Thomas Burgin was an ordinary man whose life took an extraordinary turn. In this blog post I’ll explore the records that reveal his journey from costermonger to possible killer.
Thomas Burgin - the Beginnings
Thomas Burgin - the Beginnings
Thomas was the second youngest of six (known) children safely delivered to Sarah and Charles Burgin, born in Paddington on 3rd November 1828.
By the age of 12 his family had moved to Little North Street (which used to run off Capland Street), in the St John’s area of Marylebone. Initially Thomas’ father, Charles, worked as a labourer, but by December 1845 he’d started to branch out to hawking goods.
Like many other entrepreneurial Victorians, Charles turned his hand to different occupations, picking up roles as and when they were in economic demand.
Along with labouring, he briefly worked as a carman (cart driver), but by the period of economic depression known as the ‘hungry 40s’, he’d turned to street-selling vegetables.
In 1851 Henry Mayhew published his famous account of the lives of London street workers, London Labour and the London Poor. It included interviews with real men and women working on the London streets, predominantly those selling goods.
One “smart costermonger” explained that many London mechanics or labourers were turning to street selling:
They are driven to it as a last resource, when they can’t get work at their trade. They don’t do well, at least four out of five, or three out of four don’t. They’re not up to the dodges of the business.
They go to market with fear, and don’t know how to venture a bargain if one offers. They’re inferior salesmen too…Some of these poor fellows lose every penny.
They’re mostly middle-aged when they begin costering…We pity them. We say, ‘Poor fellows! they’ll find it out by-and-bye.’
It’s awful to see some poor women, too, trying to pick up a living in the streets by selling nuts or oranges. It’s awful to see them, for they can’t set about it right; besides that, there’s too many before they start. They don’t find a living, it’s only another way of starving.”
In this context, Charles seems to have been lucky, for he was able to pick up the tricks of the trade and keep his family afloat. It may have helped that at least two of his children had married and left home by this time.
His youngest, a boy called John or Joseph, was aged 12 and still at home, but probably working. There were fewer mouths to feed, and the mouths left were able to help by earning their keep.
Charles may not have been above employing a few of the coster’s less honest tricks. In 1864 he was accused of stealing some branded sacks, although the case was dismissed on lack of evidence.
(Source: “Another Case of Possessing Sacks”, The West London Observer; 10 December 1864, Vol 1-X, No 478; page 3, column 7; Retrieved from www.findmypast.co.uk)
Around the same time as Charles started working as a costermonger, he moved his family from Marylebone to the Latimer Road area of Hammersmith (now part of Notting Hill, Kensington).
Thus, in 1851, Thomas can be found living with his parents at 3 Hatfield Terrace. Aged 22, he had followed in his father’s footsteps and was working as a ‘general dealer’.
Interestingly, he is the only son of Charles to consistently work as a street-seller. Perhaps he had a gift for the gab that his siblings simply didn’t inherit? Or maybe Thomas, born on a Monday, was ‘fair of face’ and it helped improve his sales?!
Whether handsome or not, someone would soon come to love Thomas’ face. A few years later, on 21 September 1857, he married Elizabeth Martin at St Stephen’s, Shepherd’s Bush.
The marriage record states both Thomas and his father’s occupation as ‘vegetable dealers’. It’s most likely that they were pooling their resources and working as a team, each covering different streets, but combining their wages to buy stock.
Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor once more proves invaluable in explaining that ‘general’ and ‘vegetable’ dealer often meant the same thing, as did ‘green-grocer’:
“the purveyor of vegetables now usually sells fish with his cabbages, turnips, cauliflowers, or other garden stuff. The fish that he carries out on his round generally consists of soles, mackerel, or fresh or salt herrings. This combination of the street-green-grocer and street-fishmonger is called a “general dealer.”
(Mayhew, page 92)
Despite their teamwork the family were suffering serious economic difficulties. In 1861 there were a total of 11 people, (seven of them aged over 16) squashed into 1 Hatfield Terrace, Latymer Road.
Life for the Burgin Family
The residents consisted of Thomas, his parents (Charles and Sarah), his wife Elizabeth and their three young children, along with his widowed sister, Sarah, and her children.
Most of the men toiled on the streets hawking goods, while the women of the household were employed in laundry-work as ironers.
The house was undoubtedly small, quite possibly only consisting of one or two rooms, and its yard backed out onto the West London Junction Railway tracks.
Newspaper records state that during the 1850s Latimer Road was in a state of disrepair, full of stagnant water and potholes.
It was also home to three public houses: The Latimer Arms to the North, the Foresters’ Arms on Hatfield Terrace itself and a little further down, after the next row of terraced houses, the Britannia.
At this local ale house, in 1866, Thomas’ life would be changed for ever. It is perhaps fortunate that Thomas’ mother, Sarah, died in 1865 and therefore never lived to see her son’s downfall.
A Drunken Brawl
On 25th July 1866, Thomas Burgin was at the Britannia, “in a half-drunken state, and boasting of his fighting powers.” (“Fatal Fight”, West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal, 18 August 1866, page 3, column 6).
After a brief scuffle with a John Fisher, Thomas seems to have tried to provoke the local blacksmith, George Watkins, into a fight. The blacksmith, whom I should imagine would have been a formidable opponent considering his trade, made short work of Thomas.
Both the Britannia landlord and Thomas’ wife, Elizabeth, attempted to dissuade him from pursuing any further violence. Thomas, or ‘Tom’ as he is referred to by his neighbours, was not to be stopped, despite the best efforts of others.
He returned to John Fisher, and placed 10s on the bar, offering John sixpence a round. The men exited the pub “to go a few rounds” at the nearby green.
After some time fighting, Thomas punched John or he tripped – depending on whose account you believe. John fell, hit the back of his head and was rendered “insensible”.
Blood was pouring from his nose, and he was taken to nearby St Mary’s Hospital.Unfortunately, John died of his injuries. A postmortem was performed and the cause of death found to be the result of a skull fracture, believed to be caused by the impact of his fall.
Arrest and Trial
Thomas was arrested for manslaughter and a 19 year old lad named William Gadsden was arrested for aiding and abetting Thomas in the offence.
It was discovered that William was John Fisher’s ‘second,’ helping the man up each time he fell in order that the fight might continue. Consequently, his charge was changed to manslaughter and Thomas and William were tried together. See below article:
The Trial of Thomas Burgin
Thomas seems to have been the main focus of the subsequent trial and newspaper reports, probably because the victim’s family claimed that William offered Thomas a shilling to “leave off” poor John.
This was contradicted by other witnesses, but then the whole trial was riddled with inconsistencies. Some witnesses claimed that Thomas had hit John before he fell and others stated that “no blow was struck” and that John tripped over.
The judge was unimpressed, and eventually felt forced to dismiss the jury. He gave a verdict of “not guilty” and a message was sent to the police court rebuking local officers for shoddy police work:
“The difficulties in the case were, his Lordship several times remarked, very greatly enhanced by the very careless manner in which the depositions were taken at the police court.”
“Fatal Fight”, West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal; 18 August 1866; page 3 column 6 (retrieved from www.findmypast.co.uk)
If your own research indicates a connection to the Victorian police – whether they were on the right side of the law or not – this post about Victorian police resources will help you find out more information about your ancestors.
A bit of research has provided some clues at to why these witnesses, all present at the same event, might have such different memories of that fatal night. For instance, William Gadsden (tried alongside Thomas), went on to marry the victim’s daughter, Martha Fisher.
The pair tied the knot on 15th October 1866 at St Stephen’s, Shepherd’s Bush (Source: Ancestry.co.uk; Church of England Parish Registers, 1754-1921; London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Stephen, Shepherds Bush, Register of marriages, P80/STE, Item 012).
It seems highly likely that the couple were already in a relationship at the time of the July fight. The testimony of the family, at the very least in terms of William’s involvement, can probably be rendered unreliable.
Burgin’s family may also have attempted to pervert the course of justice. In 1873, Thomas’ wife Elizabeth, his brother George and a Charles Burgin (possibly a nephew to Thomas) were found guilty of conspiring to prevent Henry Fisher from testifying against Thomas Burgin. All three were sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour.
Presumably Henry Fisher was a close relation to victim, John Fisher. Why these three persons, one of whom (Charles) would have only been about 12 years old at the time of Thomas’ offence, were charged eight years after John Fisher’s death remains a mystery. A visit to the British Library to trawl the 1873 edition of some of the local newspapers is on my (very long) to do list!
One of the witnesses who stated that John had fallen (rather than been knocked out) was James Williams, who stated that he had known both John Fisher and Thomas Burgin for “fourteen years.”
He added that although he respected Fisher more than Burgin he had to speak the truth. There was a James William that had been the landlord of the Britannia, and this James may indeed be the same person. If so, then he was indebted to his customers.
James had been one of many residents during the late 1850s to refuse to pay his rates due to the appalling state of Latimer Road. A broker was sent to the Britannia to obtain back-pay and found himself not only attacked by the landlord’s wife, but surrounded by neighbours.
These customers and locals had formed a circle round the pub, stopping constables from entering – and the trapped broker from leaving! Was Thomas one of these loyal residents?
The article makes for fascinating reading but is too long to reproduce here. I found it in: “Hammersmith Police Court – Friday”, West London Observer; 12 March 1859; Page 4, Column 2 (Retrieved from www.findmypast.co.uk).
James is the final witness recorded on the trial transcript available at the Old Bailey website and I can’t help but feel that his words may have saved the ‘less respected’ Thomas from being found guilty.
As for Thomas, he seems suitably contrite and remorseful. Several papers remark that upon his arrest he stated that he was sorry and that the fight had been a consequence of drink.
An Unhappy Ending for Thomas Burgin
Thomas may have escaped jail, but he was soon to experience further misfortune. A little over a month after Thomas’ trial, the Burgins’ daughter Ann died suddenly, at the age of three years and eleven months, the victim of cholera. Her inquest was held at the Britannia.
Both during and after his trial, Thomas is described as a labourer. However, Thomas’ wife, Elizabeth, informed the registrar upon her busband’s death that her husband’s occupation was “costermonger”, suggesting the family considered this his true vocation.
Thomas died at 2 Eastbourne Terrace, Hammersmith, on 1st October 1878 of Phthisis Pulmonalis, otherwise known as TB or consumption, aged 49.
Thomas only outlived his father, Charles, by a mere three years. He had died on leave from the workhouse at the age of 80. Not bad for a man born in Paddington in 1795.
Following Thomas’ death, his wife Elizabeth, re-married – to one Charles William Tavener in 1880 – and outlived her second spouse too. She can be found on the 1901 census still living in the Notting Hill area. I have yet to ascertain her date of death.
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