Former court reporter John Hoskins takes a look into a case from the past.

It was neither sound nor sight that first alerted a widow to the presence of her bedroom burglar - the stench of tobacco did it.

Within seconds, terrified Mary Groves heard someone moving about and stumbling against a chair. She instinctively shouted: "Who's there?" and cried out for her cook. But before she could rush from the basement room with the two other servants, the intruder had grabbed both her hands and smothered her nose and mouth with the bedsheet.

Bravely, she fought back.

"I resisted and kicked with all my might," she recalled of her ordeal. "He took his hand away and thrust his fingers into my mouth. I bit them as hard as I could and he drew them out. I had then time to speak. I said: 'What do you want? I will give you anything to spare my life.' He said something I could not hear."

Just as he thrust the sheet over her face again, the cook Elizabeth Guy burst into the room and the burglar immediately ran off but the light of a candle betrayed his identity.

"It reflected all over him," she said. "I saw the side of his face."

The widow immediately recognised him as a sweep who had once cleaned out her chimney.

"He is the man," she gesticulated, identifying the man in the dock as George Jenkins. "I would not have known him but for that. That night, he had a short coat or jacket on but no shoes."

And in his haste to get away, Jenkins left another fatal clue - a cap found by the side of drawers.

Mrs Guy related to jurors at Hampshire Winter Assizes of 1868 how she and the two other servants had locked the doors and fastened window of her home, Wellington House in Belgrave Road, Ventnor. Her sleep was interrupted by a scream which she initially thought came from a neighbouring property until they ran to the bedroom where she was confronted by Jenkins who struck her in the mouth.

Jenkins, she said, fled through the sitting room window which he smashed and which as the court heard left a trail of blood.

Of her employer's injuries, she declared: "Mrs Groves's face was very much swollen and black next morning. There were black marks round her mouth. Her nightdress had marks of blood on it and was black as well."

Pier St, Ventnor

Pier Steet in Ventnor - picture from an old postcard.

A search of the property revealed black soot marks on a drawer and a sweep's long brush was recovered in the grounds. The keeper of a local pub testified she had witnessed Jenkins with it in the bar on the eve of the break-in, and a shoemaker also confirmed he had seen Jenkins with the cap.

Sgt Lawler who was called to Wellington House noted blood on the shattered sitting room window.

"I went to search for the prisoner and found him in the Volunteer the worse for drink. His hand was bleeding and cut, and I took him to a surgeon to dress it. I asked where he had been last night and he said: 'At home.' I asked him where as he had no fixed residence. He said: 'Flint Cottage.'

"I charged him with breaking into Wellington House and he said: 'It's a lie.' His ear was cut as well as his hand and wrist."

To further underline his reputation, Lawler commented: "I always see him in the street. He is a bad character" - a remark for which he received a ticking-off from the judge, Baron Channell. "When a man is on trial, a policeman ought not, unmasked, to make an observation of that kind."


Ventnor on the Isle of Wight - picture from an old postcard.

The sergeant's testimony concluded the prosecution's case, and Jenkins's defence to the allegation of burglary and assault was contained in the statement he had issued to the magistrates at the committal proceedings.

It read: "I was drunk the night before and I dropped my brush. I fell down and cut my hand amongst some glass bottles. I then went home and was getting some sticking plaster when I was taken in by the policeman."

The judge's summing up was succinct. There was no doubt the burglary had been committed but could the jury be sure he had carried it out. The answer was almost immediate. "Guilty," reported the foreman.

The judge fully acknowledged it before launching a scathing attack on the sweep.

"It is impossible they could have come to any other conclusion. Sometimes a case of burglary amounts to little more than larceny where they merely enter to lay their hands on anything they can find with no intention to resist or do violence. Here there was violence and but for the providential appearance of the services, it may have been worse.

"You must be kept in penal servitude for five years."