Criminal records

What Nick found in the archives

The Coroner's Inquest is one useful source of family history, although it does only cover relatively unusual deaths. The records of the County Assizes hold details of many serious offences, Quarter Sessions Records have the details of less serious crimes and the Petty Sessions tend to deal with day-to-day misdemeanours.

Further back The Church Court sessions, often called the 'Bawdy Court', contain a fascinating glimpse in early modern life, a time when dancing the Morris or opening your shop or bar on the Sabbath was severely frowned on. Some of our ancestors frequently appear in these types of records. From medieval times English Society was fairly strict and surprisingly efficient in controlling rogue elements, and the Law has always been renowned for keeping accurate records.

reconciliation he might as well take out the summons for assault - he might just get some compensation. After visiting a lawyer he met up with his brother. They walked back down Temple Street to the Bodega.

Henry Skinner was standing on the doorstep, getting ready for his morning walk. He called Herbert over and said, "It is just according to what Art does whether you come back or not." Herbert shrugged and went into the bar to collect his bag of building tools. Unaware that Herbert might get his job back, Arthur told Henry Skinner about the summons and walked away disappointed. Herbert collected his tool bag from the end of the bar and asked David for a couple of brandies. He seemed worryingly tense and excited. David said he would have to ask Mr Skinner, who was just coming in through the door. He assented but David intervened, "I think not." Henry Skinner explained that it wasn't a good idea, and said "Arthur has taken out a summons against me for assault". Henry turned away from Herbert and took a couple of steps towards the bar.

Herbert called "Mr Skinner..." and pulled out the revolver, firing towards Skinner. The bulldog-pattern bullet, quite capable of felling an ox, buried itself in the wainscoting. Skinner turned back towards the noise and the next shot caught him in the side of the chest as he turned. He collapsed to the floor with a sigh. David leapt over the bar and grappled Herbert to the ground, ripping the gun from his grasp. Outside, PC Owen had heard the first shot and was already running towards the pub by the second one. He entered to find several customers pinning Herbert to the floor, while others sat stock still, paralysed with the shock of the sudden horror. Henry lay dead. The bullet had penetrated his heart.

GET-TOGETHER: Virtually all Henry Skinner's descendants gathered together for a picnic on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal at Devizes. Henry Skinner sired six daughters, only one of whom had children. We would have needed a bigger canal if they had all had children of their own


The next day the incident was headlined in the Birmingham Gazette with a brief account of the incident. A much more detailed account was published in the Birmingham Post. A week later the Coroner's Inquest was held, the records of which still survive in the library archive. These are virtually illegible due to several factors. A clerk with bad handwriting recorded them in a hurry and using cheap ink which has faded. If this wasn't bad enough, many of Birmingham's Records were damaged during the bombing of WWII. The details of what happened to Herbert Allen appear to have been lost as a result. If he was found guilty of 'Wilful Murder' there is every chance that he would have been hanged in Winson Green Gaol, although I haven't yet discovered evidence for this.

Nearly a century has passed. The Bodega needed a new image after the murder and was soon restyled with a new exterior and renamed the Trocadero. The inside remained pretty much the same. I called in for a drink after visiting the library. Behind the ornate frontage was a large but dark bar. I asked the manageress if they knew anything about the incident. How strange, she commented, only that morning the staff had all been talking about the ghost of the manager shot by his barman. So I have a ghost in the family - I was standing on the very spot my great-great-grandfather was shot. • •

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