Born in 1879, my great grandfather, Edward Derrick, was a thief, violent man and one of ‘the peaky type’. Nicknamed ‘Bummie’, he led a life of crime like his grandfather, James. He had been born in Cork in about 1797 and may have fought at Waterloo in 1815 - as a James Derrick served with the Grenadier Guards at that famous battle that ended the Napoleonic Wars.
Be that as it may, by 1841 James was recorded on the census as an earthenware dealer living with the Irish family of William Casey in Bilston. Shortly afterwards, he married Eliza Hennesy who was aged about sixteen. Their marriage was short-lived because of his criminality.
In 1849 James was given three months’ hard labour at Stafford County Prison for “stealing a quantity of iron from the whimsy of a coal pit’. A year later, this conviction was taken into account when he was found guilty of stealing the mill brasses from a mine at Sedgley and sentenced to transportation to Australia.
James Derrick was sent to Millbank Prison in London, and then Shorncliffe Prison in Kent. In the latter’s Register for 1851, he is described as of sallow complexion with dark hair and grey eyes. He was short, at 5 feet 4½ inches, slender of build and had large thin ears and open nostrils.
His right thumb was broken and his face was pock pitted, suggesting that he had suffered smallpox or some other nasty disease. Married with three children and a Roman Catholic, James could neither read nor write. A labourer by occupation, strangely his character was given as good.
After almost six months at Shorncliffe, James was not transported; instead he was transferred to Dartmoor in Devon and was released on licence in 1855. He seems to have had some contact with his daughter, Bridget, as a decade later she gave him as a labourer on her marriage certificate. Moreover, she and her husband lived in Canal Street, Wolverhampton as did James himself.
He died in 1872, in the Wolverhampton Workhouse. A lonely figure, as much because of his own faults as because of misfortune, for most of his life James Derrick seems to have lived a life that was out of place and on the margins. Now in death he was cast out beyond the margins. A pauper he was buried in a public grave with other paupers and with no headstone to mark that he had ever lived.
What had happened to my great, great, great grandmother, Eliza, and her children after James had been sent to prison? Soon after that, in October 1850, she was sentenced to six months hard labour for stealing, and her children were put into the Wolverhampton Union Workhouse.
My great, great grandfather, John, was six. His mother went on to marry a William Casey – so perhaps she and James had not been legally married. By 1861 she was a widow with four children aged under eight and was in the Walsall Workhouse.
Interestingly, the Census of that year recorded her son, and my great, great grandfather, John Derrick, as a 15 year old living on his own and fending for himself at 181, Cock Street, Darlaston. He was an iron stone miner. Ten years later John had moved to Birmingham and was living in Hurst Street – close to the present National Trust Back to Back Museum.
A telegraph pole worker he was lodging with Edward Thompson and his widowed daughter, Catherine. A few months later, John and Catherine married at St Andrew’s Church of England in Bordesley and by 1881 they were living in a back-to-back up a yard in Mole Street, Sparkbrook.
With them were Catherine’s daughter from her first marriage; their daughter, Flora aged 6; and their sons, John 9, James 4, and my great grandfather, Edward, 2. He and John would soon gain criminal records.
In February 1891, the ‘Birmingham Daily Post’ noted that at the Balsall Heath Police Court, John Derrick aged 20 had been charged with assaulting a police constable in Thomas Street (later part of Highgate Road). This was during the times of the sloggers and the early days of the peaky blinders and John was obviously one of them.
A labourer and then living with his family in Emily Street in Highgate, he ‘was well known to the police authorities as belonging to a gang of roughs who are constantly creating disturbances in Sparkbrook’.
On January 31, John had been one of a gang causing a row and when Police Constable Wragge had tried to stop it and take one of the offenders into custody, John Derrick had thrown a brick at him. Inspector Harrison told the magistrates that the prisoner was ‘a constant source of annoyance as one of the leaders of the rowdies of the district’. He was given six weeks in jail.
By then, John’s younger brother, Edward aged 11, was in the Penn Street Industrial School, which was actually in Allcock Street, Deritend close to Heath Mill Lane. In 1857 the Industrial Schools Act had given magistrates the power to sentence children between the ages of 7 and 14 years old to one of these institutions if they were homeless. Four years later the categories were extended to include boys under 14 who had committed an offence punishable by imprisonment or whose parents could not control them.
According to Mr G. B. Davis, clerk to the Birmingham School Board, ‘an industrial school child should be one who is not yet a little criminal or does not deserve the name, though he may have committed little acts which are technically crimes. He is a child in bad circumstances who needs to be saved from his surroundings.’
Sadly Penn Street Industrial School failed with my great grandfather. In 1893 he was convicted of vagrancy and in October 1894, he served seven days’ in prison for stealing five loaves. Just weeks later, the ‘Birmingham Daily Post’ reported that the 16 year-old Edward Derrick had been sentenced to four months’ hard labour for burglary.
Then in 1897, he was sent down for five months and handed a two-year supervision order for stealing a bicycle. He was not out of prison long before he was convicted of using obscene language and then imprisoned for twelve months in October 1898 for breaking into a counting house. It was stated that he was 5 foot 3 ½ inches tall , had a blue mark on the back of one forearm and wrist, and a tattoo of a mermaid on the back of the other forearm.
Now a serial offender, in 1899 Edward assaulted a police constable; in 1900 he was arrested for drunkenness; and in October 1901 at Stafford, and under the alias of Fredrick Pitt, he was sent away for three years for bodily harm. Finally in October 1906, he was sentenced to two months’ hard labour for stealing a basket carriage from a widow.
A year later, Edward Derrick married my great grandmother, Ada Weldon, at Christ Church, Sparkbrook. He gave himself as a bricklayer, although previously he had stated he was a tailor and he would later be described as a scrap iron dealer and a rag and bone man.
Ada had been born in the very poor Park Street by the Bull Ring. She now worked in a warehouse and lived with her older and younger sisters with their mother and her second husband in Vaughton Street, Highgate. After her wedding she went to live at 23, Studley Street, just a few yards from Edward’s brother, James, who rented a back house in Sills Buildings.
Marriage did not change Edward for the better. When I was researching my doctoral thesis in the early 1980s, I spoke with Lil Preston who had lived in the same yard as him, his wife Ada and his daughter, Maisy - my grandmother. She recalled that Edward was a violent man who often smashed up his home when he was drunk and that on occasions Ada and Maisy had to sleep in the brewus in the yard or hide from him in the house of her grandmother, the well-loved Granny Carey.
There was a story in our family that Ada went on to divorce Edward Derrick after he had left her. I had always doubted this, thinking that it was too expensive for a working-class person to be able to afford the high costs of a divorce. I was wrong. Ada did get a divorce in 1922 and was able to do so as ‘a poor person’ under the rules of the Supreme Court. She was unable to sign any of her statements and had to make her mark in the presence of a commissioner for oaths.
The divorce documents confirm that from the summer of 1913, Edward Derrick had failed to provide food or clothing for his wife and child. They got by on her wages as a press worker in the brass trade. Then in April 1915 he violently assaulted Ada and threatened to kill her at her house at 25, Studley Street. Six months later Edward physically attacked his wife with his fist and caused her bodily harm.
It was emphasised that ‘he had frequently given way to drink and had used foul and abusive language’ towards Ada, and that ‘he has frequently smashed various articles of furniture and has broken up two homes’. Thankfully from January 1916, he deserted his wife and daughter and he then moved to Brewery Street, Coventry to live with a widow called Mrs Murphy.
My grandmother, Maisy, was only eight when her father abandoned her and her mother. There is no evidence that she saw him again and she was raised amongst her mother’s people, the Weldons who had moved to Studley Street.
As for her mother Ada, she went through ‘a form or ceremony of marriage’ with my Granddad, Richard Chinn, at St Mary’s Church in Birmingham on August 22, 1922. She was five years older than him but my Aunt Mavis and I think that they were the loves of each other’s lives.
Unhappily they did not have long together as Ada died of stomach cancer in September 1925. She was 39 and mother to my Aunt Vi, who was just two. By contrast, Edward Derrick lived until he was aged 85, dying in 1964 in Nuneaton.