In 1832, James Littleton was indicted for theft. This, according to a series of records automatically matched by the Digital Panopticon, marked the beginning of his exceptional story. Littleton was accused of stealing 10lbs of beef, 3lbs of mutton and five eggs from a wine-merchant named Thomas Wood. He was caught red-handed as Police Constable Cornelius Wintle amusingly explains:
‘I was on duty in Holborn, on the morning of the 27th of September, and heard a gentleman call out “Police!” opposite King-street – I crossed, and stopped the prisoner; some eggs dropped out of his hat; I took him to the area of Mr. Wood’s house, and the beef and mutton were in the area – Mr. Wood was looking out of the window.’
Littleton offered no defence and was found guilty. The sentence passed down was lenient; he was imprisoned for one month. As he was aged just 16 and this was his first conviction, this judgement was a wrap on the knuckles to deter any future criminal activity.
Less than two months later Littleton was back at the Old Bailey. On 29th November 1832 he was charged with the theft of 37 cigars from a Tobacconist in Holborn. Again, he was caught in possession of the stolen goods by a Police Officer. This time, however, the court did not give him another chance; now aged 17, Littleton was sentenced to seven years transportation.
The next trace of James Littleton is a record of his transportation. On 13th December 1832, Littleton was one of 216 convicts transported aboard the Lotus to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). After sailing for 154 days and stopping at Rio de Janeiro, James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 16th May 1833.
The next linked record, placed Littleton back at the Old Bailey in November 1840 charged with the murder of Mary Nicholls. He was reported as being aged 27, a figure which, allowing for some error, corresponds to his previous records. The crime also took place close to Holborn, the scene of his previous offences. Found guilty of this brutal killing, Littleton was then sent back to Van Diemen’s Land to serve a life term.
Before he was shipped, Littleton was detained aboard the Prison Hulk ship Leviathan moored at Portsmouth (TNA H09 09/12/1840). These floating prisons were used largely because the English prison system was grossly overcrowded and there simply was not enough space to house convicts on land. Mentioned as an aside, it seems that Littleton escaped from the Leviathan on the 27th January 1841. There is little record of this daring escape but evidently Littleton was on the run for a considerable period; he was not transported to Van Diemen’s Land until September 1841. Following his arrival in February 1842, Littleton’s conduct record is full of incident. He was found guilty of attempted murder and was hanged at Hobart on 31st December 1842.
This is the truly extraordinary story of James Littleton according to the records linked automatically by the Digital Panopticon. It is a fascinating account of a how a youth involved in petty crime transformed, on his return from Australia, into a hardened criminal. With an escape from prison and a sorry end at the hangman’s noose, James Littleton’s story has all the hallmarks of a box office epic. However, on closer inspection, all is not as it seems.
James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1833, having received a sentence of seven years. The conduct record for his first stint in Van Diemen’s Land, whilst very difficult to read, indicates that he was still there on 12th May 1839. In theory he could have completed this term and made the four or five month voyage to Britain in time to commit murder on 18th October 1840, though this seems unlikely. The transcript of his murder trial makes clear that:
‘the prisoner [James Littleton] and the deceased [Mary Nicholls] lived together, and slept in the same bed’.
This relationship suggests that Littleton had spent a significant period of time in London before he murdered Nicholls in October 1840. This narrows the window for Littleton to travel back to Britain and commit the offence even further. The logistics of such a journey work, but only just.
The descriptions of James Littleton upon his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833 and 1841 differ markedly. In 1833, he was reported as being 5ft 1in tall, with light brown hair and dark grey eyes. He also had a tattoo in the shape of an anchor on his arm. By 1840 however, he had grown 6½ inches and had black hair, while the tattoo on his arm had vanished. In 1833 Littleton’s occupation was listed as a ‘baker’, yet by 1840 he was classed simply as a ‘laborer’.
James Littleton’s trial in November 1840 was high profile and was covered by a number of newspapers. This report is taken from The Standard (Saturday 24/10/1840; Issue 5101):
‘James Littleton, alias Shamus, a ruffianly-looking fellow, aged about 25 years, who had been repeatedly brought to this court and convicted for violent assaults upon the police… On the prisoner having been placed at the bar, Mr Combe [the Judge] recognised him as one whom he had seen before on charges at this court. Policeman 49, Q division, stated that the prisoner [James Littleton] had frequently been charged at this and other courts for violent assaults, and he had been once cast for death and left for execution. Seven years ago he had been convicted of a rape. The prisoner denied this, and said he had been acquitted of the charge.’
James Littleton did not deny being accused of rape; in fact, he was keen to show how he had been acquitted at a trial. Yet how can this trial have taken place seven years earlier (1833) in London if, as the record linking process suggests, James Littleton was actually on the other side of the world?
This evidence leaves only one possible conclusion; there were two James Littleton’s born within a couple of years and living within a couple of miles of each other. One was a tobacco thief from Holborn – the other a dangerous thug with a string of violent convictions.
A subsequent search for the second James Littleton’s prior convictions mentioned in The Standard, revealed evidence of a trial at the Old Bailey in September 1839. A ‘James Lyttleton’ was convicted of stealing a basket and ‘three pecks of French beans’ in August of that year and was sentenced to six months in prison. The irregular spelling of ‘Lyttleton’ meant that this information did not appear in the records compiled by the computer. It proves that we are in fact looking at the exploits of two people. Our first James Littleton was still in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1839, so cannot be the same person who committed this offence in London in August. There are indications that the second James Littleton may have faced trial in 1838, which would provide categorical proof that there were two people; however the record of this trial is proving difficult to locate.
This search also revealed earlier records of the first James Littleton’s criminal career. Aged just 13, in April 1829, he was accused of pick-pocketing. Despite the loss of a considerable sum of money, the prosecutor failed to turn up to the Old Bailey and Littleton was acquitted. His next appearance in court was in October 1830. This time Littleton appeared as a witness in the trial of two 14 year old youths charged with the theft of snuff boxes and pipes. Although, the two defendants were put to death for this crime, Littleton, despite playing a part in the robbery, faced no charges. These records were not matched because they contain little information about Littleton himself – for instance, they lack specific details regarding his age or appearance. However, they seem to fit with the petty nature of his subsequent crimes.
This complex case illustrates some of the drawbacks of linking records together in this way. By creating matches based on names and ages, two (or maybe more) individuals can be confused for one. Also, this method is ultimately reliant on the searcher themselves. A program can only search what a user inputs. If, in my initial search for James Littleton, I had typed ‘L*ttleton’ to cover other possible spellings, this story would have become a lot clearer a lot sooner.
Such algorithms are extremely powerful tools to identify potential links between individual records and are vital to constructing convict lives, however the links created cannot always be completely relied upon.
Below are alternative timelines for each James Littleton:
James Littleton (1)
09/04/1829 (aged 13): Found not guilty of pocket-picking
28/10/1830 (aged 14): Appears as a witness in a trial of two 14 year olds who stole snuff boxes and pipes – involved but not convicted
18/10/1832 (aged 16): Found guilty of stealing food – sentenced to one month in prison
29/11/1832 (aged 17): Found guilty of stealing cigars – transported for 7 years
20/12/1832: Sailed to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Lotus
16/05/1833 (aged 18): Arrives in Van Diemen’s Land
06/06/1833: Given 12 lashes on the back for being ‘absent without leave’ and for showing insolence to a ‘Mr Pearson’
16/07/1838: Disobeyed orders and showed highly improper conduct for allowing a servant to be drinking in a hut with two female prisoners until one of them was drunk. Sent to a Road Party on probation 21st July 1838
From this point on his story is unclear. His conduct record is dated 12/05/1839 which suggests he was still in Van Diemen’s Land at this point but it gives little clue as to his life after the end of his sentence.
James Littleton (2)
1813-1839: Prior convictions – assaults on Police Officers and/or rape – also a possible trial in 1838
16/09/1839: Found guilty of stealing French beans – sentenced to six months in prison
23/11/1840 (aged 27): Tried at Old Bailey – found guilty of murder – transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life
09/12/1840: Held prisoner on the Prison Hulk Leviathan in Portsmouth
27/01/1841: Escaped from prison
28/09/1841: Transported to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Tortoise
19/02/1842: Arrives at Van Diemen’s Land
31/12/1842: Executed at Hobart
 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Sydney, 1986), pp. 41-2.
 For a brief account of this hanging see Steve Harris, Solomon’s Noose: The True Story of Her Majesty’s Hangman of Hobart (Melbourne, 2015), Ch. 10.