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Birmingham Gun Quarter ~ Extensive Robbery of Government Stores in Birmingham

During the course of a recent customer’s family history research, I was transported from sleepy Suffolk to industrial Birmingham’s Gun Quarter, nefarious activity, shadowy figures, possible bigamy, hints of backgrounds in travelling and scrap iron, and a big trial centred on gun theft, like a plot from Peaky Blinders.

The gun thefts were by 2 brothers, William and George Brueton, though only one of them, William, was convicted. They stole the guns from Thomas Turner gun manufacturer.

Here is the full story taken from the Hampshire Telegraph November 7th, 1857.

For a considerable time past it would appear a systematic robbery of materials of various descriptions given out by the War Department at the Tower, Baggott street, Birmingham, to the government contractors for the manufacture of small arms, has been perpetrated with the greatest impunity; and to such a serious extent, and with such skill and caution has it been carried on, that some thousands of pounds worth of property has disappeared, apparently without the slightest clue to its recovery, and the detection of the offenders. Fortunately, however, through the agency of the metropolitan and local detective police, a portion, at least, of the mystery has been unravelled, and three men are in custody on the charge of being implicated in these depredations. – The facts of the case as against the prisoners are considered to be conclusive, but they have not at present, for very good reasons, been allowed to transpire. We are, however, in possession of a few particulars, which we may lay before our readers without prejudice to the course of justice. About six weeks since, the purloining of the materials in question having been pursued to a degree that rendered it absolutely necessary some steps should be taken to trace not only the thieves, but also the mode in which the stolen articles were disposed of, Messrs. Whateley, solicitors, at the instance of Mr. J.D. Goodman, the chairman of the small arms trade, communicated with Colonel Dixon, the chief of the war department in London, and in due course the matter was placed in the hands of the police authorities at Scotland Yard. The result was that Serjeants Smith and Lockyer, two of the most clever and experiences officers of the Metropolitan Detective Force, were despatched to Birmingham, and after an interview with Messrs. Whateley ad Mr. Goodman, they commenced their enquiries into these intricate transactions, in conjunction with with Inspector Glossop and Detective Serjeant Manton. As a groundwork of investigation, they in the first place ascertained that the materials stolen were in the various stages of completion, and were lost during the process of manufacture: that they were the property of the War Department, and though given out to the contractors for the purpose of being “set up”, as it is technically termed, into guns, the latter were responsible for their safe return in that shape. If any portion of them became lost after going into possession of a contractor, others were supplied, but the cost was deducted from the account of the contractor at the settlement. Thus if a contractor were robbed, he alone sustained the pecuniary liability. The officers further learned that as many as 20 firms in this town contract in this way for the War Department, and the magnitude of the interest involved may be inferred from the fact that there are never less that from 20,000 to 25,000 sets of materials entrusted to them for the purpose of “setting up”, The manufacturers in this town employ a set of operatives, termed “out-workers”, to execute the greater part of the work, and in spite of the most scrupulous care and vigilance numerous opportunities of theft and fraud have in the instance under notice been found out, and made use of by the parties occupying this relative position.

A patient and persevering system of investigation in the course of a short time placed the detectives in possession of some information which induced them to watch closely the movements of a man named Thomas Williams, employed at The Tower as a lock setter-up and examiner. Owing, however, to the caution with which this man acted they were for some time foiled in discovering anything that could implicate him, but at length they clearly traced out a complicity between him and two men of the name of Brueton, in the service as out-workers of Mr Turner, Fisher street, one of the government contractors, and who has been a sufferer by these depredations to a large amount. We are unable to state the precise nature of the connection of these men, but suffice it to say that sufficient evidence was obtained against them to warrant apprehension of the three on Saturday last by Sergeants Smith and Lockyer – the Bruetons on the charge of stealing, and Williams of receiving, a large quantity of stolen guns. They were brought up at the police-office, Birmingham, on Wednesday, before H. Van Wart and T.R.T. Hodgson; Esquires – Mr George Whateley, who appeared for the prosecution, without going into the facts of the case, which he said was not them complete, formally applied for a remand for a week. Mr Elers, barrister (instructed by Mr Palmer) on behalf of the prisoners, did not oppose this course, but asked that bail for their appearance might be taken. This application, however, was resisted by Mr. Whateley on the ground that the liberation of the prisoners would ten materially to interfere with the ends of justice: and after some conversation it was refused by the Bench. It is understood that no less than 100 stand of arms are involved in the charge against these men.

A Thomas Turner gun

The Brueton’s seemed to have links/connections with London, Edward Brueton, father of William and George, was born in Shoreditch, Possibly it was wider family taking the guns, breaking them up, re-assembling them, certainly the wider family were all outworkers, either gun breach makers, gun lock filers, gun barrel forgers and welders, gun smith’s etc all living in the same nearby streets, or another report indicates that there was a lot of wastage of guns being claimed, they were then probably reassembled or fixed and sold in London. The story was reported in newspapers up and down the country, some of the trial reporting is quite funny in parts. With wheelbarrows loaded with stolen guns being carted all about the streets by various people, to a hide-out, somewhere near the canal.

As for what happened to William and George Brueton, George was married with one son aged 5 at the time of the trial, George and his family moved to Jane Street, Tower Hamlets in London where George worked as a gun finisher, but in 1871 he was back in Birmingham when he died at the end of 1871, aged 43, William Brueton had a wife and 4 children, he served his four year sentence in Portsmouth, Millbank, Woking and Pentonville and was released in March 1861, he went back to working as a gun finisher in Aston, Birmingham, he died there in March 1871, aged 49, the brothers both died the same year.

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