First Ever Mugshot In Britain Released: Isaac Ellery, Cushion Thief

download-2I periodically post old mugshots which offer a gritty insight into criminal history.  The West Midlands Police just released some gems from their archives including what is believed to be the oldest mugshot in British history. That distinction rests with Isaac Ellery who was convicted in March 1853 and sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing four ‘gig’ cushions.


Police in Birmingham were the first police force in the world to take mugshots.

Ellerty’s sentence reveals the harshest of the Victorian criminal system in the Nineteenth Century.  Transportation was often an alternative to hanging and the felon was sent to Australia or the colonies.  Any sentence above seven years could result in transportation.

Between 1788 and 1868, 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia.  Many were sentenced to terms between 7 and 14 years. Once your term was served, there was no transportation back to England.

I will be sharing a few more of these mugshots this week.

19 thoughts on “First Ever Mugshot In Britain Released: Isaac Ellery, Cushion Thief”

  1. With the detachment of time, we look at criminals past and wonder if they were products of their circumstances. There were not a lot of opportunities for advancement in the caste system of Victorian Europe. The punishment of hard labor in the harsh environment of Australia does not fit the crime of stealing some pillows to fence.

    We drive horses, and we have some American antique conveyances. I’ve never driven a Victorian gig, but in general, Paul is entirely correct about the suspension system; there wasn’t much of one. The very gait of the horse creates a lot of movement, and a cobbled street would be jarring. If you had to bounce and slide around on the wooden and metal seat without the cushions, you would be cursing the thief to Hades. Anything with 2 wheels is going to move a lot. Our Victorian racing sulky is tight, so it even figure-eights as the horse walks, following the haunches.

    It is very expensive to recreate antique cushions. They were not mass produced throwaways, but painstakingly stuffed, tufted, tassled, and stitched by hand. Depending on the vehicle, they were made from silks, brocades, leathers, or other fabrics. It cannot be too slick or you would slide helplessly around. This was especially a problem for ladies who wore silks as standard. The fabric used depended on if they were to sit upon or lean against. They were usually stuffed with wool or horsehair. Carriages that transported ladies would be dressed in a suite of lap rugs, cushions, hot water bottles, and foot warmers. This was freezing cold England with bouncy cobbled roads, after all. Passengers also had to be insulated from spraying manure that would come up with the wheels, and the general stench of the street. People did not have a bunch of throw pillows and cushions strewn about.

    I wish I could have been a fly on a wall inside a Hansom Cab in London. They thread the needle through utter chaos on cobbled streets slick with manure, iron shod, in rush hour, darting in and out through meandering carts, pedestrians, and frantic traffic, at too roughneck a pace for ladies. Unfortunately for the horses, there were wrecks and horses were ground down with the work.

    The cushions were valuable at the time, just as any garment finely made by hand of expensive materials would be. The gig cushions were probably leather. That’s what our own restored seating is made of. I cannot imagine how they stitched leather by hand in the old days. It takes a very big needle. We had crows destroy a seat that had just been restored, to use the stuffing in the protective blanket covering it for nesting material, and my husband was seriously considering corvid genocide. So I can understand that fencing stolen cushions were an expensive problem. But I don’t believe people should die for stuff. And that’s what it was – stuff. Transportation to Australia was often a death sentence. Very sad window on the times. Hopefully he survived and had a better life.

    1. Here are a couple of brief descriptions of Victorian driving: – Note the very tight check rein, or “bearing rein” cranking the horses’ heads up painfully high, hollowing the back, in the first few pictures, compared with the much looser check rein on the Phaeton towards the bottom. (The Hackney is still popular today with those who drive.)

    2. And just for fun, there are some 4 horse Combined Driving shows:

      Please note that in combined driving, the purpose of the person in back (groom) is for counter balance to prevent it from tipping at speed. This is different than the reinsmanship, pleasure, or other driving classes. The driver position is called the whip. Wagon drivers are called teamsters, for driving teams of horses. Many classes call for a groom, but they are not leaning way out like in combined driving. The whip is just lightly flicked to touch them up if need be, and is not used to actually hurt the horse.

    3. Oh, and the origin of the term “crack on” is from the cracking sound of the whip, when it’s used as a noise maker. Or crack team. It had to do with a really good whip nimbly guiding a top team around obstacles with ease and smartness.

    4. Karen S – don’t you just hate it when Paul is generally right. 🙂 Besides, nobody lives forever, so transportation to Australia was both good and bad. Some people set up business and became the ancestors of today’s Australians. When you read Dicken’s stories about debtor’s prison, transportation does not sound all that bad. 🙂

      BTW, have you been following the sex scandal about the riding coach?

      1. Anyone outside the window of a rich, well appointed parlor in a Dickens novel was well and truly screwed.

        No, I hadn’t heard about the scandal. Who got caught? Horses are a small world.

        1. Oh my God. I just read about Flintridge. Anne is an extremely accomplished rider. Very brave. I’m so sorry this happened to her and other girls.

          Trainers really are like Gods to their students, especially show jumping trainers with access to the best horses. They can make or break you. It’s very cliquey, and there is a lot of money involved. At the top levels, you put yourself entirely in your trainer’s hands. Heck, George Morris will tape a tack to the seat of your saddle if you’re not light enough. And not only with the students let him do it, there is a lot of prestige to surviving one of his clinics, let alone getting a nod, which would set you up forever. Tell someone you went to a Morris clinic and they will say they are so jealous, how did you do, and and are you OK? Piss off your trainer, and they will make you suffer in lessons, or you’ll have to ride Tornado or the Stopper.

          Students will do anything to please their trainer and earn their praise. I’ve had trainers where their silence is the highest praise imaginable, because otherwise they are constantly explaining how you are doing absolutely everything wrong. 10 minutes of silence – OMG, I’m riding well! There’s nothing wrong!!! But they won’t say well done at the moment because you’ll immediately fall apart. If your trainer says carry on, then by golly you do. You ride the buck, stick the rear, handle the bolt, jump with lost irons, do the line with the horse who keeps leaving out strides, get back on the horse who just dumped you, or otherwise ride forward out of whatever crisis happened because your trainer said you were OK.

          I am so very heartbroken that any trainer would abuse that complete trust to abuse their students. Riding or gymnastics, when your life is on the line in your sport, you get a very intense bond with coaches.

          1. Karen S – I was amazed that he thought it was his job to teach the girls to be sexually ready for their boyfriends and husbands. He might have been a great trainer but he was a despicable human being.

          1. Thanks for the heads up about this tragedy, Paul. This is the same article I found when you mentioned the scandal. And, you’re right, it’s all over the equestrian news. I am so very sorry for what these girls went through. I am especially troubled that when some of the girls told their parents, they found the story so egregious and unbelievable, that they didn’t believe it and pressed on.

            I greatly admire Anne Kursinski. She is a fantastic rider. I have seen her ride a tremendous buck and carry on her conversation calmly. She’s a lion of a rider. But at one point, she was a little girl and Jimmy Williams was her idol.

            For those who don’t ride equestrian sports, especially jumping, trainers hold tremendous power and influence over students…as they should. The proverbial sh&(*& always hits the proverbial fan, and they will teach you how to get through it. Jumpers are just usually very hot horses, and they don’t get desensitized enough. You do as your told so you can learn how to really ride and stick the tough stuff. Like when a plastic bag blows into the ring and you realize you are going to die now.

            Here is a mild example of such influence, properly wielded, by Anne herself at a clinic:


            When your horse acts up, your instinct is to crouch forward and grip tightly, which makes your bum come up off the saddle and you legs to pinch like clothespins, and it pinches their mouth. Which disengages your seat, your horse’s head goes higher, his back hollows, and it becomes a negative feedback loop. Nerves run right down the reins to his brain like electricity. You have to not grip the horse who is freaking out.

            In this clinic, when a horse was jigging and acting up, she made the rider drop his stirrups, which his hind brain really, really wouldn’t want to do. But it’s right because it deepened his seat and helped calm the horse. She made riders tie their reins in knots, which most of them really, really wouldn’t want to do in a new arena where their horses were fresh, but it kept their hands quiet which relaxed the horses. Your trainer will make you do what your instinct yells is wrong, but the advice from a good trainer is sound. And their students trust them and follow.

            You can see her calmly riding her own horse, who was rearing and bucking unreasonably during the clinic. Her reins are relaxed, not clenched, and she’s just carrying on as per usual. That strong woman was abused by the trainer she herself trusted.

            This is an example of where a victim’s word alone is backed up by a slew of similar stories. People remembered seeing inappropriate behavior, but didn’t realize it went so far. Their observations back up that there was something wrong going on. Other victims’ stories match. I wish they were never abused at all. If they were, then I wish they got justice immediately, which would have spared other kids.

            But this seems like the Church, teacher, Boy Scouts, and Pendusky. The perp’s reputation and authority protected him. There was no investigation of allegations at the time.

            People confuse talent with good character. They are sometimes mutually exclusive.

  2. AFAIK, the term “You’re pulling my leg” arose from the practice of a hangman whose job it was to pull the legs of children punished by hanging, said children being less than the required weight required to break their neck. Grim, disgusting, and horrible does not adequately describe such practice, right down there with elective abortion.

  3. Thanks, Professor Turely. That link to the British site is very interesting.

    The technology for mugshots has taken a big leap in just the last 30 years. As recently as the 1980’s, if cops wanted a copy of a criminal’s mug shot, they had to wait a few days for the police photo lab to produce a photo print (wait time varied by department size).

    But now, with digital photography, a cop can download a mug shot with just a few clicks from any police computer.

  4. A gig is a light, fast horse cart. He is stealing comfort from the rich, of course, he is going to be transported.

    1. Thanks, Paul, I wondered what ‘gig’ referred to. The thief was stealing the modern day equivalent to amenities for the car. There was probably an underground trade for that in England’s bigger cities.

      1. Peter Hill – you also have to remember that those carts did not have spring suspensions in them. Those cushions were a necessary feature. 😉

  5. wow 7 years for stealing pilows – Aussie gov needed cheap labor. Brings Papillon to mind.

    1. Autumn – just watched a series on the World’s Greatest Hoaxes and Papillion was among them. He was on a different island and probably used the stories of one or more prisoners he met while there. He originally offered the book to this publisher as a novel, but the publisher decided it would make more money as an autobiography. There is another prisoner who went to his grave claiming that Papillion had ripped off his life.

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