Person:James Kempson (1)

m. 5 Jun 1845
  1. James Kempson1847 - 1915
  2. Rebecca Kempson1850 - 1896
  3. Eliza Kempson1852 -
m. 15 Apr 1867
  1. William George Kempson1867 - 1868
  2. Mary Ann Kempson1869 - 1870
  3. Frederick Kempson1871 - 1954
  4. Elizabeth Kempson1873 - 1961
  5. Clara Kempson1876 - 1960
  6. Ernest Kempson1877 - 1939
  7. Agnes Kempson1880 - 1976
  8. Bertie Kempson1882 - 1925
  9. Minnie Kempson1885 - 1896
  10. Maud Kempson1889 - 1978
Facts and Events
Name James Kempson
Gender Male
Birth[1][2] 6 Jan 1847 Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire, EnglandChalk Hill
Christening[2] 10 Feb 1847 Dunstable, Bedfordshire, EnglandWesleyan Methodist
Census[3] 30 Mar 1851 Totternhoe, Bedfordshire, England
Census[4] 7 Apr 1861 Dunstable, Bedfordshire, EnglandChurch Street
Marriage 15 Apr 1867 Luton, Bedfordshire, EnglandSt Mary
to Sarah Ann Smith
Census[5] 2 Apr 1871 Luton, Bedfordshire, England5 Park Lane
Census[6] 3 Apr 1881 Luton, Bedfordshire, EnglandPark Place
Census[7] 5 Apr 1891 St Albans, Hertfordshire, EnglandThe Gaol, Victoria Road
Census[8] 31 Mar 1901 Luton, Bedfordshire, England36 Essex Street
Census[9] 2 Apr 1911 Luton, Bedfordshire, England39 Cambridge Street
Death[10] 2 Mar 1915 Luton, Bedfordshire, England39 Cambridge Street

James Kempson was an English bricklayer and straw plait bleacher who became notorious in the area around Luton as a poacher, being convicted at least thirty times for various offences, mostly to do with breaching the game laws.


Early life

Cottages at Chalk Hill
Cottages at Chalk Hill
James Kempson was born on 6th January 1847 at Chalk Hill in the parish of Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire. He was the son of a straw plaiter named Sarah Kempson, formerly Gobby, and her husband Joseph Kempson, an agricultural labourer. James was the first child Sarah and Joseph had together, but they had both been married before and James had six surviving half-siblings older than him.

James's parents both had experience of the justice system. Sarah's first husband, William Neal, had been transported to Australia in 1837 for stealing a sheep. Joseph Kempson had spent time in jail on four separate occasions, three times awaiting trials for which he was acquitted (or charges were dropped) but also spending 12 months in jail having been found guilty of stealing pears - during which sentence his first wife, Mary Hemmings, had died. Joseph's most recent period in jail prior to James's birth was when he had been charged with sheep stealing in January 1846 and spent a couple of months in Bedford Gaol awaiting trial, only to be released when the charges were dropped at the Lent Assizes, which were held just over nine months before James's birth.

James's birth at Chalk Hill (also known as Puddle Hill) was the only appearance of the family there, suggesting they did not live there for very long. In 1845 his parents had married at Toddington, a couple miles north of Chalk Hill, whilst by 1850 the family had moved to Totternhoe, a couple of miles south-west of Chalk Hill. Although Chalk Hill is in the parish of Houghton Regis it has close connections with the town of Dunstable, lying on the Roman Watling Street immediately north of the town. James was actually baptised in Dunstable, at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel when he was about five weeks old.

At the time of the 1851 census, James was living at Totternhoe with his parents, two half brothers on his father's side, one half sister on his mother's side and one younger full sister, Rebecca. Another sister, Eliza, followed in 1852.

Joseph's parents continued to have occasional brushes with the law. In 1852, when James was five, his father Joseph was accused of maliciously wounding a man with a pair of tongs and spent nine days in jail awaiting trial, at which he was acquitted. In 1858, James's mother Sarah spent 13 days in Bedford County Gaol for stealing wood.

By the time of the 1861 census the family was living at Church Street in Dunstable.

First brushes with the law

On 4th March 1862, when James was fifteen years old, he was convicted of stealing two pairs of boots and a pair of children's shoes. He spent nearly five months in Bedford County Gaol, being released on 28th July 1862. It was to be the first of several visits to jail James would make.[11] In November 1863, aged 16, he was committed to jail again, charged with stealing 12 live fowls worth £1. He spent nearly two months in jail awaiting trial, at which he was acquitted and released the day before his seventeenth birthday.

A couple of months later, he was back in jail again - this time with his father. Both Joseph and James Kempson were committed to jail on 12th April 1864 for one calendar month for stealing turnip tops. The following spring James was again convicted (this time without his father) for a month for stealing turnip tops, which were on that occasion valued at 10 shillings and the crime took place in Luton.

On 21st November 1865, James was sent to jail again, this time for stealing fowls at Luton. He was tried on 2nd January 1866, when he was found guilty and sentenced to one year hard labour. He spent the whole of 1866 in jail, and was released on New Year's Day 1867, five days before his 20th birthday.


Just over three months later, on 15th April 1867, James married a girl called Sarah Ann Smith, who was 19. They married at the parish church of St Mary in Luton. They had a son, William George, later that year.

Marriage and fatherhood clearly did not change James's propensity for breaking the law. On 5th May 1868 he was committed to jail again for stealing turnip tops and assaulting two police constables. His father Joseph was convicted alongside him for the theft.

James was released on 6th June 1868. He and Sarah had their son William George baptised a few weeks later on 9th July. However, the boy was to die later that month, being buried on 27th July aged ten months old.

James was back in jail again once more before 1868 was out, spending fourteen days in October in jail for gambling.

In summer 1869, James and Sarah had a daughter, Mary Ann. When she was still very small, James was again sent to jail for fourteen days. He was convicted in November of damaging underwood on the Luton Hoo estate to the south of Luton, which belonged to a John Shaw Leigh at the time. At his trial a gamekeeper said that he had turned James and two other men (Henry Munn and Hiram Simpson) out of the woods twice already. Apparently they had stones in their hands and used threats when the gamekeeper followed them. James was released on 22nd November 1869, but was back again just over two months later, being committed for fourteen days on 9th February 1870 for game trespass at Shillington, a few miles north-east of Luton.


James and Sarah had their daughter Mary Ann baptised on 9th August 1870, but like her brother before her, she died shortly after her baptism. Therefore within a period of just over three years since their marriage, James and Sarah had had two children, but had seen both die as infants. James managed to make two more visits to jail before 1870 was over, being convicted for fourteen days in September for maliciously breaking underwood at Caddington, and another fourteen days in November for wilful damage to certain ash and larch saplings.

The 1871 census finds James and Sarah living at 5 Park Lane in the centre of Luton. James's father Joseph and sister Eliza were also living with them. James's mother Sarah was living in the Luton Union Workhouse. James's wife Sarah was obviously pregnant at the time of the census, giving birth to a son Frederick shortly after it. Frederick was the couple's first child who would actually survive infancy.

In June 1872, James was back in jail again, spending six weeks in jail for assaulting a police constable. In November 1872 he was sentenced to a fine or three months in Hertford Gaol (must have made a change from Bedford Gaol) for game trespass at Wheathampstead.

On 9th September 1873, James was sentenced to two calendar months hard labour. His wife Sarah was heavily pregnant at the time, giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, on 10th October 1873 whilst James was still in jail. He was released on 8th November 1873. Nine days later his mother Sarah died in Luton Union Workhouse, aged 62.

James seems to have managed to avoid getting into trouble for the next couple of years. Early in 1876 Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Clara, and on 17th April 1876 James's widowed father Joseph married a lady named Jane Haydon, thus James acquired a stepmother when he was 29. James nearly managed three years without troubling the courts, but was back again later in 1876. He was sentenced to a £5 fine or two months hard labour for snaring game with two other men at Luton Hoo. The bench declared that James "appeared to have a bad a character as a man could have".

James turned 30 at the start of 1877. Towards the end of that year, Sarah gave birth to another son, Ernest.

In November 1878, James was back in court, charged with poaching with a gun on the Luton Hoo estate. The court case was written up in the local newspaper, with James protesting his innocence. When sentenced to one month hard labour, he apparently said "Gentlemen, I'll do it like a man, I hope I shall meet you in heaven" and was led from the court by a policeman saying "Come on Jimmy, come on."

Almost as soon as he was released from jail on that occasion, he was back in court, accused of night poaching on the Luton Hoo estate. A watcher claimed to followed the sound of a gun and found James with a pheasant in his hand. The watcher then chased James from Bull Wood on the Hoo estate across a farm and into the southern part of Luton, only to lose him around Chase Street (close to where James was probably living at the time). James produced his half-sister Elizabeth's son George White, who was only 12, as a witness to claim he had been at his half-sister's house at the time. The boy apparently cried in the dock giving his evidence. James was acquitted of the charge, but advised by the bench to having nothing to do with poaching.

Clearly James did not heed the advice - the following month he was convicted of game trespass and assaulting two keepers and was sent to St Albans Gaol for four months. This case was reported in the London newspapers, which described James as a "notorious offender".


Early in 1880, Sarah gave birth to another daughter Agnes. On 11th October 1880, James's stepmother Jane died (in Luton Union Workhouse), leaving his father Joseph a widower for a third time. Joseph died less than a month after his third wife, being buried on 11th November 1880, aged 66.

Shortly after his father's death, James and a friend Levi Lines (who had been convicted alongside James of poaching in 1876) went for a drink at The Engine public house in Bute Street in the centre of Luton. The landlord tried to turn them out as convicted thieves, but they refused to go and the landlord had to get the police to eject them. They were subsequently brought before the Luton Borough Petty Sessions before the Mayor. The local paper reported that:

Kempson did the 'oratory' for defendants, and said his companion had never been convicted of felony, and propounded the question is poaching thieving. (Laughter.) The Mayor said that if they would try and reform the Bench would try and help them. They would only fine them for this offence 10s. each including costs. Kempson asked if he was to be 'hunted' by the police when he went into a public-house of a Saturday night for a pint of beer. The Mayor said he had better have his beer at home. Mr. Phillips reminded him that being in a public-house he endangered the landlord's license. Luton Times and Advertiser, 10th December 1880

The 1881 census finds James, Sarah and their surviving children living at Park Place in the centre of Luton. A son Bertie followed in 1882, daughter Minnie in 1885 and daughter Maud in 1889. Fewer convictions for James have yet been found from the 1880s than the 1870s, although he was still convicted twice of poaching on Earl Brownlow's estates at Ivinghoe and Edlesborough in 1882 and 1887. In 1888 he was charged with poaching at King's Walden and the newspaper reports that he was fined £5 or a month's imprisonment. His wife Sarah asked the court if James could be given a fortnight to raise the money, saying that she already had £4 of it in hand. Her plea was rejected - he went to jail for a month.


At the time of the 1891 census, Sarah and the children were living at 48 Chobham Street in Luton - but James was not at home. He was in St Albans Gaol. What he had done on that occasion has yet to be established. He continued to have occasional appearances in court through the 1890s - including a sentence of six months hard labour in 1892 for night poaching and throwing stones at gamekeepers at Stopsley. A report of a trial from February 1895 gives a flavour of James's character when poaching:

...James Kempson (46), Levi Lines (44), and Edward Thrussell (31), all labourers, were indicted for night poaching and assaulting William Neal, in Madame de Falbe's Park at Luton Hoo, on November 5th. The keeper, Neal, was by himself, and was walking along the wood side in the park soon after midnight, when he came across a long net pegged up. He imitated the squeal of a rabbit, upon which Kempson came running up. When asked what he was doing there, Kempson shouted, "Club up, mates; there's only one." On that Lines and Thrussell ran up, and all threw stones at the keeper. They rushed for the net, but the keeper cut it in two, and they left one part there, while the other part was taken away by Neal. Next morning the other part of the net was found by another keeper, besides several large stones which had been thrown at Neal. The defence was an alibi, and three men named Albert Allen, George Wright, and Henry Barton, all of Luton, swore that they were the men concerned. There was some disparity in their evidence, however, and in places it differed from that which they gave before the magistrates; and Barton said he threw a stone at Neal. Neal was re-called, and he said he knew all six men well, a year or more, and he was certain the three men in the dock were the men he saw in the park that night. The jury found the prisoners guilty; and his Lordship read out a long list of previous convictions against each... Northampton Mercury, 8th February 1895

The 1890s also saw James's elder children start to marry and have families of their own. His son Frederick married Alice Guess in 1893, which marriage would produce nine grandchildren for James and Sarah, eight of whom were born in James's lifetime. In 1894 James's daughter Elizabeth married a John Marshall, which marriage would produce five children, all born in James's lifetime. James's first known grandchild was Elizabeth's son Ralph Marshall, born early in 1895 when James was 48 years old.

In 1896 James's daughter Minnie died, aged 11, being buried on 22nd June 1896.

Later in 1896, James's daughter Clara married a Robert Wiseman. This marriage produced a remarkable 14 children, twelve of whom were born within James's lifetime, although some died young.

Twentieth century

The 1901 census finds James and Sarah living at 36 Essex Street with three of their children in southern Luton, where they occupied five rooms.
James's last home, 39 Cambridge Street, Luton
James's last home, 39 Cambridge Street, Luton

James's last known appearance in court was later in 1901, by which time he was 54 years old. He was charged with night poaching armed with a stone at Luton Hoo, but was acquitted.

In 1904, James's daughter Agnes married a Frank Linsley, which marriage appears to have produced one daughter.

In 1907, James's son Bertie married a Rose Muskett, which marriage appears to have produced one daughter, although she died aged six.

In 1910, James's daughter Maud married a James Wright, which marriage appears to have produced two sons, both within James's lifetime.

The 1911 census finds James and Sarah living at 39 Cambridge Street in Luton. Cambridge Street was relatively new, having been built in 1901. Although no-one else was living with James and Sarah at No.39, several of the family were living elsewhere in the street. Frederick and his wife and children were at No.47. Elizabeth and her husband and children were at No.44. Bertie and his wife and daughter were at No.77. James and Sarah's remaining surviving children were all living within half a mile of Cambridge Street, with Maud at Harcourt Street, Agnes and Ernest at different addresses in New Town Street and Clara furthest away at Farley Hill. In the 1911 census, James and Sarah reported that they had had twelve children in total, only seven of whom were still living. There must therefore have been another two children who died young beyond those listed here, but whose identities have yet to be established.

James died on 2nd March 1915 at 39 Cambridge Street of pneumonia. He was 68 years old. After his death, his widow Sarah moved to a smaller cottage at 9 Langley Place. She outlived him by just under four years.

James appears to have had 29 grandchildren born in his lifetime, and a further three after his death. At least fifteen were grandsons - yet none was called James.

  1. Birth certificate, in General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration. (London: General Register Office), Primary quality.

    Registration District: Luton
    1847 BIRTH in the Sub-district of Dunstable in the Counties of Bedford and Hertford
    No. 171
    When and where born: Sixth of January 1847, Houghton Regis
    Name, if any: James
    Sex: Boy
    Name and surname of father: Joseph Kempson
    Name, surname and maiden surname of mother: Sarah Kempson formerly Neal
    Occupation of father: Straw Factor
    Signature, description and residence of informant: The Mark X of Sarah Kempson, Mother, Houghton Regis
    When registered: Eleventh of January 1847

  2. 2.0 2.1 Register of Methodist Baptisms in Dunstable from 1843, in Bedfordshire Family History Society. Dunstable Parish Records Transcript. (Bedford), Primary quality.

    Name: James
    Surname: KEMPSON
    Parents: Joseph & Sarah
    Abode: Chalk Hill
    Baptised: 10 Feb 1847
    Born: 6 Jan 1847

  3. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) HO 107/1466-2531 Census Returns: 1851 Census Schedules, Class HO107; Piece 1757; Folio 12; Page 17, 30 Mar 1851, Primary quality.

    Address: Totternhoe, Bedfordshire
    Joseph Kempson, head, married, male, 35 [1815/6], Ag[ricultural] Lab[ourer], b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire
    Sarah Kempson, wife, married, female, 41 [1809/10], Straw Plaiter, b. Wobourn [sic], Bedfordshire
    David Kempson, son, male, 11 [1839/40], Straw Plaiter, b. Stanbridge, Bedfordshire
    George Kempson, son, male, 8 [1842/3], Straw Plaiter, b. Stanbridge, Bedfordshire
    Elizabeth Kempson, daughter, female, 7 [1843/4], Straw Plaiter, b. Toddington, Bedfordshire
    James Kempson, son, male, 4 [1846/7], Scholar, b. Puddle Hill, Bedfordshire
    Rebecca Kempson, daughter, female, 1 [1849/50], b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire

  4. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) RG 9 General Register Office: 1861 Census Schedules, Class RG9; Piece 1011; Folio 48; Page 3, 7 Apr 1861, Primary quality.

    Address: Church Street, Dunstable, Bedfordshire
    Joseph Kempson, head, married, male, 44 [1816/7], Ag[ricultural] Labourer, b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire
    Sarah Kempson, wife, married, female, 51 [1809/10], Straw Plaiter, b. Wobourn [sic], Bedfordshire
    Rebbecca Kempson, daughter, unmarried, female, 18 [1842/3], Straw Plaiter, b. Toddington, Bedfordshire
    Elizabeth Kempson, daughter, unmarried, female, 17 [1843/4], Straw Plaiter, b. Dunstable, Bedfordshire
    James Kempson, son, unmarried, male, 14 [1846/7], Straw Plaiter, b. Dunstable, Bedfordshire
    Eliza Kempson, daughter, unmarried, female, 8 [1852/3], b. Dunstable, Bedfordshire

  5. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) RG 10 General Register Office: 1871 Census Schedules, Class RG10; Piece 1572; Folio 29; Page 8, 2 Apr 1871, Primary quality.

    Address: 5 Park Lane, Luton, Bedfordshire
    James Kempson, head, married, male, 24 [1846/7], Bricklayers Laborer, b. Chalk Hill, Bedfordshire
    Sarah Kempson, wife, married, female, 24 [1846/7], Straw Bonnet Sewer, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Joseph Kempson, lodger, married, male, 55 [1815/6], Straw Drawer, b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire
    Eliza Kempson, daughter, unmarried, female, 18 [1852/3], Straw Bonnet Sewer, b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire

  6. General Register Office. Public Record Office (PRO) RG 11 General Register Office: 1881 Census Schedules. (The National Archives), Class RG11; Piece 1651; Folio 4; Page 2, 3 Apr 1881, Primary quality.

    Address: Park Place, Luton, Bedfordshire
    James Kempson, head, married, male, 32 [1848/9], Bleacher Plait, b. Chalk Hill, Bedfordshire
    Sarah Kempson, wife, married, female, 33 [1847/8], b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Frederick Kempson, son, unmarried, male, 10 [1870/1], Scholar, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Elizabeth Kempson, daughter, female, 8 [1872/3], Scholar, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Clara Kempson, daughter, female, 6 [1874/5], Scholar, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Ernest Kempson, son, male, 4 [1876/7], Scholar, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Agnes Kempson, daughter, female, 1 [1879/80], b. Luton, Bedfordshire

  7. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) RG 12 General Register Office: 1891 Census Schedules, Class RG12; Piece 1116; Folio 182; Page 3, 5 Apr 1891, Primary quality.

    Lots of prisoners, including:
    James Kempster, prisoner, married, male, 42 [1848/9], Labourer (Bricklayer), employed, b. Luton, Bedfordshire

  8. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) RG 13 General Register Office: 1901 Census Schedules, Class RG13; Piece 1516; Folio 128; Page 21, 31 Mar 1901, Primary quality.

    Address: 36 Essex St, Luton, Bedfordshire
    5 or more rooms occupied
    James Kempson, head, married, male, 59 [1841/2], General Labourer, worker, b. Totternhoe, Bedfordshire
    Sarah Kempson, wife, married, female, 58 [1842/3], Straw Hat Sewer, worker - at home, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Ernest Kempson, son, single, male, 23 [1877/8], Gen Labourer, worker, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Bertie Kempson, son, single, male, 19 [1881/2], Straw Hat Blocker, worker, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    Maud Kempson, daughter, single, female, 12 [1888/9], b. Luton, Bedfordshire

  9. General Register Office. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) RG 14 General Register Office: 1911 Census Schedules, RG14PN8995 RG78PN479 RD178 SD2 ED2 SN387, 2 Apr 1911, Primary quality.

    Address: 39 Cambridge Street, Luton, Bedfordshire
    4 rooms occupied
    James Kempson, head, male, 64 [1846/7], married, 12 children born alive, 7 still living, Labourer, worker, b. Chalk Hill [Tatnell crossed out]
    Sarah Kempson, wife, female, 63 [1847/8], married, b. Luton, Bedfordshire
    [Form was clearly originally signed by "John Marshall, 44 Cambridge Street, Luton Beds" but this has been crossed out and replaced with "James Kempson, 39 Cambridge, Luton, Beds" - John Marshall was James and Sarah's son-in-law, being married to their daughter Elizabeth.]

  10. Death certificate, in General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration. (London: General Register Office), Primary quality.

    Registration District: Luton
    1915 DEATH in the Sub-district of Luton in the County of Bedford
    No. 452
    When and where died: Second March 1915, 39 Cambridge Street Luton U.D.
    Name and surname: James Kempson
    Sex: Male
    Age: 68 years
    Occupation: Corporation Labourer
    Cause of death: (1) Croupous pneumonia (2) Cardiac Failure, Certified by David Ferrier M.D.
    Signature, description and residence of informant: A. Linsley, Daughter, Present at the death, 162 Newtown Street Luton
    When registered: Second March 1915

  11. James's various convictions and their press coverage are included on a separate page, here.