Learn English by listening to Rick Thompson telling some true stories of petty crimes committed in an English town in 1851.
Hello everybody, and welcome to this brand new instalment of Luke’s English Podcast – a podcast for learners of English.
In this episode my dad is going to tell you some true crime stories from England’s history. There are six stories in total and they all involve curious crimes and their punishments which can tell you quite a lot about what life was like in England in the mid 19th century.
We have established the value of listening to stories on this podcast before, right? Listening to stories can be a great way to improve your English, especially when they’re told in an interesting, clear and spontaneous way and of course I’m always happy to get contributions from my dad on this podcast – so I’m feeling good about this episode. I think it should be a good one.
These days my dad is semi-retired but he keeps himself busy doing various things, including some volunteer work for an organisation based in the town where my parents live – Warwick, in the midlands, in England.
The organisation is called Unlocking Warwick and it is a volunteer group based in a restored building in the centre of town.
This building used to be a court-house – a place where, in the past, people who had been accused of committing crimes were sent to be tried and possibly sentenced to various punishments, and back in the Victorian times those punishments could be quite harsh. The building operated as a court room from the early 16th century all the way through to the 1970s when it eventually closed. Then, a few years ago the building was fully restored to its former glory and is now a cultural centre for the town of Warwick. The volunteer group that my parents belong to, Unlocking Warwick, does various events and activities in this building as a way of helping people to explore the history of the town, which is also the site of one of the UK’s best medieval castles. Warwick is a place that’s worth visiting if you’re into English history and it’s only about 30 minutes away from Stratford Upon Avon – the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
Last year you heard me talk to my Mum about the Unlocking Warwick project and she mentioned the regency ballroom in the building, where they organise events like dances with historical themes, and since the building used to be the location of a court room, the group also presents dramatic reconstructions of real court cases that happened there.
These are like plays based on real records of the court proceedings which are stored in local archives, and my dad is the one who writes these dramas. He reads the details of old cases from the archives, picks the ones that sound interesting and then turns them into plays which are performed for the public by volunteer actors. They even get members of the audience to shout things out and generally play along, a bit like they would have done during the real trials back in the 19th century.
So, because he’s written these plays, Dad has a few stories at his disposal and I thought it might be fun, interesting and good practice for your English to hear him describe these stories in an episode of the podcast, so that’s what you’re going to get; six true stories of crimes that actually happened in Warwick, told to you by my dad – and almost all of it is told using past tenses – so straight away, there’s some grammar and pronunciation for you to look out for. I’m not going to go into all the details of those narrative past tenses here, but if you’d like to listen to episodes in which I explain those tenses, give examples and help you to pronounce them then you can check out episodes…
Other episodes dealing with Narrative Verb Tenses in more detail
29. Mystery Story / Narrative Tenses
372. The Importance of Anecdotes in English / Narrative Tenses / Four Anecdotes
176. Grammar: Verb Tense Review
They’re all (also) in the episode archive on the website.
But right now, let’s jump into this conversation that I had with my dad just the other day when my parents were visiting us. So, without any further ado – let’s get started.
The Six Stories
I’d like to summarise those six stories again now, just to make sure you got the main details and to help reinforce some of the language that you heard in the conversation.
You can find the notes I’m reading from here, written on the page for this episode on the website.
- The Case of the Notorious Window Smasher
A woman who would go up and down the high street in Warwick and also in Birmingham, smashing shop windows (cutting up her arms in the process) and stealing goods, including a roll of top quality French material – and she was sentenced to time in the house of correction where she probably had to do hard labour all day, including walking in the treadmill – a kind of human-powered machine for grinding corn or wheat. Imagine being a sort of hamster in a wheel all day long – like going to the gym, but doing it for 10 hours or more and I’m sure the conditions were very dusty and awful. The Victorians, being sort of puritanical and protestant had a strong work ethic, and believed that hard work was the right remedy for people’s problems. You can see how this went together with a certain industriousness that marked that period of British history.
- What Happened to the Extremely Drunk Man?
He was brought into the court by a policeman simply for being very very drunk, and was sentenced to 6 hours in the stocks.
- The Story of the Poor Lunatic Woman
Her husband took her to the authorities claiming she was hysterical and completely impossible to live with, and she was promptly taken to the local lunatic asylum where she probably spent the rest of her life – but was she really mad, or did her husband just want to get rid of her?
- The Woman Who Ran Away from the Workhouse
There were different places you could end up if you were found guilty of a crime, or simply didn’t have the means to look after yourself. The worst would be Australia, which was probably a very tough place to try and survive back in those days and the long boat journey would probably kill you anyway. Then there was prison, and I’m sure 19th century prisons would have been full of disease and all kinds of hideous misery. You heard about the hulks – these broken old ships that were moored on the river Thames in London, which worked as prisons. I expect the ones on the land weren’t much better. Then there were the houses of correction – essentially prisons where you did hard labour all day long. Then there were workhouses – not exactly prisons, but places that would house people who had no money. They’d give them accommodation and food in return for work. Honestly, I think places like this still exist in many parts of the world and it’s really sad and terrible, especially when we realise that some of the products that we consume might have been made in places like these – we call them sweatshops these days – places where people work long hours in awful conditions. The woman in this story ran away from her workhouse because, as she claimed, they weren’t feeding her. I expect that could be true. I think the food given to people in workhouses was often just very weak and watery soup (called gruel) which probably contained next to no nutritional value, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were denied food as punishment in a workhouse. There was so much cruelty in those days. This woman ran away, and was caught – but she hadn’t really committed a crime, had she? A workhouse wasn’t a compulsory place to stay. It’s not a jail. She ran away of her own free will. But they caught her and charged her with theft of the clothes she was wearing. I expect the clothes were provided for her by the workhouse – so that’s how they got her. It makes me wonder if there wasn’t some sort of personal revenge or some kind of personal vendetta against this woman, or some kind of conspiracy against her. Her sentence? 3 months hard labour in the house of correction. I’m sure some people profited from all this free labour.
- Why did Joseph Smith Break a Lamp in the Market Square?
Just to get arrested and put in the house of correction – because he had no money and no food. So he did it just to get fed and housed, even if it meant having to do menial work. It sounds like he was pretty desperate. There was no such thing as welfare or social security in those days. That didn’t arrive for nearly another 100 years, after WW2.
- What Happened to the Shoemaker’s Rabbit?
It was stolen – and footprints were found in the garden of the house where the theft happened. Emmanuel Cox was charged with the theft – and accused of stealing the rabbit and cooking it in a pot. The police officer that arrested Cox seems to have been tipped off by someone. The constable mentioned “Information received” – so did someone tip him off about Emmanuel Cox? Was someone trying to set Cox up, or did they have genuine information about Cox? In any case, when Cox’s place was searched they found a rabbit skin hanging up in the kitchen, which the shoemaker identified. It looked like an open and shut case. The evidence was a dead giveaway! But during the trial a woman in the audience defended Cox (she turned out to be someone he lived with – so probably not a great witness) and it was claimed that there was a witness who could testify to Cox’s innocence – but he couldn’t be found. In the end Cox was acquitted – the magistrate let him go without a charge, because he said the evidence was not sufficient. I wonder what the punishment would have been, for stealing and eating a pet rabbit? I’ll hazard a wild guess at 3 months in a correctional house, because it seems that doing pretty much anything would land you in the correctional house for 3 months, if you were a petty criminal and you lived in Warwick.
Well there you have it, the case of the shoemaker’s rabbit and 5 other stories.
I hope you enjoyed it, that you learned some English or at least you had some nice and nourishing listening practice – yum yum yum.
You can find notes and some transcriptions on the page for this episode on the website, where you can see some of the words and phrases used in this episode.
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