The pearl divers of the black River Irk
In the grey dawn, he saw them. From beneath the slimy waters a head bobbed up — and then another
Criminals in Victorian Manchester would steal anything they could lay their filthy hands on and the pages of the city’s old court records are full of unusual thefts.
Philip Southern, a well known “rough” from Ancoats, got a grocer named James Murphy badly drunk in a pub one day and then slipped outside and stole his donkey and cart.
The confused donkey was found still tied to the cart in a distant street the next morning — but Murphy’s groceries had vanished.
Other victims of unexpected pilferings included a sailor who woke up naked from a heavy night of drinking in a lodging house to find his uniform had been stolen.
Thieves went on to do jail time for the most trivial of thefts.
Henry Burgess and Alexander Pearson were sent down after breaking into a shop just to steal some toffee, which they were still scoffing in the street when they were caught at 1am.
Another prolific crook, Thomas Griffin, spent a total of eight years in jail for repeated minor thefts of tobacco, butter, fruit and a pair of coats.
Then there was Irish Kate, who was locked up for two months after her shirt buttons left a telltale imprint in a stolen block of cheese she was holding just a bit too tightly as she was chased by detectives.
The chances of being “pinched” by the police in a city where eyes peeped from every doorway were so high that criminals soon began taking unusual steps to hide stolen goods.
Trap doors concealed in the floors of cellars served as secretive hiding places along with the filthiest privies which were unlikely to be searched.
Others deposited stolen metal in bodies of water like offerings to Celtic gods.
Bob Horridge, a hardened criminal or “cracksman”, somehow hid a 450lb safe in a reservoir behind his blacksmith’s workshop.
How he got it in there is anybody’s guess as the police could only retrieve it using a winch.
A huge hole in the safe wall showed where the contents — £600 in gold and silver — had been taken out.
Most enterprising of all though were the Leach brothers, John and James, aged just 14 and 12.
One Friday night, they slipped out of their cellar dwelling in the Gibraltar district and set off through Manchester’s streets in the darkness.
A short time later, they were carefully removing the lead and eight panes of glass from the vestry window of St Michael’s Church.
Once inside the church itself, the boys worked quickly, ripping 35 bronze gas pendants from the walls.
They also stole the pearl-like silver knobs from the tops of the staves and before grabbing the fire irons.
Where, though, could they stash it all?
One of the brothers, John, had an idea. The place where nobody would look.
That night they crept down to the swollen River Irk — a slugglish, black and sewage-filled waterway that bubbled with sulphurous gasses — and dumped their haul in the water.
It seemed a foolproof plan until, in the early morning a few days later, a constable named Duckwork went on patrol along the river bank.
Then he saw them.
From beneath the slimy water a head bobbed up — and then another.
In the grey light of dawn, the pearl divers of the black River Irk were fishing for the silver knobs they had stolen from St Michael’s Church.
Thank you to all of you who have bought tickets for the first of my tours of Angel Meadow.
I’ve mentioned it before, but that little corner of Manchester is a special place for me — as it is to a whole lot of other Mancunians.
The first four tours in March have sold out and there are now only a few tickets left in April. You can get one by using this button:
Thanks again for your support. I’m hoping to add some online genealogy courses soon if its something you might be interested in.
Have great week.