They were on trial at the Old Bailey on 17th February 1820, less than four weeks after the crime took place.
John Bird (26) and George Bird (20) were already known by the police to be connected to a notorious gang of local thieves long before a burglary took place at the house of William Wyllie in Fulham about midnight on 29th January 1820. After forcing entry through a wooden shutter, the burglars entered the house and stole various items :
six spoons, value 10 s.; three candlesticks, value 25 s.; three pair of snuffers, value 4 s.; one extinguisher, value 2 s.; one snuffer-tray, value 5 s.; one pair of sugar-tongs, value 5 s.; one sugar-bason, value 5 s.; two pair of nut-crackers, value 5 s.; four salts, value 3 s.; two decanters, value 5 s.; two miniature paintings, value 5 s., and one table-cloth, value 3 s.
A total of goods with a value of £3 16s. There are different ways to measure the value of old money, but it was probably somewhere between £500 - £1,000 worth in today's terms.
The evidence was circumstantial although the prosecution did claim that "a snuffer" found in a lodging which was frequented by John Bird was the one stolen. They also produced a crow bar and chisel which they alleged were the right shape to have been used to force entry.
Witnesses for the prosecution gave evidence that both John and George had been drinking in The Bell Public House in Westminster. One witness, THOMAS CORDWELL, claimed they told him "they were going on a crack" and showed him the crow bar and chisel used in the burglary. Someone else said he saw the two brothers walking towards the target property from the direction of that pub.
However, George Bird's defence was that he wasn't at The Bull but was at The Wheatsheaf Public House from eight o'clock in the evening until twenty past midnight and couldn't possibly have carried out the offence. A number of what seem to have been independent witnesses came forward to verify this including a chap who went to the pub in order to repair the landlords boots and someone who visited the pub a number of times each evening to sell oysters. They were able to recall the exact night as it was, coincidentally, the same night King George III died, and we all remember where we are on those sort of occasions. Someone called FRANK MITCHAM recalled leaving the pub with George when they were thrown out at closing time.
The publican of The Wheatsheaf also remembered George being there and recalled an incident that evening involving him :
There was a poor man, who was discharged from the Guards, came in with pies to sell about a quarter before nine o'clock, and a person for mischief knocked his tins over, and about sixpenny worth of his pies were thrown down. There was a subscription to defray the expense, and the prisoner, George, subscribed 2d. I think Mitcham was there.
Q. How should you know Bird was there any more than Mitcham - A. It was partly the prisoner's fault that the pies were kicked down. I was very much displeased at it, and spoke crossly to Bird about it.
John's defence revolved around whether the snuffer claimed to be one of those stolen was in fact legitimately owned by a young lady, ELIZA JACKSON, who said they were plain, rarely used steel snuffers which she always kept hung on a nail in the room. ANN ALLEN verified that the snuffers had belonged to Eliza since April and claimed she was there when a young man gave them to her. She said she had cleaned them herself.
Both John and George were found guilty and sentenced to death.
According to the prison authorities both brother "behaved themselves with the greatest propriety" after their convictions. John confessed his guilt but George continued to declare his innocence. Indeed, while on his way to the scaffold, George shouted out : "I am a murdered man. I am about to leave this world, for a crime which I never committed."
Before they went to their execution, one newspaper graphically reports that "the two brothers embraced each other most affectionately. They were soon ushered to the scaffold, and after a few minutes devoted to prayer, the fatal signal was given, and they were launched into eternity. George Bird by some means got one foot upon the scaffold, by rebounding after he was turned off, and the consequences might have been dreadful had not the executioner pulled him down by the legs."
They were executed eight weeks after their trial on 19th April 1820. During 1820 another 102 people were executed, of which 53 had committed burglary and other crimes against property.
The evidence was almost entirely circumstantial. Was George stitched up and hung for a crime he didn't commit ? There was certainly some doubt in my mind as I finished reading the transcript. Why wasn't there an appeal ?
Having said that, the likelihood is that even though he may not have carried out this burglary, he no doubt took part in a number of others where he wasn't caught. Maybe justice was done ?
What makes the story for me was the report that here we have two brothers, both probably petty crooks, one of whom is six years older than the other who confesses to the crime, and a younger brother pleading his innocence. You might think the younger brother would resent his older brother and blame him for the fact he was to be executed. None of it, moments before they died "they embraced each other most affectionately".
Postscript : My inkling that THOMAS CORDWELL was coerced to give false evidence against the brothers, either by the police in return for his own freedom, or by other crooks who wanted to take over the brothers patch, received more credence when I discovered that in 1827 Thomas was himself tried for burglary, found guilty and transported to the Colonies !
A more complete outline of the trial can be found either on the Old Bailey website or mine !