In the eighteenth century, imprisonment for debt was a regular part of London life. If you owed anyone any money, and they had enough to go to court, they could have you locked up until you could pay off what you owed. Since being inside isn’t necessarily a recipe for scraping cash together, such internments could last for years… The system was kind of loaded against you… This built up a lot of anger and resentment. While some went to court to try and argue that imprisonment for debt should be outlawed (see November 19th entry for the Rebel History Calendar), others decided on more radical measures…
From the Newgate journal, comes a tale of four men who plotted to free debtors banged up in the Kings Bench Prison:
“THE REV. RICHARD BURGH, JOHN CUMMINGS, ESQ., CAPTAIN IN THE ARMY, TOWNLEY M’CAN, ESQ., STUDENT OF LAW, JAMES DAVIS AND JOHN BOURNE
Convicted of a Conspiracy to set fire to the King’s Bench Prison, February, 1793
ON the trial of these conspirators the Attorney-General said he flattered himself it would be found that he had done no more than his duty in bringing the several defendants before the Court. The offence with which they were charged was of the utmost importance to the peace and safety of the capital, for it not only had for its object the demolition of the King’s Bench Prison, but involved the burning of other houses, bloodshed and murder.
He lamented that five persons, all of education and respectable families, should, by their folly and imprudence, to call it by the softest name, bring themselves into such an unfortunate situation. One was a reverend divine, another an officer in the army, another had been in the profession of the law, and the others were of respectable parents, and with fair prospects of being honourable and useful members of the community.
The Attorney-General further said that this case was pregnant with the most alarming circumstances, which would be better detailed by the witnesses than described by him.
The prisoner Burgh was private chaplain to the Duke of Leinster, and a relation to a Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The first witness was Mr Justice Buller’s clerk, who produced a record to prove that the prisoner Burgh was lawfully confined in the King’s Bench Prison for debt.
Evidence was produced to prove that the other prisoners were also confined in the same prison for debt.
Edward Webb said he knew all the prisoners. About the beginning of May he was introduced into a society called “The Convivials” held in a room in the King’s Bench Prison, of which the prisoners were members.
M’Can expressed himself very freely upon the subject of Lord Rawdon’s Bill, then pending, respecting insolvent debtors, and said if that Bill did not pass into a law he and others were determined to do something to liberate themselves; that there was a scheme in agitation for that purpose, but that the parties were sworn to secrecy, and therefore he could not divulge it. The witness said he might safely communicate the business to him. The prisoners Cummings and Davis were present at the time.
M’Can afterwards opened the business to the witness. He said the plan in which he and the other prisoners were concerned was to effect their own enlargement by demolishing the walls of the prison, as they were determined not to be confined within those walls for debt. The execution of this plan would, however, depend upon the rejection of Lord Rawdon’s Bill. After they had effected their escape, by setting fire to the prison, they would then go to the Fleet Prison and liberate the prisoners; after which they would proceed to the houses of Lords Thurlow and Kenyon, which they would destroy.
Davis said he would not hesitate to blow out the brains of those noble Lords. The witness saw the other defendants, who conversed upon the subject, and it was proposed to procure some sailors to assist them. This scheme was, however, defeated by the vigilance of the marshal, who sent for the guards, and had the prison searched throughout.
Shortly afterwards the witness saw M’Can, Cummings and Davis again, who said that, though they were defeated in the former scheme, they were determined to put some other plot into execution. The next day Cummings (who was called the Captain) said to the witness: ” I have discovered the best plan that could be conceived for blowing up these d–d walls. I’ll show you the place.” He then took the witness to the end of the bakehouse and pointed out to him a place where the drain had been opened. Then he described the force necessary to blow up the walls, and said he had studied the scheme upon his pillow, and that it would be necessary to have a box about ten inches wide and as many deep, and described the tubes that were to convey the fire to the box, which he said must contain about fifty pounds’ weight of gunpowder, and requested the witness would get it made. In the evening of the same day the witness saw M’Can and Davis come out of the coffee-room, and, alluding to the plot, they said it was a glorious plan, and they would support it to the loss of their lives. They said no other person should be privy to it, excepting Mr Bourne, who was concerned in the former scheme, and who had got a large quantity of gunpowder ready. The witness observed to them that the neighbouring bakehouse and coffee-room would be in danger, and that poor Martin, who had a large family, would be killed. They replied that it did not matter if they or a dozen more were killed, provided it procured the prisoners’ freedom.
A day or two afterwards, when the witness was walking on the parade with Cummings, M’Can and Bourne, he asked if Mr Bourne knew of the plot; they said he did. Bourne said they should have the powder, and that Mrs Bourne should bring it to the witness’s house in small quantities. M’Can then proposed that, in order to raise money to purchase the gunpowder, a motion should be made in the club of Convivials for a subscription of five shillings each, under pretence of feeing counsel to know whether the marshal had a right to enter his prisoners’ apartments when he pleased. This proposal was agreed to, and the motion was accordingly made.
After several other consultations, at which all the prisoners were present, it was agreed that the gunpowder should be deposited in a hole in the floor of Burgh’s room — where it was afterwards found.
It was also agreed that, on the day the plot was to be carried into execution, M’Can and Bourne were to have a sham fencing-match for a great deal of money. This was so as to collect together all the prisoners at the time the gunpowder was set fire to, and thereby afford them a chance of making their escape.
At length the day was fixed for a Sunday, about seven o’clock in the evening, being a time at which a number of strangers were likely to be in the prison.
Cummings had the sole management of this plot. Burgh said that the noise and confusion it would create would, he hoped, bring about a revolution in this country.
T. Hendacre confirmed the substance of the evidence of the last witness, as did Mr Battersley. These witnesses stated, by way of addition, that Davis gave half-a-guinea to purchase some gunpowder; that the prisoners carried on a correspondence with a society in the borough of Southwark; that Mr Dundas’s house was one that was fixed on for destruction; that the prisoners had two schemes in contemplation to effect their escape — the one was to tie down all the turnkeys, the other the gunpowder plot in question, of which Cummings had the sole conduct, he being considered the engineer.
Lord Kenyon summed up the whole of the evidence in the most able and impartial manner; after which the jury found all the prisoners guilty.
On Tuesday, 12th of February, 1793, the prisoners were brought to receive judgment of the Court.
The prisoner Cummings produced a petition, in which he stated that he had been for several years an officer in his Majesty’s service, and had then two sons in the army, who, in consequence of the calamitous situation of the prisoner, were deprived of the education and support necessary to their station and rank. He stated several other circumstances in mitigation of punishment.
The prisoner Townley M’Can produced an affidavit, in which he stated that he was a student of law, and had formed an opinion from several writers that imprisonment for debt was illegal; he disclaimed any criminal intention, and positively denied that he or his fellow-prisoners had carried on a correspondence with the Revolution Society in the Borough, or ever had a design to kill the two great law lords — as alleged by a witness at the trial. The prisoners were severally sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but in different prisons.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online