Eicke, William Edward, 1821-1906

An educated clerk who made one ‘mistake’

William was a well-educated man in good employment when he was tempted into a large-scale deception. A conviction for stealing from his master meant the loss of his good name, his career, and his liberty. However after a period of incarceration, he married and managed to find a new life, eventually he settled down to become a publican in Buckinghamshire. For William, the punishment of penal servitude seemed to work, but the protective factors of family-wealth, and a good education, probably greatly helped him after leaving custody.

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Early Life

Blackheath, although now considered to be part of central London, was part of semi-rural Kent when William was born there in 1821. When he grew up, William Edward Eicke was taller than most men at over 6ft tall, according to his prison license. He was also one of the few men who found themselves in convict prison that had enjoyed a good career before experiencing the darker side of life. He had been a clerk in the office of the Treasurer to the London and South West Railway Company since he turned sixteen years old, before he was accused of Larceny as a Servant by his employers and he appeared at London’s Central Criminal Court in July 1850.

Crimes and Trials

The Old Bailey proceedings only include a very short summary of the trial proceedings that took place in July 1850. Nevertheless, we know from the prison license that Septimus, his brother, was originally charged alongside William (and the case was subsequently dropped) and that William’s father was a solicitor. The family could afford a barrister to represent and mitigate on William’s behalf. Despite this, and although he pleaded guilty, he was sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years.

Punishment and Outcomes

Before he was due to be placed on a ship heading for Australia, William first spent just over one year in solitary confinement at Millbank prison in London. When this process had completed this mandatory part of his punishment (a stage which drove many prisoners into mental illness), William was transferred to a prison Hulk. These mastless ships moored in the River Thames, and off the coast in Essex and Portsmouth, were used to warehouse convicts until a ship was available to transport them on. Conditions on board were cramped, miserable, and often violent.

With transportation as system of punishment winding down by the time of William’s conviction, William never actually sailed south, but was released from an English convict prison on licence in October 1853 with approximately four years of his sentence left to serve. Prisoners serving penal servitude sentences could be released early on licence, but if they reoffended they were likely to have their licences revoked and be returned to prison. However, William was able to abide by all of the conditions of his licence, possibly because he had the support of a loving partner. Just a few months after his release on license, in 1854, William married Eliza Tappin, at St Marylobone Church. Given the shortness of the courtship, it seems likely that Eliza had know William before he was sentenced, and had waited for him to be released so they could marry. This says something about the bond that existed between them.

Later years

Marriage, and perhaps the continuing support of his family may have been significant in William re-establishing his life. The couple settled in Marylebone in London, and although he was described as a man living on independent means in the 1861 census, the 1871 census has him working as an auctioneer. By 1891 he had changed employment again, and was working as a commercial agent and soon after the 1891 census was taken, his wife Eliza died. In 1896 William remarried. He lived with his second wife, Clara, in the Edgeware Road, Paddington. Whether they simply got fed up of living in London, or whether a new opportunity presented itself at the turn of the new century, Edward and Clara underwent significant life-changes in their later lives. In his 70s, William became landlord of the George and Dragon Pub in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (image below). Potentially a quieter and more pleasant place to see out his life than the busy capital. William remained there until his death in 1906. He was survived by his wife Clara and left £262 in his will.

Wider Context

The early release of William seemed to have been justified. Not only did he never re-offend, but he also managed to make a successful life for himself. William appears to have been happily married until his first wife died, and then managed to settle again in a new area with a new wife in later life. The prison license scheme seems to have allowed William to resume his ‘civil’ life and use his education and skills to secure work more quickly than otherwise would have been the case.

We will never know for sure whether his wider family came to be reconciled with William after his crime was discovered, and if they helped him to readjust when he was released on licence. Similarly, we will never know whether William would have had a different life had he never had one fateful interaction with the criminal justice system, or if he had never been caught. When he left custody he never committed another offence, and his job as an auctioneer would perhaps have given him the opportunity to do so, thus, should be credited with turning his life around? The success of William’s post-prison life is, in all likelihood, closely related to the strong family support network, skills, education, and wealth he enjoyed prior to his arrest. The great unknown, of course, is what would have happened to him had he been put on that ship to Van Diemen’s Land, or Western Australia. What would have been the course of his life then?

Further Information

● Johnston, Helen, ‘’’Crime in England 1815-1880: Experiencing the Criminal Justice System’’’ (Abingdon, 2015). ● Branch-Johnson, William, ‘’’The English Prison Hulks’’’ (Johston, 1957 reprinted 1970). ● Garneray, Ambrose., ‘’’The Floating Prison: An Account of Nine Years on a Prison Hulk During the Napoleonic Wars’’’ (Conway Maritime Press, 2015)


Marriage, reform, penal servitude,

Author Credits

This page was written by Barry Godfrey with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.