues in the case of Henry Butler.
Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services Updated: 21.10.05