Friday, February 03, 2012

Bill Sikes the Radnorian

I've blogged about Bill Sheen before, see here.

I believe he was a model for the Dickens character Bill Sikes, although now we learn that the great novelist used the names of everyday folk from his teenage neighbourhood for some of his best-known creations. William Sykes, it seems, was a harmless tallow seller.

While not doubting that Dickens may have found the surname in that way, the character of Sikes is surely based in part on the Radnorian Sheen, once pursued from London to the Severn Arms in Penybont after slicing off the head of his jade Letitia's infant son and being subsequently found not-guilty of the murder on a legal nicety - twice!

Now Bill Sheen was not some anonymous Radnorian abroad in the smoke, he was famous, a 19C celebrity if you like. He was Sheen the infanticide, Sheen the child murderer, whose every scandalous court appearance for twenty years was reported assiduously in the public press - not least by the Thunderer itself.

Bill and his notorious mother Ann Sheen* ran brothels in Spitalfields, in particular in Wentworth Street. A street that was also home to another well known criminal, the receiver of stolen goods, Ikey Solomon - who many agree was the model for the Dickens character Fagin.

Sheen's brothels were infamous dens of child criminality where youngsters were lodged and sent out to pick pockets and plunder. Take a look at this evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons from 1837, just a year before the publication of Oliver Twist, evidence which was quoted verbatim in the Times.

And what of Sikes' moll, the unfortunate Nancy? Well in 1847 Bill Sheen was sentenced to two years with hard labour for violently assaulting and slashing his common law wife of eighteen years, one Mary Ann Sullivan. The Times reported that Sullivan had been "the subject of constant ill-usage" during her nearly two decades with Sheen and had frequently needed hospital attention after the brutal beatings she received. Was this violent relationship known to Dickens perhaps? He could certainly have read of the court case in 1836 where Bill had threatened to "rip up the bowels" of a lass called Mary Moore.

Radnorians may be interested in an obsequious letter Sheen wrote to the Lambeth Street magistrates from the New Prison in Clerkenwell, following the rescue of eight young mites from his clutches. Sheen boasted of "the respectability of my relations in Radnorshire." There was: a Mr___, a respectable farmer, and Mr___, shopkeeper and farmer at ___, and "aunt Sheen who lives on her own freehold estate at a place called ___, where my grandfather lived and kept his hounds for 70 years." Unfortunately the Times omits the actual names, no doubt to spare his relatives' blushes. If only the magistrates would release him, Sheen promised, he would leave London and go to Radnorshire and "never more trouble you." Thankfully for Radnorshire the magistrates ignored his plea and sent him down for 18 months.

* Like her neighbour Ikey Solomon Ann Sheen was a well-known fence - she owned a chandler's shop in Spitalfields. In 1840 at the age of 59 she was sentenced to be transported for 14 years. In the event Mrs Sheen pined away in the Millbank Penitentiary, dying in 1842. Ann left her not inconsiderable fortune in Bank Stock and properties to her favourite son, Bill.