Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Great Bedfordshire Bicycle Chase

In October 2011 our Paths to Crime document of the month told the story of Richard William Webb, who was accused of stealing a penny-farthing bicycle from a mechanic at Leighton Buzzard, Hyde Edward Dightam. I have just catalogued the Michaelmas Sessions for 1876 which included this case. Intrigued by the Keystone Cops style chase across Bedfordshire described in the depositions I did a little digging for additional information about the protagonists.

"Hyde" Edward Dightam was in fact Hyla Edward Dightam, whose bankruptcy was reported in the London Gazette for 19 May 1865. Formerly of Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, he was then a watch and clock maker living at Markyate Street. He was discharged from bankruptcy on 23rd June 1865. His financial difficulties did not prevent him practicing his trade as in the 1871 census he was again described as a watchmaker. He was aged 32, had been born in Mursley (Buckinghamshire) and was living with his wife and four young children in Dunstable. In the 1876 Quarter Sessions depositions Dightam is described as a general mechanic, presumably he was using his watchmaker's mechanical skills on a larger scale. By 1881 he was again in Dunstable working as a watch and clockmaker, now with eight children whose birth places indicate his travels. Florence Maud, aged 8, and Gertrude Elenor, aged 5, had both been born in Leighton Buzzard, and Walter Ambrose, aged 3, in Leeds, Yorkshire. The family were back in his wife's home town of Dunstable for the birth of their six month old baby, Olive Adelaine. He seems to have been both a wanderer and something of a jack-of-all-trade. In 1891 he was again living in Dunstable, but his trade was now cabinet maker, and in both 1901 and 1911 he was an upholsterer at Aston in Warwickshire.

Richard William Webb proved elusive. I was not able to find any references to a Richard Webb in Bedfordshire at that date. The gaol register does not give a place of birth but gives his age as 21. In his deposition to the Quarter Sessions James Siratt said that Webb told him he had been riding bicycles for eight years, but in these very early days of cycling it seems rather improbable that he would have been riding at the age of thirteen. Another deposition dismissed Webb's claim that he had discussed bicycle wheel sizes with his "uncle" Thomas Hopkins, the landlord of the Plume and Feathers at Leighton Buzzard. Hopkins said he did not know Webb, was not related to him, and had never discussed bicycles with him. Webb also said he was ready to pay for the bicycle, but had no money on him. It seems that Webb may have been something of a fantasist. The court acquitted him of stealing the penny-farthing. Was this justice? Or luck?

Woburn Cycling Club 1885

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