Stitched up

John broke down in tears as Lord Denman passed his sentence. He knew he wouldn’t see his wife and new-born son again for 12 long, hard months. Although he deeply regretted the fateful mistake for which he was now dearly paying, John couldn’t help but think that he was the victim of a terrible injustice.

It was mid-June in the year 1843, and four men were talking and drinking ale in a private room at the back of the Heart’s Ease pub in the centre of Cambridge. Inspector Charles Thresher of the newly-formed Borough Police and his ex-colleague Robert Fynn were in deep conversation with two shadier characters called Frederick Shadbolt (aka “The Blackbird”) and Richard Cotton (known as “Lutterworth Dick”). Shadbolt had long been taking up to half a sovereign from the police for providing information about local criminals such as “Young Barn-door Jack”, “Doddy Shedd” and “Tambourine Sam”. But this time a plan was afoot to pocket a much greater reward. Despite innovations in coin production, counterfeiting was still a big problem throughout the country. Up until a decade ago it was considered high treason and punishable by hanging, and although it was no longer a capital offence, those found making fakes could still be transported for up to 14 years. To help catch the counterfeiters, the Royal Mint were offering a ¬£50 reward for anyone apprehending an offender. It was thus that the four plotters hatched a plan that day for dividing such a sum between themselves, and all they needed to enact their nefarious scheme was an unsuspecting pawn to do their bidding. Dick said he knew just the man.[1][2]

John William Balls was born in 1821[3] and grew up in the shadow of St. John’s College in the north of Cambridge. Among the dirty, crooked streets were nestled beautiful academic buildings seemingly positioned at random, and low houses, with their upper stories sometimes projecting over the narrow pathways[4]. Unlike the well-heeled scholars strolling down nearby Bridge Street in their top hats, silk cravats and frock coats, John was a poor labourer’s son whose father had died when he was just 14[5].

John likely started work from an early age to support his mother and younger sisters. The growing University which dominated the town provided many opportunities for workers supplying its needs. It was also around then that law enforcement was starting to change. Previously policed by unpaid volunteers, Cambridge was one of 178 boroughs which was required to establish a professional force by a reform act of 1835[6]. The Cambridge Borough Police was thus formed and initially employed only 30 police officers. The force was still small by the 1840s, comprising 2 inspectors, 4 sergeants, and 22 constables, all overseen by Captain Bailey, the Chief Constable[7].

By 1841, at the age of 20, John was working as a French polisher[8]. This was a very labour-intensive job, involving the lengthy and repetitive application of many thin coats of shellac to wooden furniture with a rubbing pad in order to build up a high gloss finish. The resulting fine furniture would no doubt have adorned the well-appointed residences of local students.

In the same year, John married Eliza Wheeler, a shoemaker’s daughter, at the local church of St Sepulchre[9]. They lived together in a two storey house, with John’s widowed mother, on a lane opposite the medieval round church. Just over a year later, their first child, a son also called John William, was born[10].

Round Church Lane, looking towards St. John’s College chapel

It was perhaps through his father-in-law’s connections that John then got a job as a shoeblack at St John’s College, cleaning and polishing the shoes of the students and academics. John would have been paid directly by the college, reporting individual bills so that students could be charged on a quarterly basis for his services. His friends and fellow shoeblacks regarded John as a good man, honest and industrious[11]. But to some of his customers he was but a lowly servant, pitied for his apparent ignorance. One particularly moralizing correspondent to a local newspaper wrote of a proposed training college for servants:

“The shoeblack will be lectured in geology and chemistry, for it is plain unless he can at once detect the strata in which his master has been walking or riding, he will not be apt to take the best method for removing the soil; and if he have ascertained that the splashes upon the boot-tops are alluvial sand, and not galt, he might still be at a loss how to expunge them unless versed in the properties of vitriolic acid.”

Cambridge Chronicle and Journal 31 December 1842

Returning to the events of 1843, it may then be clear how John, a young impressionable lad with no father figure and used to being treated as a lackey, agreed to help make some counterfeit shillings when asked by his friend Lutterworth Dick.

It was now Saturday July 1st, and the four plotters were once again at the Heart’s Ease pub. Inspector Thresher gave Lutterworth Dick two shillings and sixpence to procure the equipment needed for the job – some spoons and plaster of Paris to make the mould. Dick then went over to John’s house to set up. He returned that evening with Shadbolt to try out the process, Dick holding the mould and John pouring the metal in. He then told John he would come back later to commence work, knowing that it would in fact be the police who would next enter John’s property. The trap was set.

Counterfeiter pouring metal into a mould

Dick gave the signal to Thresher who stormed in with PC William Robinson at 2am on the morning of Sunday July 2nd. John, wearing his dark shoeblack’s apron, working away by the light of the fire in the quiet of the night, jumped out of his skin when they entered. He dropped the mould and a shilling fell to the floor. The police searched the room and found more shillings under an ornament on the mantelpiece and a tobacco pipe in the fire. Eliza, and John’s mother Mary, came downstairs in a state of undress to see what the commotion was, as John was hauled off and taken to the station-house[12].

At the trial a few weeks later, John’s lawyer admitted that the evidence was irrefutable, but he contended to the jury that Dick and Shadbolt were the real offenders and John was merely “a blind instrument”. Despite this, and several of John’s friends and PC Robinson attesting to his good character, the judge and jury were forced to convict – although even they did so with noted regret. The press reported that John was “a good deal affected and shed tears during the greater part of the trial”[13]. John was to serve 12 months in prison with hard labour, which at the time could have meant anything from walking on a treadmill for hours a day, carrying cannonballs up and down, or turning a crank handle thousands of times for no reason[14].

Lord Denman, who regretted having to send John to prison

Despite John being imprisoned, Eliza refused to accept that her husband was guilty. She employed the services of an attorney to bring a charge of conspiracy against the corrupt policemen, accusing them of entrapping John in order to gain financial reward. Unfortunately the case relied on the testimony of Shadbolt and the day before it was due in court, he was detained at Bury St Edmunds for allegedly stealing money from a pub. It wasn’t until he was released the following May that a packed and excited courtroom finally heard the case, but with no other witnesses and Shadbolt of such dubious character the magistrates unanimously dismissed it, despite vociferous support from anti-police protesters[15]. It may have been some small consolation that Inspector Thresher was suspended from the force for drunkenness only a few months later.[16]

Report of the case against the police, Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844

When he got out of jail, John got back to work and family life with Eliza. They had another son, Charles, in 1846 but after 18 years of marriage, Eliza sadly died from TB[17]. John would then marry again[18] and have another 6 children with a woman 20 years his junior. He remained in the St Clement area of Cambridge and built a career as a house painter[19]. He died aged 80 in 1901[20].


[1] The Yellow Trade,
[2] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[3] Cambridgeshire Baptisms, FindMyPast
[4] “Student life at Cambridge”, Littel’s Living Age, Vol. 34, 1852, p.114-115,
[5] National Burial Index For England & Wales, FindMyPast
[6] “The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act”,
[7] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 7 October 1843
[8] 1841 Census of England
[9] Marriage certificate of John William Balls and Eliza Wheeler
[10] England & Wales Christening Records, 1530-1906,
[11] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 29 July 1843
[12] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[13] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 29 July 1843
[14] Victorian Crime and Punishment,
[15] Cambridge General Advertiser, 1 May 1844
[16] Cambridge Independent Press, 14 September 1844
[17] Death certificate of Eliza Balls
[18] Marriage certificate of John William Balls and Mary Ann Lee
[19] Censuses of England, 1871-1891
[20] England & Wales, FreeBMD Death Index: 1837-1915,

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