Edward Marshall Hall and the Case of the Walsall Food Hoarder, 1918

As I am still caught in an impasse, unable to make progress on the two stories I am currently writing, I thought I would write-up another Walsall tale. It is a story I discovered by accident, I think as I worked on the Walsall Imperial stories that are already on Wyrleyblog. The events related started over the festive period of 1917, if indeed there was one in the penultimate year of the Great War, although it would not be concluded until the February of the following year. It is a story that has many elements of humour to it, elements that I especially exploit when I use it as a part of a ‘Walsall’s First World War’ talk I do; saying that, I also make it painfully clear that it is actually set against the serious backdrop of food shortage and malnutrition on the home front which eventually saw, also in February 1918, the introduction of rationing in Britain.

Walsall Police inspection, c1925. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Police inspection at the Arboretum, 1920s. (Walsall Local History Centre)

This is the tale of the unfortunately named John Thomas (cue Frankie Howerd), who was charged in December 1917 with food hoarding by the Walsall Food Control Committee. Thomas’ house had been raided by the Walsall Police on 14 December and the Council, under the the Assistant Town Clerk and Food Control Officer and equally unfortunately named Victor Crooke (you just can’t make it up), decided to prosecute a few days later. Found guilty, Thomas was given leave to appeal and appeal he did.

A food economy exhibition at the Temperance Hall during WWI (Walsall Local History Centre)

A food economy exhibition at the Temperance Hall during WWI (Walsall Local History Centre)

This is where I initially joined events, as it was the report of this appeal in the local newspapers which grabbed my attention while looking for information on the Imperial, however, it wasn’t the hoarding aspect that caught my eye, interesting as that was, but the fact that what seemed to be a tuppeny-ha’penny food hoarder from the back of beyond was defended at the Quarter Sessions by Sir Edward Marshall Hall. Marshall Hall, known as the ‘Great Defender’, was arguably the greatest barrister in the country at that time and some say, ever.

Backdrop: The Food Situation in 1917/1918
The British food situation in 1917 was not as serious as that in Germany, but nevertheless it was becoming more acute. Germany had been completely blockaded by the Royal Navy at the start of the war and by 1917 was in a serious situation; indeed, it was the seriousness of their situation, along with the increasing American threat, that saw them launch their desperate gamble, known as the Ludendorff Offensive, in March 1918. The German offensives over the next few months would peter out, in part, due to the uncovering of Allied food and supplies by the beleaguered German soldiers. The Germans themselves attributed around half a million deaths to starvation during the war, while outsiders place it towards the million mark.

At the start of the war, food rationing in Britain was self-imposed: groups, like the League of National Safety, were formed to rally the nation through patriotism, jingoism or any other ‘ism’ to understand that, as the article in the Walsall Pioneer from 1918 states: ‘thrift in food spells more ships for America’s soldiers whose tramp, tramp, tramp across the prairies of the west is a sound of bad omen in the ears of the Germans… the kitchen being in the battle-line’. The leagues were open to all, including the ‘crossing-sweeper… Major Generals and a few Colonels’, and free to join, with each member getting a badge and certificate ‘which no doubt will become historic, and should be in every household.’

A report on the National League of Safety in the Walsall Pioneer, Feb 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

A report on the National League of Safety in the Walsall Pioneer, Feb 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

In January 1917, anxious to blockade Britain in the same way as Britain had done to them, the Germans re-introduced their unrestricted submarine warfare campaign and Allied merchant losses mounted. The Allies countered by establishing the convoy system and so submarine losses rose significantly. The submarine threat added significantly to the decision to launch the Passchendaele offensive later that year, with one aim of the attack being to sweep north and clear the coast of submarine bases. In April 1918 the British tried, with limited success. to raid Zeebrugge and close it off to submarine use.

At home, through 1917, food prices rose and coal was in such short supply that it began to be rationed. The voluntary rationing of foodstuffs began to fail and there was a growth in the black market. The Defence of the Realm Act empowered the government to take over land and in 1917 the government took 2.5 million acres into temporary ownership for farming. By the end of the war, this had risen to 3 million acres. Any area that could grow food, in parks and so forth, was converted to do so and livestock were kept in back gardens.

As the young men of fighting age had been called up, the work was to be done by the newly formed Women’s Land Army, former soldiers now unfit to fight and conscientious objectors. Despite their work, the impact of the German U-boat campaign made food shortages a serious problem by 1918; malnutrition was now seen in poorer communities and as a result the government introduced rationing in February 1918. Initially sugar was rationed, but by the end of April, bread, meat, butter, cheese and margarine were also rationed. To keep order, ration cards were issued and everyone had to register with a butcher and grocer. It worked, malnutrition reduced.

Walsall take on the Birmingham rationing system, Feb 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall take on the Birmingham rationing system, Feb 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Food hoarding, as you can see, was no joke as John Thomas’ case went to appeal in the February of 1918.

John Thomas: Wales, Willenhall and Walsall
John had an interesting upbringing, with Irish, English and above all, Welsh influences. He was born in Bangor, Wales, in mid-1880. His father was also a John, who was born in Birmingham around 1857. He had moved to Bangor in Wales sometime before 1878, as he met and married Rose Costello that year. Rose, a couple of years John’s junior, was the daughter of John and Winifred Costello. The Costellos were originally from Ireland, which may account for John Thomas’ future Roman Catholicism.

John Costello was described on the 1881 census as a general dealer. In 1881, the Thomas’ were living in the Costello household (possibly incorporating a shop) in Drum Street, Bangor. John Thomas senior was described as a sugar boiler, which I find interesting as John Thomas junior would later be accused at his trial of hoarding sugar – sugar that he claimed he had obtained from Llandudno. Llandudno is not too far from Bangor and, as far as I am aware, not generally considered the sugar capital of the world.

John Thomas, aged 10 months, living in Bangor, Wales, 1881. (National Archives) the

John Thomas, aged 10 months, living in Bangor, Wales, 1881. (National Archives) the

John and Rose added to their family over the next decade: William Thomas being born around 1881, Alfred Barton in 1887 and Frederick in 1888. Back in 1883 the family circumstances had changed, as Rose lost both her parents that year and it seems likely that at this point John took over the general dealership of John Costello. We know that in 1891 the family are living in a shop on Drum Street, with John Thomas now being being described as a general dealer. John junior and William were described as scholars on the census of that year.

By 1901 John junior would be in Walsall, living behind 12 Day Street in the home of his father’s brother, Frederick. Frederick was a curb chain forger, his wife a curb chain filer; a curb chain is found on a horses’ headgear. John had also become a curb chain forger, which in all likelihood was his introduction to the metal trade and where in the future he would make his money.

Time to interject a little. The story of the Thomas family is of contextual importance to this story, due to the possibility of them supplying John with some of the foodstuffs discovered in his house in 1917. On the 1901 census, Rose was listed as the head of the household – also in Drum Steet – and as a confectioner and baker. William was also listed as a confectioner. John senior was not listed as being in the household and I can’t trace him elsewhere, but this may have been simply because he was away at the time. I believe Rose died in Bangor in 1904. In 1911, John senior is living in the Bangor household of the newly married Alfred. The 24 year-old Alfred is in the butchery trade and John is described as being a sugar boiler again, although his 60 years seems a little inaccurate. I cannot trace William or Frederick with certainty.

John’s life in Walsall was to change beyond recognition over the next decade. Displaying the business acumen of his father and grandfather, John moved into scrap metal. Sometime prior to 1911, as he is described as a buyer of metallic waste and an employer on the census, he formed, and was sole proprietor of, the Willenhall Refining and Smelting Company.  This company operated from the growing Summer Street in Willenhall. Summer Street was then off Wolverhampton Road, it is now off Somerford Place.

While he operated from Willenhall, John actually lived in Walsall. He attended St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church and it was here, on 28 June 1909, he married Annie Slater. Annie, who was around a year younger than John, was from Walsall and was the daughter of Joseph and Mary Slater. In 1891, the Slater family lived in Farringdon Street, Birchills. At this point Joseph was an engine driver. By 1901 the family had moved to Green Lane and Joseph had, interestingly, become a blacksmith; one wonders if this provided a connection between John and Annie. Annie had become a machinist (sewing).

2 Victoria Terrace, the Thomas' lived to the left at number 1. (Zoopla)

2 Victoria Terrace, the Thomas’ lived to the left at number 1. (Zoopla)

In 1910, the couple had their first child – another John. In 1911, John’s business is sufficiently lucrative for the family to live in the mock-Georgian town houses on Victoria Terrace, overlooking the Arboretum lakes. The couple had a daughter, Winifred, in 1912 and another, Joan, in 1913. The newspaper account of the trial in 1918 did say the couple had four children, but I will not get the chance to check on the name of the last child, whom I would guess was born in 1911, before I release this article.

The Thomas' family at Victoria Terrace, 1911. (National Archives)

The Thomas’ family at Victoria Terrace, 1911. (National Archives)

Just a few last things to mention about Thomas’ personal, domestic and business life prior to his arrest in 1917. The first thing is that he was a devout Catholic, regularly attending St Patrick’s Church. We also know that he moved in the respected circles that his business status suggests – and this we know from the character witnesses that were called to give evidence at his trial.

Further, by 1916 the family had moved to 3 St Pauls Terrace, Walsall. This was another respectable town house, which now lies underneath the Job Centre on Hatherton Road, opposite St Paul’s Bus Station, in Walsall. We also know that by 1917 Thomas also employed domestic help in the form of a housemaid and, what appears to be, a part-time handyman/gardener.

We know that his business was thriving, as at some stage John Thomas became at least an agent for, and even possibly a director of, a ‘large metal concern in London’. This ‘concern’ shipped metal and refined copper, according to Thomas. I would suggest that it was Thomas’ connection to this larger, un-named company that saw the calling-in of Marshall Hall to protect its name and not that of the Willenhall Refining and Smelting Company.

The Bust: Ballance and the Beak
Things were going so well, until 14 December 1917. On that day, Chief Inspector Ballance, with other officers, raided Thomas’ St Pauls Terrace home. A lot of what they found was later described in court: 364 lbs of tea, 125 lbs of sugar, 96 tins of condensed milk, 5 bottles of milk, 71 tins and a barrel (84 lbs) of biscuits, 20 quarters and one half sack of flour, 72 lbs of Quaker oats, 1 hundred weight and 60 packets of peas, 1 hundred weight of lentils, 39 packets of beans, 36 packets of mixed peas and beans, 56 lbs of cheese, 22 bottles of sauce, 112 lbs of syrup and treacle, 14 hams, 4 flitches of bacon (half a pig cut lengthwise), 144 lbs of corned beef, 67 tins of salmon, 21 tins of ox tongue, 96 tins of crab, 12 bottles of meat paste, 12 bottles of fish paste, 160 lbs of nuts, 48 tins of tomatoes, 9 and a half sacks of potatoes, a hundred weight of onions and other items referred to but not mentioned. The Counsel for the prosecution later stated that Thomas was as well stocked as a ‘good-sized grocer’s shop’.

Walsall Guildhall, scene of both of Thomas' court appearances. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Guildhall, scene of both of Thomas’ court appearances. (Walsall Local History Centre)

On the 17 December, Thomas was hauled before the Court of Summary Justice at the Guildhall (think of it as a Magistrate Court). If things didn’t look that great for Thomas before his appearance, they looked even worse when Ballance must of explained, although no court records exist, where the goods were located: ‘the articles were found in strange positions – some hidden behind a curtain, some behind bottles of wine, some in bedrooms, some in iron dustbins in the attic, and some in rooms in the cellar which had been bricked-up and whitewashed over’.

The sheer quantities of foodstuffs, along with the fact that some had been bricked-up and whitewashed over, led the court to find Thomas guilty and the seizure of the goods. He was sentenced ‘contrary to the Food Hoarding Order 1917… [to be] imprisoned in His Majesties’ Prison at Birmingham [Winson Green] and there kept to hard labour for the term of six months and that the appellant should pay a fine of £50 forthwith’. If Thomas failed to pay the £50, his term was to be increased to seven months. Thomas appealed the conviction and the case went to the Walsall Quarter Sessions – the next level of justice – to be heard on 18 February 1918.

The original conviction written-up in the Quarter Session records for Feb 1918 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The original conviction written-up in the Quarter Session records for Feb 1918 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Appeal: Cue the Queue
As the name suggests, the Quarter Sessions met every three months or so. They were a level of jurisdiction between the Court of Summary Jurisdiction (Magistrate or Police Courts), which dealt with minor crime, and the Assizes (now the Crown Court), which dealt with major crime. This level of jurisdiction was abolished in 1971. Cases were heard by a Recorder (in effect, a Judge) and the court could give severe sentences – for example, George Edalji was convicted through the Stafford Quarter Sessions and received seven years for the Wyrley animal maimings.

Both sides called out the big guns: J.J. Powell K.C. appeared on behalf of the Food Control Committee, whereas Edward Marshall Hall K.C. appeared on behalf of Thomas. Marshall Hall had achieved notoriety for his defence of many accused murderers, even acquiring the epithet of ‘The Great Defender’, although with varying degrees of success. Marshall Hall had successfully defended Robert Wood over the murder of Emily Dimmock in 1907 (the Camden Twon Murder) and Ronald Light over the murder of Bella Wright in 1919 (the Green Bicycle Murder). He failed with Frederick Seddon in 1912 and George Smith in 1915 (Brides-in-the-Bath Murders). He was offered the Crippen case in 1910, but Crippen would not go along with Marshall Hall’s line of defence and so he did not represent him.

In 1989 several of Marshall Hall’s cases, including those above, were televised in a brilliant series called ‘The Shadow of the Noose’, with Marshall Hall being played by Jonathan Hyde.

Edward Marshall Hall became known as 'The Great Defender' due to his representing many accused of murder - with mixed results. (unknown)

Edward Marshall Hall became known as ‘The Great Defender’ due to his representing many accused of murder – with mixed results. (unknown source)

Even if his prowess was a little over-inflated, this mighty of barristers took on what seemed to be the unlikeliest of cases. He opened proceedings with a legal argument over the wording of the conviction, in that each food article should have been dealt with under a separate conviction rather than together, as this would allow Thomas the chance of refuting each item separately. The Recorder effectively told him to get on with it. The Prosecution then went through the events of the 14 December again, the quantities found and their locations.

Marshall Hall opened the proper defence with a general summing-up. He pointed out the Thomas had made no secret of his purchases or what his intentions for them had been; indeed, the barrister pointed out, Thomas had often made a point of telling people about it. He had told Father McDonnell, the priest at St Patrick’s Church, that he intended to give the nuts away at the Church’s children’s Christmas party, as he had done before, and announced to the congregation that he intended to dole out the tea, for which he had purchased a quantity of small paper bags for distribution, to the poor if needed. The sugar was intended for jam making.

The original St Patrick's Church - as known by Thomas. It was here he married and announced his intention for his tea. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The original St Patrick’s Church, Blue Lane – as known by Thomas. It was here he married and announced his intention for his tea. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Marshall Hall then had to back-up his words with actual evidence. To do this is he paraded through the witness box what the Recorder called a ‘perfect queue’ of character witnesses, from all walks of local society: John Shinton had been the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Walsall, he was called and he corroborated the tea story; Thomas Buxton was a lieutenant in the local volunteers and he testified that Thomas had donated £10 to volunteer funds and that he knew of Thomas’ intention to make soup for the poor at Christmas; F Gegg, a bank manager, testified not only to the tea, but that he had known Thomas for a number of years ‘as a man of great generosity’;  Frederick Hill, a stonemason, responded to Marshall Hall’s question on Thomas’ generosity with ‘he is a bit too generous’; George Atkinson, a tradesman who had supplied Thomas with goods, said of him that he was ‘eccentrically generous’; Joseph Ditchfield, the baker who sold Thomas flour, said he ‘never knew anyone like him’ and finally, even Inspector Ballance, who did not know Thomas personally, believed him to be a man of ‘profuse generosity’.

At this point, both the Prosecution and the Recorder were in agreement that no further witnesses to Thomas’ character needed to be called, however, Marshall Hall was not yet done. Marshall Hall called Thomas to the stand in order to answer the accusations of both hoarding and of hiding some of the food.

Thomas said he fully expected that food shortages were on the horizon, although he thought they would come in the 1916/1917 period. As such, he lay a quantity of bully beef aside for soup making, but as the soup wasn’t needed the foodstuffs so far attained just remained in his house. Regarding bulk-buying, Thomas looked after the housekeeping and simply stated that it was a matter of economics, in that it was cheaper to buy in bulk than not, and that what he had obtained was all for charitable distribution when needed.

Finally, on the issue of hiding the food, particularly in a large safe, Thomas countered by saying that the safe was on his property as the person that purchased it found it too large and so he had taken it. Yes, some food items were inside it, as it was a space to use, but more items were simply on top of it and in the passage way in which it lay than were actually inside it. There was no attempt at concealment.

Thomas sounded plausible, yet I was still unconvinced at this point: my main issue, and I am sure many that have read this far and remembered the account of the raid will agree, is that if there was no attempt at concealment, why were some of the items found behind bricked-up and whitewashed walls? O ye of little faith – Marshall Hall would draw his rapier and dispatch the issue with guile.

Marshall Hall attacked it head on – claiming it was very much in Thomas’ character. Clearly, the Recorder found this amusing, as Marshall Hall even said that while ‘the Recorder may smile, he would prove it beyond all question of doubt.’ Marshall Hall fell back on an age-old escape route and, on Thomas’ behalf, did what any self-respecting married man would do – he blamed the wife 🙂 .  Thomas, he said, returned home from work one day to find Annie ‘entertaining some friends’ using some of the tins of salmon that John had set aside. Thomas was so angry that he went outside, where his handyman/gardener was fixing his greenhouse, and got him to brick it up at once.

The report in the Walsall Pioneer on Marshall Hall's dispatching of the cellar question (Walsall Local History Centre)

The report in the Walsall Pioneer on Marshall Hall’s dispatching of the cellar question (Walsall Local History Centre)

So, did it work? Well, yes. The Recorder, swayed by the ‘unshakably credible witnesses’, found for Thomas and was received with an outburst of applause in the courtroom. Thomas’ prison term was quashed, however, as Marshall Hall had acknowledged, Thomas had, for altruistic purposes or not, breached the Food Order and so his £50 fine stood and he had to pay the considerable costs of the appeal. As he left the court, he was cheered and he, Annie and the children moved on. They must have left Walsall, but to where I cannot say.

Near nine years later, Marshall Hall passed away.

For my thoughts, I think the final score was just about right. I have no doubt that John Thomas did have altruistic intentions for most of his stashed goods, however, I do think he hedged his bets. Thomas was a God-fearing man and the witnesses do attest to his generosity, but one thing still perturbs me. Even if you accept Marshall Hall’s account of the bricking-up up the cellar, why whitewash a wall that was destined to be smashed down again in a short time? Annie clearly knew of the food and the bricking-up of parts of the cellar, so to me there was a clear intent to conceal the food from other prying eyes here. Still, whether he should have avoided jail or not, Thomas did incur a financial loss – including all the food – which was seized and presumably distributed elsewhere or used for the troops.

And the overwhelming lesson of the story? Never, ever, ever blame the wife 🙂 .

With thanks to:
The Walsall Local History Centre
National Archives