Crawley Watch Theft Mystery and the tale of the Great Copthorne Chicken theft


You’ve heard of Murder On The Orient Express, Death On The Nile and other such famous mysteries.

Now, we bring the Crawley Watch Theft Mystery and the Great Copthorne Chicken Theft – though neither case was likely to have sparked much interest in Agatha Christie.

The great writer would have been just a teenager learning her skill when the cases were reported in the Sussex & Surrey Courier in 1915.

The world may have been at war but that didn’t stop some of the less honourable – and most hungry – members of society from pinching things that did not belong to them.

The Crawley Watch Mystery involved a gent called Thomas Martin and a watch belonging to Ethel Cissy Green who worked for Mr and Mrs Walder in Perryfield Road.

The report into the theft rather wonderfully described Thomas as “a stranger” – meaning he was clearly a bad sort!

Thomas, who was 48, stole the time piece after pretending he wanted to speak to Mr Walder. While poor Ethel went to get the master of the house, naughty Thomas pinched the watch from the kitchen mantlepiece.

Not the brightest of thieves, when Thomas was nabbed by the ever-reliable Sgt Capelin, he claimed he had found the watch outside the George Hotel, sold it for two shillings and then “had a good drink with the money”.

Given he had 26 convictions stretching back 12 years, the magistrate chose not to take him at his word and sent him off to carry out six weeks’ hard labour.

The watch was never found.

The culprit behind the Great Copthorne Chicken Theft was no more successful when it came to pleading his innocence – mainly because he was caught plucking the evidence.

The criminal mastermind in question was 46-year-old Eli Denman who stole four chickens from Nellie Brooker, of Purley Cottage, Copthorne.

The chickens were worth 12 shillings and had been locked up safely for the night when Eli struck.

Nellie called in PCs Stevens and Luck – who today would have their own TV series – after finding the door wrenched off the coop and the chickens gone.

Clever Eli had even put down gorse to make sure he left no footprints.

He was found at Thorny Wood in front of a fire in a roughly made hut, plucking one of the fowl and burning its feathers.

Eli claimed he found the bird – which was acceptable enough until he decided to change his story and said he only took one of them.

This also might have been fair enough had Stevens and Luck not found the remains of the other chickens dotted around the hut.

They even took the heads of the poor creatures to Nellie to identify – as if she hadn’t suffered enough.

What turns a man’s mind to crime is anyone’s guess – in Eli’s case he may have simply been hungry.

Whatever the reason, he had plenty of time to think things over when he was given one month’s hard labour.

Chickens weren’t the only animals to land people in court in 1915.

May Nicholls, of Crawley Down, was fined 4 shillings plus 5 shillings costs for allowing two horses to stray on the highway at Crawley Down on December 19 1914.

The beasts were found by the aforementioned PC Luck, who spent the afternoon herding them into a field at a nearby farm.

Back in the days when taxis had four legs and wore a halter, cab proprietor Charles Bruton found himself in court for not looking after his horse.

Charles, of the Railway Hotel, Horley, was summoned for permitting a horse to be worked when unfit – it had a wound under the saddle – and was fined 10 shillings.

The cab driver, Henry Bailey, was fined 5 shillings.

And finally, Robert Taylor, of Charlwood, found himself out of pocket when he let four pigs wander away from him and do what pigs do.

Robert was hauled before the court and fined eight shillings.