Much has been written about that loveable old rogue Vincent Riley. However, he was far from being the first of a long line of mischievous characters found within the district. Habitual drunkards were once a common scene on the streets of Burslem. Public houses, inns and taverns were far more numerous than today. So too were the abundance of backstreet beer houses that served these thirsty communities. Drink offered a cheap alternative to the stark realities of Victorian working-class existence. Two of these individuals were John Slack and John Kelly.
Between 1879 and 1883 John Slack appeared in the local courts eleven times for various misdemeanours in Burslem. Virtually nothing is known about this illusive individual with the exception of these appearances. His first appearance was in December 1879 for absconding from Chell workhouse, taking with him articles of clothing belonging to the Guardians of the Poor.
The conditions of the workhouse during this time were harsh and cruel, but his escape from the workhouse was a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ as Slack was sentenced to three months hard labour in Stafford Gaol.
His remaining ten court appearances always recorded him as having no fixed residence. On May 9th 1880 he was convicted of ‘wandering abroad at Burslem, sleeping in outhouses with no visible means of subsistence and being unable to give a proper account of himself.’ He was fined five shillings with a further seven shillings in costs. His next appearance was on February 20th 1881, for the same offence, and for which he received the same penalty.
On June 4th he was convicted of being drunk in a public thoroughfare at Burslem. Again, he was fined five shillings with seven shillings in costs. Less than a month later he was convicted of the same offence. However this time his fine was doubled to ten shillings with seven shillings in costs.
This doubling, instigated to convince Slack against any further misdemeanours, failed to have any effect. Six weeks later on August 14th his drunken state managed to net him a fine of twenty shillings with seven shillings in costs.
This did have some success for it was six months until his next court appearance. His remaining appearances were for similar petty offences, the last of which resulted in a twelve month prison sentence on New Year’s Eve 1883.
A few more details survive concerning John Kelly. He was born in Burslem in 1857 to parents Patrick and Mary. The young couple had emigrated from their native Ireland the previous year and during the early 1860s were living at Bourne’s Bank near to St John’s Church.
By the early 1880s John was living as a lodger with a family at New Street, having found work as a bricklayer’s labourer. He was described as being five foot six inches tall, of proportionate build, and with a fresh complexion. He had blue eyes, with sandy coloured hair and a moustache. Distinguishing features were a large cut mark in the centre of his forehead and a small blue dot in the middle of his left cheek.
By August 1881 he was recorded as being of no fixed residence when he appeared before the court in Burslem. The charge was being drunk and disorderly in a public thoroughfare for which he was fined ten shillings with seven shillings in costs.
Almost a month later he was fined the same amount for ‘wandering abroad and lodging in an outhouse in Burslem, having no visible means of subsistence and unable to give a good account of himself.’ A month after this he was again found guilty of the same offence. This time however he was given two months hard labourer at Stafford gaol.
The custodial sentence at least kept Kelly off the streets, although his next court appearance was to answer two charges. On February 25th 1882 at Burslem he was discovered being drunk and disorderedly in a public thoroughfare in the town. For this he was fined eight shillings. At the same hearing he was also found guilty of assaulting and beating Mary Anne Baker on the same day. This charge carried a fine of ten shillings. His final court appearance was for once again being drunk and disorderly in Burslem.
Both Slack and Kelly may simply have been poor individuals who took to a life of begging and drunkenness. They were probably familiar characters in the Mother Town during the early 1880s, frequently inebriated through drink and seeking shelter wherever they could. Like Vincent Riley, Slack and Kelly may simply have been unfortunate victims of the legal system.