Untold lives blog

23 February 2021

Unwitting accomplice or habitual offender?

On 29 June 1876 Joshua Keith Hilton and his accomplice Charles Victor Cleghorn Down were tried at the Old Bailey for forgery and intent to defraud.  Hilton was known to the authorities as a serial forger.  He would befriend someone with the authority to cash cheques on another individual’s behalf and then pretend to have been given a cheque by that individual which needed to be cashed, getting his new friend to take it to the bank for him.  Once he had the cash he would exchange it among local tradesmen so that the money could not easily be traced back to him.

Scene of a trial at the Old Bailey in 1872 showing a young man in the dock
'A sketch at the Central Criminal Court during the late trial of O'Connor' from  The Graphic 20 April 1872 British Library Images Online

Charles Victor Cleghorn Down was born in February 1855, the second son of Captain William Down of the Madras Army.  At the time of his father’s death in April 1868 Charles was the eldest surviving son, his brother William Henry having died in 1864.  His older sister Arabella has already been featured in Untold Lives following her involvement in a divorce scandal in 1869.

In 1876 Charles was living in Stafford Place off Buckingham Palace Road in London and was employed in the theatre which is where he met Joshua Hilton.  Both men worked backstage in set design and as general stage hands and found themselves employed at the same theatre.

Charles Down was also a friend of Hilton’s next target, the son of his landlord.  Hilton used Down to lend validity to his story: Down even accompanied the victim to the bank when he went to cash the cheque, worth £75.

The Court found both Joshua Hilton and Charles Down guilty of forgery and intent to defraud.  As the mastermind Hilton was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.  The jury concluded that Down had been an unwitting accomplice, but an accomplice nonetheless, and that he should have realised something wasn’t right.  Down was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment at Clerkenwell House of Correction.

For Charles Down this appears to have been the start of a downward spiral into a life of crime.  The Habitual Offenders register records him being released from Cold Bath Fields Prison, London on 27 August 1881, and being placed under police supervision for the next four years.  It is unclear whether he had his original sentence extended, or whether he committed another crime following his original release.  Charles Down died unmarried in Marylebone in 1889.

Perhaps Charles Down was not quite so innocent and unwittingly involved in the crime of forgery as was claimed in court?

In a future post we will follow the story of Charles’s younger sister Eva Crompton Neale Down, a witness at her brother’s trial.  Eva was caught up in scandal and adultery involving her brother’s partner in crime Joshua Hilton!

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Old Bailey Proceedings 26 June 1876 No. 265:
Charles Victor Cleghorn Down (21), and Joshua Keith Hilton (23), Feloniously forging and uttering a warrant for the payment of 75l., with intent to defraud. 
Madras Military Fund Pension Records, Account-General’s Department - British Library IOR/L/AG/23/10/1-2 William Down (1822-1868)

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