Six months’ jail for Preston pickpocket who targeted rail passenger

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of a pickpocket who took more than he could handle...

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 8th October 2020, 11:49 am
Updated Thursday, 8th October 2020, 11:52 am
Miss Parker travelled from the Garstang Station
Miss Parker travelled from the Garstang Station

James Donnelly, who claimed to be a shoemaker, appeared at the Preston police court on the second Tuesday of January 1858 before chief magistrate William Ainsworth accused of stealing a gold watch, valued at £14, and a purse the property of Miss Martha Parker, of Barnacre-with-Bonds, near Garstang.

The first witness was P.S. Martin who apologised for the prisoner being a day late for the hearing.

He explained that he had brought him from Manchester by train the previous day, but having reached Euxton he had requested a toilet break and Donnelly took so long that the train left without them. Consequently, by the time they got to Preston the day’s hearings were over.

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Miss Parker then testified that on the first Saturday of January she left home with the purpose of coming to Preston on the railway.

At the Garstang station she had occasion to look at her watch, and the glass dropped out. She then took the chain from it, and having wrapped the watch in paper, put it in her dress pocket in which she also had a purse containing a few silver shillings.

Just before the train reached Preston she checked the watch was safe in her pocket. When she arrived at Preston, she crossed the line by the gangway, to go to the left luggage office on the other side and when there she missed the watch. In the hustle and bustle of a crowded station it appeared a light fingered pickpocket had been at work.

P.S. Martin then produced the watch in court and Miss Parker identified it as her property and told the court she was sure it couldn’t have just dropped from her pocket.

Martin Ring, a pawnbroker from Manchester, was then called and stated that on the Monday following the alleged theft the accused had visited his shop on Great Ancoats Street offering the watch in pledge for £3, saying that he had bought it from a hawker in Leeds for £6.

When he was asked for an invoice for the watch he told the pawnbroker he had lit his pipe with it.

He then gave an address in Angel Street and was told if the address was found to be correct he would be advanced the money, the watch being held in the meantime.

Being suspicious the pawnbroker notified the police and when a constable went to the address it was found to be a false one.

The next morning when Donnelly returned to the pawn broker’s a police officer was waiting for him and he was apprehended on suspicion of theft.

According to P.S. Martin on the way to the police station Donnelly made contradictory statements respecting the watch and claiming he bought it firstly in Leeds and then in Manchester.

At this point the prisoner, who had repeatedly interrupted the witnesses, shouted out that he was completely innocent of stealing the watch and saying he would not have bought it if he knew it was stolen.

After being cautioned by the magistrates over his behaviour he was informed that he was committed to stand trial at the next Preston Sessions.

Donnelly maintained his not guilty plea whilst on remand and he appeared for trial in mid-February at the Preston Sessions before the Mayor John Humber.

The common jury after hearing the evidence and Donnelly’s tearful pleas of innocence returned a guilty verdict and he was given a sentence of six month’s imprisonment.

The Garstang & Catterall Railway Station served both the L&NW railway from 1840 and the railway to Knott End, located in the parish of Barnacre with Bonds, opened in 1870.

The station closed for passengers in 1930 and freight circa 1969.