Caught Red Handed: Duck Feathers and all!

Looking through the archives can lead to some interesting stories. Take, for example the case of Robert Goffin. He was convicted of larceny at the Norfolk Quarter Sessions in January 1843 .  A contemporary report from the Norwich Mercury newspaper revealed that Goffin (aged 25) was, in fact, charged with having stolen eleven ducks, the property of John Howlett of Bowthorpe on 23 October 1842 and Maria Goffin, his mother, stood charged with receiving the same, ‘well knowing the same to be stolen’.  The deposition of Mary Howard, wife of a farm balliff in Bowthorpe, stated that she had the care of the ducks in question and ‘on the 20th of October I put 20 ducks into the fowl-house; at six o’clock the next morning I missed 11 of those ducks; I have seen a wing and some feathers which were shown to me by police officer Copeman, and believe them to belong to the same ducks that were stolen from my master’s’.

Entry for Robert Goffin (at the top) in the Norfolk Quarter Sessions book, 1840-5. NRO, C/S 1/26

There was a further deposition from Robert Laws, a blacksmith in the St Benedict’s area of Norwich: ‘The prisoner (Robert Goffin) brought four ducks to my house on the 31st of October; and I bought one of them’.  Then it was the turn of Serjeant Copeman, who confirmed that he had searched Mrs Goffin’s house and  found some ducks’ feathers in the stable: ‘I also saw some on the kitchen floor, in the house; they were strewed all over the room; I then went to a closet at the further end of the room, and found three ducks’ wings, and a set of giblets; the neck was broken; I also saw some duck wings burning on the fire…I asked the female prisoner how she came by the wings in the closet; she said she bought them in the market, about a fortnight before, four for a halfpenny; I found a peculiar wing upon the fire; I asked her where she got it from; she said – ‘she did not steal them’.  The wing found on the fire and some feathers plucked from a duck sold to Laws, were produced; and Mary Howard identified the wing ‘but said she would rather not speak about the feathers, although she had no doubt about them’.  Under examination, Robert Goffin stated that he bought the ducks of a man named Tom Jarvis, which contradicted his mother’s statement to the policeman.

Interestingly, when the Chairman of the Bench briefly summed up the case in court, he ‘said he thought it had failed for the want of sufficient proof’.  However, the jury, after a few minutes’ consultation, not understanding what the Chairman had said, returned a verdict of guilty against both prisoners!  The Chairman then said he had ‘not the slightest doubt of the guilt’ of both parties, and committed Robert Goffin to four months’ hard labour, and Maria Goffin, as the receiver, to six months. The Norfolk Quarter Sessions minute book records that Robert was sent to the county gaol (at Norwich Castle) whilst his mother was sent to the Wymondham Bridewell (or house of correction), which was designated for holding female prisoners.

It seems that one of Robert’s children also had brushes with the law. Abraham Goffin was sentenced for three months for ‘breaking and entering a dwellinghouse and committing larceny therein’ and a ‘like offence’ at the Norwich Sessions on 1 July 1890, for which he was sentenced to three months in prison.  The Norwich prison register shows he was 39 and a wire weaver. The register describes Abraham as being 5’, 1¾’’ tall, with dark brown hair, and it was noted that he could read. 

The Norwich Mercury records that Abraham pleaded guilty ‘to breaking into the dwelling-house of John Smith, at Hellesdon, and stealing a silver watch on May 20th; and also to breaking into the same house on May 21st, and stealing a clock, value £5.  Prisoner said that he was in drink at the time, or he should not have done it.  The Recorder said that there was not much against the prisoner previously.  On one occasion he had been charged with assault, and on another occasion with deserting his wife and child.  The Recorder sent him to prison for three months’.

By the time of the 1891 census (taken at the beginning of April), Abraham had returned home to live with his parents in Hellesdon.  However, he wasn’t there for long; Abraham died in 1899.  Norwich City Council’s Health department’s death returns registers revealed that Abraham ended his days in the Norwich workhouse at Heigham where he died of phthisis pulmonalis exhaustion (i.e., consumption of the lungs) on 15 August 1899, aged 48.

Robert and Abraham Goffin on the 1891 census.
Entry for Abraham Goffin, in the Norwich Death Returns, 1899. NRO, N/HE 11/6
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