London Evening Standard    19 Dec 1846

A Forncett Burglary

For many decades in the 18th and 19th centuries, agricultural workers were badly paid, with the result that their living conditions and those of their families were extremely poor. In some cases this led to rioting against their employers and at other times the workers became desperate enough to resort to theft in order to improve their situation. However, the penalties for theft could be draconian as exemplified by the consequences for one group of Forncett men who were apprehended attempting to steal corn. 

On 19th December 1846 the attempted theft of corn from a farm in Forncett St Peter was reported in the Norfolk Chronicle and also appeared in newspapers nationwide, from the London Evening Standard to the Sheffield Independent.

The summary read: "On Monday night, a daring burglary was attempted in Mr. Bailey's premises in Forncett St Peter. The burglars, being detected by Mr. Bailey's sons, an affray ensued, and one of the men was shot, but not killed. He was conveyed to the hospital on the same night, where he now lies in a precarious state."

Robert Bailey and his family lived at Beresford Farm on what is now Station Road (Forncett station was built in 1849). The burglary took place on Monday 14th December 1846 and when Robert Bailey (age 56) and his three sons (James, 24; Benjamin 22, Robert, 20) disturbed the intruders they found five men all heavily muffled. In the ensuing scuffle, James Bailey shot one of the burglars in the left eye. A second burglar was overpowered and found to be Woodhouse Moore (age 24) from Forncett St. Mary. On the morning of the burglary Moore and a second worker, John Culham, had been threshing corn in Bailey's barn. Concerned for the wounded man, the Baileys let Moore go. The other three men had escaped. The wounded man, Collingwood Browne from Fundenhall, was taken by horse and cart to the doctor in Long Stratton who advised that he be taken immediately to the Norfolk and Norwich hospital.

On the morning of Tuesday 15th, Robert Bailey went before the magistrates and obtained warrants against Woodhouse Moore, Collingwood Browne and Woodhouse's brother, Mark Moore, who Bailey believed to have been one of the party. Woodhouse Moore was apprehended on Wednesday 16th December and committed for trial. At Norwich court on 9th January 1847, Woodhouse Moore pleaded guilty to having stolen, with others, three coombes of undressed wheat (a coombe of wheat was 18 stone, or 110 kg). He was sentenced transportation for seven years.

In early February, Collingwood Browne (now released from hospital and permanently blind in one eye) was committed for trial with three other men; Mark Moore, Miles Land from Tacolneston, and John Huggins, alias Spurgeon, from Fundenhall. A number of skeleton keys were found by the police on the person of Huggins. However, Robert Bailey subsequently withdrew his allegations against Huggins saying that he had mis-identified him, and Huggins was released.

At the trial, on Thursday 18th March, Collingwood Browne turned Queen's evidence and identified the two Moore brothers and Miles Land as his accomplices in the burglary. Following supporting statements from Browne's wife, Miles Land confessed his guilt and was sentenced to ten years' transportation. Finally, on Monday 5th April, Mark Moore was tried at Norwich Crown Court and Browne and his wife again gave accusatory evidence. However, the judge, Mr. Coleridge, said that in view of Browne's criminal background, the jury could not safely convict on his evidence or that of his wife. Mark Moore was duly acquitted, having been warned by the judge about his future conduct.

The outcome

So, what subsequently happened to the burglars? Collingwood Browne, John Huggins and Miles Land all had previous criminal convictions. Collingwood Browne continued his criminal activities and in 1872 he was imprisoned for larceny in Norwich gaol for 9 months. He died in 1876 (aged 65). John Huggins has not to date been traced. Miles Land was transported from London on the Eden and arrived in Australia in 1849 in Geelong, south west of Melbourne. He is last recorded working as a farm labourer for Henry Jones, Esq. in Binnum Binnum, South Australia.

Millbank prison stood on the site of what is now Tate Britain

Woodhouse Moore was imprisoned at Millbank prison on the Thames (above) prior to his transportation. However, on 14th April he was transferred to the infirmary as he was suffering from pleurisy and he died there on 30th April 1847, age 25

Inquest reported in the Era newspaper - 9 Jan 1848

Woodhouse left a wife, Maria, and two children William (aged 4) and James (aged 3 months). In 1852 Maria married a railway worker, Thomas Bye from Forncett. She had two more children, but Thomas died in 1859 so that in 1861 Maria and her children, Betsy (aged 4) and Thomas (aged 10 months) were living at Pulham workhouse. Maria subsequently moved back to Forncett St Peter, where she lived with three of her children, and where she died aged 54 in 1878.

Mark Moore, who seems to have been very fortunate to have been acquitted, moved with his wife, Phillis, to Suffolk and died there at North Cove, near Beccles, in 1877, age 55. 

Thanks to Joe Moore for help in researching this story.