Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer
(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)
Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.
The name of "Blue Jimmy" — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above
from Mr Thomas Hardy's ballad "A Trampwoman's Tragedy" — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England.
Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that
district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women
living who can recall their fathers' reminiscences of him.
To revive the adventures of any notorious
horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if
stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious
feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if
by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal
compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless
Jimmy is said to have been, in one account
of him, "worth thousands," in another a "well-to-do"
farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making
an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year
in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he
had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them
profitably on innocent purchasers.
This was in full view of the fact that in
those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to
be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the
merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness
towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest
degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what
we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This
particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize,
and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must
have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds
in each case did not deter him.
He stood nineteen times before my lord
judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict
being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of
Of this long string of trials we may pass
over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a
ticklish one for Jimmy —
in which he escaped, by a hair's breadth
only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had
happened was as follows: —
On a December day in 1822 a certain John
Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.
They "passed the time of day" to
each other, and then, without much preface:
"A fine morning," says Jimmy
" 'Tis so," says Mr Wheller.
"We shall have a dry Christmas,"
"I think we shall so," answers
Jimmy pulled rein. "Now do you happen
to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?" And he
turned his eye on the flank of the animal.
"I don't know that I do."
"The fact is a friend of mine bought
one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don't want two, I
must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen
Wheller shook his head, but negotiation
proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to
pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a
farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged
for a cart-horse of Wheller's and three pounds in money.
Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect
that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he
and, having begun to reflect upon
the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a
mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a
farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller's
own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller
wished he had had nothing to do with the "man worth thousands." He
went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel
"The Golden Heart" at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long
clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.
"I have been looking for you,"
said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.
"To get another such bargain, no
doubt," says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too
generous fool in his dealings.
"Not at all. I suspect that you did
not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and
cart-horse, when I'll return her."
"Good news for me!" says Jimmy,
"for that I'm quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this
gentleman. I've sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to
my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to
bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I'll see if my man is getting
Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and
Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected
such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but
his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady
where her customer, the farmer, lived.
"What farmer?" said the
"He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his
"I don't know that he's a farmer.
He's got no horse in our stables — he's quite a
"But he keeps the market here every
"I never saw him before in my life.
And I'll trouble you to pay for your
ale, and his likewise, as he didn't."
When Wheller reached the yard the
"farmer" had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the
This looked suspicious, yet after all it
might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen
the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but
to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to
Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and
devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for
some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He
had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr
Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the
Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to
Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who
certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just
heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in
circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a
particular mare like Mr Loveridge's, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.
Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge's door. "What is the lost mare like?" said Mr Loveridge cautiously.
"She has four black streaks down her
right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed' so" — here he described the shades, gave the particular
manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other
descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to
Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare
so peculiarly marked.
The end of the colloquy was that Mr
Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had
paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it
to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of
Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse.
Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance
of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the
crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue
Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.
During the trial all the crowd in court
thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in
the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when
cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he
could not swear positively to any of them.
The learned judge, in summing up, directed
the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably
proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested
that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses.
"It was remarkable," his Lordship observed, "that Wilkins, who
was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter,
and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give
evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been
In spite of this summing-up people in
court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this
time; yet the verdict was "Not Guilty," and we may well imagine the
expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy's countenance as he walked out of the
dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact,
stolen the mare.
But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not
long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in
the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the
loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was
keener even than in the previous one.
Jimmy's first question had been, "Who
is the judge?" and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had
tried him before.
"Then I'm a dead man!" said
Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.
It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay
one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated
that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was
on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see
her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver's, at the King's Arms,
Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field
from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never
known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless
she was taken out.
Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept
the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house
about four o'clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some
person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually
the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare
on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night.
(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the
horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were
talking; prisoner left next morning.
Robert Mills, husband of the last witness,
examined. He reached home about nine o'clock on October 9. He went with Pierce
the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable
and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the
house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner
called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who
now began to recognise him, said: "Jimmy, I don't think you came by these
horses straight." He replied, "I don't know why you address me by the
familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington
Fair for a black cart-horse." Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare,
and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered
twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his
horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair
under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away
before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the
mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe's possession. He examined the mare
and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never
seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he
saw him in Tiverton Prison.
(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning
after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though
he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport
Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.
A witness named Gillard, as he was walking
to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was
committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the
ground between two camps of gipsies.
The prisoner said nothing in his defence,
merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.
His Lordship, in passing sentence of
death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would
have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought
before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for
a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must
now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.
Such was horse-stealing in the 'twenties
of the last century, and such its punishment.
How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness
— whether the appellative was suggested to some
luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never
been explained, and never will be now by any historian.
About a month later, in the same old
County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him
at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread
at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The
account appears under the laconic heading, "Execution, Wednesday, April
25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the
extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester ... Clace appears to
have been a very notorious character" (this is a cautious
statement of the reporter's, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). "He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence.... In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52."
A tradition was till lately current as to
his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the
strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than
himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise
he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.
The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the "new drop": —
"William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having
stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned,
seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case."
The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a "new drop," and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless "flung his last fling" more boldly than many of his betters?