William James Jones, alias Boxer, was born in Lydbrook in the Forest of Dean in 1881. Boxer ran into trouble with the authorities at a young age for minor offences. During his life, he had a long history of convictions and spent many months in prison. This is an outline of his criminal career which includes details of events in his early history that may have impacted on his relationship with authority and the life choices he made.
Boxer was the eldest son of Mary and William Jones who worked at Lydbrook Tin Plate Works. In the 1901 census Boxer is listed as a labourer and in 1911 as a mason’s labourer. He also worked at Lydbrook Tin Works. He had three sisters and one younger brother.
His first serious offence was at the age of 13 when in 1894 he was up before the magistrates, Colonel Davies and T T Taylor, for breaking into an outhouse and stealing an iron hoop and guide. He was bound over and as a result, was ordered to “come up when called upon”. Other offences during the late 1890s included playing a dangerous game, riding a bicycle without a lamp and riding a bicycle without a bell. Magistrates had the option of sending children under the age of 16 to residential reformatories or industrial schools but preferred to use the whip as a punishment for minor offenses such as these. In 1895, Boxer was given twelve strokes with a birch rod for stealing two shillings.
The Tinplate Strike
The year 1897 saw considerably industrial unrest in Britain as thousands of engineering workers went on strike demanding an eight-hour day. In 1897 there was also long strike at Lydbrook and Lydney Tin Works owned by R B Thomas and Co where workers were threatened with a 15 per cent wage reduction.
On 3 May 1897, twelve teenagers working as catchers at the Lydbrook works went on strike bringing the works to a standstill. The majority of the men and boys were members of the Tin Workers Union. On 21 May the Industrial World, the newspaper of the Tin Workers Union, declared that the union supported the catchers at Lydbrook in their strike and added they would receive strike pay. Subsequently, the mill men and tinhouse men at Lydbrook gave notice to cease work. On 5 June about 240 tin workers at Lydney gave two weeks’ notice to cease work in solidarity with the Lydbrook men in anticipation of having their wages reduced as well. This meant that 17 mills, employing nearly 1,000 hands were now idle at Lydney and Lydbrook. The Tin Workers Union continued to back the action and paid strike pay.
During the summer, some of the workers left the area and others obtained employment on farms or in the mines. Some went to work on the docks at Sharpness where they persuaded the dockers union to donate funds for the Forest strikers. There were regular collections for funds at the local collieries and supporters within the Forest community. However, by the Autumn, there was great distress in the Lydbrook area.
At the beginning of October, the Lydney workers returned to work with an agreement which meant a 10 to 15 per cent reduction for the skilled men but no reduction for the labourers. The same terms were offered to the Lydbrook men. In early November, after six months on strike, some of the Lydbrook mill men accepted the 15 per cent reduction in wages and returned to work. However, other sections of workers such as the finishers and tinners stayed out and an appeal for funds for “starving women and children” was made by members of the local labour movement. The dispute was not finally resolved until February 1898.
The strike impacted the Jones family severely and by the end of winter 1897, they were living in severe poverty and suffering from hunger. In January 1898, the Gloucester Journal reported that:
“William James Jones, Arthur Powell, and Leslie Jones (Boxer’s younger brother), lads, Lydbrook, were summoned for committing wilful damage to potatoes and swedes, the property William Cooper, landlord of the Bell Inn, Lydbrook. The damage was estimated at 10s. The Chairman said the boy William Jones was bad enough to corrupt the whole parish. He had already been before them twice for theft, and three times for wilful damage to a fence. The other two boys had also been birched. The father of the Jones’ admitted that the elder lad, who was 16 years of age, had not had so much looking after he should. They had no food at home that day owing to the stoppage of the Lydbrook Tin Works, and they went into the prosecutor’s garden and took the swedes to eat. The Chairman said the Bench were inclined to think that the two youngest had been influenced by the eldest defendant, who was about a bad a boy there was in Lydbrook. He must now go to gaol for six weeks with hard labour; and the other two must come up when called upon.”
Despite the development of reformatories magistrates continued to sentence adolescents over the age of 16 to adult prisons and these were sometimes accompanied by birching. At the age of 16, Boxer was sent to Gloucester prison where he would be subjected to a brutal regime and the company of hardened criminals.
In 1878 the government took over the running of prisons and introduced a system of stages in the prisoner’ sentence each lasting a minimum of 28 days. The first stage was the harshest, but after 28 days the prisoner could be promoted to the next stage providing their behaviour was good and they worked hard. There were four stages in total which allowed for increasing privileges such as being able to borrow a library book, receive and send letters, earn pocket money to be paid on release, etc.
The first stage involved solitary confinement and performing hard labour for about eight hours a day and, for the first fourteen days of their sentence, the prisoner had to sleep on a hard plank bed. This system particularly disadvantaged prisoners on short sentences who had to endure brutal conditions on arrival.
Hard labour according to the rules was supposed to be “of the hardest and most servile kind, in which drudgery is chiefly required and where the work is little liable to be spoilt by ignorance, neglect or obstinacy”. The aim of hard labour in the prison regime was to crush the spirit of inmates and force them to mend their ways. Prisoners were kept in silence during work and the tasks were tedious and often useless. After the prisons abandoned the use of the treadmill in 1898 prisoners sentenced to hard labour were usually given menial and boring tasks. Hard labour was formally abolished in 1948.
William Sparrow gave an interview to the Gloucestershire Echo 29 August 1906 after his release from Gloucester prison for serving two months of hard labour for his involvement in the Leckhampton Hill riot. He was required to spend the day making mail-bags and was allowed one hour of exercise each day in the yard. He added:
“I had to sleep without a mattress, and that is a rather rough experience, for if you go off to sleep your bones began to ache, and then you awoke before getting any refreshing sleep. For the first month, I had strict separation from all prisoners … The food was sufficient and wholesome, but rough. The breakfast and supper are the same – a pint of gruel and eight ounces bread. For dinner, there is greater variety twice a week (Sundays and Thursdays) you get meat; three days soup, and two days suet pudding and potatoes”.
On 12 July 1898, Boxer was sent to prison again for two months for whipping a donkey. The Chairman of the Coleford Police Court, Colonel Davies, who had sentenced numerous children to be whipped said, without a hint of irony that it “it was the most disgusting case of cruelty that he had heard for the last ten years”. In June 1899, Boxer was up before the Coleford Police Court and fined 10s for stone-throwing.
In 1901, at the age of 21, Boxer was sentenced to one month in prison by Colonel Davies of the Coleford police court for stealing walnuts, valued at 6d. At this time he was working at Lydbrook tin works. Later in the year, he went on the run after being accused of stealing apples and was arrested in Abercarn in South Wales. However, after he was apprehended, he assaulted a police officer by kicking him. As a result, he was sentenced to two months hard labour by T T Taylor at Coleford Police Court for the theft of apples and six months for the assault.
In April 1906, Boxer was up before Ross Petty Sessions for stealing a bicycle lamp from a pub in Ross. He was sentenced to prison for two months. It was reported in court that when challenged by the police Boxer voluntarily produced the light which was hidden in his house and said:
“He had no intention of stealing the lamp, but he borrowed it to light himself home as he had no oil in his own lamp or money to buy any.”
In March 1910, Boxer was sentenced to two months for common assault, possibly on his girlfriend, Julia Williams.
On 25 July 1910 Boxer broke into Lydbrook Co-operative store and stole two pairs of leather soles, one piece of soap, a pair of trousers, one pound of butter, seven candles, some cakes and one pound of sugar. He was accompanied by Julia Williams aged 17 and described as a charwoman. Boxer was arrested on 28 July, but since this offence was considered more serious than the others the magistrate committed him to be held on remand and to be tried at the Gloucester Quarter Sessions in front of a judge and grand jury
On 19 October Boxer appeared before the Assizes and pleaded guilty and said “we are both guilty of it. I will tell you the truth.” However, Julia Williams claimed she didn’t have anything to do with the crime but was found guilty of receiving stolen goods and bound over for the sum of £5.
Boxer was sentenced to 14 days of hard labour in addition to the time already served. The prosecuting counsel mentioned that the woman was pregnant and the Chairman asked Boxer if he was willing to marry the girl and he said yes. However, Williams said: “I don’t want to marry him, because when he has got me, he won’t give me a living.” 
On 1 April 1911, Boxer stole a silver watch from a jeweller shop in Cinderford. He was arrested a few days later and on 15 June was sentenced to 12 months of hard labour at the Gloucester Assizes for the theft.
In October 1912, Boxers made a sensational escape from a moving train while being transported to Gloucester prison after being arrested on a charge of stealing 9 shillings from a barbershop in Coleford. During the journey on Tuesday 8 October, Boxer complained of being sick and the police constable who was guarding him allowed him to go to the window of the door for fresh air. When the train slowed down to take the bend at Fetter Hill, Boxer jumped out of the carriage window from the moving train and, despite having handcuffs on both wrists, evaded serious injury. The policeman pulled the communication cord and stopped the train, but Boxer made off into the woods in the direction of Whitecroft. He approached several villagers and asked them to release him from the handcuffs but they refused.
On Saturday evening, he was recaptured at Lydbrook and, then brought before the Gloucester Quarter Sessions. However, the charge of theft levelled against him was dismissed by the jury and he was discharged having already served time for the escape. Boxer said, “Thank you, Sir”.
Illustrated Police News 17 October 1912 which gives an account of Boxer’s escape
On 25 August 1914 Boxer was up before Coleford Police Court for breaking and entering the Co-operative Store Lydbrook, and stealing some stamps, threepence, tobacco, and tomatoes, between the 21 and 22 of August. However, the police offered no evidence and so Boxer was discharged.
World War One
Sometime between the start of World War One and 1916, Boxer enlisted or was conscripted into the military where he would have been subject to military law. Boxer’s relationship with authority was problematic and inevitably he would have found military discipline a challenge.
In the case of minor discretions, a non-commissioned officer could order a soldier like Boxer to carry out unpleasant tasks such as cleaning the latrines or order him to attend extra parades, etc.
If the offence was more severe, such as drunkenness, a soldier would have to appear before a company commander. In this case, a fine could be imposed or the soldier confined to barracks with fatigue duties, square bashing, or pack drills. If the offence was even more serious such the soldier had to appear before a commanding officer who could detain the man or award him a Field Punishment for up to twenty-eight days.
Field punishment was introduced in 1881 following the abolition of flogging. It was a common punishment during World War One. A commanding officer could award a Field Punishment for up to 28 days which consisted of the convicted man being placed in fetters and handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or a fence post, for up to two hours per day.
The final sanction for offences was the court-martial. The punishment varied from confinement to barracks with loss of pay for offences such as overstaying leave by a few hours, to execution by firing squad for desertion, theft, sleeping while on duty or hitting a senior officer.
If an offence was committed at home, the sentence would normally be detention in a military prison under very harsh conditions, although by 1915, men were often quickly sent back to the trenches under a suspended sentence.
However, after four months Boxer was discharged for misconduct. Discharge in these circumstances was highly unusual and would only be used in extreme circumstances or else it could become an attractive option for new conscripts.
There are about a dozen cases of a William Jones being brought before a court-martial during in 1915 and 1916 so it is difficult to ascertain if any of these were Boxer. Consequently, it is unclear what happened during these four months but it can only be assumed that the military authorities found it very difficult to deal with Boxer and decided it was easier to get rid of him.
However, now back in the Forest Boxer reverted to form. On April 1916, he was up before the Gloucester Quarter Sessions for breaking into a shop in West Dean. Boxer handed in a statement requesting leniency and said he “expected shortly to be called up. He wished he were now at the front killing Germans.” The chairman said it was unlikely he would be wanted by the military and added that because of his criminal record he would be sent to prison for three months of hard labour.
The military was short of recruits and so after his release, Jones enlisted or was conscripted into the Royal Garrison Artillery. He signed on at Plymouth on 10 July 1916. He did not last long and soon deserted and went on the run and was then arrested in South Wales and held in Usk Prison. However, while on the run it became apparent that he had broken into two houses in Lydbrook to steal some clothes. As a result, he was charged with larceny and transported from Usk and then held in Coleford to await his trial.
On 3 February 1917, Boxer married Julia Williams at St Johns church in Coleford while in custody and handcuffed to two policemen on either side to guard against another escape. The handcuffs were removed for the tying of the nuptial knot.
On 6 February he was brought before Coleford magistrates court charged with breaking and entering and stealing clothes from the two houses. He admitted stealing a jacket and a pair of trousers from one house, but not breaking and entering, and stealing a comb from the other house, but not the pair of boots as charged. He asked the Bench to deal with the case summarily as he was now a ‘lawful’ married man with two children.
He was committed to the Quarter Sessions where the chairman remarked on Boxer’s long criminal record and the fact that he was a deserter. He was sentenced to six months of hard labour to be followed by two years of police supervision. However, on release, he failed to report as required under the police supervision order and consequently was arrested and on 21 September 1917 was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment.
Boxer and Julia went on to have several more children but they split up and by 1924 Boxer was homeless. On 31 January 1924, Julia made a complaint of an assault on her by Boxer to Coleford police while she was in the woods collecting small coal from colliery waste. Boxer was subsequently arrested and remanded in custody. On 5 February the Gloucester Citizen reported:
“William James Jones, alias ‘Boxer’, labourer, of no fixed abode, was brought up on remand charged by his wife, Julia Jones, Mile End, Coleford, with common assault. Prisoner pleaded not guilty. Mrs. Jones said her husband followed her into the wood at Mile End, and tried to take her wedding ring off her finger. As she fainted away he struck her on the face, and pushed her the stomach, and she had not been free from pain since. She was in a certain condition. Witness had to be helped out the wood. She had not been to see a doctor as she had not the means. She was separated from her husband under a recent order.”
After several witness statements, the Chairman said there was no evidence that Boxer struck his wife in the stomach but said he “would like to know how she got marks her face”. He passed a sentence of one month’s hard labour. Boxer replied in a cordial tone: “Thank you very much, gentlemen”.
Boxer was lucky to get away so lightly as the women in the Forest had a reputation for looking after each other and not putting up with abusive husbands. This is from the Illustrated Police News 31 August 1878.
“A man living near Coleford who bad beaten his wife and threatened his children because he had been summoned for not sending the latter to school was lynched by about forty women, who flogged, and then dragged him to the parish pond, where his protested penitence and importunities alone saved him from a ducking. While supplicating for forgiveness on his bended knees, one of the crowd drenched him with water from a bucket.”
In May 1924 Boxer was temporarily employed by Mr Taylor in hauling steam coal at Lydbrook Tin Works. On May 12th he accompanied Mr Taylor to his home to settle up matters financially and stayed in the kitchen over the night. After his departure, Mr Taylor noticed that a silver watch and a silver medal were missing.
Boxer was also in trouble with the law for not paying his maintenance to his wife and children. He was arrested for both offences and appeared before the local magistrates who sentenced him to one month in prison for not paying his maintenance. He was committed for trial at the Assizes for the theft where he was found guilty and sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Boxer responded by smiling and saluting the judge and said: “Thank you very much. Much obliged, my Lord”.
On his release Boxer was homeless. In March 1925, he was summoned by Julia for non-payment of arrears on a maintenance order for his four children resulting in his appearance before the magistrates. Boxer asked the magistrate to discharge the order, contending that as he no longer cohabited with his wife, he was not now liable. The Chairman sentenced Boxer to two months in prison.
After 1925 there are no records of further offences and it is possible that Boxer settled down into a crime-free life. In 1939, he was listed as a general labourer and was living with Julia with their daughter Evelyn at Woodbine Cottage, the Scowles, Coleford. Boxer died in 1948 aged 67.
It is hard to say how Boxer’s early experiences of poverty, physical abuse and incarceration impacted on his relationship with authority and his choices to commit crimes. However, birching and hard prison labour would not have helped and while he was shown no kindness from the authorities there was no attempt at rehabilitation. His career as a serial offender highlights the failure of a criminal justice system at the time which was based purely on retribution.
His relationship with Julia was at times violent and his assault on her in the woods when she was pregnant was the worst of his crimes. In 1925, at the age of 44, his criminal career appears to come to an end. It is possible he may have changed and improved his relationship with Julia and that they lived together happily into old age. Boxer was not just a criminal he was a son, brother, husband, father, worker and member of the community.
|Age||Crime||Sentence||Conviction Date||Discharge Date|
|13||Stealing a hoop||Bound Over||24 April 1894|
|14||Stealing two shillings||Twelve strokes with a birch rod||April 1895|
|Playing a dangerous game||Unknown||Unknown|
|Riding a cycle without a lamp||Unknown||Unknown|
|Riding a cycle without a bell||Unknown||Unknown|
|16||Wilful damage to potatoes||Six weeks||28 December 1897|
|17||Ill-Treating a donkey||Two months||12 July 1898||5 Sept 1898|
|18||Stone-throwing||Fined 10s||6 June 1899|
|20||Stealing walnuts value 6d||One month||19 Nov 1901||18 Dec 1901|
|21||Assaulting a police officer||Two months||13 Nov 1902||12 Jan 1903|
|24||Stealing apples value 1s||Two months||16 Feb 1905|
|24||Assault on police||Six months||16 Feb 1905|
|25||Stealing a cycle lamp||Two months||6 April 1906|
|29||Common assault||Two months||1 March 1910|
|29||Shop breaking and stealing 2 pairs of leather soles, one piece of soap and other articles||Three months of hard labour||Held on remand from 28 July 1910 and convicted on 19 October 1910||1 Nov 1910|
|30||Theft of one silver watch||12 months of hard labour
|15 June 1911||14 Jun 1912|
|30||Escaping from police custody||One day||16 Oct 1912||16 Oct 1912|
|32||Shop breaking and stealing stamps, threepence, tobacco, and tomatoes.||Not Guilty||25 August 1914|
|34||Shop breaking||three months of hard labour||April 1916|
|35||Desertion and breaking and entering and stealing clothes from two houses||six months hard labour||6 February 1917|
|35||Failing to report to the police.||Twelve months of hard labour||21 September 1917|
|42||Assault on wife||One month’s of hard labour||Feb 1924|
|42||Arrears under a maintenance order for his wife.||One Month||May 1924|
|42||Theft of watch||Six months’ of hard labour||May 1924|
|43||Arrears under a maintenance order for his wife.||Two months||March 1925|
 Gloucestershire Chronicle 28 April 1894.
 Gloucester Journal 27 April 1895.
 Gloucester Citizen 12 May 1897.
 The various jobs in the production of tinplate were highly skilled and each man or boy had a specific role to play in the production process. For instance, the catcher’s task was to catch the steel as it came out of the rolls and swing it back over to the Roller.
 Gloucester Journal 3 July 1897.
 Gloucester Journal 17 July 1897.
 Gloucester Journal 9 October 1897.
 Gloucester Journal 16 October 1897.
 Gloucester Citizen 10 November 1897.
 See letter by J H Alpass, a Labour District Councillor for Thornbury, in the Gloucester Citizen on 23 November 1897.
 Gloucester Journal 5 February 1898.
 Gloucester Journal 1 January 1898.
 Jill Evans, A History of Gloucester Prison (Newent: Glos Crime History Books, 1988).
 Quoted by Evans, A History of Gloucester Prison, 88-89.
 Gloucester Citizen 13 July 1898.
 Gloucester Journal 10 June 1899.
 Gloucestershire Chronicle 23 November 1901.
 Gloucester Citizen 8 February 1905 and Gloucester Citizen Friday 17 February 1905.
 Gloucester Citizen 6 April 1906.
 Gloucester Journal 22 October 1910.
 Gloucester Journal 8 April 1911.
 Gloucester Citizen 9 October 1912, Gloucester Journal 12 October 1912 and Gloucester Journal 19 October 1912.
 Gloucester Journal 29 August 1914.
 Gloucester Journal 8 April 1916.
 Gloucester Journal 10 February 1917.
 Gloucester Journal 7 April 1917.
 Police Gazette 12 October 1917.
 Gloucester Citizen 4 February 1924.
 Gloucester Citizen 5 February 1924.
 Gloucester Citizen 21 May 1924.
 Gloucester Journal 14 June 1924.
 Gloucester Journal 28 March 1925.