Reformatory Boys 1 – the Dearman Brothers

On 5 June 1875, two boys were admitted to the Royal Philanthropic School at Redhill: Edwin Dearman, who had turned twelve the day before, and his brother James, a month off his fourteenth birthday. They had just served twenty-one days in Canterbury prison, convicted by the Hythe magistrates of begging and vagrancy and were to spend a further four years at Redhill. Both already had previous convictions, for firing straw, wilful damage, vagrancy and petty theft.The notes taken on their admission make sad reading.

Edwin, at 4 feet 6 inches tall, was judged to be ‘undersized’ and had ‘an old face.’ James was 4 feet 8 inches tall. He had been employed at stone breaking on the roads at seven shillings and sixpence per week per week and greasing railway wagons at six shillings a week. Both were illiterate.

Their father was William Dearman, a sailor’s labourer, reported by the magistrates to be of a very bad character. He had himself been in prison twice. Their mother, Mary, was also apparently of a bad character. The family lived in Dental Street in Hythe.  The boys had an older brother, William who was serving in the 36th rifles, a sister Eliza who sold watercress at Folkestone and lived in Sandgate and there were also  younger sisters, Elizabeth, Susan and Clara.

The Hythe magistrates reported that the boys had been convicted on 15 May 1875 of ‘unlawfully wandering abroad and lodging in an unoccupied house without visible means of sustenance’. They noted:

This boy and his brother bear very bad characters and are sent out by their parents nearly every day to beg, their father being a confirmed drunkard. Unless they bring home some food they receive a severe beating which causes them frequently to stay out all night.

The magistrates had limited options for helping Edwin and James: the reform school was the best one, but its admission rules required that they serve a prison sentence first. When they arrived they were separated into different ‘houses’ (the school tried to model itself on the English public school system). Visitors were allowed, but the only recorded visit they received during their time at the School was from their mother in 1876.

Edwin was regularly caned  during his stay for fighting, stealing, lying and disobedience. After his discharge, he sold herrings in Hythe, but then got work at sea on the coal brigs plying between the north-east ports and Kent. In September 1882 he served seven days for assaulting a police officer. He got married in 1887 to Mary Jane Stockbridge, but the marriage did not last and by 1890 he was living with Elizabeth Austen, a widow, in Middle Wall, Whitstable, where many of the brigs berthed.

Whitstable Harbour in the 1890s, when Edwin Dearman lived there

They had a least two children together, but the relationship was often violent and both liked a drink.  By 1909, Elizabeth had left him, taking the children to Dover. Edwin went to Woolwich, where the same year he was homeless and arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

He must have rallied as in 1916, he enlisted in the Royal Navy, though he was over fifty. He was soon discharged, not for drunkenness or bad behaviour, but simply for being too old.

Edwin died in Stepney in 1937.

While at the reform school, James was better behaved at first, apart from some minor infringements of the rules, but in 1878 he stole from a cottage on the grounds and was birched and confined in the cells for four days. He continued throughout the rest of his stay to be difficult – he used tobacco, bullied younger boys and cut up his own boots. In May 1879, it was reported that he had, when he first came to the school been keen to emigrate to Australia or Canada, but his family brought pressure to bear on him, saying they wanted him at home. They could, they said, get employment for him at sea. He was released on licence to work in May that year.

The ‘work at sea’ did not materialise. The next year, Hythe Police reported to the school that he was occasionally hawking herrings, but then he got full-time employment with a local fish-dealer, Stephen Cloke.  They suspected he was sometimes up to no good, but could prove nothing.

Then on 30 June 1884, James married Minnie Cousine at St Leonard’s church. Her full name was Miriam Ann and she was the daughter of  a Frenchman, Louis, and an Englishwoman, Mary and has been born in Heathfield, Sussex.  The love of a good woman evidently turned James’s life around. For a start, the children started arriving – there would be fifteen eventually, though one died young. The family moved from a tiny cottage in Chapel Street, a narrow lane behind the High Street, to a slightly larger house in Frampton Road. Then, while continuing to work as a labourer and later fish seller  James joined the lifeboat crew in 1890, eventually becoming coxswain. When he retired in 1917, he held five medals for saving life and had been granted a Royal National Lifeboat Institution pension. He was, rather mysteriously, known to the lifeboat crew as ‘Charcoal’.

The Hythe Lifeboat crew in 1891. I think James is fourth from left…

…an enlargement shows a similarity to the verified picture of James below

When war was declared in 1914, James enlisted in the army, despite being over fifty, giving his age as thirty-eight years and four months. The truth was made known to his commanding officer by the sergeant-major, who knew him, and he was sent home.

The war and the succeeding years brought much sadness to the family.

In 1910, James and Minnie’s sixth chid, Sam, had joined the army and served with the East Kent Regiment, the Buffs. He was mobilised at the outbreak of war in 1914 and sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force on 27 December. Six weeks later, on 10 February 1915, he died of wounds.

Samuel Dearman 30 July 1893– 10 February 1915 

That same year, John, the second son, died of natural causes aged twenty-eight and Stephen, the third son, who worked as a brewer’s drayman, joined up. He was wounded, invalided home, sent back to the front, was gassed and finally was taken prisoner in March 1918. He was home in time for Christmas that year. The sixth child, Edwin (or Edward) served in the Royal Field Artillery, but survived.

In June 1917, James and Minnie’s eighth child, seventeen-year-old Ben, was walking with his brother and two friends along the canal bank when they met two other boys, one of whom, the  fourteen-year-old, ‘Teddy’ , was carrying a rifle (for which he had a licence), as he planned to shoot rats. None of the boys actually saw what happened and at the inquest there was some disagreement as to whether Teddy knew the gun was loaded, as he was carrying cartridges in a tin box. They heard a shot and saw Benjamin fall, with his hand to his stomach. A local man and a soldier came to help and a doctor was called. Benjamin was taken home and then transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Folkestone, where he died following an operation. The coroner’s verdict was ‘Accidental Death’.

The fifth child, Bill, a milkman, presumably unfit for overseas service, joined the Labour Corps during WW1, but was suffering from TB, which was aggravated by the work he carried out. He was a patient in the Royal Herbert Hospital, Woolwich for a while, but died at home on 28 July 1919.

The Commonwealth War Grave of William Dearman ( 30 November 1894 – 28 July 1919) in Horn Street Cemetery, Hythe

In 1922, both the eldest child, James Lewis (or sometimes Lewis James) and the eleventh, Polly died. James was thirty-nine and Polly nineteen. In 1927, their youngest sister, Kathleen (or Catherine) died ‘after a long illness’. Was the TB which carried off Bill to blame for all these adult deaths?

James died in 1936. His was a hard life, bravely lived. Minnie survived him by twelve years. She received help in her widowhood from the trustees of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. (1)

James and Minnie Dearman                                    Photos: Dave Lear

  1. Kent Archives EK2008/2 Book 19

Details of the brothers’ convictions, background and stay at the reform school are in Surrey County Archives 2271/10/16 pp 308-9

With thanks to Kathryne Maher for additional information and to Dave Lear for the photos of James & Minnie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s