DAVID SAINT: Northampton’s circus scam led to nation’s first police car chase

Jim Dale as the circus showman PT Barnum NNL-151102-095822001
Jim Dale as the circus showman PT Barnum NNL-151102-095822001
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It was an ordinary, quiet spring day, April 17, 1899, to be precise, and the good folk of Jimmy’s End in Northampton were going about their usual daily business.

But then something happened that truly made history, something that had never happened before in Britain!

On May 1, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the world famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, was coming to town.

There would be a three-mile procession, five band-wagons, dozens of mounted elephants, a steam engine, a menagerie, 70 horses and a collection of “living human curiosities”.

No wonder the people of Northampton were getting excited.

On that April day Frederick John Phillips was going from shop to shop around Far Cotton and St James telling the shop owners that he was from the famous circus and was organising advance publicity.

He was offering them free tickets for the show if they would display a poster in their windows.

If they agreed, he’d come back later with the posters but, just to keep his books in order, he asked them for a deposit which would be refunded when they went to the box office.

Of course it was a scam!

But Northampton was awash with “circus fever” and no one thought anything of it.

No one that is, except a shopkeeper called Jane Botterill.

When Phillips, in his smart suit, came into her shop he gave her the sweet talk about tickets and posters and in the heat of the moment, she fell for it.

She paid him six old pence and he left the shop.

But Jane was uneasy, so she ran to St James End Police Station where she alerted Sergeant Hector McLeod of her suspicion about this so-called advance publicist.

He listened carefully and asked Jane if she knew in which direction the suspect was heading. She thought he was going out on the Weedon Road.

It made his day, his career and history! Quick as a flash Sergeant McLeod waved down local tailor, William Herbert Harrison, known locally as Jack.

He was driving his 31/2 horsepower Benz motorcar and together they drove off in pursuit of the villain, who by now was well on his way.

All this excitement!

Jack was only the third person in Northampton to own a car, Mr Joseph G. Grose was the first, he’d built his own using an imported Benz engine.

But this was Jack Harrison’s moment of glory. Hitting a speed of 15mph, he drove Sergeant McLeod out of Northampton towards Daventry and finally caught up with the rogue in Flore and arrested him.

The Northampton Mercury on May 12, 1899, under the headline “Barnum and Bailey’s Bogus Agent – An Undesirable Freak” recorded that Phillips appeared before the Divisional Petty Sessions charged with obtaining money by false pretences. Witnesses included Harriett Scott of Far Cotton, who has also paid 6d, and, of course, the heroic Sergeant McLeod. The accused was committed for trial at the upcoming Quarter Sessions.

And yes, this really did make history because this was Britain’s first ever car chase involving the police.