After an apparently law-abiding youth, Benjamin Barrett – alias Benjamin Baker – spent at least twenty years in and out of prison during his middle age.
Benjamin was born in 1840 in Wells, Norfolk. Little is known of his early life, but he probably moved to London as a young man. A London witness at his first trial testified to having known Benjamin for twenty years, which would put Benjamin’s move to London at around the age of 18.
By the 1870s, Benjamin was living in London and working as a boiler maker. This made him a skilled labourer. An active member of the United Society of Boiler Makers, Benjamin was at one stage president of the society’s Chiswick lodge. By 1874, however, he had fallen on hard times, and began claiming the society’s relief payments for its out-of-work members.
His first appearance at the Old Bailey was for forgery in 1878. Following that conviction, he was prosecuted for a series of thefts and other offences, with his details eventually ending up on the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals 1881-1925.
Benjamin’s criminal career began relatively late in life (at least as far as the records show). He was 38 when he made his first appearance before the Old Bailey on a forgery charge, on 6 August 1878. It was claimed in the trial that Benjamin, having drawn his full yearly relief allowance from the United Society of Boiler Makers, had received further payments to the value of 6s. 8d. under the false name Benjamin Baker. He was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment in Springfield house of correction.
After this first skirmish with the justice system, Benjamin was apparently unable to extricate himself. Throughout the 1880s and 90s, he was tried for a range of offences in different London courts, sometimes under the alias "Baker": stealing coals (1885), stealing spirit level (1885), stealing a saw (1886), possession of tea - presumably stolen or smuggled (1886), assault (1886), larceny and receiving (1887), breaking and entering (1893), and possessing housebreaking implements (1893).
Benjamin was sentenced to multiple imprisonments between 1878 and 1893. His periods of incarceration ranged between five days and five years. One exception to this pattern was his 1893 acquittal for breaking and entering. He claimed in his defence that he had broken into the London City Mission Hall "not to steal but for shelter", and was found not guilty.
We know Benjamin was married at least once, since a witness at his first trial makes a brief reference to his wife. But by 1893, he was documented as a widower, and his repeated spells in prison make it impossible to imagine anything but a chaotic family life.
The Registers of Habitual Criminals noted that Benjamin was 5' 8 ½" tall, with a dark complexion, brown eyes, and black, curly hair turning grey. He had scars on the back of his neck, chin, left elbow and at the base of his right forefinger. He was slightly deaf, and had several tattoos on his forearms, including the initials "B. B." – suitably ambiguous, given his regular use of the alias "Benjamin Baker". His degree of instruction was described as "imperfect".
Nothing is known of Benjamin after 1897, when he was liberated from Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.
In his earlier life, Benjamin was a skilled labourer and active member of his trade union. However, if that implies he might be protected against recidivism, any support network presumably collapsed after his first conviction, when he was exposed as having cheated his union of money.
Over the next twenty years, Benjamin went through a cycle of offending and imprisonment familiar to many who passed through the criminal justice system. His repeated spells in prison did little to deter him from committing further offences, and this pattern suggests the ineffectiveness of imprisonment as a deterrent in the late nineteenth century.
Benjamin’s details were stored on the Registers of Habitual Criminals, which documented frequent offenders. These contained a detailed description of Benjamin’s appearance, illustrating the later nineteenth-century impulse to identify, classify and understand criminal "types".
Forgery, larceny, burglary, receiving stolen goods, assault, imprisonment, alias, recidivism
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.