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Meet the Badger, Victorian Manchester's burrowing burglar
He earned his nickname by shuffling down coal chutes into the cellars during burglaries
John Currie was known by a few names, but mostly he was known as the Badger.
At 5ft tall, he had a unique method of breaking into shops — by lifting the coal grids and shuffling down into the cellars.
But his nocturnal burrowings might not be the only reason for his nickname.
Looking at his prison records, I discovered that his neck was badly scared from a horribly disfiguring disease called scrofula.
Known as the King’s Evil because only a monarch’s touch was thought to cure it, it was caused by tuberculosis.
It meant that Currie was known to every police officer in Manchester — both for his his appearance as well as his skill as a burglar.
In the early hours of a September morning in 1868, a young officer named Jerome Caminada was on patrol in Great Bridgewater Street when he saw the Badger coming out of Flecky Sam’s oyster shop.
The shop, really just a hut, was a well-known hangout for thieves. Flecky had a pet monkey that would steal coins from punters’ tables as they slurped back the oysters.
The Badger took Caminada for a “cakey”, a teetotal missionary who was spending the cool hours before dawn hunting for some souls to save.
Caminada followed him to Deansgate where he arrested him in a trademark moment of intuition that would mark out his later career as the Victorian city’s most famous detective.
There some unusual items in the Badger’s pockets. Along with some tealeaves and sugar, Caminada found an Irish harp halfpenny and a copper coin that had been defaced with a chisel.
He was still pondering his discovery when, tired and bleary eyed after his night shift, he was told by a detective later that morning that a grocer’s shop in City Road had been raided in the night.
Heading to the shop to investigate, Caminada was told by the grocer Charlie Walker how the mystery burglar had used extreme cunning to get inside.
Walker had carefully secured the shop, even tying the cellar door shut from inside with a rope before going to upstairs to bed.
The burglar had silently lifted out the grid in the pavement and clambered down into the cellar and prised open the door by about an inch.
Striking a match and lighting a piece of paper, he had held the burning flame in the gap long enough to burn through the rope to get inside.
When Caminada then showed Walker the contents of the Badger’s pockets, like a magic trick, the grocer was shocked to recognise the Irish halfpenny and defaced copper coin from his till.
The Badger, who was still in custody after his arrest the previous night, was sentenced to 18 months with hard labour for the daring burglary — but that wasn’t the end of his story.
After his release, following another subterranean break in, he found himself being chased by another police officer along the towpath on the Bridgewater Canal.
At the Throstle Nest Bridge, he fled across across a field towards the Irwell and leapt into the river.
But the officer jumped in after him. In deep water they began to fight, until the Badger was dragged to the bank and arrested.
He troubled the Manchester police force no more — serving out a seven year stretch at Millbank Prison in London.
Can you find Victorian grids on the streets of the city?
People who walk the streets looking at grids and the ornate iron lids of Victorian coal chutes are known as drain spotters or “gridders”.
It is far from a new hobby, with a US newspaper declaring in 1962 that Britain was full of “opercultists” — a term derived from operculum, meaning fish grill cover.
A few years ago, I interviewed a grid spotter named Archie Workman for a newspaper article, who told me: “They are all different and I have come across drain covers from all over the country.
“They are part of our history. They were made by foundries that no longer exist.”
Coal hole covers are everywhere in London, with a website dedicated to identifying them in Spitalfields. They have ornate designs and were sometimes used as advertisements by coal companies.
Does anyone know if there are also grids like this on the streets of Manchester?
I’d like to gather in some pictures of the designs, research the manufacturers and create a map of them in a future newsletter. Can you help me find them by looking out for them on your regular route through the city?
Please drop me a line in my Manchester history chat group on the Substack app. Its easy and free to join and details are below. Or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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