"One of the best-known characters of the town"
When I read an obituary referring to the deceased ".... in his younger days was one of the best-known characters in the town." I recognised the name - William Crocker - and thought to myself "That's a bit of an understatement!"
William Crocker was born around 1816 at Clapton, near Crewkerne, but the first record I found him in was the 1841 census. 25 year old William was listed living in Bond Street with his 24 year old Irish-born wife Mary Anne, their 2 year old son William jnr. and one month old baby George. William Snr gave his occupation as a horse breaker.
The next we hear of William - and this is where I remembered the name from - was in 1843 following a fatal fight on the premises of the Running Horse in Wine Street, during the afternoon of 25 March. The fight was between William Crocker, renowned as a local bruiser, and George Watkins, a Rifleman of the Rifle Brigade who was recruiting in Yeovil and lodging at the Running Horse while doing so. After the consumption of much cider and local ale, Crocker boasted that he would fight and beat any man in the town. Challenges were given and accepted and the pair ventured to the rear yard of the establishment accompanied by the other drinkers. A fight ensued in which Watkins was struck to the ground several times. Additionally he was hit by another soldier and Crocker's wife Mary Anne. To cut a long story short it appears that Watkins came in a very poor second and, in a very bloody state, was given cider and put to bed. Several days later Watkins sought medical advice but told the doctor that he had fallen in the River Yeo. Nevertheless his conditioned worsened and he died on 12 April.
On the death of Watkins, Crocker disappeared but was later apprehended in Crewkerne and brought before the Assizes at Bridgwater on 12 August 1843. Crocker was indicted for feloniously killing George Watkins by striking, beating and throwing him to the ground. He was also charged with common assault.
William Crocker was tried for the manslaughter of George Watkins. Briefly, since Watkins had been beaten by others, including the Recruiting Sergeant and Mary Anne Crocker, and had also later fallen into the River Yeo, it couldn't be proved that William Crocker was solely responsible for Watkins' death. He was found guilty of common assault only and sentenced to six months' imprisonment.
For a full account of the manslaughter case as reported by the Sherborne Mercury - click here.
In 1850 William Crocker was in court again, this time however as the plaintiff. In its edition of 19 November 1850 the Sherborne Mercury reported as follows "Crocker v Brook. In this case the plaintiff, who is a horse jockey, well known at Yeovil, summoned the defendant, a highly respectable farmer, residing at Brimsmore Tree Farm, near this town, for £4 16s for the keep of a horse during 16 weeks, at 6s per week.... It appeared that Mr Brook had employed Crocker to break in a colt, and in doing so the latter managed to break its knees. Brook then desired him to sell the colt as soon as its knees were healed. Instead of selling it for cash, Crocker "chopped" it away for a mare " a regular kicker" and £8 " to boot." It transpired that Crocker kept part of the cash back for himself allegedly for the trouble he had taken. The defence attorney, Mr Vining, ridiculed the idea of a large farmer like Mr Brook, living in the immediate neighbourhood, making an agreement with a horse breaker to keep a horse at six shillings a week. The judge agreed and Crocker lost the case.
In the 1851 census William, Mary and William Jnr (no sign of George) were lodging with the family of Thomas Woolmington, a glover, in Kingston. Again William gave his occupation as a horse breaker.
By the time of the 1861 census the family had moved to Back Street (today's South Street) both 47-year old William Snr and 22-year old William Jnr listed their occupations as horse breakers while Mary gave hers a a leather glover.
In very much a case of "like father, like son", the following year William Crocker Jnr was heavily involved in a pub fight which resulted in the death of Uriah Lane. Crocker, as his father had been before him, was charged with manslaughter following the affray.
As a sidenote: Uriah Lane was born in 1836 in Closworth, just south of Yeovil, the son of agricultural labourer Thomas Lane (1801-1880) and Susanna née Eastment (1803-1877) . From an early age Uriah lived in Halstock, Dorset, where he worked as a shoemaker. In the winter of 1860 he married Emily Hoskins (b1843) at Yeovil. Uriah and Emily had two children; Mary Jane (1861-1885) and Charles Thomas Uriah (1862-1938). Emily remarried in Yeovil in 1867.
The Wells Journal, in its edition of 13 December 1862 reported the following "On Saturday last Dr Wybrants, Coroner held an inquest at Closworth, near Yeovil, on the body of Uriah Lane, a young man who died on the 3rd instant from the effects of a desperate affray, on the night of 17 November, and in which some hard fighting took place between him and a butcher named John Berkley, and others. The fight arose from a quarrel in the dancing room of the Crown inn, Yeovil, where deceased remonstrated with a horse breaker named Crocker, a companion of Berkley's, for throwing some beer over a young girl, Lane observing "that it was an unmanly action."
The first witness called was Lydia Abbotts, a glover, who deposed that the deceased was about 26 years of age, and worked as a shoemaker. On Monday 17 November, she saw the deceased at Yeovil, at the Crown Inn, where was also William Crocker, John Berkley, and others. Crocker threw some beer over witness, when the deceased interfered, and said he would sooner have it thrown over himself then over her. Shortly afterwards Berkley knocked down Lane. He got up and cried "Murder." She saw the blow given by Berkley, but could not see where the deceased was struck. She left them fighting near the inn.
Robert Vile, a labourer, said he was also at the Crown Inn about 8 o'clock on the evening in question. He heard the deceased cry out for mercy, and ask Berkley if he was going to murder him. Witness, who had left the inn and was some way off, went back on hearing the cry, and saw a man in his shirt sleeves kicking the deceased. There were other men standing around him. Witness went and took hold of Lane under the arms, raising him up. He asked them if they were going to murder the man. He had no sooner said this than both of them were knocked down into the road. Witness and then heard someone say "Kill the bloody ******" ". William Crocker then fell on the witness. He could not say whether it was Crocker all Berkley who struck the deceased, but he thought it was Berkley. They were not drunk.
The depositions made by deceased some days previous to his death were then read. "There were ten or more men at the inn with Crocker and Berkley. I did not know them. They were in the dancing room. Crocker threw some beer over a girl, and I said "That's an unmanly thing to do". Crocker then said "The same to thee". I replied "I shan't give thee the trouble, as I shall leave the party." I went downstairs, and Berkley and Crocker went down at the same time, others following them. They both struck me and as I went to the door they held fast to me. Berkley and Crocker, with two more, pulled me down. After I was down they struck me in the side, and one of them kicked me in the side and forehead. I am sure it was Crocker or Berkley. One of these said "Kill the ****** ". I got away from them, and they followed me to Custard's Corner [the corner of Custard's Lane, today's Westminster Street, and Hendford] one of them struck me under the ear. I hope to recover."
William Crocker, a horse breaker, then deposed that he asked the girl to drink, but she refused; and one of the dancers upset the glass of beer over her frock. He saw none of the fighting.
John Berkley, a butcher, said the deceased, with others, began the row by "putting" on him, Lane scratching his face and pulling his hair when witness was down. When he got up he knocked the deceased down. He did not kick him. He could not tell where he struck him, but the blow knocked him down.
Mr Frederick James Parsons, surgeon, attended deceased on Sunday 13 November. He complained of severe pains in the bowels and sickness, in which state he had been for three or four days. He could not discover any marks of violence, but, notwithstanding his treatment, the man died on 3 December. He made a post mortem examination, and found a fracture of the skull but he was not prepared to say that the fracture caused death. He was of the opinion that the fracture of the skull would ultimately have proved fatal."
The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against both Berkley and Crocker, who were then committed on the Coroner's warrant and taken to Taunton gaol. Although I've yet to discover the fate of Berkley, William Crocker was discharged - essentially on grounds of insufficient evidence.
In the 1871 census William and Mary, together with William Jnr, at this time aged 32 and unmarried, were living in Queen Street where both Williams gave their occupations as horse breakers and Mary gave hers as a glover. In its edition of 5 May 1871 the Western Gazette reported that William Crocker [it didn't say which one], colt-breaker, was summoned for using obscene language in Huish and was fined 10s, including costs, or seven days.
The Western Gazette reported, on 9 January 1874, this gem "Fighting on the Highway - William Crocker and William Crocker Jnr were summoned by PC Ogborne for creating a disturbance in Silver Street on 1 December.... The policeman deposed that he was on duty in Silver Street on the evening of the day in question, when he heard a great noise, which he ascertained was caused by the elder Crocker challenging Mr Knight, landlord of the Half Moon, to fight. Witness requested Mr Crocker to go on, but at the same time William Crocker Jnr came out of the Half Moon and offered to fight a young man who was standing by. The old man then threatened to strike him (witness) and made such a noise that it could be heard at the bottom of the street. Although the father was the first to begin the disturbance, he thought the son was decidedly the worst of the two. Defendants were fined 20s and costs each."
By the following census in 1881 William Snr was aged 65, Mary was 64 and William Jnr was 42 and now married to Eliza. All four, together with 6-year old Beatrice Gaylard (William Snr's niece) were living at 29 Queen Street. Once again both Williams gave their occupations as horse breakers.
In the winter of 1881 Mary Ann Crocker died and by the time of the following census in 1891 William was in the Yeovil District Union Workhouse. He was aged 78 and was listed as a pauper inmate and retired horse breaker or trainer. The Western Gazette's edition of 19 October 1888 had carried an article on the Union Workhouse and, although not named, there is clearly no mistaking who the following refers to - "In the old men's wards there are several interesting old men, most of them are possessed of some eccentricity. One of them has spent the greater portion of his life in the exhilarating occupation of a professional horse breaker, and he is very fond of relating thrilling adventures and "hair breadth escapes" to account for the many scars about his face and head. The poor fellow is obliged to spend the whole of his time in bed now, but so strongly is his mind imbued with the occupation he followed in the heyday of life that he finds intense gratification by holding a pair of reins attached to the foot of his bedstead, and by encouraging or reproving, in "hossy" language, the imaginary steeds before him!"
In its edition of 17 August 1900, the Western Gazette reported "Death of a well known Character - William Crocker died on Sunday at the Workhouse, aged 89 years, and was interred in the Cemetery on Wednesday. He had been a bedridden inmate of the House for the past 14 years, but in his younger days was one of the best known characters in the town. He carried on business as a horse breaker, and it is said that fear was a thing unknown to him. He had been thrown from horses many times, and death was largely attributable to an injury to his head, the result of a fall."