Convict Histories

The Huntingdon Burglars – Titman, Moss & Woothardt

By Irma Walter, 2020.

A dastardly gang of thieves roamed the district around Peterborough in Cambridgeshire for several years before their capture in 1852. The whole neighbourhood was terrorised for up to ten years by their marauding raids, some brazenly committed by masked gang members in broad daylight. Their leader was a man named John Hall, who was arrested in Nottingham after being on the run with his mistress Jane Speechly. It was only after Hall’s arrest that many other miscreants were brought to justice. Local inhabitants were shocked to hear that some of those arrested had been leading respectable lives up until the time of their capture:

Since the Spring Assizes held in Huntingdon, when a notorious burglar named John Hall was tried, convicted, and had a sentence of death recorded against him, the country around for more than 50 miles, taking Peterborough as a centre, was in a state of excitement, through the confession made by Hall of more than 40 accomplices, who had been concerned in many burglaries (24), highway robberies (12), sheep stealing (9), within the last four years – some in Lincolnshire, one at Londonthorpe, near Grantham, another at St Neots, committed as long ago as 1849; three near to Huntingdon; seven in the neighbourhood of Peterborough; others around Stilton and Oundle.

It appears from Hall’s conviction that he had accomplices in each district, some of the desperadoes being thought respectable, occupying public houses &c. In every instance they took care to select dwellings of those known to have money and other valuables in their houses; so daring did the thieves become, that they scrupled not to meet in open day, taking with them guns, bars of iron and coulters from ploughs, and other frightful instruments wherewith to arm themselves and resist every attempt made to prevent them from committing the robberies they had fixed upon. John Hall, a desperate-looking miscreant, was brought from Huntingdon County Gaol, heavily ironed, on Friday 2nd, to give evidence against two of his accomplices, captured through his confession.[1]

After his capture John Hall explained his reason for giving evidence against his confederates, telling the Court that he wanted to get away to America and had sent his de facto partner Jane Speechly to ask some of the gang members for money to pay a lawyer. Hall was angry when the money was not forthcoming, so after his arrest he decided to become an ‘approver’ (informer), giving details of others involved in the robberies, as a way of avoiding the gallows himself. There were said to have been up to 40 named criminals involved. Other known associates convicted were James Kilbourne (sentence 10 years), Frederick Woothard(t) (14 years), Robert Stretton, Henry Medley, Jacob Bellamy (10 years), William Stalley (14 years), William Laxton (life), Robert Stretton (life), James Humberstone, George Moss (15 years) and George Cole (10 years). Another was James Stokes, who was sent to the Stirling Castle hulk, before being transferred to Bethlem Hospital (‘Bedlam’) on 1 February 1854 and spent many years in the Broadmoor Asylum before his death in 1905.[2]

At the Huntingdon Assizes on 8 March 1852, John Hall, John Titman, and James Stokes were convicted of breaking into the remote farmhouse of an elderly couple named Fairley, firing shots at them and stealing money and other valuables, as well as food and drink. After the old couple fled upstairs they set fire to some straw downstairs in an attempt to force the old man to give up his gun. All three, with previous convictions, were sentenced to death. Later their sentences were commuted to transportation for life.[3]

In December 1852 it was reported that John Hall had sailed for a distant penal colony to serve out the term of his natural life.[4] His name does not appear on any Australian convict lists. On 30 June 1857 Hall was discharged per schooner G O S Bigelow for passage to England, most likely from Bermuda.[5] He later spent six years in the Woking Infirmary for Convict Prisoners in Surrey, admitted there in March 1860.[6] Over the next five years his condition while there was variously described as ‘in hospital’, ‘sickly’ or ‘delicate’. He was discharged on licence on 11 April 1865.[7] Hall’s early release from his life sentence may indicate that he received special consideration from authorities in return for the evidence he gave against his associates.

The only associates of John Hall transported to Western Australia were John Titman (3513), Frederick Woothard(t) (3378), and George Moss (3116).

[Note: News of the Fairley robbery found its way to Australia. An article published in NSW in March 1852 gave a brief account of the daring robbery which took place at the Fairley’s farmhouse near Upwood in Huntingdonshire in October 1851 and the subsequent capture of several individuals.[8]

Of passing interest also is an article published much later in Perth WA in 1905, re-telling the story of the brave old couple Mr & Mrs Fairley, who had defended their property against marauders, a feat that eventually led to the arrest of the offenders which had been terrorising the district for many years. Mr Fairley had fled the premises on his horse and sought assistance from the neighboring village. Titman was found soon after, lying in a ditch in a drunken stupor. The next to be found was James Stokes, also drunk. John Hall was captured at Leicester, while Salmon, the most wide-awake of the bunch, managed to escape from the police and was never re-captured. Pitman [sic, Titman], Hall and Stokes were sentenced to death, but these sentences were later commuted to transportation for life. The said article was written following a report of the death of one of the criminals, James Stokes, who had been declared insane after his arrest and was incarcerated in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he finally died at the age of 86. No connection was made in the article to John Titman being sent to Western Australia.[9] ]


John Titman, (alias George Rumble) (c1826 – 1857) (Reg. No. 3513)

In 1826 John Titman was christened at Yaxley, Huntingdonshire, to parents Christopher, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Sarah.[10] John’s siblings at the time of the 1841 census were sisters Elizabeth and Ann.[11] The 1851 census shows John Titman, labourer, aged 23, living in Yaxley, Huntingdonshire, with his father Christopher aged 62, and his sister Jane Speechley [sic] aged 29, widow, and her two daughters Mary and Elizabeth, all of them born at Yaxley.[12] (Jane was the said mistress of the gang leader, John Hall. She had left her dying husband to live with Hall.)

Besides being involved with the Fairley robbery, Titman and Hall were also convicted of robbery with violence against Joseph West:

John Hall, John Titman, Humberstone and Salmon decided to follow West home from drinking at the Inn. They overtook him on the road and Titman knocked him down. Hall took a £5 note and his watch.[13]

Titman (alias George Rumble[14]) was taken onboard the Adelaide from Portland Prison and arrived in Western Australia on 18 July 1855. Ship’s Surgeon Superintendent Donnelly described him as aged 25, single, able to read and write and a Protestant by religion. He was a labourer, 5’8” in height, with brown hair, grey eyes, oval face, fresh complexion, middling stout and no markings. His conduct while in Separate Confinement was ‘G’, at Portland Prison ‘Ex’, and on the voyage ‘G’. His behaviour during 1855 and 1856 was recorded variously as Good, Very Good and Excellent. It was noted that he would be entitled to his Ticket of Leave on 8 September 1858.[15]

Soon after his arrival in Western Australia Titman sought medical advice for bowel problems. He spent time in hospital from 27 April 1856.[16] His convict record in Western Australia shows that he was set to work even though his health was obviously poor:

29 April 1856 – N.F. (North Fremantle)

28 June 1856 – C.E.

2 July 1856 – M.E.

5 September 1856 – C.E.

20 February 1857 – F.W.B. (Freshwater Bay)

23 March 1857 – Ditto.

6 April 1857 – C.E.

3 May 1857 – C.E.[17]

John Titman (Reg. No. 3513) died in the Fremantle Establishment Hospital on 7 June 1857.[18] A report of his death came from the Comptroller General’s Office on 10 June 1857.[19]


George Moss (c1832 – ?) (Reg. No. 3116)

In the 1851 census for the Parish of St Benedict in Huntingdonshire, George Moss aged 21, born at Huntingdon, was listed as a journeyman shoemaker living with his widowed mother Elizabeth Moss, a monthly nurse aged 50, both lodgers in the home of his brother-in-law bootmaker James Mackness [sic, Mackaness] (27) and his wife Mary. In 1852 George Moss, shoemaker, and James Mackaness were found not guilty of stealing £35 in gold and 18/- in silver from the house of Thomas Mackaness, a relative of James.[20]

While in custody for a previous conviction George Moss foolishly told criminal John Hall the story of how in 1848 he and another man had held up a 10-year-old lad named John Holland on the road from St Neots, having heard that the boy was regularly sent to collect his father’s money from the bank. They dragged him off his horse and searched him. All Moss got for his efforts was the boy’s handkerchief. As an informer Hall gave evidence of the conversation in Court and as a consequence Moss was found guilty of highway robbery and sentenced to 15 years’ transportation.[21]

In October 1852 it was incorrectly reported that George Moss, along with Frederick Woothardt and two others, had been removed from Huntingdon Gaol and were on their way to New South Wales.[22] Instead, Moss was received onboard Her Majesty’s convict ship Ramillies from Portsmouth Prison, bound for Western Australia. The ship arrived at Fremantle on 7 August 1854.

Surgeon Superintendent Ritchie on the Ramillies described Moss as single, 5’9½”, with black hair, dark hazel eyes, a dark complexion and was tolerably stout, with a scar on the wrist of his right hand.[23] His character record describes him as a 23-year-old shoemaker, single, could read well and write tolerably, and was convicted of highway robbery on 19 July 1852 at Huntingdon. His conduct while in solitary confinement, on public works and during the voyage was good. His record states – ‘Caption – Three times convicted. Idle, reckless and associated with the worst of characters for years.’ It was noted that Moss was entitled to his Ticket of Leave on 19 January 1857. However from 9 July 1855 he was on bread & water for seven days, with Class Susp. (suspended?) three months. His behaviour during 1855 and 1856 was generally described as excellent and he earned ten days’ remission. He was appointed as constable 12 January 1856 and was granted his Ticket of Leave on 14 May 1856.[24] He received his Conditional Pardon on 20 August 1859.

In 1873 Moss married an Irish girl, Margaret McLean (McLaren?) at Fremantle. Their children all registered in Perth were –

Rose, born 1867, died aged 23 days.

Rose born 1868

James born 1870.

Ann Elizabeth born 1873.

Mary born 1875.[25]

Rica Erickson records Moss working in WA as a shoemaker, employing a ticket-of-leave servant in 1856, and then possibly employed as the Captain of the steamer Lady Stirling from 1869 – 1876.[26] This seems likely, as Frederick Caporn had taken over the position by March 1876.[27] This was the year that Moss received his Certificate of Freedom, on 11 January 1876.[28] Soon afterwards he sailed for London onboard the Charlotte Padbury, which departed Fremantle for London on 18 January 1876 with G. Moss in steerage.[29] None of his family went with him.


Frederick Woothardt (alias Allcock or Alcock), (1824 – 1862) (Reg. No. 3378)

At the time of the 1851 census Frederick Woodard [sic], aged 27, tinman, was living at Yaxley, Huntingdonshire, with his wife Mary, aged 25. Frederick was born at Marham, in Norfolk, and Mary at Cowland (Crowland?), Lincoln.

On 19 July 1852 Frederick Woothardt, part of the Huntingdon gang of thieves, was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation at Huntingdon, for breaking, entering and stealing:

Better known as the “tinker of Yaxley”, Frederick Woothard (alias Alcock), was charged with being concerned in the robbery at Orton Staunch, for which another of the gang, Humberstone, is under sentence of transportation for life. The prisoner was committed for trial.[30]

On 23 May 1855 Frederick Woothardt arrived at Fremantle WA onboard the Stag. He was described as aged 25 (?), married, height 5’5”, brown hair, grey eyes, stout, with a round face and a fresh complexion. He was a tinman (tinsmith), semi-literate. He was received from Portland Prison, where his behaviour was recorded as good/excellent during the voyage. He was on Ticket of Leave from 19 August 1856.[31] His Conditional and Free Pardon was allocated by the Comptroller General, 20 March 1859.[32]

Frederick married Julia Burns at Guildford on 30 October 1858. She had arrived in Western Australia on the Emma Eugenia on 25 May 1858. Frederick Edward Elcock Wootard [sic], b.1830, died 24 April 1862 at Bunbury. In 1873 Julia re-married, to William Finnemore.[33]

Many years later a newspaper advertisement appeared:

JULIA BURNS went to Perth, West Australia, in 1858, and married there Mr. F. Woothard, tin-smith. She was last heard of at Bunbury, April, 1861. Her three sisters are alive, and seek news.[34]

[1] Bury and Norwich Post, 14 April 1852.

[2] Home Office Convict Hulks, Prisons & Asylums, Series HO8 Item 119.

[3] England & Wales Criminal Registers, Huntingdon, 1852.

[4] Cambridge Independent Press, 18 December 1852.

[5] Home Office Convict Hulks, Prisons & Asylums, Series HO8 Item 132.

[6] Woking Invalid Convict Prison Inmates,

[7] Home Office Convict Hulks, Prisons & Asylums, Series HO8 Item 132.

[8] Maitland Mercury, NSW, 17 March 1852.

[9] Daily News, 3 June 1905.

[10] England Baptisms,

[11] 1841 Census for Parish of Yaxley,

[12] 1851 Census, ibid.

[13] Stamford Mercury, 9 April 1852.

[14] Fremantle Prison Convict Register,

[15] Convict Establishment Registers, Character Book (R18)

[16] Convict Establishment Medical, Hospital Occurances (M1)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R18)

[19] Convict Department Registers (128/38-39)

[20] Stamford Mercury, 12 March 1852.

[21] Stamford Mercury, 23 July 1852.

[22] Cambridge Independent Press, 16 October 1852.

[23] WA Convicts,

[24] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R18)

[25] WA Department of Justice,

[26] Rica Erickson, Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, p.2251.

[27] Herald, 11 March 1876.

[28] Convict Department General Register (R21B)

[29] Inquirer, 26 January 1876.

[30] England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791 – 1892 – Huntingdonshire.

[31] Convict Department Registers, Character Book for Nos. 2373 – 3639 (R18)

[32] Convict Department Registers (128/ 38 – 39)

[33] Rica Erickson, Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, p.3389.

[34] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), 26 December 1891.