Bad Company

I can’t be sure that the William WILLIS who found himself before the bench in 1864 is the orphan that was part-raised by the pauper spinster Frances MORGAN. The newspaper reports I have seen are lacking helpful detail. The young miscreants involved are referred to as “youths” or “young scamps” but one is said to be 22 years old. The two “just Williams” of yesterday’s post would have been twenty-one.

The law was most concerned about a 66 year-old reprobate called Charles COYLE.

A more detailed account in The Bridlington Free Press (same date) was headlined Atrocious Cruelty to a Cat and introduced Coyle as “a dirty old son of Erin”. He was facing justice because two of the participants in the events of 19th February were sickened enough to bear witness.

Coyle…who, it appears has for a length of time been in the habit of keeping a room in which he encourages all kinds of cruelty, such as dog-fighting, cock-fighting, and the worrying of cats, for the purpose of affording sport to himself and several young scamps residing at Filey, who had on several occasions taken stolen cats there in bags. It appeared also that Coyle had kept not less than five dogs for the purpose of worrying cats, &c…. He had lived in a room in a filthy condition, and kept coals under the bed on which he slept, and it was not an uncommon thing for him to tie the cats to his bedpoles until a favourable opportunity arrived for torturing them to death, selling the skins, and giving the carcases to his dogs for food. Mr. Richardson, solicitor, Bridlington, appeared for the Humane Society, and in opening the case said that during the whole of his experience he had never met with such a bad and cruel case as the one in question, now brought before the bench. … Coyle had long been practising a series of cruelties, and his house or room where he lived was a well-known depot for the worrying of cats and dogs, and one where every description of vice and wickedness had been going on. The old man was not only old in years, but he was old in infamy, and he hoped the bench would inflict that punishment on him which his conduct deserved, and he thought the bench would, after hearing the statements of the two witnesses he should call, think he was fully justifiable in asking for such punishment.

WILLIAM WILLIS said that on Friday, the 19th ult. he met a man named Thomas Jenkinson with a cat in a bag, and he took it down to Coyle’s house. It went under the bed and laid amongst the coals. There were four dogs in the room at the time. He was at Coyle’s at six o’clock that night with twenty or thirty others when the cat was worried. It was customary for a number of people to go there for the sport of killing the cats. The cat he saw was brought forward to the centre of the room and held by a string. Coyle held one dog and Featherstone another. The cat was partly worried by Coyle’s dog, and finished by Featherstone’s. Before the cat was dead it got away, while it was in great agony, and was again brought forward and two dogs got hold of it and were each pulling in opposite directions. The cat screamed loudly, &c., and died, and was then thrown to one side. Shortly before this he saw some cats’ skins hung up on the wall to dry. Coyle sold these skins to Featherstone.

WM. WISEMAN, another youth who had been present at Coyle’s on the day in question corroborated the evidence of Willis.

William Wiseman had the middle name “Willis” and was a first cousin once removed to our William Willis – circumstantial evidence that we have the right man. Wiseman, a fisherman, was eighteen and would marry in February 1867. Johanna BULLIMORE bore his seven children, the last after he had drowned in October 1880.)

William Willis had just sixteen months to live and I am pleased he didn’t go to eternity with his reputation completely ruined by Coyle.

The CHAIRMAN [Rev. J. HORDERN] then ordered the two young men, who had come as witnesses to be placed before him, and he, in very kindly terms cautioned them relative to their future conduct, remarking that it was a disgraceful circumstance indeed for such youths to be connected with. He urgently advised them not to frequent such infamous places as the one kept by Coyle, as surely they might find some better means of employment or amusement than that of cruelly torturing poor dumb animals, and they might think themselves fortunate they were not placed in the same position as Coyle and Featherstone, though they perhaps might have been with equal right. He would advise them to take the present admonitory warning, and never again disgrace themselves by taking part in cruel and wicked pastimes, as the Society of which Mr. Heffer was an agent were constantly on the look-out, and such cases would always meet with careful attention and the perpetrators of such heinous crimes would likewise receive their just punishment.

Charles Coyle was not reformed by his three months hard labour in the Bridlington House of Correction. Less than a year later (February 1865) he was charged with leaving his donkey an unreasonable length of time in the public street at Filey, fined 2s. 6d, 11s. 6d. costs with 14 days imprisonment if he defaulted. In December 1867 he was fined 25 shillings for keeping two dogs but having a licence for only one. In September 1870 he was fined one shilling with 9 shillings costs for taking lodgers in his house when he was not licensed. And over several years he corrupted a young man from a respected local family. William SUGGITT “fell into intemperance” and stole goods which Coyle fenced. In 1875 Suggitt was apprehended for stealing a pair of scissors and a silver pencil case. Fearful of the shame a guilty verdict would bring upon his family, the young man pleaded for a non-custodial sentence but was sent to the House of Correction for six weeks of hard labour. For receiving stolen goods, Coyle was committed to trial at the next Beverley Sessions. Whatever happened to him there he lived a couple more years, dying at the age of eighty in 1878. Overnight, Filey became a better place.

I have not been able to find the cause of William Willis’s death. He was buried in St Oswald’s churchyard on 9 July 1865 in an unmarked grave.

Tree 45 · Glen Gardens

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