Today in London gay history, 1727: pilloried for ‘sodomy’, Charles Hitchin’s friends defend him against physical attack.

London’s gay subculture is very likely as old as the city itself, but the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels that evidence can be found are identifiable towards the middle of the seventeenth century. While the famous ‘mollyhouses’ may have begun to develop towards the end of the seventeenth century, almost 100 years earlier, theatres were singled out as haunts of ‘sodomites’.

Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (c.1605) denounced the theatres as the haunts of sodomites. Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia said that the plays were frequented by sodomites, who went to sup with their “ingles” or young male prostitutes after the play. John Florio’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary defines Catamíto as “one hired to sin against nature, an ingle, a ganymede” Stubbs in his notorious Anatomie of Abuses claimed that after the performances in the theatres, “Every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse”.

By the 1660s homosexuality had apparently become commonplace in the capital. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary in 1663 that “Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy”.

The growth of a gay subculture was something that caused alarm and outrage among the respectable, and together with prostitution, church avoidance, and swearing, was considered a major immoral scourge that had to be stamped out. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (meaning Morals) was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690, with the a primary aim of suppressing of bawdy houses (brothels) and profanity, but also dedicated to seeking out gay men, discovering where they met each other, socialised and had sex, and prosecuting them and those who ran pubs or clubs to allow them space. The Society gave birth to a network of moral guardians, with four stewards in each ward of the city of London, two for each parish, and a committee, whose business it was to gather the names and addresses of offenders against morality, and to keep minutes of their misdeeds. By 1699 there were nine such societies, and by 1701 there were nearly twenty in London, plus others in the provinces, all corresponding with one another and gathering information and arranging for prosecutions.

Ironically, Charles Hitchin (or Hitchen), the Under City Marshall, formerly a cabinet maker in St Paul’s Churchyard, was a member of the Society. Hitchin, however, was concealing a secret:

“On 29 March 1727, Hitchin met Richard Williamson at the Savoy gate and asked him to have a drink. They went to the Royal Oak in the Strand “where, after we had two Pints of Beer”, according to Williamson, Hitchin “began to make use of some sodomitical indecencies”. Apparently Williamson was not particularly offended, for although he had to leave to carry out some business elsewhere, he left his hat as a pledge to return, and indeed did so. They then went to the Rummer Tavern where, while imbibing two pints of wine, Hitchin “hugg’d me, and kiss’d me, and put his Hand ––”. Then on to the Talbot Inn, and another pint of wine. The Chamberlain made a bed ready for them, and brought two nightcaps. In bed, Hitchin “–– and –– and ––” (our court recorder is strangely reticent, but we get the gist of it).

Hitchin was well known at this inn; according to Christopher French, a servant there, Hitchin came frequently with soldiers and “other scandalous Fellows” and was often seen with them in his room. The day after this incident, Williamson had misgivings, and confessed all to his relative Joseph Cockcroft; together they went to the inn and spied through the keyhole upon Hitchin in bed with one of his menfriends. Cockcroft says “I took him by the Collar, and told him I had some Business with him. He laid his Hand upon his Sword, Sir, says I, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip ye thro’ the Gills”. Hitchin submitted, and in April was acquitted of sodomy but convicted of the attempt, and sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months’ imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand.

When Hitchin was brought to the pillory on Tuesday, 2 May, his many “Friends and Brethren” had wisely barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. But such precautions proved futile, for the throng nevertheless broke down these barriers, and blood was spilled in the ensuing battle between them and the attending peace officers. This was the first act of gay resistance in modern times, predating the Stonewall Riot which began the gay liberation movement by almost two hundred and fifty years. For half an hour, according to a newspaper report, a steady “battery of artillery” was aimed at Hitchin by “the Drury Lane Ladies”, the rocks breaking windows when they missed the object of their hatred. One might expect other “sexual minorities” to sympathise with the mollies, but the current of anti-homosexual prejudice flowed deeply through all social groupings, and some of the most virulent molly-haters were the female prostitutes. They always turned out in force when a molly was pilloried, vocally and physically expressing their indignation at the mollies depriving these “more honest whores” of their rightful custom. As seems to be the way of the world, one outcast group tries to salvage some status at the expense of another outcast group, not recognising their common oppressor. Hitchin, thoroughly pelted with filth, his nightgown and breeches literally torn away from his body by the force of the missiles, was finally let down, fainting from exhaustion. Little wonder that he never recovered from this gruelling ordeal, and he died shortly after his release from prison six months later. He died in extreme poverty, and his wife petitioned the courts for relief.

Hitchin’s “friends and brethren” were probably a mixture of mollies and semi-professional criminals, for Hitchin was a prominent “thief-taker”, and his biography provides our surest clues about the overlapping of the molly subculture with the criminal underworld. That notorious criminal Jonathan Wild – who was virtually the director of a crime syndicate which thrived upon robbing people and then returning their goods for a reward, or smuggling them to Holland – began his career as an assistant to Hitchin. “These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of reforming the manners of the dissolute part of the public, paraded the streets from Temple-bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons: but such as compliment these public performers with private douceurs were allowed to practice every species of wickedness with impunity”. Hitchin’s membership of the Society for Reformation of Manners, and access to its network of information, would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld, but it is nevertheless ironic that he pretended to be an active supporter of the very Society which was responsible for the purge of the molly houses which indirectly led to his downfall.

Hitchin was born about 1675; in 1703 he married Elizabeth, daugter of John Wells of King’s Waldon, Hertfordshire, and may have had one or more children by her. They lived on the north side of St Paul’s Churchyard, where he practised his trade as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth’s father died in 1711, and Hitchin persuaded her to sell her inheritance to enable him to buy the office of Under City-Marshall in January 1712 for £700. This valuable post enabled him to regulate some 2,000 thieves, to blackmail them and others, to receive stolen goods and extract enormous sums of money from their owners for returning them.”

Hitchin’s prosecution came in the context of a major attack on the gay meeting places of the city, especially the mollyhouses. The most well-known of them, Mother Clap’s, had been raided in February 1726, with the arrests of 40 men; Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright had been hanged in May of that year for sodomy.

There’s much more on London’s gay subcultures, trials, writings at Rictor Norton’s excellent site, Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England.


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: ranter Jacob Bothumley has his tongue bored through, for blasphemy, 1650.

The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The Ranters pushed all these beliefs to, and sometimes even a little beyond, their furthest logical conclusions, which, when acted upon, soon brought them into conflict with law and authority. The conviction that God existed in, and only in, material objects and men led them at once to a pantheistic mysticism and a crudely plebeian materialism, often incongruously combined in the same person. Their rejection of scripture literalism led sometimes to an entirely symbolic interpretation of the Bible and at others to a blunt and contemptuous rejection. Their belief that the moral law no longer had authority for the people of a new age enjoying the liberty of the sons of God led to a conviction that for them no act was sinful, a conviction that some hastened to put into practice.

The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things.

But man alone could be conscious of his Godhead and this gave to all a new and equal dignity. The poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”.  It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth.

The ideas of the Ranters were not new. They may be traced across Europe and across the centuries from the time, to go back no further, of Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope – a few salient points only may be noted. A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster. Through various channels they began to reach England, especially the artisans of London and East Anglia. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards was denouncing those who declared,
That by Christs death, all the sins of all men in the world, Turks, Pagans, as well as Christians committed against the moral Law and the first covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting gospel; and thatthere is a salvation that shall be revealed in the last time which was not known to the Apostles themselves.

But it was among the Ranters above all that such beliefs and others related to them are found in the fullest and most uncompromising forms. What made them different in kind from their medieval predecessors was the fact that they were the heirs of a successful revolution which they still hoped to see carried to a victorious end. This is why Laurence Clarkson wrote on the title-page of A Single Eye that it was printed “in the Year that the Powers of Heaven and Earth Was, Is and Shall be, Shaken, yea Damned, till they be no more for Ever” and Abiezer Coppe that his Fiery Flying Roll was a “word from the Lord to, all the Great Ones of the Earth” printed “in the beginning of that notable day when the secrets of all hearts are laid open”. Many Ranters and their hearers had been in the forefront of the revolution and their sense of participation gave their message a force and universal applicability previously absent.

The central Ranter doctrine, from which all else logically flows, concerns the nature of God and man and their relationship. John Holland, whose book, The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit, though hostile, contains perhaps the clearest and most objective account of Ranter doctrine, writes:
They maintain that God is essentially in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel. . . . They say there is no other God but what is in them, and also in the whole Creation, and that men ought to pray and seek to no other God but what was in them.
The titles they give God are these: They call him The Being, the Fulnesse, the Great Motion, Reason, the Immensity.

But the groups and individuals labelled ranters were quickly and heavily repressed by Cromwell’s more orthodox, if puritan regime.

As an example: On Monday, 11 March 1650 Jacob Bothumley, a Leicester shoemaker who had risen to the rank of Quartermaster in the parliamentary army, was tried by a court martial at Whitehall upon several articles of blasphemy contained in his book The Light and Dark sides of God (printed for the pro-Leveller printer William Larner at the Black-more in Bishopsgate-street, 1650).

Bothumley was reported to have taken part in possibly heretical services in Leicester earlier in the deacde, along with his family: At one Bury’s house 2 ministers Mr. Higginson and Mr. Burdin stood by while Bottomley the shoemaker of Leicester prayed.” Bury may be the same person as Jeremiah Burroughs’ who was a noted puritan preacher, an opponent of the civl war presbyterian parliament; Bothumley’s family were said to have been ostracised for hosting Burroughs’ preaching in their house. He was also in trouble for causing a disturbance in All Saints Church. Like many civil war radicals, he served in the Army, which is where he wrote his book. Bothumley is generally lumped in the doctrines of the group called ‘ranters’ by their detractors of the time, and he was treated by the authorities as many other ‘ranters’ were – his books condemned and burned, and he physically punished.

The town authorities of Leicester were sufficiently alarmed by The Dark and Light Sides of God to send it to London for advice, since it seemed to them to be “of a very dangerous consequence and lets open a very wide dore to Atheisme and profanes”.

If there was a central Ranter doctrine, it concerned the nature of God and man and their relationship. As Bothumley wrote:
I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures.

Bothumley’s book hints at a spiritual struggle, a process which features in many ranter literature of the time; though he describes it in in much less detail than Salmon or Coppe:

I was continually suffering the torment of Hell, and tossed up and down, being condemned of my self … And this is that I found til God appeared spiritually, and shewed me that he was all glory and happiness himself and that flesh was nothing … God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the

Sons of God, whereas I was before in bondage to sin, law, an accusing Conscience which is Hell.

As a result of Leicester alerting the government, Bothumley was tried in London, and condemned to have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron and his sword broken over his head, to be cashiered from the army and to have his book burned before his face in the Palace Yard, Westminster and at the Exchange, London. Sentence was executed on Thursday, 14 March 1650. Copies of his book were also sent to Leicester and Hertford – where he had probably preached – to be burned. This attempt by military authorities to prevent Bothumley from spreading his opinions through the spoken and written word was partially successful, but he continued as an active Ranter in Leicester, to which he returned after his Army service, and Quaker George Fox met him at nearby Swannington in 1655:

“And the next day Jacob Bottomley came from Leicester, a great Ranter, but the Lord’s power stopped him and came over them all….
And we sent to the Ranters to come forth and try their God, and there came abundance who were rude, as aforesaid, and sung and whistled and danced, but the Lord’s power so confounded them that many of them came to be convinced.”

By about 1660, however, he appears to have become sufficiently respectable to be appointed library keeper and sergeant-at-mace in Leicester. He did dispute with Quakers at some point, but his only other publication apart from The Light and Dark Sides of God, his only other publication was A brief Historical Relation of the most Material Passages and Persecutions of the Church of Christ (printed for William Redmayne at the Crown upon Addle Hill, 1676). Dedicated to the Mayor and Aldermen of Leicester, this ‘little Treatise’ compiled from the first, second and third books of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments was intended to show the sufferings of those in former ages ‘whom God hath called out and made eminent, in the witnessing of his truth’.

Read The Dark and Light Sides of God

More on the ideas and fate of the ranters can be read here


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London penal history: escaped convicts fight constables, Saffron Hill, 1783.

For centuries, from the early 1600s to the 1860s, England transported hundreds of thousands of convicts, political prisoners as well as prisoners of war from Scotland and Ireland to its overseas colonies in the Americas, and later to Australia.

“Initially based on the royal prerogative of mercy, and later under English Law, transportation was an alternative sentence imposed for a felony; it was typically imposed for offences for which death was deemed too severe. By 1670, as new felonies were defined, the option of being sentenced to transportation was allowed. Forgery of a document, for example, was a capital crime until the 1820s, when the penalty was reduced to transportation.

Depending on the crime, the sentence was imposed for life or for a set period of years. If imposed for a period of years, the offender was permitted to return home after serving out his time, but had to make his own way back. Many offenders thus stayed in the colony as free persons, and might obtain employment as jailers or other servants of the penal colony.

Transportation became a business: merchants chose from among the prisoners on the basis of the demand for labour and their likely profits. They obtained a contract from the sheriffs, and after the voyage to the colonies they sold the convicts as indentured servants. The payment they received also covered the jail fees, the fees for granting the pardon, the clerk’s fees, and everything necessary to authorise the transportation.” (Wikipedia)

These arrangements for transportation continued into the 18th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe: a large, and increasing, number of offences were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging) – many were minor crimes. As there were limited choices of sentencing available to judges for convicted criminals in England, conviction for relatively minor thefts, for example, could end in the gallows. Reaction against this led not only to juries acquitting clearly guilty crims, or deliberately undervaluing stolen goods to reduce the sentence – but also to many offenders being pardoned, as it was considered unreasonable to execute them. All these were clearly unacceptable options and undermined the strict rule of the law.

Transportation allowed an alternative punishment, (although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself – thus being presented as an act of the King’s mercy). Convicts who represented a menace to the community were excluded from it, and this in itself was thought to help discourage crime for fear of being transported.

In the eighteenth century, transportation became one of the major dynamics of London life, a chasm that awaited the poor, as much as the gallows, a threat held over the lower orders. The huge distance to the penal colonies often meant convicts would never see home and loved ones again… Even if their sentence was not for life, returning home at your own expense was impossible for most. Many died en route to the colonies, or were worked to death or worn out when they arrived.

Transportation did not go uncontested, however. Opportunities for escape began in the London prisons, where convicts were often held pending transfer to a transport ship; and even once on the ship, sentenced convicts could spend months or even years locked on a prison hulk in the Thames waiting for a transport ship (of which there were relatively few). As inmates on the hulks were forced to do hard labour (often on the docks) and live in cramped, disease/pest infested and damp, sinking tubs, and faced the prospect of a long voyage during which many died, incentives to leg it were high.

At any point in this often protracted process, the chance might arrive to make a solo or collective break for it. Not to mention the chances to leg it en route (few but not unknown), or once you arrived in the penal colonies – although the likelihood of staying free and even getting back to Britain was slim (it was not, however, unheard of).

By the early 1780s, with the option of penal transportation to the Americas severely restricted by the US war of independence, and transportation to Australia still in the planning stage, London’s prisons were overflowing, and the floating prison hulks crowded to the point of explosion.

In 1783 a number of convicts escaped from a transport ship off the coast of Rye, on the Sussex/Kent border.

“A set of villains to the number of 49, rose upon the crew of the Swift transport, whom they confined, and took the two long boats to get on shore; 47 went in the boats, and two in the confusion were drowned. Before they quitted the ship, they behaved with the utmost violence to those who would not join in their plan; and not only robbed the captain and crew, but their fellow convicts, from whom they took all their little money. The captain and crew are since released, and it was thought proper to make for Portsmouth and wait for orders, as the captain did not know how to act…” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1783).

Several of the escapees fled to London, and took refuge in the Saffron Hill rookery.

“Three of the constables belonging to the office in Bow Street having been sent in search of the transports who lately escaped on the coast of Sussex, to a house in Onslow Street, Saffron Hill, where five of them were assembled, a terrible engagement took place. Two of the villains ran up stairs, an escaped at a back window. The three that were left armed themselves, one with a poker, another with a clasp-knife, and the word was with one voice, ‘Cut away, we shall be hanged if taken, and we will die on the spot rather than submit.” On which, a bloody contest commenced. One of the constables had the fore-part of his head laid open, and received three deep wounds from the right eye down to the cheek; another of the constables received a terrible wound a little above the temple from a large poker, after which he closed with the villain, and got him down; the third constable had better success with the villain he encountered, for, by striking him on the right hand with his cutlass, he dropped his weapon, and then they all said they would submit.”

The next day, the captured escapees were questioned:

“The above prisoners, named Middleton, Godby and Bird, were examined before William Blackborrow, Esq. when Lee and Townsend, servants to Mr Akerman, deposed that they, with many other prisoners, were on the 14th of last month taken from Newgate and put on board of a vessel, in order for transportation to America. Being asked by the magistrate, by what means they had procured their liberty, they acknowledged that they had run the ship aground, having confined the captain and the crew, and got on shore in two longboats; that no cruelty was exercised, not any property stolen, except that some of the convicts obliged part of the sailors to change cloaths with them; that they concealed themselves in hedges and ditches till night, and then too different routs; that they (the prisoners), and a few others, collected half a crown among themselves, which they gave to a countryman, for conducting them to Rye, whence they walked to London, where they had arrived but a very short time when they were apprehended and committed to Newgate.”

Saffron Hill was an ideal place for the escapees to head for. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution, but also for its well-developed tradition of self-defence against incursions from the law, and its intricate escape routes, built into the houses and garrets, designed to allow fugitives to get away if pursued.

The Saffron Hill area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront a police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell; “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.”

The river Fleet, by this era an open drain, was also utilised; flowing through the middle of the rookery (and being a rough boundary between the Clerkenwell proper and Saffron Hill sections), “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.” In the area’s most notorious low lodging house, the Red Lion Inn in West St, “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” Famous fugitives such as Jack Sheppard and Jerry Abershaw were hidden here.

In the same house, there were other means of escape (the stairs apparently resembling those in an M. C. Escher print!); “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

On September 19th, 29 of the Swift were condemned to death for the mutiny/mass escape. Transcripts of the trials can be found here (scroll down). Three days later some were executed, and others ‘pardoned’, ie sentenced to transportation:

“Monday 22. At half after eight o’clock the following malafactors were carried from Newgate in two carts to Tyburn, where they were executed, for being the ringleaders in running the Swift transport on shore… viz Charles Thomas, William Matthews, Thomas Millington, David Hart, Abraham Hyam, and Christopher Trusty; the last three were Jews, who were attended by a priest of their own religion. These audacious villains being executed by way of example, the others (eighteen in number) were ordered to be transported for life, one only excepted, nam’d Murphy, whose term was only seven years.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1873).


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

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Today in London’s penal history: John Daye has his ears nailed to Cheapside pillory for seditious sermons against the queen, 1553.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries nailing of the ear to a pillory (or cutting off the ears completely) was a favourite punishment for those convicted of speaking ‘seditious words’ – generally meaning attacks on the monarch, authorities, social order, religion of the time… The intention was that the person pilloried couldn’t move or they would tear a rent in the ear or rip it off entirely. Lovely.

On occasions nailing of the ear to the pillory was followed by ‘cropping’ of the ear, cutting most of the ear off. Although rare this was done to some religious and political activists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On some occasions people who suffered nailing of ears or cropping died from loss of blood or infections.

In August 1553, the catholic queen Mary had just come to the throne, amidst religious strife between catholics and protestants (mingled with a bit of dynastic tussling). The atmosphere in London was tense: Mary had some popular support, which had allowed to ascend the throne in the face of a rival (protestant) claimant, Jane Grey; however, protestantism had made inroads in recent years, especially in London.

On 21st August 1553, only weeks after Mary’s succession, John Daye, parson of St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate Street, together with another man, a surgeon, had their ears nailed to the pillory in Cheapside, though after three hours ‘the nayles were pulled out with a payre of pinsers and they were had to prison again.”

Daye’s crime had been ‘seditious words speaking of the Queen’s highnes’. It seems he was a radical protestant who opposed Mary’s reign, but little more information exists. The surgeon who suffered with him had uttered seditious words against a preacher at St Paul’s Cross a week before, when a riot had erupted after the preacher had defended the recently released Bishop Bonner. Bonner was highly unpopular amongst protestants, (and would become more so over the next few years as he spearheaded persecution of ‘heretics’, ie anyone not adhering to orthodox catholicism).

Two days later Daye had his ear nailed to the pillory again. He seems to have been deprived of his post at St Ethelburga’s in the following year.

Mind you, it could have been tougher – just 15 years before Thomas Barrie stood a whole day in the pillory with his ear nailed to the wood, after being convicted of spreading a rumour that king Henry VIII had died.


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

Today in publishing history: Radical Journo William Cobbett tried for objecting to flogging in militia, 1810

In 1809 a contingent of the militia in Ely, Cambridgeshire, mutinied, refusing to obey orders – either because they had not been paid ‘marching guineas’ or because some of their pay had been stopped to pay for their knapsacks. These militia were volunteers, part of an ‘amateur army’ raised to fight the long war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

It was a short and very small mutiny; hardly a threat to the war effort. The reaction was severe however. The Ely militia was surrounded by a squadron of cavalry from the German Legion, a summary court martial was held, and five alleged ringleaders were sentenced to be flogged – five hundred lashes each. This sentence was later reduced.

Flogging was regarded by the army (and the navy) as the only means of maintaining discipline in the ranks. It was a vicious and often fatal process, sometimes carried out with a cat-o-nine-tails, a knotted rope, which would rip the back (or other parts) of the whipped man open repeatedly. The army was far from made up of professional soldiers – large sections of the armed forces had been forcibly recruited, or at best joined up as the only way to get a meal. Offences that could get you flogged were numerous.

Journalist William Cobbett, among the most prominent radials of his day, protested against the sentence, in the pages of his widely read journal, the Political Register, sarcastically addressing the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the architect of the military policy of the time:

“well done Lord Castlereagh! This is just what it was thought your plan would produce… Five hundred lashes each! Aye that is right! Flog them; flog them; flog them! They deserve it and a great deal more. They deserve a flogging at every meal time. “Lash them daily, lash them duly.”…
I do not know what sort of a place ELY is; but I should like to know how the inhabitants looked one another in the face, while this scene was exhibiting in their town…
This will, one would hope, teach the loyal a little caution in speaking of the means, which Napoleon employs (or rather which they say he employs) in order to get together and discipline his conscripts. There is scarcely any one of these persons, who has not, at various times, cited the hand-cuffings, and other means of force as a proof, a complete proof, that the people of France hate Napoleon and his government, assist with reluctance in his wars, and would fain see another revolution… I hope that the loyal will, hereafter, be more cautious in drawing such conclusions, now that they see, that our ‘gallant defenders’ not only require physical restraint, but even a little blood drawing from their backs, and that, too, with the aid and assistance of German troops.”

It was hardly masterful rhetoric, but it got him prosecuted for sedition. Apparently it was the last two paragraphs – about the residents of Ely, and sarkily comparing the British army policy with its enemy – that were the offending passages. The Attorney General, Sir Vicary Gibbs (they really don’t name ‘em like they used to!) filed a charge of sedition against Cobbett. The case came to trial in June 1810.

Attorney General Gibbs listed the parties injured by Cobbett’s libel – the German Legion, he had held up to contempt; by upbraiding the inhabitants of Ely for not revisiting the flogging, he was ‘fomenting disorder’; he was inciting soldiers to resist military discipline, and was mocking patriotism by poking fun at those loyal to the government. Taken together, Cobbett’s article was designed to promote a subversion of society…

On June 15th, Cobbett, his printer, Hansard, and publishers Budd and Bagshaw (held legally in those times to be jointly responsible in libel or sedition cases), were found guilty of seditious libel, after Cobbett had attempted to defend himself and made a bollocks of it (the other 3 pleaded guilty). His defence was contradictory, confused and in parts self-incriminatory.

Two week later, Cobbett was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison (his co-accused received sentences of two or three months; it was Cobbett the government rally wanted out of the way).

Cobbett was a contradictory character, maybe best described as a Tory Radical. An ex-soldier himself, he had begun his Political Register as a supporter of the government and of the war effort, but had gradually reversed his position, and had become a bitter opponent of the war and the government that was staking everything on it. His politics were a mix of reaction and progress – much of the impulse for his hatred of the government was the rapid changes that were overturning longheld certainties in English society. The early years of the 19th century saw white-hot social and economic transformation: the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, enclosure and agricultural reform were altering the rural life which Cobbett idealised.

Cobbett had become the most widely read radical journalist of his day, but he was not brave, and tried to make a deal with the government, secretly promising to give up publishing and retire to his farm if he could be spare prison… It didn’t work, and he was sent to Newgate. But this was a relatively easy punishment, as he was able to continue publishing, and was visited regularly by friends and allies. If you had money, you could live relatively well in Newgate by regular payments to he turnkeys – Cobbett however, did get into heavy debt as he struggled to keep his farm, keep publishing, pay off his trial debts. Nevertheless, his imprisonment turned him into a national figure, a hero to radicals and reformers.


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

Today in London’s rebel history: a crowd pelts the hangman, Southwark, 1769

In the ‘High Street, Southwark’, on Monday 6 March 1769. “a tradesman, convicted of wilful and corrupt perjury, stood in and upon the Pillory, and was severely treated by the populace. They also pelted Turlis, the executioner, with stones and brick-bats, which cut him in the Head and Face in a terrible manner.”

Thomas Turlis was the official hangman for nearly 20 years till his death in April 1771. Like all the chief executioners he was a hated figure: many of the poor knew they were a minor crime away from the gallows. More than once Turlis faced the anger of a London crowd. In this case, the crowd were already carrying out popular justice on a local merchant and took the opportunity to have a go at Turlis as a bonus…

Turlis once had a fist-fight with his assistant over who got to keep the hanging rope (after he hanged Lord Ferrers for murder) – presumably he could have made a packet selling bits of it off as souvenirs.


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