James Williams


b. 1872 — d. 1944
North Shields, Tyneside, England

General labourer and North Shields resident James Williams was charged with larceny, a crime that would become ‘theft’ statutorily in later years, on 24 August 1902. The photograph we see here was taken in the North Shields police station on the day of his arrest and the particulars of his trial are detailed in an article in the Shields Daily Gazette, a newspaper from Tyneside in the north of England. The article describes how Williams was indicted for stealing ‘a guernsey valued at 12 [shillings]’ and though its not explained what this is, it’s most likely either an old form of localised British currency issued in Guernsey of the Channel Islands, or a type of knitted navy blue jumper still produced today – the latter being much more probable.

These extremely practical garments are made from tightly knitted wool, which made them warm, hardwearing and to an extent water-resistant. As such were they were popular with sailors and fishermen who wore them to resist rain and sea spray during their physically demanding work. Though guernseys are thought to have developed in the British Isles during the 15th Century, exactly where and when is unknown.

Variously patterned ganseys from Norfolk; three portraits by remarkable photographer Mary Olive Edis.

Elsewhere in the country the garments were known as ganseys or jerseys and although there is obviously a clear etymological link between the name of the garments and the Channel Islands, there’s little evidence to suggest they originated there. For one, the wool trade of the isle Guernsey was initially much more focussed on the production of delicate garments made from very fine wool such as shawls and hosiery. Guernsey stockings in particular were famous for their lightness and delicacy, which was often demonstrated by pulling them through a wedding ring; it’s said Mary Queen of Scots was wearing a pair at her execution in 1557 which could go some way to explaining the historical association. As Britain increasingly became a maritime nation over time, so the island of Guernsey moved away from the production of delicate garments, towards more sought-after and therefore more profitable fisherman’s garb. It’s not certain whether the term guernseys was appropriated from ganseys as the relationship between the jumper’s manufacture and the island grew, or that it was the other way around and gansey is a colloquialism derived from Guernsey that has changed as it spread to other areas in the country. What is certain however is that Queen Mary wasn’t wearing a chunky fisherman’s knit when she lost her head.

Guernseys were designed with a square neck and patterning on both front and back so they could be reversed. This ensured that areas most exposed to wear and tear, like the chest and elbows could be alternated ensuring they lasted longer. The patterns themselves were influenced by a life at sea, taking inspiration from a range of nautical paraphernalia like nets, ropes, ladders, waves, herringbones and so on. There are hundreds of styles and designs were often unique to individual coastal towns and villages. This gave rise to the claim that, more than just decorative elements, guernseys could be used as a grisly form of identification, where if the body of a drowned sailor washed ashore and his identity couldn’t be determined then the pattern knitted into his jumper could help return him to the place from which it originated. Perhaps slightly disappointingly, there’s no factual evidence to support this and is likely to be a charming, albeit macabre maritime myth. Although certain styles would have originated in Whitby, Seahouses, Scarborough or hundreds of other towns and villages around the country, in reality patterns often migrated from place to place along with the men who wore them and so are unlikely to be an accurate means of identification.

Gansey patterns from the North Yorkshire Coast:

The practicality of guernseys meant that, over time, they were used by many walks of life where hard work in all weathers was a necessity — soldiers and workmen most commonly, though they were also supplied to prisoners serving time. Residing on England's north east coast and working as a labourer, it's not surprising that Williams appears to be wearing one in his police mugshot, though it looks to be a short-sleeved version. Returning then, to the theft of the guernsey for which Williams was arrested and we learn that rather than being caught red-handed, it appears he wasn’t even accused of the crime – instead he turned himself in. The Shields Daily Gazette quotes an exchange, presumedly at Williams’ trial (though it doesn’t actually specify) where Sergeant Proud of the North Shields police force states that ‘the accused went into the police station on Saturday night in a state of drunkenness. He said he had stolen the guernsey produced from Mr Graham’s, and he wanted to be locked up,’ the article continues, ‘He [Williams] was detained upon a charge of drunkenness, and from inquiries [the] witness subsequently made, he [Sergeant Proud] charged [the] defendant with stealing the article’.

The witness in question was one Miss Appleby, an assistant at Mr Graham’s pawnbrokers where the theft had taken place. Williams, professing his innocence – of a sort – replied ‘I never intended stealing it or I wouldn’t have brought it here’. Presumedly ‘here’ is to the police station in the first instance, though again this isn’t clear. Despite turning himself in, the fact there was a witness and that the accused was actually in possession of the stolen property, Williams was dismissed of all charges after his employer spoke on his behalf, stating ‘that during the eight years he had been with him [the] defendant had been entrusted with thousands of pounds and nothing had gone wrong’. Nothing more than a drunken prank then, the theft and return of a jumper hanging outside a shop and taken as he passed on a whim. An inconsequential crime but one that has left behind an enigmatic portrait that still exists over 100 years later.
Other mugshots taken at the North Shields police station:

Williams doesn’t appear to commit any crimes after this date — at least not ones listed in the Shields Daily Gazette — but it seems he might have had a previous conviction. On 30 April 1900, two years before his guernsey theft, another James Williams, also a labourer, was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. There’s a good chance this is the same man as, according to the 1901 census that took place the following year, there was only one other James Williams living in North Shields at the time, though as the Gazette’s article doesn’t provide the man’s age, we can’t be sure. If it is, his altercation with the law appears to be a little more serious first time around:

James Williams, a labourer, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting Sergt. Jobling. The sergeant said that owing to [the] defendant’s conduct he was compelled to take him into custody. He at once struck out violently and kicked [a] witness savagely on the knee, causing much discolouration. P.C. Henderson assisted in the apprehension and Williams knocked his helmet off. [The] defendant had received no provocation, and would not be reasoned with. He behaved like a madman, and had to be chained down in the cell. P.C. Henderson and Inspector Hildreth also spoke to the violent conduct of [the] defendant. For being drunk and disorderly he was find 2s 6d and costs, and for the assault a fine of 20s and costs was imposed.

If we assume it is the same man then his behaviour appears to have improved between the two articles, which is probably just as well as Williams had a family who are likely to have depended on him. The census lists a James A. Williams, who worked as a general labourer, living at 26 Beacon Street in North Shields along with two other occupants, his wife Louisa Williams, 26, and their daughter, also called Louisa, who was 4. This is almost certainly the same larcenous Williams from the Gazette’s article, as the street he lived on and his approximate age both match. His birth year is recorded as 1872 meaning Williams would have been 29 or 30 in his police station portrait. The Williams family appear together again in the 1911 census, when James’ middle name is revealed to be Anthony and his occupation is still listed as a labourer. Beyond that there’s not much more information available about James A. Williams until the England and Wales Civil Registration of Death Index for 1944. Here a man in North Shields with the same name is recorded deceased aged 71. It appears he made a will – as registered in the Index of Wills for that year – but the beneficiary isn’t his wife or daughter who were both still alive at the time. Instead £40 and 4 shillings are made out to ‘Elsie May Taylor (wife of William Taylor)’ in Newcastle and it remains unclear as to what the connection is between them.


– Page 3 of The Shields Daily Gazette from Tuesday 26 August 1902 details James Williams’ arrest and trial, accessible through the British Newspaper Archive
– The second Shields Daily Gazette article to be mentioned from 30 April 1900 is also available through the British Newspaper Archive
– The England & Wales Census for 1901 and 1911
– England & Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995
– Information via Wikipedia on the Guernsey pound coin, as well as information on guernseys/ganseys from:
    – Wikipedia
    – The BBC for York and North Yorkshire
    – Gansey retailers Flamborough Marine
    – and the in-depth blog Gansey Nation


Image 1 Police mugshot of James Williams, 24 August, 1902. Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, via Flickr Commons
Image 2 Photograph, glass plate negative of Old Charlie (Charlie Grice), by Mary Olive Edis c.1918. Norfolk Museums Collections
Image 3 Photograph, platinotype of Billy Harrison, by Mary Olive Edis c. 1918. Norfolk Museums Collections
Image 4 Photograph, platinotype of Latter Day Cox, by Mary Olive Edis c.1918. Norfolk Museums Collections
Image 5 Fishermen with lobster pots, Sheringham, Norfolk, c 1903. National Maritime Museum Collections
Image 6 Police mugshot of James Dawson, 1902. Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, via Flickr Commons
Image 7 Police mugshot of Jerome Guerrini, 1904. Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, via Flickr Commons
Image 8 Police mugshot of Henry Moreland, 1902. Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, via Flickr Commons