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The death of Thomas Bluett

In the August issue we published the story of Thomas Bluett and his work as a lithographic printer in New Zealand. After he left his wife Mary destitute in Hong Kong, she returned to England in 1845, and Paul wrote about her nightmarish voyage for the April issue. Thomas followed his wife back to England. However, their reconciliation was to be short-lived as Paul explains.

At 8.45pm on the evening of 25th April 1846, having been delayed half an hour at work, 27 year old Thomas Bluett was hurrying to his home at 18 White Horse Yard, off Drury Lane. He was now working for Graf & Soret, a prominent lithographer based at Castle Street on the corner of Oxford Market, a busy meat market off Oxford Circus. As he walked briskly down Drury Lane, which as usual for a Saturday night half an hour after sunset was thronged with people, he saw a flash of light in the doorway of Morgan’s Dining Rooms on the corner of Princes Street. There was a loud bang and Thomas was heard to shout, “I’m shot!”.

Policeman Charles Baker, on duty in Drury Lane, heard the report of a pistol being fired and saw a cloud of smoke at the door of the cook’s shop. He then saw Thomas, stooping with his hand to his chest crying out, “Oh dear, oh Lord!”. A frightened boy ran past and Baker caught him by the wrist and asked him what was the matter. The boy said that a pistol had gone off by accident. A number of voices exclaimed, “A man has shot himself”, and Baker let the boy go in order to offer assistance to the victim. Although the street was full of people now greatly alarmed, nobody seemed to have spotted the perpetrator.

Samuel Shuttonwood was drinking outside the nearby pub and ran across to catch Thomas in his arms, under the impression that he had shot himself, which Thomas in a faint voice denied. Shuttonwood tore open his shirt to see a bullet wound near the left nipple with blood flowing freely. A crowd had now gathered around. He took Thomas on his shoulder and with the assistance of another police officer carried him into Ward’s chemists shop nearby. The policeman asked Thomas who did it, and he replied, “I do not know. I am not aware that I have insulted any person. I was going home as quick as I could to take my wages to my wife”.

A little further up the street, a chimney-sweep called John Fisher heard the gunshot. The boy ran past him and Fisher saw him putting a pistol in his pocket. Several people called out, “Police! Stop him!” , and as nobody was pursuing the boy he ran after him himself. The boy ran fast and Fisher tripped over in the chase, but caught up with him on the corner of Great Queen Street, where he overtook him and caught him by the arm. He asked the boy if he knew what he had done, to which he replied, “Have I harmed anybody?”.

Fisher insisted that they return to the scene. The boy begged him to let him go, which Fisher refused to do, and they both returned towards Drury Lane. Fisher noticed him shift the pistol from one of his pockets and asked him what it was. “Only a little pistol that I let off in Drury Lane”, replied the boy, “I was going to the shooting gallery in Drury Lane”.

Shooting galleries were a popular entertainment at the time and were to be found in amusement arcades all over London. Fearing the pistol was loaded, Fisher confiscated it. He handed the boy over to a couple of police officers in Great Russell Street who took him to Bow Street Police Station.

Thomas was stretchered to Kings College Hospital where, on examination, it was found that the ball had passed straight through him and out of the back of his coat. Described as a, “fine, robust and tall man’’, he was bearing up well, and it appeared that none of his vital organs or arteries had been injured, but after a while he became restless and complained of a severe pain between the shoulders, to the alarm of the medical men. Mary arrived and Thomas asked her to fetch a priest. Father Coyne of Lincolns Inn Fields stayed with him all night and the following day. Apparently Thomas had become a Catholic on marrying Mary; Irish Protestants were a rarity at the time.

At Bow Street Police Station, 15 year old John Graham was trembling as he gave his details to Inspector Black. As a solicitor’s clerk, he was tall for his age, sallow and thin. On being searched, officers found a small powder flask, percussion caps and bullets. Detective William Pocock went round to the suspect’s address off Grays Inn Road. Graham’s father was a respectable grocer, the owner of several properties. The boy’s aunt and grandmother showed him into a small bedroom at the top of the stairs. He found there a fowling-piece and a musket, a powder-flask containing gunpowder, a shot-bag and belt hanging over the mantelpiece, a small box containing three small cannons, a bullet-mould and 20 leaden balls with several pieces of metal, a small screwdriver and a variety of other articles connected with firearms. He also found a book on the elements of chemistry.

Back at Bow Street, a witness turned up who recognised Graham from earlier in the evening. Described in the press as a servant but more than likely a prostitute, Louisa Cook had encountered Graham earlier in the evening when she knocked his arm while passing in the street. In response to him calling her a “bloody whore”, she said, “Can you prove me one, you puppy?”. Clearly angered at being called a ‘puppy’, he went after her, grabbed and threatened her. She became alarmed at seeing a pistol butt projecting from his pocket. When she said she would call for a policeman he let her go.

During the course of the night Thomas was in great pain, though by morning the pain had lessened and he told Mary that he expected to survive. He was visited during the day by his daughter Mary Ann and a great many members of his trade, including the Secretary to the Society of Lithographic Printers.

Thomas at first seemed on the road to recovery, but his condition gradually deteriorated. His case was given considerable coverage in the press over the following weeks and the boy’s father was heavily criticised for allowing a 15 year-old to have such a collection of weapons.

At 1 am on Monday 11th May 1846, his lungs now full of gangrenous fluid, Thomas lost his struggle for life. His final words a few minutes before expiring were, in a low tone to his wife at his bedside, “Mary, Mary, God bless you”.

The jury found the boy guilty of manslaughter; his father voluntarily paid all Mary’s expenses, including the funeral.

The story had gripped the entire country. Reports on Thomas’ progress appeared in local newspapers as far afield as Aberdeen and Belfast. Editorials expressed incredulity at the boy’s lenient sentence. Mary made applications for financial help to various charitable institutions and even to the Queen, who sent somebody to make enquiries about her to Kings College Hospital.

Thomas Bluett – Part One: The Ordeal of Mary Bluett

Thomas Bluett – Part Two: Lithographic Printer

Paul Barton, Special Agent

© Paul Barton, Special Agent 2008


British Library Newspapers

Thomas’s inquest details held at Westminster Cathedral