Oral history is slippery stuff. Stories told and re-told have a life of their own and often drift away from their basis in truth. It can happen even during the lifetime of the characters in that story, as a myth builds around their exploits. Sometimes these characters enjoy the fame and play up to it. Their neighbours add little flourishes and humorous twists to the story. The story travels further from home and achieves a gloss and polish untainted by the coarse facts. Time then adds a further layer of romance. Even in this digital age bits and pieces get copied from one context to another and the tale is re-written once again.
Meet the Twin Foxes!
Their tale (and you can believe as much or as little of it as you want) has been gleaned from a variety of sources, most of which are accessible to any persistent nosy-parker on the internet. I'll list these at the end - if I can find them again!
Back in 1857, deep in the Hertfordshire countryside Mr and Mrs Fox were blessed with twin boys. They were identical in every way and the parents then added to the ensuing confusion by giving them very similar names; one was christened Albert Ebenezer Fox while his brother was Ebenezer Albert Fox. They got their names from the Ebenezer Baptist Chapel which stood in Albert Street where their father was a lay preacher. He also farmed ten acres of land and, although the family were not wealthy, they were undoubtedly respectable country people.
To avoid mixing them up their father put a blue ribbon on Albert and a red one on Ebenezer.....or was it the other way around? Either way the boys learned at an early age to swap them so that their poor perplexed parents didn't know which of them to blame for their persistent pranks. But what the boys really enjoyed was being out in the woods and fields around their home. Here they developed a taste for what's known, when wealthy people do it, as "country sports" and is enjoyed by kings and lords. But, when poor people are engaged in it, is called "poaching" and is punishable by law.
By the age of eleven the twins were setting traps and snares and at thirteen they'd got their first gun, stolen of course. The judge threw out the case as he wouldn't believe that such young boys could have done such a thing. A month later they were caught again and fined ten shillings. This was the start of their lives of crime which amassed them around two hundred convictions. Heaven knows how many crimes they got away with.
A list of their crimes reveals that most of them centred around poaching: taking a pheasant, night poaching, stealing pigeons, assault on a gamekeeper, assault on police, stealing potatoes, stealing a pair of trousers......the list goes on, all petty crimes for which, despite their re-offending, they never received a sentence of more than twelve months in jail with hard labour.
Despite their constant incursions into other people's property and regular differences of opinion with the law they were, to some extent, tolerated by landowners and magistrates (often the same people). They were always able to find a good gun-dog for those who wanted one and their rural skills made them very good at hunting out troublesome foxes. They also ranged widely to carry out their nocturnal transgressions and so didn't become too much of a nuisance to any particular farmer.
And somehow they became famous - or rather infamous. Their frequent court appearances often found their way into the local papers as they were often highly entertaining. Although Ebenezer (or was it Albert?) was a quiet, taciturn man, his brother was an outrageous comic. After their early adventures the boys learned never to go out together on a poaching trip. For, if they were apprehended, the police were easily confused as to which brother they had caught. They provided alibis for each other and sometimes in court called each other by the wrong names until the magistrates gave up in total bafflement.
On one occasion Ebenezer was in court accused of poaching in Hitchwood. With an expression of injured innocence he told the court that he was only in the wood on that moonlit night in order to polish up his hymn-singing! To add weight to his story he produced, with a flourish, a battered Baptist hymn book and waved it at the court. The alibi was somewhat weakened by the cloud of pheasant feathers which flew from his pocket at the same time!
The brothers also had times of going straight and worked as builders. This included labouring on the new police station. When the building was finished however they found themselves out of work and out of funds. There was nothing but to revert to their old ways. And so it was that they became the first prisoners to be incarcerated within the walls they had just constructed.
Their fame spread across the land as other papers, always on the lookout for a good story, reported their exploits. Their story was even picked up by The New York Times. In 1900 the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, was travelling through the area and even he wanted to meet the famous poaching twins. Albert was summoned to The Marquis Of Lorne Hotel where he drank beer with the king, a fact that Albert was not reticent in mentioning to the court at future trials.
Their notoriety also came to the attention of Sir Edward Henry, head of the Metropolitan Police who used the twins to prove the worth of the latest advance in forensic science - fingerprinting. He was able to show that even identical twins would have different prints. Some say that the twins were among the first criminals to be caught using this technology.
The combination of the hard outdoor life and the hard labour in prison began to have an effect on Ebenezer's health and in 1926 he was discovered unconscious in the woods having run away from hospital so that he could spend his last hours in his beloved countryside. Landowners, magistrates, farmers and judges all came to his funeral. Albert passed away in 1937, aged 79.
The land where they ranged so freely has disappeared under a tide of housing, much of it the new town of Stevenage. In an attempt, perhaps, to hold on to something of the rural heritage of the area, there is a pub called The Twin Foxes and also a housing estate named after the two old scoundrels.
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_and_Ebenezer_Fox
New York Times article - http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9507E4DC133BE633A2575AC0A9649C946296D6CF&oref=slogin
Pub history article http://www.patrickchaplin.com/Twinfoxes.htm
Family history society - http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/answers/answers-2013/ans13-030-fox.htm
"Our Stevenage" - http://www.ourstevenage.org.uk/page_id__324_path__0p3p.aspx
History of Preston in Hertfordshire - http://www.prestonherts.co.uk/page233.html