American Sailor washed up in Kendal


Tramp, looking for a bed

American sailor

Thomas Johnstone’s entry in the Kendal Police Photo Book


Men, and some women, tramping through Kendal, were a regular feature of the nineteenth century town. It was how the unemployed looked for work, but they were often believed to be work-shy or criminal, if not both. So it’s no surprise that some of them ended up in Kendal gaol, or “House of Correction,” as it was euphemistically titled.

Thomas Johnson (or Johnstone) is one such. He ended up in the prison in June 1892. His photo in the Kendal Police photo book immediately makes him interesting for, in the words of the description written by the Kendal police, he “is a negro.” But his story is even more interesting and puzzling than the bare information in the Police Photo book.

Johnson was a 29 year old American sailor. There are other sailors in the photo book, but no other black persons.

Sailors often tramped from port to port, looking for a ship in Whitehaven, Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool or any of the many busy ports of nineteenth century Britain. Even when the railways were built, men still tramped because they could not afford rail fares. There is clear evidence that many of these men came through Cumbria, but there’s no indication in the record of Johnson’s route.

The Westmorland Gazette of 25th June 1892 reported that Johnson had been caught at midnight by the redoubtable Sergeant Medcalf, who said in court that he saw the prisoner come out of German’s Yard and try the doors of Pennington’s shop and of Mr Shaw’s. Medcalf said that he took Johnson into custody, but he broke away at the top of Lowther Street and ran down to Aynam Road, where PC Goad caught him.

Goad also told the court that he had seen Johnson trying doors. Goad gave evidence that he had seen Johnson in Kirkland several times earlier in the day. Johnson told him he was looking for somewhere to sleep, so Goad directed him to Troughton’s Lodging House. Johnson paid for and was given a bed by the assistant at Troughton’s, but later that evening he was turned out by the proprietor.

The two policemen’s evidence was more than enough. Seen acting suspiciously by two policemen, at different times, in two different places, and attempting to run away, Johnson was convicted of “frequenting with intent to commit a felony.” This was an offence under the Vagrancy Act. In plain terms, Johnson was convicted for hanging around and looking suspicious. Many other tramps and vagrants shared the same fate in Victorian Cumbria, and in the rest of England.

Medcalf and Goad were very professional in how they presented their evidence. They knew exactly what was needed to gain a conviction. Johnson did not really stand a chance in court, though he did say that he was only looking for somewhere to sleep. He ended up with a place to sleep in the gaol for 30 nights.

For me, the lodging house is an interesting part of the story. Common lodging houses were to be found in every town. For three or six pence, a bed was purchased for the night, usually in a crowded room. Conditions varied from squalid and disreputable to satisfactory. Troughton’s had been the White Lion Inn, and the photos from the later nineteenth century show a very run-down building; today it is W.H. Smith’s. On census night in 1891, 12 people were lodging there, four men, four women and four children.

The puzzle in Johnson’s story is, why did John Troughton kick him out when he had taken and paid for a bed? If Johnson had been drunk, or violent, or had stolen something from another lodger, he could have been arrested for that. Although there is no supporting evidence, I believe that the photo of Johnson may be taken as a clue that a black face was seen as suspicious in Victorian Kendal.

One thought on “American Sailor washed up in Kendal

  1. Fascinating story. The idea of a racist motive is entirely speculative, of course, but an Afro-American would have stuck out in a place like Kendal.

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