Today in London strike history, 1739: Chips on their shoulders, Deptford shipwrights strike

“On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips…”

Deptford Dockyard was an important naval dockyard and base at Deptford on the River Thames, in what is now the London Borough of Lewisham, operated by the Royal Navy from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It built and maintained warships for 350 years. Over the centuries, as Britain’s Imperial expansion, based heavily on its naval seapower, demanded more and more ships, and the royal dockyards like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and Portsmouth were often busy, and grew larger and larger, employing more and more workers.

Until the 19th century, ships were largely built of wood, and shipwrights, skilled carpenters, were the backbone of Dockyard organisation. During peacetime in the 18th century it was estimated that 14 shipwrights were needed for every 1,000 tons of shipping in the Navy. There were 2581 shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards in 1804, excluding apprentices. Another 5,100 shipwrights were employed in Private English Dockyards.

“The tools of a working shipwright were those of the carpenter. In general, however, they were much heavier, as he worked in oak rather than soft wood and with large timbers. He used an adze, a long handled tool much like a gardeners hoe. The transverse axe-like blade was used for trimming timber. To fasten timbers and planks, wood treenails were used. These were made from “clear” oak and could be up to 36” long and 2” in diameter. The auger was used to bore holes into which the treenails were driven, and the shipwright had the choice of some ten sizes ranging from 2” down to ½”. A mall, basically a large hammer with a flat face and a long conical taper on the other was used for driving the treenails. Shipwrights also used two-man cross-cut saws as well as a single handsaw. Good sawing saved much labour with the adze. Other tools used were heavy axes and hatchets for hewing, and hacksaws and cold chisels to cut bolts to length. Iron nails of all sorts and sizes as well as spikes were available. Nails were used in particular to fasten the deck planks.”

Corruption and thieving were rife in the dockyards and remained so for many centuries; both in the administration, contracts etc (ie corruption of the well-to-do who ran the yards), and at a day to day level by the workers. Wages for ordinary shipwrights were low, though food and lodging allowances were often provided. For master shipwrights there were many supplements to the basic shilling a day.

Wages could fluctuate wildly, depending on many factors; and the men didn’t always get paid on time. Early in the reign of king Charles I, England was at war with Spain and France and, as the wars dragged on and the government coffers ran dry, the dockyards fell into chaos, and workers were not paid. The unpaid men stripped the ships and storehouses of anything they could cat or sell or burn for fuel. Accusations and rumour flew about, fed by envy and backbiting. The dominance of the Pett family, who were in control in all the Kentish yards, made one workman witness scared to speak out “for fear of being undone by the kindred”. In 1634 Phineas Pett was accused of inefficiency and dishonesty. The charges were dismissed at a hearing before the King and Prince of Wales but it was said that Pett was on his knees throughout the long trial. That same year the storekeeper at Deptford was charged with selling off the stores: he had not been paid for more than 14 years!

Over the centuries, the custom grew up of allowing the workmen to take home broken or useless pieces of wood, too small or irregular for shipbuilding, in theory to burn for fuel. This ‘perquisite’ of the job (or ‘perk’) was a part of their wage – in effect a way of paying the workers less in hard cash. These bits of wood were known as chips, giving an indication of the kind of size that was meant – originally pretty small, anything that could be carried over one arm. Over time, cheekiness, expectations and general resentment towards the bosses caused the offcuts being taken home to grow in size. By the 18th century the chips could be up to six feet in length, and the shipwrights had become brazen about their perks – often they would carry planks home on their shoulders, which was explicitly forbidden and considered theft. (Carrying ‘chips’ on your shoulder became a symbol of open defiance of the authorities… supposedly the origin of the term ‘chip on your shoulder’).

Canny shipwrights were having it away with ever larger pieces of wood, much of it far from broken… “Chips” were of obvious value for burning, when coal was scarce and expensive in Southern England. They were also used for building purposes: some old houses in dockyard towns can be observed to have an unusual, even suspicious, number of short boards used in their construction..!

By 1634 workmen were cutting up timber to make chips, carrying great bundles of them out three times a day, and even building huts to store their plunder. The right to chips was inevitably pushed to its limits, particularly when wages were low. Shipwrights took to sawing down full planks into ‘chips’ just below the maximum length – all when they were supposed to be working; and of nicking the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right was said to be cost the Royal Dockyards as much as £93,000 per year in 1726.

A lighter (a small transport vessel) was seized at Deptford containing 9,000 stolen wooden nails each about 18 inches long. The strong notion of customary rights was clearly expressed when the offender maintained that these were a lawful perk.

Not surprisingly, the shipyard bosses tried to restrict the taking of chips. They tried to replace the customary right with cash – paying the men an extra penny a day instead of chips. However the wrights simply took the penny and kept on carrying off the chips!
A regulation of 1753 specified that no more “chips” could be taken than could be carried under one arm. This provoked a strike at Chatham. Later, through precedent, this rule was resolved to specify “a load carried on one shoulder”.

The Navy Board was always ready to pay informers who would grass up thieving workers, but when two Deptford labourers asked for 150 guineas in return for information, they were told £25 was enough.

It wasn’t just wood that was being lifted. The list of abuses at the docks catalogued in 1729 included drawing lots for sail canvas which could be cut up and made into breeches. An informer said he had known 300 yards of canvas at a time to be taken by the master sail-maker. Bundles of “chips” could also conveniently be used to disguise the nicking of other materials; as could suspiciously baggy clothing. The Navy Board issued the following hilarious dress code regarding pilfering: “You are to suffer no person to pass out of the dock gates with great coats, large trousers , or any other dress that can conceal stores of any kind. No person is to be suffered to work in Great Coats at any time over any account. No trousers are to be used by the labourers employed in the Storehouse and if any persist in such a custom he will be discharged the yard.”

Women bringing meals into the yard for the workers in baskets, or allowed in to shipyards to collect chips for burning (much as rejected coal was gathered in mining areas) were often caught removing valuable items along with the “Chips” or more substantial bits of wood… This led to riots in Portsmouth in 1771 when the women were banned from entering the yard, having previously been allowed to collect offcuts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

In a sudden search at all the dockyards that year, Deptford and Woolwich came out worst and the back doors of officers’ houses, which opened directly onto the dockyard, allowing for wholesale plundering of materials, were ordered to be bricked up.

Attempts to restrict or remove the right to take home chips provoked resistance, often in the form of strikes. In 1739, naval Dockyard workers at Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham work in protest at the navy’s attempt to reduce night and tide work, the amounts of “chips” they could take as part of their wage, & over only being paid twice a year, often months in arrears. The navy backed down.

In October 1758, Deptford shipyard workers struck again, to prevent their ‘perquisites’ being removed. In 1764, marines were employed in the yard to dilute the skilled workforce; marines were also sent in in 1768, to break another strike over the threat to the shipwrights’ freebies; the wrights fought them off, however, and the Navy Board was forced to capitulate to the strikers.

A gallows & whipping post was erected to enforce the law against theft and rebellion – they were torn to pieces by the workforce.

In 1786, the conflict again provoked a strike, which seems to have begun on the 20th of October: “On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly dispatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.” (Report from 25th October 1786)

There came a point at which the authorities decided that, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be finally brought under control. This was achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801, in the middle of a series of large-scale shipwrights’ strikes at Deptford, the perquisite was replaced by ‘chip money’ of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

NB: The struggles over ‘chips’ were far from unique to Britain – 17th century naval administrators in Venice fought to prevent local shipbuilders making off with offcuts called ‘stelle’, and similarly eighteenth century French shipwrights in Toulon jealously guarded their ‘droits de copeaux’.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s criminal history: renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver hung, 1741.

On this date in 1741, at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

Like countless others, Jenny found making a living in the metropolis through honest labour less profitable than relieving others of their possessions… Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle lists some of the achievements of her agile fingers;

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

She also engaged in scammery of the credulous:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town…

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies. But life in Virginia being miserable she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, sadly, in her last adventure she was nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.

Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years before Jenny’s time.

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Today in London rebel history: Charles Moor hanged for breaking out of workhouse and robbing rich man’s house, 1707.

“Charles More , of St. Martins in the Fields , was Indicted for Feloniously Stealing Divers Books to a Considerable Value and a Silver Seal , the Goods of Sir John Buckworth Bart. on the 1st instant. The Prosecutor Depos’d that on Friday-night last his Study was shut up and Fastned, and at 6 a Clock the next morning the Window was found broken open and the Goods mention’d taken away. Others deposed that between 4 and 5 that morning, the Prisoner took Water at Mortlock for London; and was observ’d to have a Bundle with him; the Bookseller that bought the Books, Depos’d that he bought the Books of the Prisoner, and gave him 15 s. for them. The Prisoner giving no Account how he came by them, the Jury found him Guilty of Felony. But a Record being produc’d, which prov’d that the Prisoner had before receiv’d the Benefit of his Clergy, and having been an Old Offender, and broken Prison several times, he was denyed the benefit of the late Act of Parliament.”(Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 3 September, 1707)

In the eighteenth century, when you were up to be hanged, you were supposed to repent. Be penitent. Confess your sins and the depravity of your past life, feel the heavy hand of the Lord and your impending doom, and beg for forgiveness. Humble yourself. Oh and grass up your fellow crims.

Charles Moor just wouldn’t play the game.

“I Shall not here give the Reader so full an Account of this Man as I hereafter intend, when the other Malefactor, condemn’d with him, shall be out of my Hand. But so much I will now say for the present satisfaction of the Publick, That I found him all along to be a very harden’d Sinner. His Condemnation was for having broke out of Prison, wherein he was confin’d to Work for former Crimes, and for having now robb’d the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . all which he could not deny, but he would not discover his Accomplices, nor any thing that might tend to the clearing of his Consecience, and the satisfaction of honest Men. So obstinate he was, That when both my self and other Divines shew’d him the necestity of making a free Confession, he did more and more harden himself against all Admonitions that could be given him. True it is, that in general he acknowledg’d, that he had been a very ill Liver, having broken the Laws of Cod and Man, by doing that which he ought rot to have done, and omitting to do that which he should have done. Further, he came to acknowledge, that he had been guilty of Swearing, Drunkenness, Lewdness, and the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, That he had several times wrong’d his Neighbours, and had not thought to amend his Life by former Judgments upon him; and that if he had had Grace, he might have lived very well by his Callings, which were that of a Husbandman, and of a Sailor. He told me, that he had gone several Voyages, tho but Thirty four years of Age, and understood Sea-faring Business as well as most. He likewise told me, That if he had known when he was Tryed, that he should have dyed, he would have had one or two with him for Fancy, for then. he would have made some Discovery of Persons concern’d with him, but now he was resolv’d to make none.

Thus he express’d himself, and shew;d how little sensible he was of his approaching Death, seeming rather to be given to jesting, than to entertain those serious Thoughts, which were becoming a Man under his Circumstances. I would advise others by any means not to imitate him in this wicked and desperate Temper, which for ought we know, may now have ended in his Eternal Misery.”

“Charles Moor, condemn’d both for breaking out of the Work house where he was lately confin’d, when found guilty of Felony, and for committing a Robbery since that time, viz. the first instant, in the House of Sir John Buckworth, Bart . and taking thence several Books of great Value, and a Silver Seal. He confess’d he was guilty of this Fact, as he had been before of others of the like nature. But he would not discover the Persons that were concerned therein; saying, that he would bring no Man into trouble now; but that if he had known it should have gone so hard with him at his Tryal, perhaps he would have brought in one or two to suffer with him for Fancy-sake. These were his very Words. All that was offer’d to him, both by my self and others, prov’d of little use to the perswading him to disburthen his Sin loaded Conscience, by a free and ingenuous Confession, which he ought to make, and which could be of no prejudice to any, but of general use and service to the Publick, and possibly of particular benefit and advantage to those very Persons, whose Names and Facts he was so unwilling to make known. What I could get from him in this respect, was only this; That there were some Persons lie knew, but would not name, that had formed a Design to rob a certain House in the Country, at such and such a time, which he mention’d; telling me that it might be prevented, if I did signify the same to the Person whose House it was, But as he would by no means speak more openly to this matter, nor discover them, who were to commit that Robbery; so I perceiv’d, that he was not heartily dispos’d to serve honest Men, especially when I consider’d, not only the manner, but the time of his acquainting me with this wicked Design, which was but some few hours before it should have been executed, and the Place at a pretty distance from London; so that there was hardly time enough left for me to inform the Gentleman concern’d therein, that he might duly provide against it: Nevertheless it was taken care of; and such wicked Persons, whoever they are that contriv’d the Mischief, have found, and (by the Grace of God) will always find such their ill Attempts, fruitless and dangerous to themselves

When any one would speak to this Malefactor, Charles Moor, and represent to him the necessity of his making a full and free Confession, as well for the good of his Soul, as for the good of the World, he fell into a Passion, and would be for a while after muttering and maundering so, that no Body could guess what he said, or what he meant; but that he would have nothing offer’d to him that grated upon his deluded Fancy and vicious Inclination. However, I desisted not from my Endeavours of breaking him off from his Error and Obstinacy: But his Heart was so harden’d, and so season’d in Wickedness, that no good could be wrought upon him. He confess’d indeed, That he had been a great Sinner, That he might, if he would, have lived very well, by following the Sailor’s Profession, or the Business of a Gardiner (or Nursery-man) both which he understood, and had been long employ’d in, and particularly the former; he having gone several Voyages beyond the Seas, and been in some Actions, wherein he had receiv’d some Wounds. He said, that he was not above 34 years of Age; yet had seen and done many things. When I ask’d him how he came to steal Books, as he had done, both formerly and now; he said he never stole any but twice, and the first time was a great while ago, and a great way off; but he would not tell where or when. And as to those Books, for the stealing of which he stood under this Condemnation, he said it was not in his or his Companions mind to have taken them, if they could have presently lighted on something better: Neither did they design to rob Sir John’s House, but they mistook it; their Design being then upon another. But whose House that was, or who they were that assisted him, he would not declare. Both he and Elby, I verily believ’d, encourag’d one another in their wicked Obstinacy; which was such, as that I may say, I have hardly met with the like in almost seven years that I have been in this melancholy Office. God grant I may never see such harden’d Sinners again; and that Men, whose unhappiness it is to have been engag’d in Sin, may not in imitation of this poor miserable Wretch, cast themselves away.

When he was come to Tyburn (whither they carried him in a Cart, and where I attended him) I found him still obstinate, as before, in his absolute and peremptory Denial of making any Discovery; saying, What good would it do me to hang three or four Men, and ruine their Families as mine? Here I (as I had at other times) shew’d him, that by such a Discovery (which in Law could not affect or hurt any of his Companions) he would do a great deal of good, not only to others, but chiefly to his own Soul, which was now in great danger of being sentenc’d to Hell for this his unaccountable Obstinacy. But notwithstanding all this, he persisted to the last in his wilful and tenacious humour, and would not be by any means perswaded out of it; but express’d some vain hopes of his obtaining Mercy. Whereupon I openly declared to him (for the discharge of my Duty) in the presence of the Spectators there, That if he did not clear his Conscience by making such a Confession as I had often, and now again press’d him to make; i. e. To discover his wicked Accomplices, and all things of which he could usefully inform the World; I did verily believe his Soul should be eternally lost. And therefore earnestly pray’d him to take care of this, and consider it well, and make an open Declaration of what he knew in those Matters that had been discours’d of. But instead of giving me satisfaction herein, he fell upon reflecting on the Severity of his Sentence, tho he could not deny but that it was very just, and that he had deserved the Condemnation he was under. Which was so palpable and so evident a Truth, that he was forc’d to acknowledge it; saying, That he was sensible God (in his Justice) had appointed this Death for him, for his great Sins He declared, that he dy’d in Charity with all the World; and seem’d outwardly to join with me in Prayers and singing of Psalms; and thanked me for my Pains about him. After I had recommended him to the Direction of the Divine Spirit, and pray’d that God would be pleased to soften his hard Heart, I went from him, to whom some further time was allow’d for private Devotions. When he was ready to be turn’d off, he cry’d to God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations. Lord have Mercy upon me! Lord Jesus receive my Soul! &c.

But how fruitless (alas!) are all such Prayers, which the meer Terrors of Death and Hell extort from such undone Wretches, is but too apparent. God grant, others may be wiser, and consider better (and in due time) their Latter End here, so as to make sure Provision for a happy Eternity hereafter.”
(Account of the Ordinary of Newgate Prison, 1707.)

A glass to you Charlie. Give ’em nothing. Fuck ’em all.

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s conspiratorial history: Thomas Blood tries to nick the crown jewels, 1671.

We all used to learn at school how Thomas Blood tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. But strangely, this is only the tip of the iceberg of this mysterious man’s story…

Thomas Blood (also known as Thomas Ayliffe, and Thomas Allen) was probably born around 1618, the son of an Irish blacksmith.

Not much is known about his early life. The first that is really known is that he was involved in the English Civil War on the parliamentary side, where he appears to have been involved in espionage. He was rewarded for his services with large estates in Ireland (very likely seized from rebels or pro-royalist forces during the Cromwell’s campaign of genocide and repression there), and was appointed a member of a Commission of the Peace.

However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Blood lost his lands and his position, like many another parliamentarian veteran. He began to associate with plots against the restored king:

“Upon associating a little with the malcontents, he found his notions exactly justified, and that there was a design on foot for a general insurrection, which was to be begun by surprising the castle of Dublin, and seizing the person of the Duke of Ormond, then Lord Lieutenant. Into this scheme he entered without any hesitation; and though many of the persons involved in the dangerous undertaking were much his superiors in rank, yet he was very soon at the head of the affair, presided in all their councils, was the oracle in all their projects, and generally relied on in the execution of them. But, on the very eve of its execution the whole conspiracy, which had been long suspected, was discovered, His brother-in-law, one Lackie, a minister, was, with many others, apprehended, tried, convicted, and executed; but Blood made his escape, and kept out of reach, not withstanding the Duke of Ormond and the Earl of Orrery laboured to have him secured, and a proclamation was published by the former, with the promise of an ample reward for apprehending him.”

Escaping to Holland, Blood made contact with former republicans, exiled opponents of king Charles, and remnants of the Fifth Monarchy movement. The 1660s and 1670s saw a number of plots and conspiracies, plans for uprisings or assassinations. But most of them were heavily penetrated by spies working for the English government, and Blood realised this early on. He fled to Scotland, where he again became involved in a planned rising against the king in 1666, but this was disastrously routed by soldiers, and Blood had to flee again.

Blood next surfaces in an attempt to kidnap the powerful Duke of Ormonde, an Irish aristo, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, who had already marked him down as being involved in the earlier Irish plot. Blood’s plan was to seize Ormonde from his carriage while he drove through London:

He actually put his design in execution on 6th of December, 1670, and very nearly succeeded… The terrified Duke was pulled from the coach by Blood and an accomplice and thrown onto the horse of another henchman – who rode as far as Tyburn before the cry went up that the nobleman had been kidnapped. Ormonde was dragged from his coach, bound to one of Blood’s henchmen, and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pinned a paper to Ormonde’s chest spelling out their reasons for his capture and murder. However one of his servants gave chase on horseback, and with his help Ormonde succeeded in freeing himself and escaped.

However Blood was not recognised, and “himself and his associates escaped, though closely pursued. An account of this transaction was immediately published by authority, together with a Royal Proclamation, offering a reward of one thousand pounds for apprehending any of the persons concerned.”

This brings us to the event in 1671 for which Blood is best remembered; the theft of the Crown Jewels.

“He proposed to those desperate persons who assisted him in his former attempt to seize and divide amongst them the Royal Insignia of Majesty kept in the Tower of London —- viz. the crown, globe, sceptre and dove —- and as they were blindly devoted to his service, they very readily accepted the proposal, and left it to him to contrive the means of putting it into execution. He devised a scheme of putting himself into the habit of a Doctor of Divinity, with a little band, a long false beard, a cap with ears, and all the formalities of garb belonging to that degree, except the gown, choosing rather to make use of a cloak, as most proper for his design. Thus habited, he, with a woman whom he called his wife, went to see the curiosities in the Tower; and while they were viewing the regalia the supposed Mrs Blood pretended to be taken suddenly ill, and desired Mr Edwards (the keeper of the regalia) to assist her with some refreshment. Mr Edwards not only complied with this request, but also invited her to repose herself on a bed, which she did, and after a pretended recovery took her leave, together with Blood, with many expressions of gratitude. A few days after, Blood returned and presented Mrs Edwards, the keeper’s wife, with four pairs of white gloves, in return for her kindness. This brought on an acquaintance, which being soon improved into a strict intimacy, a marriage was proposed between a son of Edwards and a supposed daughter of Colonel Blood.

 The night before the 9th of May, 1671, the doctor told the old man that he had some friends at his house who wanted to see the regalia, but that they were to go out of town early in the morning, and therefore hoped he would gratify them with the sight, though they might come a little before the usual hour. [In this enterprise Blood had engaged three accomplices, named Desborough, Kelfy and Perrot.] Accordingly two of them came, accompanied by the doctor, about eight in the morning, and the third held their horses, that waited for them at the outer gate of the Tower ready saddled. They had no other apparatus but a wallet and a wooden mallet, which there was no great difficulty to secrete.

 Edwards received them with great civility, and immediately admitted them into his office; but as it is usual for the keeper of the regalia, when he shows them, to lock himself up in a kind of grate with open bars, the old man had no sooner opened the door of this place than the doctor and his companions were in at his heels, and without giving him time to ask questions, silenced him, by knocking him down with the wooden mallet. They then instantly made flat the bows of the crown to make it more portable, seized the sceptre and dove, put them together into the wallet, and were preparing to make their escape when, unfortunately for them, the old man’s son, who had not been at home for ten years before, returned from sea at the very instant; and being told that his father was with some friends who would be very glad to see him at the Jewel Office, he hastened thither immediately, and met Blood and his companions as they were just coming out, who, instead of returning and securing him, as in good policy they should have done, hurried away with the crown and globe, but not having time to file the sceptre, they left it behind them. Old Edwards, who was not so much hurt as the villains had apprehended, by this time recovered his legs, and cried out murder, which being heard by his daughter, she ran out and gave an alarm; and Blood and Perrot, making great haste, were observed to jog each other’s elbows as they went, which gave great reason for suspecting them. Blood and his accomplices were now advanced beyond the main-guard; but the alarm being given to the warder at the drawbridge, he put himself in a posture to stop their progress. Blood discharged a pistol at the warder, who, though unhurt, fell to the ground through fear; by which they got safe to the little ward-house gate, where one Still, who had been a soldier under Oliver Cromwell, stood sentinel. But though this man saw the warder, to all appearance, shot, he made no resistance against Blood and his associates, who now got over the drawbridge and through the outer gate upon the wharf.

 At this place they were overtaken by one Captain Beckman, who had pursued them from Edwards’s house. Blood immediately discharged a pistol at Beckman’s head; but he stooping down at the instant, the shot missed him, and he seized Blood, who had the crown under his cloak. Blood struggled a long while to preserve his prize; and when it was at length wrested from him he said: “It was a gallant attempt, how unsuccessful soever; for it was for a crown!” Before Blood was taken, Perrot had been seized by another person; and young Edwards, observing a man that was bloody in the scuffle, was about to run him through the body, but was prevented by Captain Beckman.”
(Newgate Calendar)

Locked up in a cell at the Tower, Blood insisted he would speak to no-one about the attempt unless it was the king… Possibly intrigued by this bold request, Charles II did in fact interview him. After this conversation, even more bizarrely, Blood was pardoned, and his confiscated estates restored to him, together with a pension. For a while he hung around the court, apparently high in the king’s favour… This raised eyebrows among many who had come into contact with Blood (especially Ormonde, who was outraged). But had Blood told the king something that helped him escape punishment… threatened an uprising of fifth monarchists in revenge of he was executed? or was Charles just capriciously attracted to the roguish bluster of the Irishman…? It is still unclear and likely to remain so.

Blood survived a number of years, seemingly part of the court, sometimes working for powerful figures, sometimes involved in murky plots. His patron for a while was the Duke of Buckingham, who was seen as an opposition figure within the court, (it has been suggested that Buckingham may have been behind the Ormonde kidnap plot) but Blood fell out with Buckingham, and jailed on charges of libeling him in 1679. Though he managed to get bail, he died shortly after, in August 1680.

Blood clearly had little allegiance to any religion or political group unless it suited his own ends. Was he just an adventurer, but Blood could also have been in the pay of some powerful figure. Many suspected him of being a spy – but a spy for whom? A double agent? He did tend to stay with rebellious groups until they were about to be eradicated or arrested. Perhaps he was always an infiltrator working for the government? In our own time we have seen numerous undercover operatives, involved in political and campaigning groups. And there have been hundreds of government agent provocateurs in the history of radical politics, betraying or even initiating uprisings or rebellious actions so as to destroy and divide movements. Blood could have been one – or he could have been something more complex, somewhere between wide boy, infiltrator and rebel.

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

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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”.

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

Today in London rebel history: poachers proclaimed under the Black Act seek revenge, 1725

Continuing the story of poachers on Enfield Chase from July 9th

Edmonton blacksmith William ‘Vulcan’ Gates was proclaimed under the Black Act on July 20th 1725, after game-keeper Henry Best swore evidence that Gates had stolen two deer and fired on the keepers on Enfield Chase on July 9th. The Act’s terms meant a formally ‘proclaimed’ man had to surrender within forty days, and if he didn’t, was considered a felon who could be executed without trial if caught.

Poaching had become more than a way to eat better and make a bit of cash, it was a way of life for many, and had led to a state of perpetual class violence in the area of the Chase. Poachers and keepers shot at each other if they should meet; keepers were sometimes waylaid in the dark and beaten. Gates and his confederates considered Best giving evidence as provocation and were bent on revenge. On July 20th, the same day as he was ‘proclaimed’, Gates showed he had little intention to surrender himself. he and three other horsemen rode into the Chase in search of Best, threatening to shoot him. They failed to find him then, but ten days later, encountered him, and beat him up, breaking one of his legs.

Gates, Aaron Maddocks, (known as an agent for London thieftaker Jonathan Wild), Thomas James, and Enfield labourer and enthusiastic poacher, were certainly three of these men. James was hanged in Kent in early 1726 for horse-stealing. But Vulcan Gates had been picked up and sent to Newgate on another matter, under an alias. Unfortunately he let slip his secret to a prison barber, who dobbed him in for a substantial reward. As a proclaimed man who had failed to surrender, it was necessary only to prove his identity and he was then sentenced to death without a trial. Gates argued that he had never heard of the proclamation as he was out of town, and being illiterate had not read or understood any published version. He denied he had ever gone disguised or hunted armed, and nothing had been proved against him. These not unreasonable legal arguments were swept aside however. In response, Gates decided that if justice wasn’t going to play fair, he was not going to play the traditional role of willing participant in the ritual of hanging, and with other prisoners, barricaded himself in a cell and refused to come out. He was eventually persuaded out by the Sherriff of London and agreed to ride off to be hanged at Tyburn.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London rebel history: Poachers battle game­keepers, Enfield Chase, 1725.

Enfield Chase, a large tract of open land to the north of London, was for many centuries a battleground, between landowners and the inhabitants of surrounding villages. Landowners sought to enclose the Chase, fence parts off, and deprive the mainly poor residents of the parishes of Edmonton, Hadley, Enfield and South Mimms of any common rights they had – to collect fuel, graze animals, and in some cases hunt small game for food.

While enclosure could sometimes directly led to notable outbreaks of violent resistance – for instance there were anti-enclosure riots in 1589, 1603, 1649, 1659 – there was a constant low level struggle, between these moments. Landowners’ attempts to rent parts of the Chase out would be met with destruction of fences; excluding locals from fields would result in groups breaking back in to graze their horses and cows. A barrage of small regular actions took their toll on the succession of owners and tenants. Not only were the inhabitants of the four parishes mentioned above eternally petitioning and destroying enclosures, but an “abundance of loose, idle and disorderly persons who live in other parishes” were also alleged to ‘infest’ the Chase: “going in dark nights, with axes, saws, bills, carts and horses, and in going rob honest people of their sheep, lambs and poultry, and make… great strip, havock, and wast of your majesty’s best timber and underwood.” Theft of wood from enclosed land was seen as enforcing a traditional right locally, and led to numberless prosecutions, though little changed even when culprits were severely punished. Squatters built cottages on the edges of the forest, driven from other areas by enclosure and poverty; while wealthy settlers from London ‘laid waste’ to the common rights of locals.

Another factor in the war between landless and landed was poaching. Stealing deer from the Chase’s hunting grounds – reserved for the rich – was endemic. Hungry and desperate men didn’t need much to drive them to lift game. Many of the keepers hired to protect the deer were also poaching on the side. Attempts by the Chase’s Rangers – who leased the Chase in a grant from the king – over several decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to curb poaching led to poachers tooling up.

In the 1720s this war reached fever pitch. Punishment was meted out heavily to men suspected of being poachers or wood-stealers – mainly convicted on the grounds of guns or wood found in their homes, by local justices who included the Ranger himself, by then one General Pepper, an ex-army man, who had stepped up repression in an attempt to put a stop to thieving once and for all. He had the support of local militia, but locally was hated. He was shot at several times from the darkness, his servants were attacked, and he felt himself under siege. He was also regretting ever buying the lease of this troublesome space.

Those accused of poaching were a mix of locals with a grudge against Pepper, crims from London (some linked to ‘thieftaker’ Jonathan Wild) with interests in the clandestine venison trade, and hardened deer-stealers fired by danger, family tradition, some class feeling, or hunger. Enfield Chase was an area that had always been to some extent a stronghold of footpads, rebels, and highwaymen; now if became associated with the ‘Blacks’, poachers who blacked up or went disguised to slip past keepers. Disguises became necessary as the laws against poaching grew harsher and rewards were increased for grassing poachers up. A surge in organized ‘Blacking’ in a number of areas in the early 1720s led to the passing of the 1723 Black Act, which introduced several new capital offences, and was gradually embellished to become probably the most repressive statute ever in Britain.

But the poachers were clubbing together, supporting each other in their enterprises.

In 1721 among several cases brought by general Pepper, three deer-stealers were jailed for a year, then put in the pillory in Enfield, but Pepper then refused to release them, and they were pilloried again in March 1723. A riot was expected, and horse grenadiers had to guard them to prevent them being freed by angry locals. One of these men was William Gates (sometimes called Yates), an Edmonton blacksmith known as ‘Vulcan’, a poacher from his youth. His imprisonment didn’t dampen his spirit though,; he was soon back at it. On 9th July 1725, gates and another man killed two deer on the Chase, exchanging shots with some keepers. Gates and his associates were said to be constantly in the Chase, and had become “so insolent” the keepers could not appear without “hazard to their lives”.

A keeper, Henry Best, swore evidence against Gates, earning his enmity…

To be continued on July 20th

Lifted from EP Thompson, Whigs & Hunters: the origin of the Black Act

For more on enclosure and resistance on Enfield Chase, see

JM Patrick, William Covell & the Struggles at Enfield in 1659
a pamphlet republished by past tense
Available from our website

and

Paul Carter, Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s past: Derek Bentley hanged, 1953.

19-year-old Derek Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 28 January 1953 for the murder of PC Sidney Miles, despite not firing the shot. Last-minute appeals for clemency were rejected. He was granted a posthumous pardon in July 1998.

Bentley had been sentenced to death on 11 December the previous year, for ‘killing’ PC Miles during a bungled break-in at a warehouse in Croydon – although his co-defendant, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot. As Craig was still a juvenile in the eyes of the law he escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

On the night of 2 November 1952, Christopher Craig, 16, and Derek Bentley, 19, tried to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers Barlow & Parker on Tamworth Road, Croydon, England. When police turned up, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drain pipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free and was alleged by a number of police witnesses to have shouted the words “Let him have it, Chris”. Both Craig and Bentley denied that those words were ever spoken.

Craig, who was armed with a revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax’s shoulder. Nevertheless, Fairfax arrested Bentley. In his pocket Bentley had a knife and a spiked knuckle-duster, though he never used either. Craig had made the knuckle-duster himself and had recently given both weapons to Bentley.

More officers turned up, a group was sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After exhausting his ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.

The trial took place before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December 1952 and 11 December 1952. Craig was under 18, and so could not face the death penalty. But a cop had died, and the pressure was on for someone to pay… Bentley was illiterate, had learning difficulties and was easily influenced; Craig had been the instigator of the robbery.

Bentley’s defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed; however, this was only after an attempt to escape, during which a police officer had been wounded. As the trial progressed the jury had more details to consider. The prosecution was unsure how many shots were fired and by whom and a ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately: the fatal bullet was not found.

English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, though it existed in Scottish law (it was introduced to England by the Homicide Act 1957). Criminal insanity – where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong – was then the only medical defence to murder. Bentley, while suffering severe debilitation, was not insane. Under joint enterprise law, the decision to rob the factory together made Bentley guilty of the killing as well, whether or not he had made any decision to kill anyone or fired any shot himself.

Bentley was convicted on the basis of police evidence. Three officers told the court they had heard him encourage Craig to shoot by shouting “Let him have it”, though both Bentley and Craig denied this. Pressure was likely put on Bentley to confess, as leaning on the vulnerable is a fine old police tradition.

After just 75 minutes deliberation, the jury found both Bentley and Craig guilty of PC Miles’s murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a plea for mercy on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (he was released in 1963).

There were protests against Bentley’s execution: there was said to be big public support for a reprieve. A crowd of up to 300 gathered outside the Houses of Parliament the night before, chanting “Bentley must not die!” The demonstrators then marched to the Home Office and later to Downing Street. A large crowd gathered outside Wandsworth jail on the day of the hanging. Some sang hymns; others booed when a prison warder came out carrying a glass-covered board containing the execution notice. Two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.The crowd eventually dispersed in the early hours of this morning after handing in a petition at Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s home.

A deputation of some 200 MPs had petitioned the home secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, but Fyfe said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case.

Derek Bentley’s family, mostly driven by his sister Iris, campaigned for more than 40 years for a pardon. Questions about the ballistics evidence had always been raised. The bullet that killed PC Miles may not have been fired by Craig at all; it possibly even came from an armed policeman’s weapon.

Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal set aside Bentley’s conviction for murder 45 years earlier. Though Bentley had not been accused of attacking any of the police officers being shot at by Craig, for him to be convicted of murder as an accessory in a joint enterprise it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that he knew that Craig had a deadly weapon when they began the break-in. Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill ruled that Lord Goddard had not made it clear to the jury that the prosecution was required to have proved Bentley had known that Craig was armed. He further ruled that Lord Goddard had failed to raise the question of Bentley’s withdrawal from their joint enterprise. This would require the prosecution to prove the absence of any attempt by Bentley to signal to Craig that he wanted Craig to surrender his weapons to the police. Lord Bingham ruled that Bentley’s trial had been unfair, in that the judge had misdirected the jury and, in his summing-up, had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict. It is possible that Lord Goddard may have been under pressure while summing up since much of the evidence was not directly relevant to Bentley’s defence. It is important to note that Lord Bingham did not rule that Bentley was innocent, merely that there had been defects in the trial process. Had Bentley been alive in July 1998 or had been convicted of the offence in more recent years, it would have been likely that he would have faced a retrial.

Another factor in the posthumous defence was that a “confession” recorded by Bentley, which was claimed by the prosecution to be a “verbatim record of dictated monologue”, was shown by forensic linguistics methods to have been largely edited by policemen. Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then”, and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language, as evidenced in court testimony. These patterns fitted better the recorded testimony of the policemen involved.

British Justice. Makes you proud eh?

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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