When Allan Neville decided he didn’t like the world much in 1898, he found a place to hide in West Norwood. He didn’t like children much, but they seem to have liked taunting him. So which came first, the teasing or the gunshots which maimed two children? And whose side would you be on if young hoodlums enjoyed harassing you? In JAN BONDESON’s latest story of strange Victorians, it seems the courts were pretty lenient on the gun-toting troglodyte.
Allan Neville had worked as a hosier as a young man, but after receiving a small legacy, he decided to withdraw from the world and become a hermit.
His house, or rather hermitage, was part of the remains of a crumbling old mansion called Meadow Bank, situated in the Durham Road, between West Norwood and Streatham Common – the road does not exist any more.
This was a very secluded spot, and thus suitable for a hermit who wanted nothing to do with the remainder of humanity.
In particular, Allan Neville very much disliked children: he was a resolute paedophobe, who took cover whenever he heard the sound of juvenile voices near his hermitage.
On the afternoon of June 30, 1898, a number of small children had congregated to play in a field adjacent to the hermitage.
Nothing happened until a quarter past nine in the evening, when gunfire was heard from the direction of the Allan Neville’s abode.
The children scattered, and some of them ran home to alert their parents.
The railway signalman William Dearing was one of these parents, and he seized up his little daughter, who was just three and a half years old, and went in search of the gunman.
In the field, he saw an odd-looking man holding a small fowling-piece.
When Dearing charged the gunman, he fired his weapon, wounding both Dearing and the little daughter.
William Dearing seized hold of the hermit with a hearty goodwill, until some other parents, and a police detective, had come to his assistance.
Allan Neville was frog-marched to the local police station, where he was charged with maliciously firing a gun loaded with shot at children, with intent to do them bodily harm.
It was fortunate that the hermit only possessed a small-calibre weapon, loaded only with old duckshot cartridges; if he had possessed a more powerful weapon, much mischief might have been caused.
Neither William Dearing nor his daughter were seriously hurt, but a little boy had been shot in the forehead, with one bullet penetrating the skin and causing bloodshed.
When Allan Neville was brought up before the South-Western police court, William Dearing described how the hermit had fired at him.
After being apprehended and disarmed, Neville had objected ‘It was a pure accident!’ He had himself seen the hermit fire at the children.
Albert Henry Dickson testified that his five-year-old son had been wounded in the forehead and face.
George Feaner, a young Norwood lad, described how he had been playing cricket in the field, when he saw Neville leaving his house, holding a gun, which he levelled and fired at the children.
He denied that he had been annoying Neville by throwing stones at his ramshackle hermitage. The prisoner was remanded, and the magistrates offered to accept two sureties of £100 for his appearance.
The case attracted a good deal of newspaper attention: ‘Extraordinary Outrage at Norwood!’ said the headline of Reynolds’s Newspaper; ‘Two Norwood Children shot by a Hermit!’ said Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper and ‘Extraordinary Outrage by a Norwood Recluse!’ exclaimed the Illustrated Police News.
On July 14, Allan Neville was again brought up before the London County Sessions.
He was defended by Mr Wheeler, QC, and by Mr De Michele, and pleaded not guilty to unlawfully wounding the children.
The prosecution argued that Neville, an eccentric man in good circumstances, had long been annoyed by the children playing in the field at the back of his house.
He had written to the police, threatening that unless he received protection from his juvenile tormentors, he would ‘introduce a load of shot’ into them.
The police had thought they were dealing with a madman, and ignored him. The signalman Dearing had been a witness to Neville firing his gun at the children, and hitting one of them in the face.
The defence argued that Neville had only fired his gun to frighten the children off, and that the gun had not been pointed at them, although a ricochet from the trunk of a tree had led to the little boy being hit.
The jury found the prisoner guilty, however, and the chairman said that although this was a serious case, none of the children had been seriously harmed. He did not want to degrade the prisoner with a term of imprisonment, as he expressed it, but Neville was fined £50 to put an end to his trigger-happy tendencies.
This fine appears to have had the desired effect: the hermit retired into his hermitage, and never did anything newsworthy again.
This is an extract from Jan Bondeson’s Strange Victoriana (Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2016).
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