Today in London’s criminal history: rowdy innkeeper Mary Harvey escapes the Kings Bench prison, 1731.

Mary Harvey was an innkeeper, a notorious owner of disorderly houses in the 1720s and 1730s. She worked in the Haymarket area of London’s West End, along with her sister, Isabella Eaton (a thief and probable prostitute), Mary Sullivan, and various common-law husbands, including David Harvey, and Isabella’s husband John Eaton. Amassing an impressive record of criminal connections, Mary displayed a canny ability to resist the efforts of the Westminster Justices to contain and prosecute her, both on the streets and in the courts. She and her sister became adept at resisting the law and the moral clean-up campaigns of the era; beating the rap in court, prosecuting their accusers in return, and negotiating with the justices to protect their livelihoods.

In the 1720s and 30s, a widespread campaign to close down immorality in London, sponsored by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, (an alliance formed to impose religious discipline and moral way of life on the poor) had drawn in both the arms of the state, in the form of the magistrates and the constables, and private individuals and local communities. Raids on ‘disorderly houses’, rowdy pubs, brothels, lodging houses where criminals were said to live, gather and plan crimes, went along with private prosecutions of individuals, by the Society or informers it backed.

The keeper of an inn, or tavern, in St Martin’s in the Fields, Mary Harvey was repeatedly accused of theft and of keeping a disorderly house. If not a prostitute herself, her activities brought her into close proximity with them. Between around 1727 and 1733 she was the target of a concerted campaign to control and frustrate her activities, and disperse the “criminal” community to which she belonged. Mary and her confederates appeared in court many times during these years.

Mary’s origin is unknown; she may have been Irish, since during the 1730s Mary’s “gang” were described as being Irish. Her first appearance as a defendant at the Old Bailey was in 1728, when along with her sister, Arabella or Isabella Eaton and her common-law husband, John Eaton, she was indicted for stealing the goods of one Jane Fielding. At the same sessions, Mary Harvey and John Eaton were also tried for assaulting Henry Wilcox on the highway. In both of these trials the accused were acquitted. Wilcox had previously been prosecuted for robbery by John Eaton and Mary Stanley, and it is likely that the jury viewed the prosecution as malicious. These trials mark, if not the beginning, certainly the first public outings, of Mary Harvey, who would go on to be described by the London press as A noted virago.

In 1729 Mary’s house was raided by constables, but she locked them inside, “thereby hindering ’em in their duty”. On 9 October, Justice Cook committed Isabella Eaton to the Gatehouse Prison on the oath of three constables (James Body, and the brothers Michael and Thomas Willis), who she had threatened to shoot in the head at the Crown Tavern. She was also charged with keeping an ill-governed disorderly house. By November 1729 both Mary and Isabella were in Newgate Prison, charged with felonies. Mary Sullivan was nicked the same month, accused of involvement with Harvey in the robbery of a diamond ring and a silver gilt snuff-box. The women were acquitted.

By 1730 a campaign against disorderly houses, vigorously prosecuted by Justice John Gonson and his constables as part of the reformation of manners campaign, particularly targeted Mary Harvey and her confederates. A later report stated, That amongst the disorderly houses so suppressed one formerly kept by one Mary Harvey als Mackeige being the Blackmores head & Sadlers Arms in or near Hedge lane and also the house of Isabella Eaton als Gwyn being the Crown tavern in Sherrard Street St James were two of the most notorious for harbouring and entertaining Gangs of Thieves, pickpockets & desperately wicked persons.

Mary Harvey, Isabella Eaton and Mary Sullivan spent most of the time between August 1730 and autumn 1731 in gaol, faced with a number of charges, some of which may have been spurious. Some of the charges resulted from their habit of violently defending their houses and resisting arrest. During this time when Mary Harvey was variously held in Newgate, King’s Bench Prison in Southwark and the New Prison, she made several escapes.

The first was on 14th January 1731 when she broke out of the King’s Bench Prison and took several other prisoners with her. She was retaken in February, but escaped again. There is some confusion about the timing of these various escapes, but after 12 February 1731 she seems to have once again escaped after being retaken, this time with her sister Isabella. When the women were retaken in May, the Daily Post reported that they had sailed to Rotterdam, but had returned to England upon being threatened with the Rasp-house (a house of correction).

Along with Isabella Eaton and William Mackeig, one of Mary’s “husbands”, Mary was eventually tried and convicted of perjury at King’s Bench, but the conviction against her was overturned. Indeed, throughout the period in which Mary and her confederates were in gaol, escaped from gaol, or arrested and charged, only one indictment was actually proved, when she was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house at King’s Bench. Occasionally assisted by legal counsel, Mary and her confederates were able to take advantage “of the flexibility and discretion inherent in the early eighteenth-century [criminal justice] system” to avoid conviction. They also instigated strategic, and possibly vexatious, prosecutions against their persecutors, such as when they indicted the informing constables Michael and Thomas Willis for highway robbery. Although the two constables were acquitted, these prosecutions may have damaged their reputation.

Mary continued to trouble the authorities for a little longer. In April 1732 she was tried for pickpocketing at the Old Bailey along with Ann Wentland. Although Ann was convicted and sentenced to death, Mary was acquitted. After this Mary disappears from the records. There is some evidence that she may have gone back to Ireland. In January 1733 in a dispatch from Dublin, the Daily Courant reported that “On Saturday last, the notorious Moll Harvey, so often mentioned in the English News Papers, was tried at the Thosel [a court], and found guilty of picking the Pocket of one Mr Morgan of seven Moidores, and was ordered for Transportation”.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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