The Incident of Henry Ball

By A. J. Standley

(Another interesting piece from Tony, who spent the last 14 years of his working life at Stafford Prison. This article first appeared in Staffordshire History in 2003, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and Staffordshire History)

There are times when justice may be said to be hard, a sentiment in which Henry Ball could well have concurred. In 1853 Henry Ball was eighteen years of age, an apprentice, living at Wolverhampton. From the available information it may be presumed that Henry, no doubt along with many of his peers, was not enamoured of his situation. Perhaps he disliked the work he was required to do. Perhaps he found it difficult to get along with the members of the work force. Indeed, perhaps he thoroughly disliked his employers and the fact that he had to work at all, but whatever the reason or reasons, for these do not appear to have been stated. Henry absented himself from his masters' service and to this exception was taken. In those distant days when Acts of Parliament were in place to deal, at times severely with errant employees, and amongst whom idle apprentices figured prominently, it needed little for some employers to resort to the sanctions of the law, particularly if personal retribution had failed or, in the case of more sturdy youngsters, was personally inappropriate. Whatever, for as has been noted some things are vague in the background to the story. Henry, in consequence of absenting himself from his masters service, appeared before the justices of the borough of Wolverhampton on the 24th of May of 1853 and was sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment in the house of correction at Stafford.

It may be thought that Henry would have found his circumstances at Stafford prison - for the house of correction was in those days part of the county gaol - somewhat less appealing than his situation at Wolverhampton. Over the course of the 14 days that he spent there his diet would have consisted of one pint of oatmeal gruel and 6 ounces of bread for breakfast; 12 ounces of bread for dinner; and one pint of oatmeal gruel and 6 ounces of bread for supper. As a little extra, as he was sentenced to hard labour, once during each week he would have received one pint of soup. In common with hard labour prisoners Henry would probably have spent some time employed on the tread-wheel, very possibly several hours a day, a monotonous and physically tiring occupation. He would not have enjoyed conversation with other prisoners, unless it was in a furtive fashion to avoid the vigilance of the turnkeys or warders. The cell in which he would have been confined would not have afforded him the comforts of home. Now all of this, it might be conjectured, would have led Henry to view the prospect of his return to his employment at Wolverhampton on the completion of his sentence, with at least some enthusiasm and, hopefully, a more responsible attitude towards his duty as an apprentice. Yet regrettably, whatever motivated Henry on his return to Wolverhampton was to prove insufficient to keep him from the view of the borough justices and in the August of 1853, he once again appeared before them, again charged with absenting himself from his masters' service and on this occasion, appeared before three of the justices, Messrs. Leigh, Andrews and Cartwright, who took a more serious view of the matter, and Henry was ordered to serve one month's hard labour in the house of correction at Stafford. Once there Henry was again to be put to hard labour, but he was also, to his astonishment and no doubt his chagrin, stripped to the waist, tied up to a post and given 18 lashes with a whip. Now of a whipping Henry was quite sure, no such mention had been made in Court. Perhaps, as his clothing was being discarded, he remonstrated with the governor on the matter, no doubt thinking that he had an argument in his favour, but the prison official proved unbending, the 'stripes' with the whip were duly administered.

It would seem that Henry was quite unable to do other than resentfully endure the punishment that he had received until, at the end of his month's hard labour, accompanied by that indomitable figure, mother, the justices at Wolverhampton were privately confronted on the subject, when they denied that any such order had been given for Henry to be whipped. The justices were able to inspect the marks still visible on Henry's back and one of them, suspecting an irregularity at the prison, asked the offended party to keep quiet about the matter until enquiries had been made and especially requested that no attorney should be engaged, but despite the appeal an attorney was engaged by the family of Henry Ball, and this led to an application to the justices in open Court on Henry Ball's behalf. The justices responded that enquiries were being made and confessed that they were under an impression that something irregular had taken place at Stafford prison, but they were disappointed that as yet they had not received such assistance in the matter as they thought was desirable should come to them from the governor and the visiting justices at Stafford.

In respect of the contact by the Wolverhampton justices with the prison, it seemed that Mr. Leigh had directed his clerk to write to the governor of the gaol and obtain the return of the warrant of commitment that had been sent with Henry Ball. The clerk did so, but without giving any reason for the request. The prison governor had then replied, in what was perceived by the Wolverhampton justices as 'a curt manner' saying that he was unable to return the warrant, as it was contrary to his instructions to part with any warrant of commitment, but more so in this instance as the request came from the borough of Wolverhampton. A further letter then arrived at the prison from Mr. Leigh's clerk, in which he set out the reason for the original request, that the justices desired to see the warrant in consequence of a complaint made to them by Henry Ball, that he had been flogged while in the prison at Stafford, without any such order having been given by the committing justices. Mr. Leigh requested to know if Henry Ball had been flogged and wanted to inspect the commitment to see whether a flogging had or had not been ordered by that warrant. Now accepting that the prison governor was not going to part with the original warrant of commitment, Mr. Leigh's clerk enclosed a blank form of commitment and sought to have a duplicate of the original made out. Further explanation was given that in adjudicating upon the case of Henry Ball three justices had been sitting together, and while the signature of only one justice appeared on the original warrant - that of Mr. Andrews - the justice now seeking the information, although he had not signed the warrant, had been sitting on the case when it was dealt with.

The prison governor, still in a brief manner, replied that on receipt of this second letter he had again shown the first letter to the visiting justices at Stafford and had again been ordered not to comply with the request to return the warrant, but in the letter he said that he could inform the Wolverhampton justices that Henry Ball had indeed been flogged, the commitment that he had received being underlined at the word 'corrected'' 18 lashes had been inflicted, that being the usual dosage for boys of the age of the prisoner who were committed under similar circumstances. The governor, thoughtfully, also completed the duplicate commitment so that the justice at Wolverhampton could see what had been sent to the prison.

The matter by now had reached the local and London newspapers and an article appeared 'Flogging in the Stafford Prison' in which it was expressed that the visiting justices of Stafford prison, and the prison governor at Stafford, had not been helpful when the Wolverhampton justices attempted to resolve why one of their prisoners had been flogged seemingly without authority. This paragraph had in turn been seen by several of the Staffordshire justices who, offended at the suggestion that they had in any way shown discourtesy to their brethren at Wolverhampton, and at an aspersion cast upon their character, assembled at Stafford to consider the situation.

Captain William Fulford, the governor of the prison at Stafford meanwhile, having also observed the paragraph in the respective Stafford and Wolverhampton newspapers, promptly drew the attention of the visiting justices to the prison to the article in a letter, in which he asked that the matter should be brought to the attention of the coming Court of Quarter Sessions, stating that the article had the tendency to impress the public that he had flogged a prisoner in his custody without any warrant for doing so and that it tended to discredit him and the prison of which he had charge.

Armed with this letter and at the request of his fellow magistrates, the chairman of the visiting justices, the honourable and reverend AC Talbot, then wrote to the Wolverhampton justices requesting that the nature of the complaint should be brought to the attention of the visiting justices of the prison by the justices at Wolverhampton. The Wolverhampton justices duly responded stating that according to the information that they had received from the governor of the prison. Henry Ball had been flogged because the warrant committing him to prison contained the words 'to be corrected,' the word corrected being underlined. Neither the magistrate nor his clerk had underlined the word corrected in the warrant, and there was no intention on the part of the Wolverhampton magistrates that Henry Ball should be flogged.

The issue then came up before the Michaelmas Court of Quarter Sessions when the honourable and reverend AC Talbot brought to the attention of the Court the criticism that had been implied against the visiting justices and the prison governor, by the newspaper article, and defended the actions of the visiting justices and the prison governor, seeking the sanction of the Court for their actions. As to the whipping of Henry Ball, the governor was quite justified in administering it, he continued. Henry Ball had been sent to the prison with a warrant containing the words 'to be corrected' the word corrected being underlined, and in all such cases when this form of commitment was received, a flogging could be administered by the governor of the prison. As to the refusal of the justices to allow the warrant to be returned to Wolverhampton it was out of the question that any warrant should be returned and certainly not in the case a warrant signed by one magistrate for inspection by another magistrate.

By now the issue had become more one of injured judicial feelings than concern for Henry Ball. Mr Leigh, one of the Wolverhampton magistrates concerned in the committal, himself a county magistrate, argued the view of the Wolverhampton bench, that they had been treated with less than the courtesy they expected by the stance taken over the warrant. Surely the warrant could have been sent back on the promise of its immediate return? The friends of Henry Ball had suggested to him that the underlining of the words 'to be corrected' might have been done by the policeman who took Henry from the courtroom to the prison at Stafford, and done at the suggestion of friends of the prosecutor, in order to secure a more severe punishment. Mr Leigh continued, that while he could not now argue against the fact that where the words 'to be corrected' were used in a warrant that a flogging could be legally inflicted - the chairman of the Court had clearly ruled and given case precedence that it could - the practice appeared to be different in different prisons. The Wolverhampton magistrates had not intended that Henry Ball should be whipped and once the fact that he had been had come to their attention, they sought to establish why it had been done. Further, the abruptness of the prison governor's reply and particularly the comment that he had made in his letter in which he refused to return the commitment, adding 'as the commitment is from the borough of Wolverhampton' was not as courteous a reply as a gentleman might expect, and why those words about Wolverhampton? What did they mean?

There was an immediate response from the Stafford justices and the honourable and reverend AC Talbot rose to voice his feelings. How could offence be taken? The letter was addressed to a clerk, not to the justices, and as for the words concerning Wolverhampton, well some of the commitments sent from that place did not always conform to expectations. An instance was given when a mother, committed to the prison as a vagrant, was sent along with her 4 children. Of course the children were not admitted to the prison, other arrangements had to be made. Then there appeared to be a belief there that the justices could later change their minds having awarded a sentence and send along a fresh warrant with the intention of reducing the term of imprisonment, but the magistrates just could not do that. Only the Secretary of State had the authority to reduce the term of imprisonment once it had been passed and the person committed. There was no intention on the part of the visiting justices to the prison, or the prison governor to slight the Wolverhampton justices. Indeed the prison governor stated that had he known at the outset that an investigation was to take place into the committal of Henry Ball and the flogging that he had received, he would have gone to the land's end to have assisted in the matter.

By now both the justices of the borough of Wolverhampton and those for the county were reasonably contented that neither party had intended offence to the other, while the flogging that Henry Ball had received seemed to have faded from importance, but Mr Leigh wished to pursue the matter further and moved the court

'that the governor of the gaol be directed to make a return of all apprentices committed to the house of correction for misconduct under the 20th George 11, cap 19 section 4, in whose commitments are inserted the words to be corrected'.

Mr. Leigh considered it desirable to know whether flogging was always inflicted under those words. The court agreed and the return was to be made available before the next sessions meeting in January.

Henry Ball meantime appeared before the Wolverhampton justices for a 3rd rime in the same November. Henry was again charged with being absent from work, not having returned there since being discharged from prison two months before. An attorney appeared on Henry's behalf and pleaded that the lad was not yet fully recovered, that his mind was much affected by the taunts that he received from workmen in relation to the flogging that he had suffered. Henry's father, it was said, wished his son's employers would cancel the indentures of apprenticeship and had offered compensation, but the employers refused. The magistrate, however, dismissed any thought that Henry had been hard done by. The punishment that the boy had received pertained to his offence, he remarked, but upon Henry promising to return to his work, this time he was set free.

When the county magistrates assembled at the January sessions of 1854, the return compiled by the governor of the prison, concerning apprentices who had been flogged, was there for them to examine. It showed that in the preceding 3 years 30 lads had been so punished (this included Henry Ball). Their ages had ranged between 12 and 21 years, the number of stripes inflicted varying between 12 and 24. One lad had been excused the punishment on medical grounds. Of the 30 mentioned, 19 came from Wolverhampton; 8 from Willenhall; 1 from WaJsall; 1 from Bilston and 1 from Wednesbury.

The assembled magistrates heard that the visiting justices had caused a case, setting forth all the facts bearing upon the disputed flogging, to be sent to the attorney general. This was to prove, by the authority of the highest law officer in the country that the actions of the justices, and of the prison governor, had been correct, and that if any wrong had been done it was the fault of the law and not of the law's administrators. The attorney general having considered the matter had replied:

'We think the governor will be justified in whipping AB under the commitment, but we do not think him bound to do so. We think the terms of the commitment would be satisfied by any other milder mode of correction warranted by law, and by the rules of the gaol. As the vagueness of the term to be corrected made use of in the statute before referred to, leaves it, in our view, at the discretion of the gaoler to inflict corporal punishment or not, and as it seems very clear that such discretion ought not to exist, we recommend justices upon complaints against apprentices to proceed, at all events where they do not intend to make whipping part of the punishment, under statute 4th George 4th cap 34, under which statute whipping forms no part of the punishment'.

As a result of this opinion, the justices decided that for the future the governor of the prison was not to whip any apprentice unless the committing magistrate wrote in the margin of the commitment, in his own handwriting, the words to be whipped Henry Ball appears by now to have passed into obscurity, but the punishment that he suffered brought an end to a practice that had its roots in the vagrancy laws of a distant and far sterner age.


Staffordshire Advertiser 8th-22"11 October; 12th November 1853; 7th January 1854. SRO QSO Michaelmas 1854. SRO QSB Epiphany 1854.

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