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Grantham Civic Society: An unfortunate family tale from Little Gonerby

A yard in Vere Court, Little Gonerby
A yard in Vere Court, Little Gonerby

Anti-social behaviour and poor housing was as much a feature of 19th Century Grantham as it has been more recently.

Trouble started when father Azey Birch, a chimney sweep, was imprisoned for four years in 1860, for poaching. His wife Caroline and children, Hannah, 1, and baby Mary Ann, were sent to the workhouse. On his release, the family moved to Vere Court in Little Gonerby, in an area behind the Scout Hut on Broad Street.

Ruth Crook, of Grantham Civic Society.
Ruth Crook, of Grantham Civic Society.

In 1869, Azey, who was of Romany origin, was charged and fined for unlawfully carrying a gun. By 1871, they had children Hannah, Mary Ann, John, Sunney and Edward, and were regularly in court for fighting and using bad language. Hannah, 14, was sentenced to five years in an industrial school for stealing a loaf of bread. In 1872, Azey was jailed four times for refusing to pay the maintenance for Hannah, and also for assaulting Caroline and being drunk and disorderly. That year, five-year-old Sunney accidentally burned to death.

The family had at least 17 children altogether. In 1878, baby Richard died aged two months when Caroline rolled on to him whilst drunk, Edward, 9, died after trying to jump on to a horse-drawn vehicle, but slipped and trapped his head between the carriage and its wheels, John was charged with stealing bird traps and Mary Ann married.

In 1879, Caroline had twins, but rolled on to Valentine and suffocated her; Abraham died shortly afterwards.In 1880, John, 15, was gaoled for stealing gooseberries, which was not his first offence.In 1881 and 1883, William was charged with stealing various items, including a felt hat from the Blue Bell Pub. Azey was also charged several times with being drunk and disorderly.

In 1884, Hannah, 27, was imprisoned for two months with hard labour, after assaulting a neighbour. She broke into the house and hit the owners with a poker and smashed objects. Azey was charged for not sending his children to school, John for being disorderly and William for fighting. In 1887, Azey was ordered to pay for his son Riley, who had been sent to a reformatory.

In 1889, Hannah, now married, was involved in various fights and thefts, including cracking open her sister-in-law’s skull with a stone, and was imprisoned for stealing five sovereigns. Over the next three years, Charles Thomas was fined for being drunk and disorderly, for using obscene language and for kicking and biting a policeman. Baby Mary Ann died aged four months, and Arthur was charged with playing football on North Parade. Charles was imprisoned for breaking into a widow’s house and punching and kicking her, his 10th such offence, and was also charged with disorderly behaviour, fighting and using obscene language. Thomas was charged with assault and Arthur with stealing wood.

In 1894, a warrant was issued ordering the family to leave their home, because they were always in so much trouble, but they refused. During the following three years, Charles Thomas was fined for poaching and trespass, William’s wife assaulted another woman, grabbing her by the hair, and struck her with several violent blows, Charles was accused of using obscene language, Riley for gang gambling and Arthur was drunk in the street.In 1898, Edward, 18, was brain damaged and broke his arm, after falling from a roof and Riley was charged with disorderly conduct.

After Azey’s death in early 1901, Caroline was back in the workhouse. Arthur was charged with her upkeep, but complained that he had just spent six weeks in prison, so could not afford it.

In 1904, Charles was charged with stealing a suit from a pawn shop on Castlegate and was sentenced to a month in prison. His brother Frederick also had several encounters with the police and courts.

Further information on Little Gonerby can be found in ‘The History of Little Gonerby and its School’, by Ruth Crook and Barbara Jefferies, available at the school.

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