We were very interested to receive by email from Canada this photograph of Sergeant Walter James along with a photograph of a silver watch presented to him in recognition of his bravery in confronting a burglar at Wincobank Hall on November 5, 1881. The email was sent by his grandson with a request for further information. We showed the pictures at our Heritage Open Day in September and have been delighted that members of the public have taken the time and trouble to trawl through the newspaper records to uncover the full story.
DESPERATE FIGHT WITH A BURGLAR AT WINCOBANK HALL: a Police Officer Seriously Injured
At half-past two o’clock on Saturday morning, Police constable James, of the West Riding constabulary, had a desperate encounter with a burglar at Wincobank Hall, the residence of Mrs Rawson, a widow lady, about three miles from Sheffield. The officer, who was on duty near the hall, was startled by a slight noise, and judging from the sound thought someone was breaking a pane of glass in the drawing-room window. Halting in his beat, he looked across the lawn in front of the hall, and saw a tall, powerful-looking fellow loitering near the residence. Believing a gang of burglars were at work in the hall, he made his way as quickly as possible to Mr William Hulley, farmer, who resides in the vicinity. Mr Hulley joined the police-officer without delay, and the two men then hastened towards the hall. Shielded by the shrubbery they noticed that the burglar was endeavouring to force an entrance through the drawing-room window. Police-constable James immediately ran forward intending to seize the marauder, but the man suddenly faced the officer, and dealt James a terrific blow with a heavy, sharp steel “jemmy” which cut completely through the constable’s nose and chin, inflicting a fearful wound. Although almost choked with blood, and suffering intense pain, the officer very courageously closed with the burglar and a desperate fight ensued.
At last, with Mr Hulley’s assistance, the burglar was secured. He had in his possession, in addition to the steel “jemmy,” a bayonet shaped dagger, a large gimlet, and a dark lantern. With the gimlet he had bored 12 holes through the window shutter, so that he might be able to unfasten the bars inside; and he had also made holes through two large panes of plate glass, and undone the window fastenings. The burglar, who is six feet in height and very muscular, was taken to Ecclesfield Police Station, where he refused to give an account of himself. The only information obtained from him was a statement to the effect that he came from Newcastle. The man is supposed to be one of a gang of burglars who have infested Sheffield and the district for some time. Superintendent Gill, who visited Wincobank Hall on Saturday, is of the opinion that the prisoner is no novice in the burglarious art of entering people’s houses.
The injured police officer was speedily attended by Dr Syme of Ecclesfield, who sewed up his wounds. Yesterday the constable was progressing as favourably as could be expected, considering the nature of his injuries. The inhabitants in the neighbourhood are loud in their praises of his bravery.(Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England) Monday November 07, 1881)
The inhabitants of Wincobank were so impressed and appreciative that they made a collection and organised a concert in honour of PC James and Mr Hulley. Reverend J. Julian, Vicar of Wincobank made a speech of thanks in which he said that: he took it that the case which has brought them together that night was one to be applauded – (applause) – one worthy of being acknowledged by the residents of that neighbourhood. All present knew Wincobank Hall and knew that it was occupied by two of the highest-minded, purest, noblest and most intellectual aged ladies that could be found in the West Riding of Yorkshire. (Loud applause). He was sure that the work they had done in Wincobank – which was not confined to relieving the necessities of the poor, but included the building of schools for the education of the children – had endeared those two ladies to the hearts of all the residents in Wincobank who were thankful to those men who had delivered them from danger. (Loud applause.) They had met that night to acknowledge the assistance they had received from Police-constable James, of the West Riding police force – (loud applause) – who did his duty nobly. The rev. gentlemen then called upon that officer to come forward and accept the presentation which had been freely subscribed for by the people of Wincobank. (Sheffield & Rotherham Independent ( Sheffield, England) 07 December 1881)
A presentation was then made of an inscribed silver watch to PC James and a set of silver cutlery (equal in value to the watch) to Mr Hulley. A remaining sum of money was equally divided between the two heroes. Police–constable James was duly promoted to Sergeant and moved to Dewsbury. In Wincobank life settled back to normal.
The burglar, James Thomson, was sentenced to 15 months hard labour but not before Miss Emily Read had written him an encouraging note enclosing a religious text and he had replied in the most eloquent and repentant terms: Dear Madam, – I was very much touched with you kindness in thinking of my eternal interests after the injury I had tried to do you, and that, more than anything else, has served to bring back with overwhelming force all my other’s teaching, all early impressions, lessons long forgotten, but now brought home with double power when I have so much solitude in which to think over them. While rendering you my heartfelt thanks, I can assure you that no effort of mine shall be wanting that I may attain that great blessing – “peace with God” – which so beautifies your life and renders it so useful. When I have paid the penalty of my misdeeds to man and am at liberty once more, my aged mother shall join in thanking one who “returned good for evil”. Meantime, allow me to subscribe myself, your very humble servant, – James Thomson (Sheffield & Rotherham Independent ( Sheffield, England) 23 November 1881
This report of this correspondence was picked up by the national newspapers and Thomson received a letter with further religious encouragement from a lady in Brighton which was forwarded on to him in prison. So maybe, on his release, he turned to the straight and narrow and moved to Brighton…
Many thanks to Robert Plows, Julie Williams and Lyn Howsam for helping to piece together this inspiring true story.