All this month? in London riotous history, 1826: gangs commit mass robbery, Bethnal Green

In 1826, a series of robberies by a large gang were the cause of great fear and loathing in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Camping out on Spicer Street, off Brick Lane, they were allegedly engaged in collective attacks on herds of animals being driven to market through the East End, to thieve and use for food, as well as mugging the wealthy in the area. These ‘outrages’ apparently occurred every night at this point. Deputations of angry local residents petitioned the magistrates and Home Secretary Robert Peel for some official intervention – Peel assigned 40 of the Horse Patrol to the area.

The contemporary reports actually obscure as much as they shed light on:

“Last Monday forenoon, at 12 o’clock, pursuant to appointment, Messrs. Millingfield and Marsden, the two Churchwardens of St. Mathew, Bethnal-green, and Mr. Brutton, the Vestry Clerk, waited upon the Secretary of State at the Home-office, where they were met by Mr. Osborne and Mr. Twyford, the magistrates of Worship-street Police-office. The object of the meeting was to devise some measures to suppress the dreadful riots and outrages that take place every night in the parish, by a lawless gang of thieves, consisting of 500 or 600, whose exploits have caused such alarming sensations in the minds of the inhabitants, that they have actually found it necessary to shut up their shops at an early hour, to protect their property from the ruffians.

In order to give some idea of the outrages that have been, and are hourly committed, we merely give the following instances, and the disciplined manner in which the ruffians go to work:-

The gang rendezvous in a brick-field at the top of Spicer-street, Spitalfields, and out-posts are stationed to give an alarm should any of the civil power approach, and their cry is “Warhawk,” as a signal for retreat. On the brick-kilns in this field they cook whatever meat and potatoes they plunder from the various shops in the neighbourhood, in the open day, and in the face of the shopkeeper.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, being market days, (Monday and Friday at Smithfield, and Wednesday at Barnet,) they sally out into the suburbs, and wait in ambush till a drove of beasts passes; they then attack the drovers, and take a beast from the drove, and convey it into the marshes till night; when they hunt it through the metropolis, and whilst the passengers and inhabitants are in the utmost state of alarm, they plunder, and in many instances nearly murder, every person that they meet; there are now no less than five individuals lying in the London infirmary, without hopes of recovery, that have fallen into the hands of the gang. Within the last fortnight, upwards of 50 persons have been robbed, and cruelly beaten, and one of the gang was seen one day last week to produce, amongst some of his associates, nearly half a hat-full of watches…”

The attacks attributed to this gang had mounted up: “On Friday, being market day at Smithfield, the gang were on the look out for beasts, and we hear that, as early as six in the morning, two bullocks were taken from a drove. On Wednesday a bullock was rescued from them in the Kingsland-road, and after being secured in Clement’s barn till the gang had been dispersed, it was conveyed home to its owner, MR. ALEXANDER, in Whitechapel market. It was reported, that MR. SYKES, the proprietor of the ham and beef shop in Winchester-street, Hare-street-fields, had died on Friday in the London Hospital, of the dreadful injuries he received from the gang, but we are happy to say he is still alive. It seems that MR. SYKES had only set up in business a few days, when about eight o’clock in the evening, about twenty fellows came round his shop, armed with sticks; he suspected they intended an attack, and for security got behind the counter, when the whole gang came in, and seizing a buttock of beef and a ham, ran out of the shop. He endeavoured to prevent them by putting out his arm, when one of them, with a hatchet or hammer, stuck him a tremendous blow which broke it in a dreadful manner; it has been since amputated, and he now lies in a very bad state. The gang then went into a baker’s shop and helped themselves to bread, and afterwards adjourned to the brick-field, and ate the provisions in a very short time.”

Additionally: “On Wednesday se’nnight the gang attacked a lady and gentleman that were in a chaise in the Bethnal-green-road, and after robbing and beating them most inhumanly, they cut the reins and traces to prevent a pursuit.”

Pressure mounted on the authorities to do something effective to clamp down on the robberies:

“The Secretary of State on Saturday had an interview with the magistrates of the district, respecting the state of that part of the metropolis, and anxiously inquired if the robbers were distressed weavers? We understand that an answer was given in the negative; but that they were a set of idle and disorderly fellows that have been long known to the police as reputed thieves.

The deputation remained with Mr. Peel till one o’clock, and explained to him the necessity of a strong body of men (in addition to those already stationed there) being sent into the neighbourhood, as they felt confident that the robbers, who were well armed, would boldly attack (as they have done before) the civil power.

The Right Hon. Secretary assured the deputation, that immediate means should be adopted to rid the parish of the intruders.”

Peel responded quickly; he “gave immediate orders for a detachment of Horse Patrol to be stationed day and night in the neighbourhood; and on Friday morning a party of forty men, to be under the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of Worship-street Police-office, were mounted; they are a party of able-bodied men who have held situations in the army, accoutred with cutlasses, pistols, and blunderbusses. – They will be in constant communication with forty of the dismounted patrol. The dismounted are divided into parties, and are stationed at the following posts, viz.:- Cambridge Heath Gate, Mile-end Gate, Whitechapel Church, London Apprentice Gate, and near the Regent’s Canal in the Mile End-road. Both parties are to remain on duty till five o’clock in the morning.”

The prompt manner in which the Right Hon. Secretary of State attended to the application of the parochial authorities of Bethnal-green, respecting the riots in that neighbourhood, has afforded great gratification to the parishioners, and by the formidable appearance of the detachment of Horse Patrol that were parading the thoroughfares in the parish the whole of Monday, the gang was deterred from coming forth. Three fellows were taken up on Monday night. One is supposed to be of the gang that so inhumanly attacked and robbed Mr. Fuller, the surgeon, at Cambridge-heath, for which three fellows are now awaiting their trials at the Old Bailey. Mr. Peel has given authority to the magistrates of Worship-street, to establish a Horse Patrol, under their own jurisdiction, and the expenses to be paid out of the hands of the office.”

It seems likely that diverse crimes may have been lumped together in reports; also that the numbers given for the size of the ‘gangs’ involved may have been exaggerated. Rumour, panic and outrage combined to inflate events…

The court case mentioned above, for the attack on ‘Mr Fuller’, had, though, it seemed taken place at the Old Bailey on 14th September (three days after the crime? Possibly a dating error? Really summary justice? Like Kier Starmer making sure courts sat all night after the 2011 riots to get conviction as quick as possible?)

Here is a transcript of the trial:

“GEORGE HOUGHTON, JAMES BOYCE, HENRY BOYCE.

Violent Thefthighway robbery.

14th September 1826

Before Mr. Justice Littledale.

GEORGE HOUGHTON , JAMES BOYCE , and HENRY BOYCE were indicted for feloniously assaulting Henry Fuller, on the King’s highway, on the 11th of September , at St. Matthew Bethnal-green , putting him in fear, and taking from his person, and against his will, 1 case of surgical instruments, value 40s.; 2 cases of lancets, value 20s.; 1 hat, value 20s.; 1 handkerchief, value 1s.; 1 pen-knife, value 1s.; 1 pin-cushion, value 1d.; 2 sovereigns, 3 shillings, and 1 sixpence, his property .

ALLEY conducted the prosecution.

Mr. HENRY FULLER. I am a surgeon , and live in Suffolk-place, Hackney-road. On the evening of the 11th of September, about half-past seven o’clock, or a few minutes later, I was returning home from visiting a patient, and when I arrived on a place called Fleet-street-hill , I heard footsteps behind me, and the word “Now,” and immediately after a loud whistle – about twenty persons surrounded me all in a moment; my arms were immediately pinioned; several of them had sticks, and stood in front of me; the prisoner James Boyce is the person who seized my right arm; I could not observe the person who seized the other; my elbows were tied behind me with a rope; one of them said, “If the b-g-r speaks knock his bl-y brains out;” I do not know who that was. The prisoner, James Boyce, immediately said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” I begged of them not to hurt me, and they might take whatever I had got; James Boyce said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” James Boyce then took from my right-hand trousers pocket a case of surgical instruments, and two cases of lancets, and from my right-hand waistcoat pocket three keys, and a piece of ass’s skin – my left-hand pockets were rifled by the person on the other side – from my trousers pocket he took two sovereigns, three shillings, a sixpence, and a pen-knife, which had a broken point – one of them took my hat off – that was neither of the prisoners; my cravat was then taken off; as soon as the man had taken my hat he said, “Now, give the b-g-r a rum one” – James Boyce said, “No, don’t hurt the poor b-g-r,” and they did not do me any personal injury. I am quite certain of James Boyce – Houghton came up to me, and felt my fob pocket; he unbuttoned the flap of my breeches, and felt to see if I had a watch, but James Boyce, who had examined it before, said, “The b-g-r has got no toy;” I had no watch. As they were about to leave me I asked James Boyce to give me my keys, as they would be of no service to them – he returned one key, and they all ran away immediately. On the following morning I went to the Police-office, and got Garton, Gleed, Armstrong, Hanley, and other officers, and after the prisoners were apprehended three persons called and told me I could recover my instruments – I communicated that to the officers, and the two cases of lancets were restored to me by Garton – I went with him to Dutton’s, in Brook-street, Spital-square.

Cross-examined by MR. LAW. Q. Nobody but yourself was witness to the transaction? A. One or two women say they were passing, and I believe, one of them is here. I was certainly alarmed – my attention was not much distracted till they threatened to give me a rum one – I then felt more alarmed; I think it impossible I can be mistaken in James Boyce’s person; the parties were all strangers to me before. I am sure I am not mistaken – it lasted about two minutes or more.

  1. Was there much noise or conversation? A. Among themselves; I had plenty of light to see them. I heard voices behind me as well as before – persons were in front and behind; I was not alarmed till one of them took my hat and said, “Give the b-r a rum one;” as Boyce said I should not be hurt.
  2. If Boyce is the individual be interfered to protect you from injury? A. He did.
  3. Does it frequently occur to you to make mistakes in persons, or are you pretty accurate? A. I generally am – I could not speak to the whole twenty, but I observed several of them, so closely as to speak with confidence. I never made a mistake in the identity of a person to my knowledge; there were not twenty persons in my view; I observed several in front, who I can identify; I should know the one who took my hat in a moment if I saw him. – Boyce was apprehended on the Wednesday or Thursday following.

Cross-examined by Mr. PRENDERGAST. Q. You were much frightened? A. When I was threatened – I saw Houghton previously to the threat – he had searched my pockets while they were releasing my arms.

Mr. ALLEY. Q. Had you abundant opportunity of seeing them? A. Yes, and have not the slightest doubt of them all; Henry Boyce was present, but not active – it happened in the parish of Bethnal-green.

JOHN NORRIS . I am an inspector of the dismounted patrol. I apprehended Houghton on the Wednesday morning after the robbery, about six hours after I received the information – I took him in his bed; I told him he must get up and go with me; I asked where he had been on the Monday night before; he said he had had but 2 1/2d. in his pocket, and that he had been to the Angel and Crown public-house, opposite the church in the road (opposite Whitechapel church), spent it, and returned home;

the Angel and Crown is about three quarters of a mile from where the robbery was committed.

[NB: The Angel and Crown was probably on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.]

  1. When he was at the office, but not before the Magistrate, did he say any thing to you? A. He told me afterwards that he had been to the Angel and Trumpet public-house, at Stepney, on the Monday evening.

Cross-examined by MR. PRENDERGAST. Q. You said at first it was in Whitechapel-road. I understood? A. He said the Angel and Crown in the road, opposite the church.

  1. How came you to say “Whitechapel-road?” A. It is in Whitechapel-road; he said he went up Brick-lane to the Angel and Crown, opposite the church in the road, and spent it – he said nothing more on that subject – he said, “in the road,” not Mile-end-road; Mile-end-road and Whitechapel-road are in a line – I cannot tell the difference. I swear he did not say the Angel and Trumpet – he said “in the road, opposite the church” but did not say what church.
  2. ALLEY. Q. Is it called both Mile-end and Whitechapel road? A. I call it both; the Angel and Trumpet is a mile from the other house, and not opposite a church.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. When did he say it was the Angel and Trumpet? A. Not till after Mr. Fullerhad seen him, about an hour and a half afterwards – he said full an hour and a half afterwards that he was at the Angel and Crown, and then contradicted himself, and said it was the Angel and Trumpet – he had spoken to nobody but Mr. Fullerand the officers.

THOMAS GARTON . I am an officer of Worship-street, I accompanied the prosecutor last Saturday to a girl, named Houghton, and she produced these two cases of lancets out of her bosom; Mr. Fuller claimed them; I do not know who she lived with myself.

THOMAS GOODING . I am an officer. I apprehended James Boyce in Brick-lane on the Wednesday night after the robbery; I apprehended Henry Boyce at his mother’s door.

Cross-examined by Mr. LAW. Q. Where did you find James Boyce? A. In Brick-lane, about one hundred yards from where he lives.

WILLIAM DICKENSON . I assisted in apprehending both the Boyces.

  1. FULLER. These are my instruments.
  2. PRENDERGAST. Q. Do you recollect a woman, named Moore, coming to you that night? A. No; I saw her not the next day, but the day following; I have not the slightest doubt of any of the prisoners.

HOUGHTON’S Defence. I have witnesses to prove where I was at the time; I told Norris I was at the Angel and Trumpet, and there remained till I went home to bed.

JAMES BOYCE’S Defence. I have witnesses to say where I was.

HENRY BOYCE’S Defence. I can prove where I was.

MATILDA MOORE . I live at No. 3, Stevens’-buildings. Bethnal-green, at the top of Fleet-street-hill. On Monday, the 11th, about a quarter or ten minutes after eight o’clock, as I came out of my house I saw two young fellows following Mr. Fuller; there was a whistle given, and the word “Now;” then about a dozen surrounded him, and he was robbed; I staid there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, and was within about fourteen yards of Mr. Fuller; I did not see Houghton there; I cannot take upon myself to say he was not there, as there were so many; there might be thirty; Mr. Fuller did not fall, for I sat with my baby in my arms, and after the robbery was done, I went up, and saw Mr. Fuller, he was very weak and low, and was taken into a chandler’s shop – I did not speak to him; I did not see his hat taken, but, as they ran from the gentleman, I saw a man, named Norton, come under our shop window with his hat in his hand; I had seen them hustling his pockets behind; I did not see either of the prisoners there; they said, “If you offer to resist, or make an alarm, we will knock your b-y brains out.”

WILLIAM ADEY . I live at No. 15, Mead-street, near Shoreditch, in the parish of Bethnal-green, and am a journeyman shoemaker. I know Houghton. On Monday, the 11th of September, I was at the Angel and Trumpet with him; we started to go there at half-past six, and remained there till half-past ten; I will take my oath that he was not out of my sight five minutes during all that time; Sidebottom went with me and Houghton to the house; I do not remember seeing one Hawes there.

  1. ALLEY. Q. Who do you work for now? A. Mr. Pollock, of Shoreditch, near the church on the left hand side – I worked for him at the time of the robbery; I do the work at home with my father; I generally work till eight or nine, but sometimes leave off at dark; on Monday we generally do not get our work ready – we get it prepared – I generally go out earlier on a Monday; my uncle lives with us – neither he or my father are here.
  2. Did Sidebottom fall into a misfortune that night? A. Not that I know of – he was taken on suspicion of a robbery – I heard it was committed that night; I do not know whether he was taken that night; when I left the house I left him in company with a young woman at the door; I left the house at half-past ten o’clock; I know Hawes – I did not see him that evening; I know Fleet-street-hill; I was not there that night – I could go that way home, but I did not – I got home near upon a quarter past eleven o’clock; I saw no robbery that night – I never said I saw the robbery committed as I was going home – I swear that.
  3. Were you never taken up yourself charged with any offence? A. I was taken for a slight offence – they took me for going down a turning, and said I was hunting a bullock – I was fined – I was never in custody for any other offence – the bullock hunt was six weeks or two months ago – I have not seen the landlord of the public-house here – he was not in the house when I went in, but the servant was, and she knows I came in, but her master would not let her come.

COURT. Q. The landlord was not there? A. I did not see him for an hour or two – I did not see the landlady – I saw the female servant – she served us with what we drank, which was porter – we had no brandy or gin – we had two or three pots of porter – Houghton and Sidebottom drank with me – we each paid our own part – it came to 15d. – it was 5d. a pot – I went out on the opposite side of the way, and got some bacon and bread from a shop – I do not know who keeps the shop – I am not often at the Angel and Trumpet – I have been there six or eight times – we each paid 5d. – I changed a sixpence – I cannot say whether Houghton and Sidebottom paid in silver or copper; when I went in I dare say there were ten people in the room, and more came in; I dare say there were fifteen or twenty there when I came away.

  1. Did Houghton call for you to go with him? A. No, I went from my residence at nearly a quarter past six o’clock, and met him down Brick-lane – we met Sidebottom at Hanbury’s brewhouse, about one hundred and fifty yards from where I met Houghton – we went into the public-house together; I got the bread and bacon soon after I went in.

THOMAS SIDEBOTTOM . I am a weaver, and live in Cheshire-street, Hare-street-fields. On Monday week I was in Houghton’s company; I met him in Brick-lane about a quarter to seven o’clock in the evening. with Adey, and we went to the Angel and Trumpet, at Stepney; we remained there till the publican would not draw us any more beer; he said it was time to be going – I was the last who asked him for beer, but not the last in the house – I went away first, and bid Houghton and Adey good night; they were in my company from a quarter to seven o’clock till half-past ten; Houghton did not leave our company all that time – not to my recollection; if he was out it was not for more than five minutes I am sure.

  1. ALLEY. Q. You have stated that you went away first; then Adey could not have left you behind talking to a woman? A. I went out of the house first – he did not leave me behind; I was taken up that night on suspicion – they said it was for stealing some pork; I was put into the watch-house, and discharged the next day; I know Fleet-street-hill – I went down Brick-lane that night about a quarter to seven o’clock; I do not know whether you call that passing Fleet-street-hill – it is at the end of the street – it was not a quarter past seven.

COURT. Q. Were you in company with any woman that night? A. I was speaking with a young woman at the door when I left the house; Houghton and Adey came out just after me, and left me at the door talking to the young woman.

  1. Who drank with you? A. Houghton and Adey, and another young man, who was in the house when I went in; we had two or three pots of beer; I will not be certain how many; I know what I paid for; I paid 2 1/2d. for a pint; Adey paid for the first pot himself; I think he gave a 6d.; he went out after asking for a newspaper,(which he could not get), and fetched some bread and bacon – the servant of the house served us with beer; I saw the landlord, but not when I first went in; I do not know whether the young woman who brought the beer was the landlady or servant; I had met them in Brick-lane.
  2. What makes you certain this was the 11th of September? A. I cannot be certain of the date, but it was on Monday – last Monday week; I had been ino the City about work.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. You say there was another man at the house? A. Yes; he was not in our company at first, but drank with us; I do not know his name – I never saw him before.

JAMES BARRATT . I am a bricklayer, and live at Stepney. Last Monday week I was in company with Houghton and Adey, at the Angel and Trumpet, Stepney, kept by Smith; I went there a quarter before eight o’clock, and staid till half-past ten.

  1. Was Houghton there when you went in? A. Yes; we all went in together, and never went outside the door, not for three minutes, except for a necessary purpose.
  2. Do you mean you went in in company or at the same time? A. I went in at the same time as they did – they asked me to drink out of two or three pots of beer; I did not know them before – the two last witnesses were with him – we all went out together – the landlord would not draw any more beer.
  3. Who applied for more beer, which was refused to be drawn? (the witness Sidebottom here said “It was me.”) A. It was that person (pointing to Sidebottom).
  4. ALLEY. Q. How lately have you been at work as a bricklayer? A. Yesterday; I do not know Fleet-street-hill – it was a quarter to eight o’clock when I went into the public-house.
  5. Can you run two miles in a quarter of an hour? A. I do not know; I saw no robbery that night.
  6. Did you happen to be taken up for stealing pork? A. No. I will take my oath, since I have been out of the country, I have not stolen a thing; I was never in custody.

Two witnesses gave Houghton a good character.

WILLIAM NICHOLS . On Monday night, the 11th of September, I saw James Boyce at the corner of King-street; it might be ten minutes past seven o’clock, but I will swear it was not later; I remained in his company till a quarter-past nine, by Hanbury’s brewhouse clock; we stood talking there all that time; Chandler came up about a quarter-past seven, and remained with us till we went away, and during that time two other men came up – we were talking about the business at Bow – we are all silk weavers; I had left my work at dark, and was talking about the state of the business. I live in George-street.

  1. ALLEY. Q. What distance is King-street from Fleet-street-hill – close by – is it not? A. Not very close – I dare say it is four or five hundred yards; I will take my oath he was a yard from me all that time – both him and his brother were there; and about five or ten minutes after eight, two Bow-street patrols, one named Skilling, came up and saw up talking.

JOHN CHANDLER . I was in Boyce’s company on the 11th of September – I fell in company with them, about a quarter past seven o’clock, at the corner of St. John’s-street; the two Boyces stood there with two or three more men; I crossed over to them, to hear about the trade, and remained in their company till after nine o’clock.

  1. ALLEY. Q. When did you get up? A. At a quarter-past seven o’clock; I went with them down St. John-street, to go and have a pint of beer – they left me at the corner of St. John-street – I crossed over to an old lady, named Lowing, and heard of the robbery.

BENJAMIN WEEDON . On the night of the 11th I was going up Hare-street, and about five minutes to eight o’clock, I saw both the Boyces at the corner of King-street, and stopped talking there for three-quarters of an hour – I left them at a quarter-past eight.

GEORGE NICHOLS . On the night of the 11th of September I joined the Boyces, as near as I can say, about seven or eight o’clock – it was before eight – at the corner of King-street; I stopped there a quarter of an hour, or hardly so much, in conversation with them. Chandler and Nichols were with them – Wheedon and I went up together to them.

COURT. Q. How far is this from Fleet-street-hill? A. About three or four hundred yards, and about thirty yards from their own house.

Four witnesses gave James Boyce a good character.

HOUGHTON – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 17.

  1. BOYCE – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 25.
  2. BOYCE – NOT GUILTY .

James Boyce was recommended to mercy by the Jury and Prosecutor, having protected him from personal injury. – (Vide Ninth Day’s proceedings.)

Houghton’s sentence was commuted: he was sentenced to be transported for twenty one years on 9th January 1827 (aged 18) He was sent to Van Diemens Land.

James Boyce was executed on 29th November 1826, aged 25.

The Context ?

The collective expropriation described 1826 was year of poverty in this part of the East End: in Spitalfields, for instance, the silkweavers (working in the area’s major area of employment) had recently suffered the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, which to some extent guaranteed their wage levels and defended against excessive exploitation by their masters… The trade was lunged into depression as a result and declined rapidly thereafter. What impact did this have on local poverty, and what impact might it have had on the emergence of the mass social crime on September 1826?

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