Today in London’s insurgent past: the ‘Royal Family’ storm the Westminster Gatehouse, 1749

[Note: in the paper copy of the London Rebel History Calendar the date of this event was wrongly entered as 24th January 1746, instead of 1749]

On 23rd January 1749, Governor of Cork, MP, General James Sinclair was robbed of his watch, which he discovered as he was on his way to ‘pay his compliments to the prince of Wales upon his birthday’. Two Irishmen, Thomas Tobin and William Harper (aka Jones), associated with a gang who with a powerful sense of irony called themselves the “Royal Family’, were arrested for the theft, and locked up in the Westminster Gatehouse, a local prison, located next to Westminster Abbey, on Broad Sanctuary.

The next evening, the 24th, either ten or twenty (depending on different accounts) men armed with pistols and cutlasses attacked the Gatehouse. One of the men had visited Harper/Jones earlier that day, and had pried open the bars of a window to facilitate the evening attack, when the gang came equipped with pistols, cutlasses and sticks or clubs. The keeper and a screw were nearly blinded by powder from pistols being shot, while two other men defending the prison were stabbed.

Freeing Harper, (although they were unable to rescue Tobin, as he was chained to the floor, and a party of guards interrupted their cutting him free), “they were off in Triumph and swore they would make a second Visit with Blunderbusses.”

The authorities offered a £100 reward for the men’s capture… John Bryan, a bricklayer working in Covent Garden, grassed up twelve of his former accomplices, several of who were hanged for the attack. Those arrested included

  • James Field, former sailor, a bouncer and boxer, from Dublin. His reputation was so heavy that although he had a number of warrants out for his arrest, “the Officers were afraid of him, and if they met him in the Street, they pass’d him by without Notice”; • Joseph Dowdall, born in Wicklow, who lived by picking gentlemen’s pockets in Covent Garden;
  • Garret Lawler,
  • Thomas Masterton, another pickpocket, and burglar;
  • `Thomas Quinn, who had prominent in the ‘Liberty and Ormond’ riots in Dublin…

Brought up amidst a plebeian culture in Dublin strong in disorder, resistance to authority, favouring mutilation and violent revenge against informers, constables and bailiffs, these irish proles brought to London some of the powerful bonds of loyalty to each other and hostility to the law. The gang which rescued Harper were based at an irish pub, the Fox, in Drury Lane, one of London’s rookeries, centre of a ghetto of the poor, casual workers or crims. A house which ‘harboured nothing but thieves and highwaymen’, the Fox the base from which many of their operations were carried out,

Some of these men had been associates for only three or four months, while others had known one another for many years. Outside and against the law, London’s criminal subcultures built up support networks, swore oaths to defend each other and rescue each other from capture if possible, and even evolved self-organised welfare benefits, friendly societies paying out to the dependents of the imprisoned and hanged… Since the law itself was administered to the poor with vicious measures – mutilation, branding, hanging for numerous petty offences, transportation, self-interest and necessity created solidarity among the lowest…

Although, sadly, many of the Royal Family ended up dobbing each other in when pressure was put on them… tut tut.

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A prison dating from 1370, originally built to hold church and lay offenders against the Abbot of Westminster and the Bishop of London’s jurisdictions, the Westminster Gatehouse had been raided by the lower orders before: broken open in the Peasants Revolt June 1381, like all the London, Southwark and Westminster prison, all its inmates had been freed.

It’s also possible that this was the Westminster prison, where Leveller Nicholas Tew was imprisoned after Leveller/Agitator disturbances accompanying petitions to Parliament in March 1647.

In May 1651, a group of ranters were jailed here.

The Gatehouse was demolished in 1776.

Some more of the story of the ‘Royal Family’ can be read at: http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/gu06.htm

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

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