‘Starving’ Preston teen girl robbed cap maker of gold sovereigns

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a street robbery that led to tragic consequences for the mother of the culprit...

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 12:30 pm
Mr Sykes was robbed near the Corporation Arms
Mr Sykes was robbed near the Corporation Arms

At the Preston Police Court in mid-February 1845 two teenagers namely, Ann Lee and Elizabeth Price, were brought up from custody, charged with having robbed, on the previous night, Mr. Humphrey Sykes, a cap manufacturer, from Bury of £25 in banknotes and 14 gold sovereigns.

Esther Lee, mother of Ann Lee, was charged with having received a portion of the money. According to the prosecutor’s statement, at about 10 o’clock the previous night, he was going down Lune Street towards the Corporation Arms smoking a cigar and he walked past the two girls who followed him.

On overtaking him, one of the girls knocked the cigar out of his mouth, and as he was stooping to pick it, they stooped down also, and took out of his breast pocket, a leather purse that contained the money. They immediately ran away, and having missed his money, he gave information to the police.

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Police Constable Ascroft was called and he testified that he had apprehended the two girls at 1 o’clock in the morning, at the Lee family home and charged them with the robbery.

Both denied ever having seen Mr. Sykes, nonetheless he conducted a search and he found concealed in a purse belonging to Price, in the bolster on a bed, the missing banknotes and 12 gold sovereigns.

The girl Lee then acknowledged having met the prosecutor on Lune Street, and being very poor and desperate for food had put her hand in his pocket and taken the money, which she gave to her companion Price.

The girls were taken to the lock-up at once to await their court appearance.

Prior to being placed in a cell Price whispered that Lee’s mother had received two of the sovereigns from her daughter.

In the company of P.C. Dyson, P.C. Ascroft returned to Esther Lee’s house, and found the two sovereigns hidden behind a washboard.

In her defence, Esther Lee, claimed that when the girls came home, they had said they found the two sovereigns near a druggist’s shop in Heatley Street. Stating that she had put the coins behind the washboard for safe keeping until their loss was announced by the police when she was hopeful of a reward for finding them.

The magistrates, after a lengthy discussion, committed all three for trial at the Preston Sessions held a week later. Both Ann Lee and Elizabeth Price pleaded guilty as charged, but Esther Lee pleaded not guilty. The particulars of the robbery and the finding of the money was submitted once more and Esther Lee stated she was unaware of the robbery. The jury, after only a brief consultation, returned with a guilty verdict.

Esther Lee, aged 58, was then informed that along with her daughter she was sentenced to three months imprisonment in the House of Correction. For Elizabeth Price a sentence of six months in Lancaster Castle was then passed.

Unfortunately, Esther Lee would never taste freedom again. From the time of her incarceration she was in poor health and she died in early May 1845.

Coroner Richard Palmer held an Inquest within the prison walls and it was stated that every effort had been made to improve her health without success and a verdict of ‘Died by the visitation of God’ was recorded.