Today in London radical herstory, 1611: thief, performer, libertine, fence Moll Cutpurse arrested, for cross-dressing

“Though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering sooth sayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan ; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.”
(‘Mary Frith, otherwise Moll Cutpurse, The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I’)

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl: thief, adventurer, fence, stage performer, also possibly highwaywoman…

The facts of Moll or Mary’s life are extremely confusing, with many exaggerations and myths attached to her name. Sensationalised biographies and stage plays written both during her life and after her death helped to create and perpetuate many of these myths; to distort the reality of an already interesting life.

Mary Frith was born around 1584-85 to a shoemaker and a housewife, possibly in or around Aldersgate Street. She was commonly said to have, as a young girl, rejected what were then seen as a women’s dress, role and place: all accounts of her life emphasise how she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking a pipe, drinking and swearing.

A popular pamphlet claiming to recount her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” (The Complete Newgate Calendar)

But the swirl of myths that grew up around Mary’s life partly evolved to enable male commentators to pigeonhole her in one or more boxes; pretty much all with the aim of fitting her back into the gender stereotypes that were expected – whether moral and conforming to social mores, or immoral and transgressing them. Not only were published accounts of her life written by men, but those men ‘adapted’ the facts to fit their prejudices, and to follow the stereotyped patterns criminals were supposed to conform to in fictional biography. In Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse’s case this amounted attempting to represent her cross-dressing as indicating she was a “sexual aberration, a prodigy, a monster”, anything from a transvestite usurping male power, as a “hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” On top of this, writers tried to jemmy her into other clichéd narratives of the era – the royalist rebel fighting puritan Parliament, or the righteous thief defending the poor against the rich.

“the mythmaking process of transmuting the historical figure of Mary Frith into the mythic Moll Cutpurse… the main strategy the author(s) pursued was to integrate scanty historical records into the preexisting parameters of criminal biography as they had been evolved for male criminals and, if need be, to transcend or invert the pattern…  As a result of this transmutation… the historical figure, who already in her lifetime had gone through a mythologising process, was reduced to a depersonalised entity.”

Debate about the sexual and gender identity of Mary Frith has also been popular in recent decades. What did her cross-dressing indicate? Gender rebellion or role reversal? transgressive sexuality?

The traditional picture of Moll has mainly been drawn on her fictional representations as the Roaring Girl in such plays written about her while she lives, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, 1610 (the text of which is now lost) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, as well as anonymously published biographies, notably ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry disposed Persons…’ and
‘The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, commonly called Mall Cutpurse, living near Fleet-Conduit; even from her Cradle to her Winding-Sheet.’

In her teenage years Mary Frith became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street:

“I had but very little choice, so I listed my self of another Colony or Plantation (but who neither sow nor reap) of the Divers or File-clerks. A cunning Nation being a kind of Land Pirates, trading altogether in other men’s Bottoms, for no other Merchandises than Bullion and ready Coin, and keep most of the great Fairs and Marts of the world. They are very expert Mathematicians, but excellently good at Dialing; as also they are rare Figure Flingers, and most dexterous at the Tactics; they had been long incorporated, and had their Governors and Assistants as other Worshipful Companies; and had a good stock for the maintenance of their Trade.”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

Her career as a purse snatcher began for certain in her teens; in 1600, she, Jane Hill, and Jane Styles, all three ‘spinsters dwelling in the City of London’, were indicted by the Justices of Middlesex for having, on 26 August 1600, snatched a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2s and 11d in cash, from an unknown man at Clerkenwell. However, it is suggested that the trial jury found her not guilty of this offence.

“The petty crime that led to the arrest of the fifteen-year-old Mary Frith reveals that in her formative years as a delinquent she was plying her craft with two female partners. She was obviously working in a small female gang to reduce the risk of detection. Partnership with two women is likely to have been less combative than a partnership with men as regards dividing the loot into equal shares…”

Potential pickpockets tended to drift into delinquency at an early age. Thus all the members of a gang of nineteen “cutpurses” whom Simon Forman, in 1598, “had in Examination abought” the theft of his “purse” were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest, Jeames Harborte, was fifteen, that is, Mary’s age, Roger Goth was sixteen, and the oldest, Jhon Tucke and Robarte Frenche, were twenty years old. There were academies specialising in introducing boys into the art of stealing. Such a “schole howse” for pickpockets was denounced to Lord Burghley in 1585. It had been “sett upp” by one Wotton, gentleman and former merchant at Smart’s Quay near Billingsgate, “to learne younge boyes to cutt purses.”

On 18 March 1602, cordwainer Thomas Dobson and the silktwister William Simons, both of the parish of St. Giles outside Cripplegate, gave evidence to Middlesex magistrates, that “Marya FFrithe” should appear at the next session of gaol delivery on suspicion of having taken “a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles.”

In 1608, Mary seems to have turned accuser: on 13 May that year, “Maria Feith de Southworke,” spinster, and John Clementes, servant to Edward Carrell, of Hastings, Sussex, (both men being soldiers), accused Edward Welles and Gilbert Dadson of felony.

Facsimile engraving from a 17th century original  of Moll

1609 On 8 September 1609, “Maria ffrythe,” living in the parish of St Olave, Southwark, “Spinster,” was alleged to have burgled the house of Alice Bayly in St Olave by night and stole 7 [pounds sterling] 7s in money, “twoe angells of gold,” “one twentie shillinge peece of gold,” “twoe half crownes of gold,” a gold ring rated at 6s, and “twoe cristall stones sett in seluer” valued at 20d.

Again, it seems Mary was found not guilty (in March 1610). This does not necessarily mean that she did not break into the house: she may have come to an arrangement with Alice Bayly, who was present at the hearing, to return part of the stolen goods. Such deals with victims were common, because recovered stolen goods, in the event of a conviction, would be confiscated by the crown.

‘Moll’ was recorded as having been burned on her hand four times, a common punishment for thieves.

Cross-dressing in male attire and a high-profile ‘debauched’ lifestyle, however, got her into as mch trouble as thieving, but may have helped her gain a kind of profile that enabled her to escape petty thievery and set up independently in business, as a fence.

How early she took to cross-dressing is unknown – the assertions in the sensationalist biographies and theatrical portrayals, that she dressed as a boy from an early age, may or may not be accurate. There is a tradition that relatives embarrassed either by her criminal activities or her unorthodox social behaviour tried to ship her off to the early colonies in New England: She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses ; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.”

“Among the rest Tobacco was grown to be the great Mode, and much in use, and a sect of Swaggerers there were which from thence were denominated the Puffers and high Huffers; I was mightily taken with this vanity, because of its affected singularity; and no Woman before me ever smoked any, though I had a great many to follow my example…”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

‘Moll’ was notorious for frequenting the tobacco shops and smoking: almost as much as transvestism, pipe-smoking became crucial to her image in her youth. Her stage portrait on the 1611 title page of The Roaring Girl shows her smoking a pipe.

Smoking was not only the latest fashion, but also had become associated in popular culture with music, and lecherousness. It “became a stage convention about 1599 to poke fun at the gallants who affected smoking tobacco and playing the ‘bass viol da gamba’ to ensnare women. The foppish Fastidius Brisk in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) plays on the viol while smoking and courting Saviolina.(35) Gregory Gudgeon, the city lecher in Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love (1602), keeps “a viol da gambo and good tobacco.” “

Mary Frith was not the first female smoker in England: by 1589 “men & women were indulging in the new custom of smoking earthernware or silver pipes. By 1615 smoking was “commonly used by most men & many women.” But Mary was unusual and pioneering for a woman, in hanging out in tobacco shops, generally the exclusive haunts of men.  This may be the aspect of her smoking that caused civic and ecclesiastical authorities outrage: a lower-class woman frequenting the tobacco shops suggested to them an infringement of both gender boundaries and of class privileges.
“The authorities considered smoking as becoming the upper classes but as unbecoming to the lower orders. King James in his proclamation issued on 17 October 1604 levied a heavy custom on the weed and distinguished between “the better sort” of people who “have and will use the same with Moderation to preserve their Health,” and “a number of riotous and disordered Persons of mean and base Condition, who, contrary to the use which Persons of good Calling and Quality make thereof, do spend most of their time in that idle vanity.”

Another of Moll’s alleged feats (as claimed in her later ‘Confession’) was her ride between the London boroughs of Charing Cross and Shoreditch on the famous performing horse Marocco while wearing male attire, in order to win a wager from the horse’s owner, William Banks. She carried with her a banner and a trumpet to give her ride a dramatic air and related how she caused a riot in the streets after she was recognised, some of the crowd clamouring for her to be pulled from the horse and others cheering her on.

Perhaps Mary Frith’s most notable aspect was her wearing of clothes marked out for men.

Her notoriety as a cross-dresser, dating from some point between 1602 and 1610, had already led to her becoming a public figure, early in her life.

So much so that her name and her cross-dressing entered literature, while she was still in her 20s. Two works were written about her in 1610-11. First the 1610 drama or poem, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, the text of which is now lost. Another play (that has survived) came a year later by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl. Both works dwelt on her scandalous behaviour, especially that of dressing in men’s attire. Both portrayed her as gender-nonconforming to an extent, such as her assertion in The Roaring Girl that she will never marry.

Not only was she portrayed on stage, she herself performed – at least a few times of stage, and possibly in the street.

The Epilogue of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, famously promises the Fortune Theatre’s audience,
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

And a few days later in April 1611, ‘Moll’ did indeed make her stage debut at the Fortune playhouse “in mans apparell & in her bootes & with a sword by her syde.” She later told the Bishop of London that “there vppon the stage in publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell,” she “playd vppon her lute & sange a songe” and made “some other immodest & lascivious speaches,” for about half an hour, the average length of an afterpiece.

Merely appearing on the stage itself was transgression – women were barred officially from performing in plays (Never forgetting however, that cross-dressing for men was a staple of the theatre – boys played female parts, since women were generally barred from the stage). If she did also perform in the street, she may well have been breaking the strict licensing rules around performance – unlicensed playing in taverns and streets went against the 1606 regulations issued by the company of musicians in the interest of public order. Offenders were fined 3s. 4d. for each infringement to the regulations.

Gustave Ungerer suggests that Mary Frith created a public persona as a cross-dressing performer, inventing her own professional signature, “a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income”, to get ahead in the cut-throat entertainment business of Southwark and the City of London. Possibly with a scheming eye towards rising from the lowest rungs of the social ladder – from cutpurse, to performer, through to businesswoman.

For obvious reasons, ‘Moll Cutpurse’s’ dressing ‘as a man’ opens up questions around her sexuality and attitudes towards sex and gender; however, women’s transvestism of the time could also be turned towards crime, as much as a “quest of her sexuality”. There was a notable transvestite scene in the capital, which had appeared in the 1570s and was to reach its peak in the 1620s.

Women wearing men’s garb seems to have been increasingly notable in that period: this caused a stir among the socially conservative, who fretted that this was an ‘affront to nature’ as well as being irreligious and a danger to the norms of society. In the years after ‘Moll’s’ famous stage debut, the controversy reached a height, and led to the publication Hic Mulier, a pamphlet attacking cross-dressing women.

For since the days of Adam women were never so Masculine: Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense, for without redress they were, are, and will
be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.” (Hic Mulier, 1620)

The author of Hic Mulier slams women dressing as men and appeals to their menfolk to intervene and correct them! Also, hilariously, identifying God as the first fashion designer: Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coats — not one coat, but a coat for the man and a coat for the woman, coats of several fashions, several forms, and for several uses — the man’s coat fit for his labor, the woman’s fit for her modesty. And will you lose the model left by this great Workmaster of Heaven?”

The implication in the text is that this ‘fashion’ extended to various classes of society: part of the problem as usual was that what was stylish, if a bit risqué and exciting among the upper classes couldn’t be allowed to spread to the lower orders, as this might make it subversive and threaten stability.

Interestingly, a riposte to Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, published in 1620, partially refuted the charges: the characters Hic Mulier (manly Woman) and Haec Vir (Womanly Man) debate feminity and masculinity, with Hic Mulier here accusing her opposite of being effeminate and blaming masculine women on ‘soft’ men, but veering a bit into proto-feminist self-determination as well… It’s a fascinating mix, part dig at the male courtiers around alleged bi- or homosexual king James, part assertion of female autonomy, part complaint about metrosexual guys nicking yer earrings & eyeliner … Whether as a moral or to evade the censor, the two agree to go back to gender-appropriate clobber at the end.

What is partly being attacked in Hic Mulier appears to be women dressing in a sexually dominating way, or in clothes which emphasise overt sexual desire and autonomy. This was associated with whores, but also feared and hated by men who held sexual autonomy, desire, action, to be a male prerogative, to be denounced and pushed down when it came to women.

King James – generally keen to spread misogyny whenever he could – also intervened in the debate in 1620, commanding the clergy to teach, “against the insolencie of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed dublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.”

There was a relationship between transvestism and crime. Quite apart from any rebellion against rules and social codes, transvestism was also used to commit and disguise theft.

Were her street performances, her appearances in male garb, her posing in tobacco shops, at least partly a smokescreen to distract an audience, while accomplices robbed them?

According to London diarist John Chamberlain, Mary “used to go in mans apparell,” and thereby “challenged the fetid of” the town fops. Male performers and fops used to strut the streets displaying their fine clobber, helpfully providing a target for pickpockets.

In Moll’s examination by the Bishop of London in January 1612, she acknowledges that her new career as a public figure dressed up in male attire was designed as a commercial joint venture between herself and a gang of footpads. Thus, she “confessed” to having “vsually associated her selfe with Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses, blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour.” The examination also confirms that while mounting her street and floor shows she was deftly practising her light-fingered art: she “confesseth” to the Consistory of London that “she is commonly termed Ma[ll] Cutpurse of her cutting of purses.”

Moll “voluntarily confessed that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses, Tavernes, Tobacco shops and also play howses there to see plaies & pryses.” Needless to say that these haunts, the theatres included, were an ideal hunting ground for a criminally minded pack of thieves waiting for Mary Frith’s beck and call. What better “pryses,” that is, presses, crowds, to relieve of their purses than guests in taverns, befuddled by drink and dazzled by Moll playing on her lute and singing a bawdy song and most likely performing a jig, or guests in a tobacco shop mesmerised by Moll smoking a pipe. pickpockets thrived under the screen cast by the music of popular entertainers.

But her Cross-dressing may also have become a performance in itself: challenging the gallants and fops on their own turf, making a name for herself… as well as asserting her own control over her image, a partial refutation of the rumour, myth and dismissal in the male-strom.

“…She let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind. She addressed the audience of the Fortune Theatre, some 2,340 spectators, telling them unashamedly and disarmingly “that she thought that many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should finde that she is a woman.” This declaration was classified by the ecclesiastical judges as “immodest & lascivious speaches” that she “also vsed at that time.” There was, however, nothing lascivious about the reaffirmation of her womanhood. Her disclosure may also have been meant as a rejection of Middleton and Dekker’s fictional representation of her as a hermaphroditic ideal.”

However, Moll’s appearance at the Fortune was with the consent of these two authors, after the scripted play about her life was performed, suggesting all parties were to an extent co-operating for the purposes of making money, with a healthy dose of publicity thrown in to enhance everyone’s rep. On Moll’s part this may have contained some ambivalence, or not. Was she eying a more permanent move from street cockiness & performance for criminal purposes, into the theatrical life (marginally less illegal and marginal, though only just, at the time) ?

Gustave Ungerer suggests that crucially her performance demonstrated how she “appealed to the lower classes, the groundlings of the Fortune Theatre, and also drew the middle-class audiences, the gallants she used to challenge in their own field.” She had honed her art in the streets, taverns and tobacco shops, absorbing the subversive and irreverent oral tavern culture, and developing a mashup of bawdy, bantering comic give n take standup and burlesquing musical interlude. In her twenties, probably at the peak of her creative ability, ripe for a sideways move onto the boards, already having an image readymade (the male attire).

“In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer. A graphic demonstration of the costume change is afforded by the unauthorised woodcut of the original edition of The Roaring Girl. It shows the image of a woman dressed up in male clothes, brandishing a sword, smoking a pipe, but not playing the lute. The caption, printed lengthwise on the left-hand margin, reads: “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing.” The wording sealed the demystification of Mary Frith’s sexual and gender ambiguity, signaling her desire to legitimate her profession and to earn her livelihood as a cross-dressed entertainer.”

However, if this was Mary’s aim, it was to be stymied by the City authorities.

A woman in male dress (in breach of the sumptuary laws) entertaining an audience in a public theatre, was provocation enough; her history of dress violations, outdoor pranks, and unlicensed entertainments must have also been noted. However, another not unimportant factor was the crowds any repeat of the show had the potential to draw in: uncontrollable throngs with the chance of disorder, not to mention the gangs of cutpurses (whether in deliberate league with Mary or not!)

“an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel…”

Mary Frith was arrested in April 1611, shortly after the Fortune show, and committed to the Bridewell, the not-quite-prison/proto-workhouse, an institution dedicated to containing and attempting reform of Londoners seen by the authorities as living immoral or troublesome or unruly lives. This included prostitutes, the destitute, poor orphans, those who outraged social conformity and people living on the margins. The Bridewell had started life as a royal palace, become disused and been pressed into service first as a kind of hostel for relief of the urban poor. This rapidly evolved into a correctional facility; the kind of moral improvement by force developed here laid the groundwork for four centuries of the workhouse and poor laws.

Released after a short stay, Moll’s card was now clearly marked. She was arrested again for being dressed indecently, on 25 December 1611, and accused of being involved in prostitution. She was picked up “in Powles Church,” obviously St. Paul’s Walk, near the cathedral, “with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diuers persons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood.” The constable who apprehended her sent her back to Bridewell, where she spent Christmas and the next few weeks locked up,

She was then interrogated by the Bishop of London on 27 January 1612. The Bishop of London reprimanded her for her habits – for the wanton pleasure of smoking and for making music in public – both activities seen to be inventions of the devil, made to inflame the passions of the addicts and of the listeners and to entice them to fall into debauchery.

In her interrogation Mary did confess to being still “associated … with cut purses” and to frequenting the “lewd company” of “blasphemous drunkardes & others of bad note & most dissolute behaviour.”

While ‘Moll’ in her theatre performance had asserted that her crossing of gender boundaries was NOT transgressive, disruptive, immoral or reprehensible, and thus not punishable, this didn’t wash with the guardians of public morality. The Bishop accused her of being a prostitute, since a cross-dressed woman was implying the assuming of the sexually active role of man, which according to the contemporary moral prism suggested a whore. While women entered prostitution and employed cross-dressing for social, economic, and security reasons, there is no evidence available to prove that Mary Frith was a cross-dressed prostitute.

In reply to the bishop pressing her “to declare whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not drawne also other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her selfe lyke a bawde”, Mary “absolutly denied that she was chargeable with eyther of these imputacions.”

The bishop, unable to pin the charge of prostitution, nonetheless, “thought fit to remand her to Bridewell … vntill he might further examine the truth of the misdemeanors inforced against her without laying as yet any further censure vppon her.”

Like all Bridewell inmates, Mary would have undergone the regular punitive regime of reform consisting of corporal punishment and hard work, a process that used to last two or three months, especially if inmates showed no tendency to be ‘reformed’. Inmates were dressed in blue garments and ordered to beat hemp and flax; and regularly beaten themselves. In compliance with the rules of the governors, she had to account to them, in their weekly routine sessions, for her misbehaviour and immorality.

Other cross-dressing women had already been subject to this process: Joanna Goodman, who in 1569 was whipped for dressing as a male servant, and Mary Wakeley, who in 1601 was detained for her misconduct as a transvestite…

Katherine Cuffe suffered the same fate, in February 1599, for cross-dressing as a boy and “for her wicked lyfe and great offence” committed within the boundaries of the Inner Temple. She confessed to the court which met in Bridewell on 13 February 1599 that Ambrose Jasper, the cook of the Inner Temple, had asked her “to come in boyes apparrell” to his room “for that he would not haue her come in her owne apparrell least that she should be espyed.” In compliance with her lover’s cunning strategem, she turned up in male disguise, flouting the rules of an all-male academic institution. She “laye” with Jasper “allnight” and he “had th’vse and carnall knowledge of her bodye a little before Christmas last.”

Depictions, Moralism, Myth

As with many figures, both real and imagined, Moll Cutpurse’s life and image was co-opted to reinforce prejudices or sell tickets/pamphlets, sometimes both. In Moll’s case this process began in her own youth with the staging of The Roaring Girl and other literary representations, but as with many another historical figure layers of myth and moralising were alter laid on top, until the ‘real’ Mary was buried under legend. It was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries for more or less accurate hack biographies/fake autobiographies to be rushed out on the occasion of a celebrity death (with execution literature a speciality); often ‘facts’, legends or anecdotes from one life would be pasted into another for sensationalist appeal. Much as woodcuts made for one purpose would be re-titled and used for another.

Moll’s various depictions are early examples; how much of the ups and downs of her life are true to life is uncertain. An added layer of mystification is added, as she was clearly at least partly party to the myth-making about herself; when others were out to profit by inventing her life, she might as well do it herself, and slyly profit from the jumble of moralising, titillation, and projection.

Do clothes make the Man?

There is a strong link between ‘Moll’s notorious cross-dressing early career and her later rise to businesswoman: clothing. From offending against the ‘sumptuary laws’ regulating appropriate attire for her sex and class, she moved into a trade where clothing was itself a popular commodity, and stolen cloth and apparel was often altered to be unrecognisable when sold on (if it couldn’t be profitably returned to its former owner). It’s worth reading Natasha Korda’s The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage” here, where the links between both costume and its creation/repair, and the fencing and secondhand trade in clothing and the theatre, are pointed out. Korda emphasises how workers in the theatre also doubled as clothing-dealers – notably around the Fortune Theatre, where Moll made her appearance – showing individuals moving between the two,  as economic necessity dictated. But stage performance and the performance of trading, dealing, fronting up a gang, are also linked: Mary Frith created Moll as a character, in many ways, although others wrote some of the scripts, she cannily played the role when she needed to. And if the fame it brought was double-edged, she was able to turn it to her advantage to continue to make a good living.

The 1611 ‘Roaring Girl’ play also can be read to be expressing concerns about clothing (among other things), and how much clothing makes the person, more specifically, does male clothing makes a man a man, and make Moll a man for wearing it? This is expressed throughout the play in jokes and comments, and, as Marjorie Garber observes, the multi-layered sex/gender costuming (two women, played by young boys, dressing as men, one later revealing herself as a woman, the other (Moll Frith) asserting her continued femaleness though in male dress). Obviously also theatre didn’t just involve ‘dressing-up’, wearing a costume, but the idea that disguising by changing clothing actually altered Moll’s ‘case’ is definitely thrown up. Pre-saging some current 21st century debates about the nature of gender… However, how much the real ‘Moll’ bought into any of this is speculation.

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611, Nathan Field’s play Amends for Ladies was performed, very much a riposte to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears as a subversive, transgressive personality, parading the sins of thieving and lust, But clearly introduced only as condemnation. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and so Moll is put in the pillory as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

In Mary Frith’s case the Bridewell treatment failed to change her ways:
‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood: or that Parson who being enjoined to wear the Surplice contrary to his will’

On 9 February 1612 Mary was required to do a penance for her “evil living”, standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross (the scene of her transgression) during the Sunday morning sermon. A letter from John Chamberland, a keen observer of town and court life, to Dudley Carlton, noted that “last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants),” had done penance in public; Chamberlain noted she was later suspected of having been “maudelin druncke.” “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarters of sack”.

Ungerer suggests the severity of her treatment in the Bridewell may have influenced her to give up the public performance aspect of her life, as it was attracting too much repressive attention, and turned to ‘brokerage’ as an alternative career… By the time of her marriage she was already fencing goods on her own account.

According to the (admittedly dubiously accurate) biographies of ‘Moll’, doing penance in the pillory didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for cross-dressing: “this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed”. If anything she or her mates may have turned the pillory appearance to advantage, as allegedly many in the attending crowd had their clothes slashed (or got pockets picked?): “Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight ; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.

A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers, who by such an hazardous seizure have as thems”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

By 1614 (possibly), and by the 1620s certainly, Mary Frith was, according to her own account, working as a fence and a pimp.  It appears from a Star Chamber bill of 1621 that by 1621 Mary Markham, alias Mary Frith, alias Mary Thrift, alias Mal/Moll Cutpurse, was running a licensed fencing business or lost property office in the city of London; probably around Fleet Street. The Bill of 1621 locates Moll’s brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. She was still living in this area at her death nearly 40 years later.

Elsewhere she is said to have rented a shop in Shoe Lane (the southern end of the notorious Saffron Hill rookery), which ran down to meet St Bride Street, slightly north of Fleet Street.

“she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods ; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon com position, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.”

Her old connections among street-thieves and cutpurses would have served her well in the ‘brokerage’ business – doubling as a fence and also a recoverer of stolen goods on behalf of the owners – for a fee. This kind of industry was to be perfected by figures like Jonathan Wilde a century later: combining effectively running gangs of thieves and selling stolen goods, (but dobbing them in to the authorities if it was profitable) and returning goods to the robbed for a price.

Fencing stolen goods was a not uncommon way, in those times, for independent women to make a living. Largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work regulated tightly by the male-only urban Guilds – run by men and dominated by the powerful masters in various trades – early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector. The famously litigious Guild structures were generally keen to prosecute women who imposed on their male only rules (as well as non-Guild men who tried to set up in regulated businesses, and the Guilds’ own journeymen who attempted to combine collectively to fight for better conditions and pay). In this sense, as Natasha Korda points out, women’s work in the era Mary lived in should probably be seen as a spectrum from legal to illegal – criminal ways of making a living were hardly less heavily punished in many cases than legal methods when a woman took them up.

Selling of secondhand and stolen goods – a huge business, with the distinction between the two at most times loose at best – operated on this spectrum on the edge of legality; much of the merchandise in question often being clothes, fabric, household items. Women were often movers and shakers in this trade, as well as its offshoot –  quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods, and thence to emergent ‘thief-taking’.

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (allegedly auto-biographical, though this may be utterly untrue) describes her operation:

“In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . .”

The fight to stay alive being what it was, many combined several trades, from necessity, so for instance alehouse owners might move into buying and selling goods, already having premises; broadening your options was generally useful.

The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing merged and morphed: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as “thief-takers.” ‘Brokers’ with knowledge of criminal networks could return stolen property to its owners, others altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold “the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers,” as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen’s Attorney General complained in 1601.

My case is altered

As Natasha Korda points out, the caption of the woodcut used to illustrate Middleton & Dekker’s Roaring Girl, “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing”, contains sexual innuendo – ‘case’ was commonly used as slang for female genitalia. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll’s anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims “Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?”

Mary’s true motives are hard to read and impossible to pin down at this distance. What if any gender bending was actually involved here? The temptation to put 21st century labels on her should probably be resisted (though Ellen Galford’s 1984 novel ‘Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’ turns her life into an enjoyable lesbian romp)

It’s not really a reliable clue, since the ‘auto’ bit of the autobiographical The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith might well not be gospel, but in it ‘Moll’ makes pains to separate herself from at least one other ‘cross-dresser’:
“There was also a fellow a cotemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both Sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counted for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.”

Aniseed-water Robin seems to have been a well-known seller of aniseed-water who was indeed said to be hermaphroditic, and appears in various verses and accounts, in some of which s/he was claimed to have impregnated him/herself…!

If this is genuinely Mary or really represents her views/acts, there could be all sorts of reasons for her distinguishing herself from ‘Robin’ –The dislike of a cunning operator for competition in the cross dressed local celeb stakes? A transvestite for self-promotional gain fearing a more genuine intersex outsider? Or was it “here comes Malls Husband.” she objected to? – still refusing to countenance even the mocking suggestion of marriage?
Her contempt for Robin could of course be an insertion from a dubious biographer with his own dodgy agenda… This does echo the arguments in the ‘Haec Vir’ pamphlet somewhat…

Stephen Orgel suggests that the Mary shown in the surviving sources was essentially conservative, with “middle class aspirations”, or at least seeking a socially & economically stabile position, if through ‘edgy’ means; “a wit, a trickster, an outlaw, though on the whole not dangerous”. The contemporary sources do tend to emphasise her fundamental support for royalty, law and society, while provoking and at the boundaries of what was acceptable in her own interest, or at least learning early from her run-ins with law and order to cunningly operate in the hinterlands…

Although she was portrayed as a ‘sexual aberration’, and despite the theatrical assertions that she ‘would never marry’, in fact in March 1614, she DID marry – to one Lewknor Markham, an ‘esquire of Nottingham’. However, this may well have been a marriage of convenience, giving Moll useful legal cover in the case of actions against her for fencing stolen property. Moll’s criminal and then notorious theatrical past had laid on her a reputation as anything from monster, to sexual aberrant, to hermaphrodite; marriage conveyed status, respectability, cultural normalcy. She also used the marriage and her old and new names cunningly to outwit legal pursuit over the dubious origin of the goods she sold:

“Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband. As feme sole, she could pose both as a spinster, as Mary Frith, and as a married woman, as Mary Markham, who with respect to property and business was as independent of her husband as if she were unmarried. As feme covert, however, she could not contract and was liable to lose her right for independent action with regard to property and real estate as well as her right to sue and be sued on her own behalf. Thus, in 1624 when Richard Pooke, hatmaker, sued “Mary Frith alias Markham of London, Spinster,” for some unpaid beaver hats, the attorney warned Pooke not to sue her as feme sole under the name of Mary Frith, for she had already defeated other complainants by claiming that she was feme covert, married “to one Markham.” She did, indeed, resort to this legal double game in defending herself against Pooke’s complaint, arguing “that she is Maryed to the same Markham and soe being a feme Covert, she cannot be ympleaded as feme Sole”

Mary probably entered her marriage on condition that she had the right to run a business on her own account, and the couple certainly had not lived together for several years prior to her 1624 court appearance. Either her view on marriage had evolved from the time of Middleton and Dekker’s play, or she always took a flexible approach to matrimony, with her own interests in mind, and the social (and legal!) advantages to the forefront of her thoughts… From pickpocket she had risen socially, carefully building herself a position of intermediary between thief and victim, between law and crime – a fertile and profitable hinterland (as Jonathan Wilde was to later prove).

Fertile, profitable, but still unstable. A fence sat always on the fence, between abetting the underworld and acting for the lawful. When prosecutions were largely private, litigation against a receiver of stolen goods was often on the cards. In 1621, Mary was indited by Richard Dell and his wife Margaret, after apparently naming them as having robbed Henry Killigrew, gentleman, relived of “certen peeces of gold and some seales and other thinges” by a prostitute he was dallying with, down Blackhorse Alley. Killgrew had been advised to seek Mary’s hep with recovering his valuables, and she had fingered the Dells, confirmed by Killigrew identifying Margaret Dell as his sometime night-time companion.  Margaret Dell was committed to the Compter prison.

Richard Dell labelled Mary Markham as “a notorious infamous person, and such a one as was well knowne & acquainted with all theeves & cutpurses.” Mary retorted that she had a royal commission to examine thieves, and threatened that if the Dells “gaue her any ill wordes or language, she … might and did giue them some reply in some tart or angry manner agayne.”

Such murky dealings cemented Mary Frith’s reputation as a somewhat dubious broker, which lasted until her death in 1659. Merlinus Anonymus, a mock almanac by the royalist Samuel Sheppard, published in 1653, has the following calendar entry for 11 March: “Mrs. Frith tax’d for conivance and acquitted by a Jury of pick pockets’.

In Merry Mad Queries for the People’s Information (1659), a copy of which was acquired by the publisher George Thomason on 13 June 1659, a week after Mary Frith had signed her will, one query reads: “Whether Mrs. Mary Frith commonly called by some Mall Cut-purse, having formerly done so good service at the Bear Garden, and many other things for the good of the Nation, being now aged and having no children of her own body lawfully begotten, as ever I heard of, might not do a pious Act to appoint one to succeed her to help the people to their purses again when she is gone?”

And in Sir John Berkenhead’s Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici, Nundinis Paulinis (una cum Templo) prostant venales … Done into English for the Assembly of Divines (1651/52) Berkenhead couples William Lilly, the astrologer of the Parliament, and Mary Frith, the retriever of stolen goods, listing a spoof joint book venture of Lilly and Frith; “Pancirolla Medela. A way to find out things lost and Stoln; by the said William Lilly. With a Claris to his book, or the Art of his Art. By Mistris Mary Frith.” Berkenhead was seemingly poking fun at both Lilly’s dubious divinations and on the impotence of Mary Frith to beget children, though dressed as a man.

Being recouered of their former sences

In the early 1640s Mary Frith was declared insane and hospitalised in Bethlehem Hospital. The administration, the running of the asylum, and the vicious and inhuman ‘treatment’, (generally beating and punishing the inmates), lay in the hands of the governors of Bridewell, subsidised by the City parishes. How had Moll Cutpurse ended up there? Sectioned after some arrest and committal to the Bridewell? Pretending madness in order to avoid the political turmoils and survive the economic disruption of the civil war?

She is recorded as being released after being cured of insanity: the Bridewell governors meeting on Friday, 21 June 1644, “thought fitt & ordered … that Gilbert Stopford, Katherine Killingham alias Killigrew, Anne Parrett, Mary Frith, Margery Houghton, Robert Crockett and Mary Thornton shal bee delivered & discharged out of the Hospital of Bethlem, London, being recouered of their former sences & may bee kept & provided for in any other place as well as in the hospitall of Bethlem. And that they bee every of them respectively sent to the severall Parishes from whence they came.”

One of the most famuous tales recounted of Moll Cutpurse, is that in her 60s she robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.” From where she is said to have escaped, or bribed her way out…

Is this true though? It’s a great story, which we’d love to believe just because it so outrageous; but doubt has been cast on it. It runs somewhat against the patterns of her life, and of petty crime generally, for a London-bred thief and fence to ‘go out on the roads’. The publisher George Horton, who put out the 1662 account, The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, had a specifically anti-parliamentary agenda, being a dedicated royalist with a penchant for ensuring an anti-republican slant was overlaid on works he sponsored. Cocking a snook at parliamentary general Fairfax was not the only apparent royalist attitude this work attributes to Mary – whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess.

She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, possibly around the site of the present no 133 Fleet; dying there aged around 78 on 26 July 1659 of ‘dropsy’ (oedema, or fluid retention).

She was buried in nearby St Bride’s Church, in an unmarked grave.

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Some good reading on Moll/Mary:

Gustave Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.”

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Mary Frith, Otherwise Moll Cutpurse in The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I

Natasha Korda,  The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage”

See chapter 6 in Linda Woodbridge, Woman and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womanhood, 1540-1620

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Ellen Galford,  Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’  (historical novel)

Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

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?

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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An entry in the
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