What was Leeds cloth merchant Lepton Dobson going to do about it? It wasn’t a serious crime, but he couldn’t just let it go, could he? What would his neighbours think… and he had quite new neighbours, as well, and they needed to be impressed. It was 1813; he and his brother George had purchased a lovely house and workshop in Park Square, Leeds. It had only been completed a few years early, and it was the address for the up and coming merchant classes who needed to be near the centre of commercial action but away from the rough slums and the rough people.
Then, late one night, the rough people came to him. Arriving home one Saturday night in October 1813, he heard noises in the house. Were these thieves? It was after dark; the crime was more serious in law at night and he could expect violent resistance if he confronted the robbers, with the punishments for the two crimes being so similar in severity that violence was worth the risk.
The noise was coming from his servant’s room; James Crossland was there with three other men; they were eating his food and drinking his beer, and now that they had heard him, they were hiding. Peter Crossland, clothier (and presumably relative), John Porter, bricklayer and the marvellously named Marmaduke Spencer, cobbler were the guilty parties. They were essentially stealing his property in the same way as any thief, except that they carried it away in their stomach.
Lepton needed to prosecute to save his reputation as a man whose property could not be stolen without consequences. However, he did not prosecute; he did this instead.
Its hard to read, but you can get the gist
‘late servant …secreted in my lodging room…taken into custody…kindly consented to proceed no further against me…’
James Crossland was dragged to the Chief Constable and threatened with prosecution. However, there was a problem. The state did not prosecute for crimes such as this; it would have been a private prosecution that would have cost Lepton Dobson money. The Department of Public Prosecution did not come into existence until 1880; in the regency, and for much latter, such prosecutions were seen as a private, rather than public interest.
First, he sacked James Crossland. This was a given. Servants had a reputation for consorting with criminals and allowing them in the house to steal. This was more or less what had happened here. Mr Dobson made him pay £2 as a charitable donation to the Leeds Infirmary, and thirdly, he had to put a grovelling letter of apology in all of the Leeds newspapers (I have found it in the Leeds Intelligencer and the Leeds Mercury) at his own expense. An advertisement in a provincial paper at this date would be 5 shillings (25p); none of these men would earn more than £1 a week, at most. It was a severe punishment in itself.
The three uninvited guest had to do the same.
Once again, this was heavy stuff. It was witnessed by the chief constable, and it was clear that prosecution would have followed without a public apology. All of these men were literate (when similar ‘PARDON ASKED’ advertisements were put in the paper, there would be an ‘x’ and ‘his mark’ against those who could not write). Most men of this class seemed to be illiterate, which poses the question- who was meant to read these apologies?
Dobson and those of his class would have read this – it was on the front page- and it would have been reassuring to Dobson’s family and those who did business with him- but how well would it work as warning to the lower classes not to eat rich people’s food? On one level it was worth it, as it would not have been done if it wasn’t- but the working classes would have got the message- those who could not read would have heard the gossip from people reading out newspapers in public houses.
Did Dobson do this to save money? That is doubtful; he was a substantial businessman by 1813, he could have afforded it. He did not rush to prosecution, and this was not uncommon in the Regency. There were regular apologies in the Regency newspapers, but the crimes were usually much worse than this- slander, poaching, assaulting women, dangerous driving; the probable truth was that Mr Dobson was actually being harsh rather than generous; he was letting nothing go. There is more evidence of this. In 1817, while the poor of Leeds starved, Mr Dobson signed an open letter proclaiming his loyalty to the constitution and the government; he also put advertisements in the paper asking for information about textiles that had been stolen, which was a capital crime.
The same Mr Dobson, it can be seen, forced a donation to the Leeds Infirmary from James Crossland; Dobson had a history of charity. As he became more famous (He was mayor of Leeds in 1821 and an alderman afterwards) he devoted time and money to the Leeds Infirmary himself. He could be generous to people were the deserving sick; but not those stealing his bread and beer
In October 1828, Lepton and his brother George were declared bankrupt; the details were put in the newspaper for all to see.
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