Convict Histories

The Great Manchester Stamp Robbery

By Irma Walter, 2021.

On 26 May 1866 a brazen gang of thieves broke into the Manchester Stamp Office warehouse where postage stamps were stored, getting away with around £10,000 worth of stamps. This major burglary so alarmed the British Government that a team of sixteen policemen, led by Inspector James Jacob Thompson of the Metropolitan Police, was sent to Manchester to investigate the case. After three months he found two of the suspects in a betting ring in Doncaster and arrested them. For coordinating the investigation in Manchester, London and Doncaster, Thompson received a £70 reward, the lion’s share of £200 awarded by the Hon. RE Howard, Distributer of Stamps in Manchester, to the seventeen London policemen involved in the case.[1]

Pilfering of stamps was becoming a major problem for the Government. In the days before Postal Orders were introduced, stamps were common currency and could be sent through the mail with orders, as payment for goods. A minimum of two stamps joined together could be cashed in at a post office. Firms were alarmed at the numbers of stamps which were being stolen by staff members, who could pay for their bread and cheese dinners with a couple of stamps. Within two years of the Manchester robbery a system to protect a firm’s stamp supply had been introduced, whereby stamps could be perforated with the firm’s initials, using a machine invented by a man named Sloper.[2]

Following a previous robbery at the warehouse in Cross Street, when £2000 worth of stamps was stolen, all of the doors had been reinforced with iron. This time the safe, which was considered impregnable, had been turned on its side and laid down on bales of cloth before a drill and wedges were used to force open its door.[3]

It was a well-planned operation. The gang of stamp thieves consisted of four men, all with previous convictions – Charles Leeson, the two Douglas brothers, William and Thomas, and another named Charles Batt.

The crime remained unsolved for some months. It wasn’t until Batt went to the spoiled stamp department at Somerset House in an attempt to exchange an imperfect £1 stamp for another. An informant named Shaw assisted the police to locate the other members of the gang. He spoke of celebratory champagne suppers and gave testimony of being offered payment for assisting in ‘turning off’ the stamps to the public.

In 1866 their much-publicised trial took place at the Manchester Assizes, where Leeson and the Douglas brothers were sentenced to 15 years’ transportation. Charles Batt, aged 49 years, received a lesser sentence of 8 years, as the magistrate held the view that he was not one of the chief plotters and had fewer previous convictions. The other three prisoners arrived in Western Australia on the Hougoumont in 1868. Their details are as follows.


Charles Leeson (Reg. No. 9804)

Along with his wife Martha, Charles was the proprietor of the Crystal Fountain beer-shop in Kensington Road, London. He was well-known to the police for crimes committed in Liverpool and Manchester under various aliases – Charles Gleeson, Richard Gleeson, Charles Kelly.

His record sheet in WA for 1868 shows him charged with being drunk and gambling with playing cards, for which latter offence he spent seven days on bread and water. A few months later it was noted that he was thought to be in England, having absconded from Perth Prison on 9 January 1869.[5]

It was advertised in NSW that Charles Leeson (alias Kelly, Gleeson) had absconded from WA after escaping from prison on 19 January 1869 and was suspected of being in NSW. The WA Government did not intend taking any further action over the matter.[6]

Whether Leeson absconded from Australia via the Eastern States has not been confirmed. Nevertheless, he eventually made his way back to England, where he was picked up in Camberwell in 1881 and charged with having absconded while under sentence in WA. He was living with a lady known as Mrs Powell and was self-employed as an omnibus operator when arrested, declaring his name to be Charles Leeson Powell. During the trial many witnesses, including warders from Walton, Millbank, Manchester and Fremantle Prisons, identified him as Charles Leeson. It was further stated that he had been convicted in Belgium in February 1878 and was liberated from there four months ago.[7]

The markings on his arms varied in some respects from those recorded at the time of his earlier arrest. Powell was found not guilty of identity fraud and was released. Soon afterwards the editor of the Herald newspaper back in Fremantle quoted a report from a London paper, the Universe, saying that whether the man arrested was Leeson or not, it was a pity that the police had nothing better to do than arresting a man who had been leading an honest life for several years.[8]


Thomas Douglas alias Hathway, Hathaway & Maguire (Reg. No. 9717)

Thomas Douglas was a metal worker, also known as a skilled lock-breaker. He was born Thomas Hathaway in Bristol, England. He had a list of previous convictions, including a four-year term in Bristol Prison from 1855 for house-breaking and stealing a quantity of silver plate and jewellery.

A comment on his convict record, signed by M. Gambier on 29/1/67, declared that ‘Inspector Thompson of the detective force informed me at 45 Parliament Street that the prisoner 4176, Thomas Douglas, alias Thos. Hathway, is one of the cleverest thieves in London; is a first rate engineer, and a most clever adept at (indecipherable) locks; and that his friends would not mind sacrificing £1000 to get him free, and that he belongs to a famous gang of burglars.’[9]

At the time of his 1867 trial it was reported that his wife Emma cried out for mercy to be shown, on account of him being the father of seven children. Thomas Hathaway and Emma Lake had been married in Bristol in 1847 and their seven children, Henrietta, Emma, Rosina, William, Clara, Frederick and baby Florence were all baptised in Bristol, Gloucestershire, under the surname Hathaway.

Once in WA, Thomas Douglas committed a long list of offences in 1875-76, such as supplying alcohol to a prohibited person, leading an immoral life and behaving in a disorderly manner at his residence. His metal-working skills were in high demand by a variety of employers around Perth and Fremantle, as a blacksmith or general labourer.[10]

Thomas’s wife Emma followed him to WA, arriving on 16/9/1876 per Daylight, with six of their children.[11] In October 1877 Thomas served two years in Fremantle Prison for violently assaulting his wife. Earlier that year he had been sentenced to two months for assaulting his brother William. This occurred in Perth, after a joint business between the two brothers which operated from a St George’s Terrace premises had been dissolved.[12] Thomas progressed to another business arrangement in Murray Street with EH Barrington, which offered metalwork services, but this partnership also had a short life. He was employed by various others up until the end of 1881, when he was granted ticket-of-leave status and was self-employed.[13]

In 1883 he made his way to Victoria where he soon came under the scrutiny of the police. Thomas Douglas (Reg. No.19830) was arrested and tried in the Richmond courts on 4 July 1883, for being in possession of house-breaking implements, along with George King, otherwise known as Charles Kembell (or Kemble).[14] [Kembell was an escapee from WA. See his story on this website.]

Two men, named George King, alias Douglas alias Kemble, and Thomas Douglas, alias Hatha-way, who were arrested on the night of the 26th ult., were brought up at the Richmond police court yesterday. The first named prisoner was charged with being in possession of house breaking implements; with breaking into the house of Mr. W. H. Goss, of Richmond, and with stealing jewellery and property, valued at £42; with entering the residence of Mr. F. S. Grimwade, of St. Kilda, in which case the value of the jewellery stolon was estimated at £142. The charge against Douglas was that he had housebreaking implements in his possession. The men arrived in this colony a short time since from the Western Australian convict settlement, having, it appears, just completed the term of fifteen years’ imprisonment which they received for housebreaking at Manchester. The detectives found, on searching the house in which the prisoners lived, a number of housebreaking implements, skeleton keys, a crucible and a quantity of broken up and melted jewellery. One witness deposed that he had seen King in the company of Thomas Mason and Charles Best, who were recently tried for a similar offence, and it is suspected that these men have been connected with the very large number of robberies which have taken place in Melbourne during the last few months. The prisoners were sentenced to two-years’ imprisonment with hard labor. The second and third charges against King were then proceeded with. He was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court on the 16th inst. for breaking into the house of Mr. Goss, of Richmond, and was also remanded to the St. Kilda Police Court on Tuesday next for the robbery from the residence of Mr. Grimwade.[15]

The matter was reported back in WA as follows:

Two disreputable men, said to have come from this Colony, have recently fallen into the hands of the police of a suburb of Melbourne. Here is the account of them, as it is told in the Melbourne Daily Telegraph of June 24. George King alias Kemble, alias Douglas, and Thomas Douglas, alias Hathaway, were prosecuted at the Richmond Police-court yesterday morning, before Mr. Alley, P.M., and several justices of the peace, charged with being rogues and vagabonds. King was arrested on Tuesday night, in Clarendon-street, by Detectives Ward, Lovie and Charles, who, after lodging him in the local lock-up, proceeded, together with Constables Carmody and Kieley, to a house in Little Clifton-street, Richmond, where they made a search and found a number of housebreaking implements. Douglas, the occupier of the house, was subsequently arrested. The prisoners, who are recent arrivals from Western Australia were remanded until Wednesday next. King alleges that the property belongs to him, and that he left them at Douglas’s place.[16]

Thomas Douglas’s family had followed him over from WA, as evidenced by the arrest of his wife Emma and his daughter Rose soon afterwards, for stealing a silk dress. They were also listed as using the alias Hathaway (or Hathway). At the time Rose was keeping company with George King, otherwise known as Charles Kemble, her father’s partner in crime.[17]

It must have been difficult for the family to keep up with all the name changes. On Thomas’s release from gaol in Victoria, it wasn’t long before he was up to his old tricks. In 1883 he was arrested in Geelong, under the name of ‘George Johnson’, on a charge of indecent exposure. When his work-basket was inspected another charge was entered against him of being a rogue and vagabond and having housebreakers’ implements in his possession. Faced with this charge he then identified himself as Thomas Douglas. However, communications with police in Melbourne resulted in information that his real name was ‘Hathaway’.[18]

A further revelation in the newspaper article was that the Court had been approached by his wife, ‘Mrs Hathaway’, who resided in Richmond. ‘...She states in her note that her husband would not work, and neglected to contribute towards the support of herself and six children. Mrs Hathaway afterwards came to Geelong with the view of obtaining the £7 odd found on the prisoner, but of course did not succeed in getting the money. She states that a person who is a perfect stranger to herself called at her house at Richmond the other day, and told her that her husband ought to send her some money, as he had opened a safe in Geelong, and found £20 in it. According to her letter, the man told her that her husband had been living well, and that it did not cost a shilling a week to keep house, for he had been “visiting” a store in Geelong, and supplying himself with all kinds of provisions and luxuries in the shape of choice ales and spirits. Although it is not stated what store furnished the supplies, there is a strong belief on the part of Mr Toohey that the firm of Messrs R. Clarke and Co. have been unwittingly parting with choice wines, &c., without receiving value for their goods.’[19]

The family earned a bad reputation in Victoria, usually under the name Hathaway, with the parents’ disagreements frequently played out in public, even after they were no longer living together. In 1886 it was claimed that ‘George Johnson, alias Douglas, alias Hathaway, and his companions formed a gang of men of the most dangerous character there was in Victoria, and few were able to open safes in the way in which they were.’[20]

Their son Frederick Hathaway, was also involved in petty crime and misdemeanors.

Emma Hathaway’s death was recorded in Victoria in 1893. A death notice was placed in the Age newspaper by her daughter and son-in-law on 22 August that year.


 William Douglas alias William Hathway, William Roberts (Reg. No. 9717)

William Douglas, aged 36, was also transported to WA on the Hougoumont in 1868. During the voyage William received a good report from the ship’s surgeon, having assisted with education classes. He also earned remissions while in Fremantle prison for his work as school monitor.[21]

He was described as an engine fitter and machinist, married in England to Mary Ann, with a daughter Emmaline. Like his brother Thomas, he used his metalworking skills for ulterior purposes, serving time for two breaking and entering offences in Bristol prior to his arrest in 1866 for the warehouse robbery.

Once released from Fremantle Prison William was charged several times with drunkenness and loitering around public houses, being cautioned in 1876 that his ticket-of-leave could be revoked. He was employed in Fremantle and Perth during 1873, before being self-employed as a machinist for the next three years in Perth. It was during this time that he was assaulted by his brother Thomas while working in partnership with him.

Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from his brother, in 1877 William went to Champion Bay, where he spent most of his life, firstly self-employed as a fitter, and later in the railways workshop.[22] [The Geraldton/Northampton Government railway, the first in Western Australia, was opened in 1879.[23]]

There is no record of William’s wife and daughter coming to Australia. Unlike his brother, William Douglas seems to have made a genuine effort to reform himself in WA. He regularly attended church, being a member of the Protestant choir in Geraldton.[24] At the time of his retirement from the position as foreman of the Geraldton railway locomotive shed in 1883, his fellow workers gave him a fond farewell:

On Saturday evening last, a rather important meeting took place at Mr. Hanlon’s Shamrock Hotel. This was, an assemblage of the workmen at the Government Locomotive Shed, to bid farewell to their old foreman, William Douglas, who, for years, had acted as leader in the establishment, to his own credit, and the general repute of the place. Mr. Hanlon took the chair, and Mr. Browrigg, a fellow-workman, read a parting address, asking Mr. Douglass’ acceptance of a watch, on behalf of his comrades, to mark their esteem and respect for him. In a few neat words. Mr. Douglas expressed his acknowledgements, and the meeting closed with three cheers for William Douglas, the ex-foreman of the Locomotive Works, at Geraldton.[25]

His obituary in 1904 in the Victorian Express paid tribute to a man who had redeemed himself in the eyes of the local inhabitants:

DEATH OF WM. DOUGLAS.— Another old familiar figure has just been removed from our midst by the hand of death. William Douglas died in the Victoria Hospital yesterday. Deceased had been a resident of the Geraldton district of long standing. At one time he held a responsible position at the head of the Loco Department in this town. He was a mechanical engineer of great genius, and, where intricate machinery had to be erected, before he became enfeebled with age, his services were always requisitioned. This paper has had often to call upon the old man’s ingenuity, and it never called in vain. Douglas had been ailing for many months past, and the end was not unexpected. His age was about 75 years. The funeral took place to-day.[26]


[1]Griffin, Rachael, ‘Detective Policing and the State in Nineteenth-century England: The Detective Department of the London Metropolitan Police, 1842-1878’ (2015) Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 3427. p.103-4.

[2] John S Nelson, More about Sloper and Stamp Security, chapter 1, p.1.

[3] Manchester Guardian, May 29, 1866.

[5] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Nos 9599 – 10128 cont. (R16)

[6] NSW Police Gazette, 4 February 1880, p.44.

[7] Central Criminal Court, London, at

[8] Herald, Fremantle, 2 July 1881.

[9] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Nos 9059-9598, cont. 9599-10128, (R15 and 16)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rica Erickson, Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, at

[12] Inquirer and Commercial News, Perth, 15 August 1877.

[13] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Nos 9059-9598, cont. 9599-10128, (R15 and 16)

[14] Argus (Melbourne), 3 July 1883.

[15] Age, 5 July 1883.

[16] Daily News, Perth, 16 July 1883.

[17] Argus (Melbourne), 3 July 1883.

[18] Ballarat Star, 8 January 1886.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Geelong Advertiser, 19 January 1886.

[21] Convict Department Registers, General Register for Nos 9059 – 9598 cont., 9599 – 10128 (R15 – R16)

[22] Ibid.


[24] Convict Register List, Geraldton Family History Society.

[25] Victorian Express, 1 August 1883.

[26] Geraldton Advertiser, 8 April 1904.