The hapless boatman

While researching George Dennis, The Polesworth miner, I found some newspaper articles about a George Henry Dennis, boatman, of Burton-on-Trent.  Surely, a connection, I thought.  So I set about finding it.

The Swan Fradley
The Swan, Fradley: a familiar sight for George?

Nottingham Evening Post 22 November 1886 p4 col4


CHARGE OF ROBBING A BOATMAN. — Thomas Camp was charged with having stolen 19s. 10d. in money and some pawntickets [sic], the property of George Henry Dennis, of Burton-on-Trent. The robbery was alleged to have been committed at Stanton-gate, on October 11th, 1882. The prosecutor had charge of a boat belonging to Mr. Bullock, of Burton-on-Trent. The defendant was also employed upon it. At the date mentioned it was on the canal at Stanton-gate, the prosecutor, his wife, and the prisoner sleeping on board. The money and the pawntickets were taken from the dress pocket of Mrs. Dennis during the night. The prisoner was apprehended at Burton-on-Trent on the 13th inst., and, in answer to the charge, he said he took the money for his wages. He had since lost the pawntickets. Since the offence was committed the prisoner had been in America. He was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions.

Derby Mercury 24 November 1886 p3 col3

AN OLD OFFENCE …  Ann Dennis, the wife of George Henry Dennis, deposed that at the time the defendant was in his service as a boatman. …

Nottinghamshire Guardian 7 Jan 1887 p12


THOMAS CAMP, against whom there was a number of previous convictions, was sent to prison for six months for stealing 19s. 10d., the moneys of Ann Dennis, at Stanton-by-Dale.

Nottingham Evening Post 17 May 1889 p4 col 3

SERIOUS ASSAULT ON A BAILIFF. — At the Burton Borough Police Court yesterday, before the ex-Mayor and other magistrates, George Henry Dennis, of Newton-street, was charged with assaulting Samuel Aston, a County Court Bailiff, while in the execution of his duty. On Monday last prosecutor and another man named Bromley went to the prisoner’s house with a warrant to levy and execution when, after a short time, prisoner entered with a small axe in his hand and commenced to behave in a very violent manner. The man Bromley essayed to obtain possession of the axe, but was put aside by prisoner, who attacked the prosecutor, and with a violent blow on the forehead rendered him insensible. When Astin [sic] regained consciousness he found defendant kneeling upon him and continuing the assault. Fined 40s. and 12s. costs, or, in default, one month’s imprisonment.

And the same incident in the Birminham Daily Post 18 May 1889 p5 col7

ASSAULTING A COUNTY COURT BAILIFF. — At the Borough Police Court, yesterday, George Henry Dennis, a labourer, was charged with assaulting Sam Asten, a County Court bailiff, while in the execution of his duty, on the 13th inst. Prosecutor went to prisoner’s house to execute a warrant, and prisoner came up, threatening, and flourishing an axe. The implement was forced from him, and he then struck prosecutor with his fist, making him unconscious. Prisoner knelt on him and continued to punch him until his face appeared to be all of a pulp. Prisoner now expressed great regret for what he had done, and the Bench liberated him on paying a fine of 40s. and 12s. costs, but intimated that if another similar case came before them they should send the person charged to gaol, without the option of a fine.

I had hoped to paraphrase much of this next article, which is quite long, but what follows is almost complete. I have introduced paragraph breaks to make the discussion easier to follow, and, perhaps, to recapture some of the courtroom drama.  If you prefer my summary, scroll down to the blue type.

Lichfield Mercury 23 October 1891



George Henry Dennis, boatman, Burton-on-Trent v. Frederick Sephton, boat builder, Polesworth. — Claim £17, viz., £12 damages for the detention of a canal boat or £5 the balance of its value.

Mr Nevill [appearing for the plaintiff] stated that on April 11th plaintiff agreed to purchase of the defendant a canal boat named the Perseverance, guaranteed by the defendant to be fit to live in. The agreement for the purchase was that plaintiff was to pay £4 10s in cash, which he did, and 10s was an old boat, which left a balance of £8, and which was to be paid by fortnightly instalments of 16s. The plaintiff, his father-in-law (Thomas Wright), and the defendant and his wife were all present when the bargain was made. Wright stated that if defendant would make the instalments monthly then he would agree to that. The agreement was written out by Mrs Sephton. Three weeks afterwards it was forwarded to the plaintiff, and when it was read over to him, as he was illiterate, he at once stated that it was not the agreement which he signed.

His Honour here asked for the agreement, which was handed to him, and after perusing it he asked plaintiff if it was his signature.

Plaintiff: No, sir.

His Honour: You can write your name. Do you mean to tell me this was not signed by you?

Plaintiff: Yes, sir.

Mr Atkins [for the defendant]: He wrote Wright’s name also, and Wright made a mark against it.

Plaintiff: I did not.

His Honour: I must caution you! If you are going to mislead me in this way, I must deal with you. Look at these two names, Wright and Dennis. You know your own writing perfectly well; did you write those names?

Plaintiff: I did not.

His Honour: Who did?

Plaintiff: If you will allow me to speak one word to Sephton.

His Honour: Is that signature (George Dennis) in your handwriting?

Plaintiff: No.

Mr Nevill said when plaintiff called upon him he had told plaintiff what a serious position he was placing himself in by denying the signature.

His Honour: I have no doubt that you did everything that was right, Mr Nevill.

His Honour then asked plaintiff to write his name on a piece of paper, which he did in a bold round hand, spelling his Christian name “George” which was the same as in the agreement.

His Honour: I have not the slightest doubt it is your writing. After cautioning you twice you deliberately swear differently?

Plaintiff: Yes, it is not because I am winning or losing.

His Honour: I shall hear evidence on this, but I give you fair warning what will happen to you. Is anyone in Court who saw him write it?

Mr Atkins: Mr Sephton saw him!

Mr Nevill: When he came to see me I asked him if it was his writing.

His Honour: Mr Nevill, don’t imagine for one moment that I think you would do anything that was not right. Here is a document signed by three people. It seems to me to be his writing, and if that is so you have no case.

Mr Neville: After seeing him I told him to go back to Burton, and I would think it over. I communicated with Mr Wright, who lives at Glascote, and he told me the purport of the agreement. He stated to me positively that it was not the same agreement which was read to him.

His Honour: If it is not so it is a very curious thing how the exact terms, nearly the exact rate of payment, got in. Let Wright be called!

Thomas Wright then entered the witness box.

His Honour: Just be careful! Who signed your name there (shewing [old word for “showing”] him the agreement)?

Witness: Mrs Sephton.

His Honour: Who signed “George Dennis”?

Witness: I can’t tell you. I never saw no one write except Mrs Sephton. I don’t know who wrote his name.

His Honour: Did you authorise Mrs Sephton to write your name?

Witness: I said I would not write and she wrote for me.

Cross-examined: He was father in law to plaintiff. He had not received a letter from defendant about his liability to pay for the boat.

The defendant was then called.

His Honour: Did you see plaintiff write his name on this agreement?

Defendant: Yes; I saw Wright make that cross; plaintiff’s wife was also present. Plaintiff wrote “Thos. Wright” and his own name. My wife wrote out the agreement.

Mr Nevill: How was it that that agreement was not handed to the plaintiff?

Defendant: He left some papers about some manure and other papers as well, and they were all sent on to him by the next post.

By the Judge: Two copies were made, and both were signed.

Mr Nevill: Why was not the agreement given to Dennis?

Defendant: It was given to his wife. He wrote his name there.

Wright: Dennis cannot write.

Defendant: He wrote it distinctly. My wife read it our before he signed it. Dennis has told the biggest untruths!

His Honour: Never mind; that is for me and not you to decide. Answer the questions you are asked, and don’t pass judgement on the case; that is not your province!

Mr Nevill: During the time five persons were present was a single word said about his hiring that boat?

Defendant: Yes.

Mr Nevill: Didn’t you tell Dennis and others that he had bought it?

Defendant: Such a thing was out of the question.

Mr Nevill: Do you think a sensible man would pay £5 down, and then if he was in arrears a fortnight would agree to lose all claim to the boat.

His Honour: This is a hire-purchase agreement, and has been copied from an agreement drawn up by a lawyer. When the £13 is paid it would become his property.

Mr Nevill: And if he did not pay he would forego all the other payments?

His Honour: That is outside the question. Until he pays the £13 it remains the property of the defendant. The main question is, did your client sign this document. If he did he has no cause of action.

Mr Nevill: He states distinctly to me that he did not sign it.

His Honour said that he was satisfied that the plaintiff did not sign the agreement. Apart from all other considerations he had heard the witnesses, and looking at the whole of the circumstances, and at the writing, he could not imagine that the defendant would go into Court and be a party to forging the plaintiff’s name to the document.

Mr Nevill said he wished to go into the merits of the case.

His Honour: No property passes to you until the £13 is paid.

Mr Nevill said the amount due had been tendered to the defendant who refused to accept it.

Re-examined, the defendant said he wrote eleven or twelve letters to plaintiff before he re-took possession of the boat.

His Honour repeated he was satisfied that plaintiff had signed the agreement. Defendant denied that plaintiff tendered him any money before he seized the boat. In reply to His Honour, he said the original agreement, from which the one produced was copied, was drawn up by Mr Wilkes, of Coventry. His Honour said the agreement provided that if nothing was paid between the execution of the contract and the 28th of May pliantiff should have no claim to the boat.

The witness Wright (re-called) said, in answer to the Judge, that he occupied ten acres of garden land, but he had no money in the bank. His Honour said it came back to the point as to whether plaintiff signed the agreement. He repeated that he belived plaintiff did sign it. A written document could not be varied by verbal evidence. He very much regretted to say that in his judgement the plaintiff and his father-in-law had come there to commit wilful and corrupt perjury. It appeared to him to be a very bad case of perjury indeed. It was a monstrous thing to suggest that those names had been forged, and there would be a verdict for defendant with costs. If plaintiff escaped prosecution for perjury he would be a lucky man.

Mr Atkins said he might say, in justice to the defendant, that he wrote to plaintiff saying that he might have the [col 5] boat if the money was paid by August.

Mr Nevill retorted that if they had the boat now they would wand a considerable reduction.

His Honour then ordered the agreements produced to be impounded by the Registrar, remarking that it was a very serious case.

It appears that George Henry Dennis and his father-in-law, Thomas Wright, had entered into a hire purchase agreement, to acquire from Frederick Sephton a boat, Perseverance, that he and wife Ann could live aboard, with Wright putting up some of the money.  As both Dennis and Wright were unable to write, Mrs Sephton wrote out the agreement.  Dennis signed his name and Wright made his mark against his name.  They probably entered into the agreement in good faith, but at a critical time they ran short of funds (Wright said there was nothing in the bank), and, under the terms of the agreement, the boat remained the property of Sephton.  The only way for Dennis and Wright to extricate themselves was to claim they had not entered into the agreement produced in court, but His Honour saw through their tactics and alleged that Dennis had persistently perjured himself.  Perjury has always been one of the most serious crimes in an English court of law.

However, I can find no further report or criminal record that Dennis was prosecuted for perjury, and can only conclude that he escaped what would surely have been a custodial sentence.  A lucky man, indeed!  But not so lucky in the end …

Lichfield Mercury 7 July 1899 p7 col1


Jas. Parker, canal boatman, Birmingham, pleaded not guilty to a charge of assaulting George Dennis, canal boatman, Burton-on-Trent, on the 23rd ult. — The boats were moored in the canal at Hopwas. Between eleven o’clock and midnight Dennis was preparing to leave the wharf with his boat, and when on the bridge near the Chequers, defendant said, “Can’t we leave as well as you,” to which he replied, “There is plenty of room for both.” Defendant, who was in his stocking feet, challenged him to a fight, and then struck him in the abdomen, rendering him unconscious. He believed defendant struck him with an iron bar which he had in his hand, but he could not be certain about it. His mate was with him. He had since been an out-patient at Burton Infirmary. He gave defendant no provocation. Defendant was drunk, and also jealous because a man had said to him (complainant), “One boatload of your manure is worth two of his.” William Rudgard, boatman, said defendant struck complainant with his fist, and knocked him down and kicked him whilst on the ground. By Dr. Joy: He did not interfere because they were “one and one”.” (Laughter.) Complainant was unable to proceed with the boat. Chas. Taylor, goods porter, in the employ of the London and North-Western Railway, living near the canal, said he was in bed when he heard a disturbance. He got up and witnessed the assault. Defendant used bad language. Witness went for the police. It was a moonlight night. — Defendant, who elected to be sworn, asserted that complainant struck him the first blow, knocking him down and falling upon him. Defendant also knocked one of his teeth out. He came out of the cabin because he heard a noise in the stable, and went to look at his horse. — George Berry (17), a youth, corroborated defendant’s story, but admitted that he did not go out of the cabin until ten minutes after the row began. — The Bench considered it a gross assault, and fined defendant £2 4s 6d including costs; in default seven day’s hard labour.

When I passed through Hopwas, I might easily have been moored in the same place.  The Chequers is now The Tame Otter.

hopwas os 1900 1902
Hopwas, Staffordshire, in George’s day. Ordnance Survey. Revised 1900, published 1902. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Lichfield Mercury 24 April 1903 p2 col5.

MYSTERIOUS DEATH AT BURTON. — George Henry Dennis, a man of about 50, who resided at 121, Waterloo Street, Burton, and was a carter in the employ of Messrs’ Riley and Sons, timber merchants, was found on the Lichfield Road on Saturday afternoon [18th] with his back broken and several ribs crushed. Before he could be conveyed to the Gate Inn he died.

There appears to be no press report of an inquest.

George Henry Dennis:  who was he?

This is an infrequent name, so finding some details was quite easy.  Nonetheless, I have been unable to find some records, which might have something to do with being a boatman.

In the England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915 George Henry Dennis and Ann Wright appear on the same page, registered 1875 Oct-Dec Tamworth 6b 681.  This fits with father-in-law being Thomas Wright.

The earliest census record I can find that I am certain of is for 1881, when George H Dennis, 24, bricklayer’s labourer, lived at 28 Princess Street, Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent, with wife Ann, 22, one son and a boarder.

 In 1891 they were at 6 Stanley Street, Burton-on-Trent, with four children.  George Hy Dennis, 36, was a general labourer.

In 1901 they were at 211 Waterloo Street, Horninglow, where George H was a general labourer.

The occupations recorded in the censuses are not “boatman”.  From the news reports George was a boatman in 1882 (as an employee), but apparently not in 1886.  In 1889 he was a labourer, as he was until his death in 1903.  He was described as a boatman in 1891, but his efforts to acquire a boat were after the census, and, it would seem, came to nought, though he was a boatman in 1899.  But by 1901 he was again a labourer.  Perhaps “general labourer and sometime boatman” would be a more accurate description of his working life.  I should point our that there was only one George Henry Dennis who could be the subject of these events.

According to the press (above) George died in 1903, and this ties in with a death registered 1903 Apr-Jun Burton-on-Trent 6b 24, aged 45.  The paper said he was about 50, and I suspect this was nearer the mark; it ties in with a birth registered 1854 Jan-Mar Derby 7b 357.  To establish any connection, or cause of death, it would be necessary to obtain copies.



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