Standing outside the Garden Museum in St Mary’s church, by the side of Lambeth Palace it can seem like a peaceful spot which time has forgotten but Lambeth has seen many dramatic changes reflecting the use of the river Thames.
Until the 18th century there were very few people living on the marshy land of Lambeth but the gently sloping beach was an ideal spot to keep boats and barges and soon the fishermen were joined by potteries, factories and saw mills.
Most people adapted to the new industrial opportunities but the fishermen were severely affected by a rapid depletion in fish stocks. Living in small cramped houses with sewage discharged directly onto the beach they were tempted to find less honest means of making a living. Pretending to fish they would dredge for coals fallen from lighters or plunder the barges. Their apprentices were often mistreated and trained to be thieves both on the river and on land.
In 1823 the newspapers ran detailed accounts of a probable murder involving fishing apprentices. Two gentlemen, Mr Smales, a respectable printer and stationer, and his friend, Mr Wilkinson set out from Blackfriars in a small “funny” boat at 9 pm on July 17th rowing towards Vauxhall Bridge. At about 10 minutes to ten, when they were through the bridge towards the Spread Eagle at Millbank, 15 feet from the Middlesex side of the river, a skiff came alongside containing two young men. One youth held the boats alongside each other while the other stole the older men’s jackets, which were lying in their boat. Mr Smales tried to hit the thief with his oar but the other boat turned away so Wilkinson tried to jump across. Falling into the river, he swam to the skiff and took hold of the gunwale. At that point, according to Smales, both young men struck Wilkinson on the head with their sculls giving him several blows until he let go and sank down into the river. Crying out, “Murder,” Smales tried to row towards his drowning friend but with one small scull and one longer oar the boat turned back on itself.
The scene was witnessed by John Rowan, a jack-in-the-water at the Spread Eagle. His job was to attend at the dockside stairway to help secure boats. This was his testimony at the trial,
“I was on the causeway till ten minutes before ten o'clock, when the last boat went away; I was then standing at the water edge, about forty yards from the house; I took my stool to the house; and about five minutes past ten I heard cries of Murder! - I got out of a boat's head, in which I was laying, but did not attend to the cry, till I heard it a second time - I heard a guggling; I knew then it was somebody drowning; I ran to the house, and as I ascended the stairs, I heard the guggling a second time - I called the waiter - he came instantly with me to the causeway, got into a gentleman's boat, and before we took twenty strokes, we came alongside of a boat, with Mr. Smales standing up in it - he put his hands together, and said, "My friend is gone!"
The perpetrators of the crime might never have been discovered had it not been for a tip off by Kitley, another youth, a fellow fisherman’s apprentice. To ensure he was not under suspicion he suggested that the constables visit a costermonger, Robert Gare, who might have information about the stolen coats. At first Gare denied all knowledge of the incident but after the officers found one of the coats hidden under ashes in the dustbins at Gare’s mother’s house, he admitted that William Brown, a young apprentice, whom he had known at school, had asked him to look after the coat. Kitley also gave information about the other stolen jacket which was found in a barge's head at Robert Talbot's premises at Fore Street, Lambeth, under the head sheets.
They soon identified the other youth as William Kennedy and the two young men were brought to trial at the Old Bailey, indicted for the wilful murder of William Wilkinson. Mr Bodkin, conducting the prosecution used the testimony of James Kitley to incriminate the accused.
“I was employed in the barge, Hieron, which was under repair at Lambeth; I know both the prisoners - Kennedy had been sleeping on board that barge for some time before the 17th; on Tuesday, the 17th, about ten o'clock, I think, but cannot tell, as I never looked at the clock, Kennedy came to me for the key - my barge laid about a mile and a quarter from the Spread Eagle; he appeared to me to be in a muck sweat I told him I was going myself directly, but he pressed me to give him the key - I did, and he went towards the barge by himself - I went myself in less than half an hour, and slept on board that night. I did not see Kennedy when I went into the cabin, but he must have been there, for he got up with me in the morning, and he and I, went to a beer-shop kept by Bean; I asked Bean's son for a light. Kennedy pulled out some papers and a book out of his pocket - he tore some of the papers, saying he wanted to burn them, and I tore some of them, not knowing what they were; the pieces were thrown into the grate of the room we were in. Flack lighted his pipe, and threw the paper which he lighted it with into the grate, and the papers caught fire; I cannot say whether they were partly or entirely burnt - I was going out in about an hour, when the officers came and took Kennedy into custody; they afterwards called me - I went to them, and went before the Magistrate with them, and after we had been before the Magistrate, Kennedy told me, that he and Brown were guilty. We were all in custody under suspicion at the time, but Kennedy said we need not fear, for he would turn us up - he told me he had put one of the coats in a barge at the back of a barge-builder's place, but the barge-builder had moved away; I informed a gentleman at the office of it and I described where the barge was.”
Unburnt sheets from the pocket-book were handed over to the Thames police and Mr Smales identified his friend’s handwriting.
Further evidence was given that Brown and Kennedy had been seen nearby shortly before a skiff was stolen from Moore’s boat builders in Lambeth that night.
Both William Brown and William Kennedy confessed to stealing the coats from the boat but denied the murder of William Wilkinson. Five witnesses gave Kennedy a good character. The judgement was that both men were guilty and they were condemned to death but were later respited during His Majesty's pleasure. Meanwhile two young apprentices made a violent attack on Thomas and Elizabeth Woodcock, William Kennedy’s Master and his wife, in their house in Fore Street, Lambeth, maintaining they had badly mistreated their apprentice and a mob burnt an effigy of the couple on the street. The jury who had tried Brown and Kennedy were not convinced that the young men had even injured Wilkinson so they drew up a petition against their death penalty, resulting in commutation of the punishment. There were many letters in the newspapers both condemning the harsh sentence and maintaining it should be carried out but finally Brown and Kennedy were reprieved.