The Learmans of York: Drinkers, fighters and thieves


Sarah Learman (Mick's Grandma) was born in York in 1878 where the Learman family had lived for many generations; she had a fearsome reputation in the Clark family as a hard woman with a very sharp tongue. The extended family, though relatively small, seemed to have created havoc throughout the nineteenth century.

Her father William was fined for being drunk and disorderly in 1868; in fact much of the trouble that the Learmans got into was drink related. His brother Mark is a particularly good and sad example of a Learman life. He was convicted of assaulting a police officer when he was twenty and then over the course of the next two years he committed three further offences; drunk and disorderly, assaulting a police officer again ("disgraceful behaviour in the Black Horse") and finally attacking his father with a knife. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Ouse; he was 23 years old. At the inquest his father said that he had been drinking all the previous day and was "shaky, nervous and low in spirits".

William had three seriously criminal cousins. Robert was convicted of indecent assault when he was 18. He, along with 3 other youths, had attacked two young women at York Races. Their main defence was "they were hard working boys, that it was their first offence and that through drink they did not know what they were doing". Robert was sentenced to 12 month's imprisonment.

His cousin William was convicted of Obstructing the Highway in 1878 by fighting with a John Heatherstone. In 1892 he was convicted of being drunk and disorderly in The Castle, Sheriff Hutton when, together with Emma Young, he refused to leave the pub and assaulted the policeman who came to eject them. His most notorious offence took place in 1893, again in The Castle Inn and again accompanied by Emma Young who appears to have been his preferred drinking companion. They were thrown out of the pub after a disturbance but he returned to attack a local farmer, Hutchinson Armitage, and stabbed him in the neck. He was sentenced to twenty months hard labour.

Perhaps the most infamous of William's three cousins was Henry, born in 1834. When he was eighteen and an apprentice cabinet maker he was convicted of absconding. He had joined the militia and then ran away to Manchester. Four years later he was charged with breaking in to a Spirit Store but found not guilty due to "contradictory evidence". A week later he was arrested again, having been found in the company of "notorious thieves in Castlegate at 12 o'clock at night". He was sentenced to seven days in prison. Shortly afterwards he was found guilty of "being a reputed thief found wandering in The Shambles between 11 and 12 o'clock at night." He was committed to the "House of Correction for one month." Then in 1860, at the age of 25 his criminal career peaked when he was charged with "cutting and wounding" a police officer during the course of a robbery in Hull. He was found guilty and "previous convictions were proven against him". He was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude and presumably started a Learman clan in Australia.

Surprisingly, the Learmans were not part of some impoverished underclass but successful tradesmen and artisans, some of whom employed other people in their businesses. We find carpenter, stone-mason, gardener, blacksmith and general dealer amongst the family occupations. The two Learman boys who were charged with offences were both apprentices at the time.

Two of William's uncles were also in trouble with the authorities. His uncle Ralph was found guilty of attacking a policeman and hitting him on the head with a stick, in Monksbar. Ralph, like Mark above, had a tragic end, committing suicide by drowning himself in the Ouse. The verdict at the inquest was one of suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity. The other uncle, Ralph's brother John, was charged but found not guilty of assault. The complainant, William Topham, had gone to John's house searching for his wife. "Learman ordered him out and, as he was rather slow in his movements, he hastened his departure by turning him out." There are no records to say what happened to Topham's wife.

Finally there was young Fred Learman, a cousin of Sarah's, who at the age of 13, was charged with the theft of a sovereign from his employer. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.