People of colour in Regency Britain – the murder of Dilly Jerome, 1815

There were “persons of colour” in Regency Britain. They congregated around ports and were the lowest deckhands in the Royal Navy; they were manservants to young gentlemen or plantation owners living in Britain. There was also  the occasional celebrity boxer.   But most of all, they were sailors. Many had a very hard time; none more so than Dilly Jerome.

Dilly Jerome was a deck hand on a Royal Navy ship and was found naked with his throat cut on Southsea beach, near the Castle, on Wednesday 16th August 1815. He had a reputation of being generous to his comrades to the point of being a little vulnerable to exploitation. When the ship arrived at Portsmouth, Dilly, a man of Caribbean descent was robbed and murdered by three ship mates- Joseph , Antonio and Philip Pique- all Africans. All four men were “people of colour” The three Piques were described by the newspapers as African and Jerome as “not African”- he may well have been from the Caribbean. The Georgian Navy was very multi-racial and so this would not have been a surprise; and the papers, while horrified at the murders, did not seem to suggest that their ethnic origin was significant. It was a violent world everywhere, and everybody knew it.

The Piques were not brothers; indeed not related in any way. They were given their shared surname by the captain of their ship, the HMS Pique. This was rather indicative of the degree of respect the men received. The Ship itself had been captured from the French in 1800 and was originally called the Pallas, and like the seaman, had been given a name that suited the new owner- only one step above a slave name, arguably.

In August 1815 they were discharged from their ship and three days later they had spent all their money and with no prospect of employment, decided to rob Dilly Jerome and murder him if he resisted.

They confronted him on Southsea Common at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and proceeded to attack him in broad daylight. Philip Pique held his legs so he could be robbed, but when he resisted, Antonio cut his throat, and severed his head with a small clasp knife. Philip desposed in court that Dilly’s clothing hid the wound; but would not have hidden the blood that gushed out so badly that the three men had to bathe in the sea to wash it off. Philip was believed, and later turned evidence against the other two and was the only one that was not hanged; so it seemed that the head had not come off completely, as Philip might have noticed that.

In any case, Jerome was soon naked and pushed into a sluice near the Castle. There was a desultory attempt to cover the dead man with shingle from the beach. Finding nothing of value in his pockets, they sold his clothes to a slopman- a second-hand clothes dealer – at the Hard in Portsea for 14 shillings, which they shared between them. As the purchaser was Jewish, the papers did not hesitate to say so and make it part of the story. The fence/ clothes dealer was suspicious that the clothes were wet; and the fact that they might have tried to wash the blood off them was one of the first suspicions he had, which tells you a lot about life in Portsmouth at the time. The three managed to convince the intermediary that the clothes had become wet through falling into the sea when being transported.

Philip was found first because he did not seem to be hiding; this fact was to help him later. Antonio was picked up after a raid on Portsmouth public houses and was asleep at the Market House in a rich man’s coat that he had clearly stole. Joseph was also apprehended and they were all sent to Winchester gaol.

There were two other incidents in Portsmouth in the same week over demobilized sailors who were persons of colour and a panic set in; the magistrates in Gosport combed the streets and public houses to find former sailors who had no livelihood and oblige them to leave the country, chartering ships to do so.

In March 1816, Antonio and Joseph Pique were two of 19 prisoners sentenced to death at Winchester. Only three actually hanged; the two Piques and John Goddard, a child rapist. It was a ludicrous system where far more people were condemned than actually hanged. One third of those committed to hang were pardoned, giving significant power to the Crown to use or withhold a royal pardon. In 1817, for example, the total number of executions was 115, although 1,300 received the death sentence. It was a random and capricious system although it has to be said that the investigation into Jerome’s murder was taken as seriously and the murder of other, native, people.
The Piques died well and in the approved state of mind. This really mattered to public opinion. The two Piques were contrite at the end, despite being (rightly) portrayed as monsters earlier;image002

The Piques were ideal candidates for the anatomists. In theory, all murderer’s corpses could be used but their families moved heaven and earth to prevent it. The Piques, whatever their real names were, had no-one to speak for them.

 I have two books available on the Georgian/ Early Victorian period 

Passengers is a social history of the period 1780 to 1840 with an emphasis on Inns, hospitality and transport. More details here. Publisher’s details here

Dark Days of Georgian Britain is an in-depth  history with an emphasis on the common people. My blog about it here. Publishers details here 

Both books available as on kindle/ kobo 


“The Detestable Crime”-Sodomy panic in the Regency

The newspapers of 1816 were not full of reports of sodomy. Indeed, the word is almost impossible to find when doing searches of primary sources. “Unnatural crimes” and “detestable crimes” will find a few examples. Most years of the late Regency period yield only a couple of examples. The only way that the “crime “ was discovered was if there was a complaint by one of the participants, or in the special example of 1816, the crew of a whole ship was suspected of it.

Buggery-Sodomy being the legal term- was to remain a capital crime until 1861, and it was seen as such as reprehensible crime, and so easily the subject of false accusation, that the activity had to be witnessed or confessed to in a very convincing manner to secure conviction. Blackwood’s Law Commentary said that sodomy was such a terrible crime, and so easy to fabricate and lie about, that only the very strongest proofs would be accepted.

John Attwood Eglerton was accused of buggering a groom in July 1816, on the evidence of the young man himself. Despite the utter detestation of the establishment of his crime, John appeared in the same list as burglars and horse stealers. Although he was favoured with a speech by the judge which condemned his actions as “a crime subversive of every idea of virtue and manliness”, it is striking how similar he was treated to those guilty of property crimes during the process. However, the similarity ends with the fact that most of the people indicted with him were eventually pardoned. The draconian punishments of the late regency “Bloody Code” performed a regular pantomime of condemning people to death and then pardoning them. This did not apply to John

“The Jury retired for ten minutes, and returned with a verdict of Guilty. – Death. When the Prisoner heard the verdict pronounced against him, he fell into tears, and begged the Judge to recommend him to mercy on account of his family. (Morning Post)”

He was executed at Newgate on 23 September 1816; and once again the same conventions were used as with other prisoners. He was reported to have died with “perfect resignation” (Cambridge Chronicle) and full penitence for his crimes, as if he had stolen a sheep.

In another of the relatively few conventional cases in 1816, the Reverend William Woodcock was sentenced to four years in the House of Correction. His young partner, aged “around 16” according to the judicial proceeding, was sentenced to three years as a willing participant. Despite arguing with the judge, the capital punishment was not inflicted; it may have been due to the fact that he was a member of the established church and not, like John Attwood Eglerton, a waiter.

The crime was neither reported in detail nor even named. However, a particular event in 1816 allows us to gather more details about the attitudes towards sodomy. A whole ship- the Africaine- was suspected of being a centre of the unnatural crime. The naval authorities had the greatest difficulty in finding those who were guilty. By December 1815, their on- ship investigations had produced 23 people accused of sodomy. This was far too many to be hanging from the yard arm in Portsmouth.

It was found to be very difficult to find a reliable witness, not also implicated , to prove that buggery had taken place. The weight of evidence fell on four men; John Westerman, Joseph Tall , Ralph Serraco and Raphaelo Troyac. The last two men were of Italian origin, and it may not be a coincidence that many in Britain called sodomy ” le vice Italien”-it was believed to have originated from ancient Lombardy. The newspapers at the time thought that this was significant; as was the fact that more than half of the accused were foreign nationals, clearly more inclined to perversion.

It seems clear that the late Georgians thought that “unnatural crime” was actual anal penetration. The treatment of the other sailors seems to confirm that. Sharp distinctions were made between acts. Some, who escaped the capital indictment, were convicted of “uncleanliness”-which most seemed to be mutual masturbation (frigging) or failed penetration. Even this would entitle you to two years solitary confinement in the Marshalsea prison, which had a small Admiralty wing in what was mostly a debtors’ prison.

Kissing and cuddling would earn you a flogging.


More about the Regency in my book-not the Regency of Jane Austen, but that of the oppressed, and their oppressors, although Janeites will like it as well.