Edinburgh’s New Year Rioting and Robbery

Edinburg, Scotland; John Skelton was apprenticed to a gunsmith. He had a big future ahead of him.  And he enjoyed the night’s New year’s Eve celebrations.

METROPOLITAN POLICE logo with two lions holding yellow sticks holding up a crest with a net in it which supports a knight's helmut under a crown
Metropolitan Police logo on a police station in London.

But Mr. Skelton soon found he was a wanted man.  John Skelton was implicated in robbery and the murder of a policeman, with a reward on his head.

The motive?  Booty.  A black-watch ribbon, a watch-key of gold.  With a cornelian stone set in.  A silk purse.  And a hatred of the police.

These items were stolen from George Edmonston. But it didn’t stop there.  Mr Skelton was also accused of robbing Walter Robertson and William Jolly.

Mr. Jolly was a “student of divinity” who lost a green silk purse.  In that purse was a written recommendation, or what we might today call a letter of reference.  Dr. William Ritchie had written a letter to Professor Jamieson saying how swell Mr. Jolly was.

The third victim, Mr Walter Robertson, was a stone mason.  He lost a silk twist watch chain.

George Edmonston’s New Year’s story

George Edmonston’s story was perhaps the most harrowing.  George was walking in the neighbourhood, where his sister lived, when a gang of people started following him and pestering George for money.  They didn’t wait an answer.  Instead, George was knocked down, and “left on the stair, wet with blood.”

The rioting prevented anyone coming to Mr. Edmonston’s aid, and he was left to bleed to death.

Walter Robertson

In the neighborhood was Walter Robertson, a stoneware merchant. He and a friend had left at about midnight, and were walking past a blacksmith shop, by the old bridge.

A man, probably Mr Edmonton, fell to the ground between Mr Robertson and his friend.  Mr Robertson had hardly enough time to see what was happening when the man’s attackers threw Mr Robertson against a wall.

Mr. Robertson’s assailants were a group of forty or fifty “lads”, none of which looked over twenty.

At this point Mr. Robertson asked his attackers not to do any harm, and offered to buy them a drink.  He reached into his pocket to get some money, but they tore his coat and got to it first.  They took his pocket book, “containing 14 guinea notes and seventeen one pound notes and his watch chain.”

A stick was flung at Mr. Robertson, knocking off his hat.  This was soon lost into the crowd.  Mr. Robertson was able to slip away just as one of the “lads” swung the stick again, aiming directly for Mr. Robertson.

He was later able to identify his watch chain in court.

William Jolly’s encounter

William Jolly was out just after midnight when a group of “about three dozen” approached, “demanding a shilling drink to his health.”  Sadly, Mr. Jolly, the student, had no money.

On hearing this, two of the larger lads held Mr. Jolly’s arms, while a small one searched through his pockets.

Several lads shouted indirect threats like “knock ‘im down”, but there were objections, for he was a “country lad.”

To convince his attackers that he ideed had no money, Mr Jolly took out a small green silk purse and shook it.  One of his tormentors immediately snatched the purse.  They struck him twice, but Mr Jolly claimed that he didn’t fall “farther than his knees.”

Mr Skelton’s Story

John Skelton was apprenticed to Mr James Innes, a gunsmith.  According to Mr. Innes, Mr Skelton “was with me for nearly three years, and down to the 31st December last, he was a remarkably honest and well behaved lad.”

Mr. Skelton’s behavior led to his employer’s confidence in him. “he paid and collected my accounts.  I never found him wrong in a farthing; never missed him when I wanted him; never saw him in liquor; in short, he was a quiet, remarkable for good conduct and of perfect integrity, so far as I know or saw.”

Another witness said he saw John Skelton join a group of his fellow apprentices on New Year’s eve.  Some of these apprentices had sticks, and were speaking of “gentleman’s hats.”  According to the witness ( who was part of the gang), they acquired these sticks by climbing a tree and pulling off the branches.

This witness said he saw Mr. Skelton climb up the tree…


(to be continued…)

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