When she stood trial at the Old Bailey for the theft of six pewter plates and an iron bedscrew (used to fasten bedframes together) in October 1736, Grace Powell must have seemed the embodiment of a disorderly Londoner.1 Recently discharged from St Martin’s workhouse, penniless, recently widowed, drunk and having apparently abandoned her only child, she sought temporary refuge at Samuel Pate’s ‘stand’, or low lodging house in St Giles in the Fields, where for tuppence a night, he ‘entertains Black-shoe-fellows, and sells Drams … the House … full of People, Men and Women, all lie[ing] together in the same Room’.2 The worse for wear after drinking three or four drams of Pate’s gin, Powell was caught with the iron bedscrew secreted in her petticoats, and when she attempted to escape down the back stairs to the cellar, Martha King watched as Powell’dropp’d two Plates upon the Stairs, I saw her pull two more out of her Bosom, and two more she dropped down the Vault’. Despite the clanging pewter, and artfully hidden bedscrew, Grace Powell was acquitted by a sympathetic jury clearly willing to condone at least some types of disorder. They found her not guilty, following a simple plea that she had ’no Friends but God and my self’.3 Grace was just one of the 3,805 defendants found not guilty at the Old Bailey in this eighteen-year period, bookmarked by years in which the acquittal rate was over 40 per cent.4
Online dataset: Crime Prosecutions (xlsx)
With one exceptional year, the 1730s and 1740s were characterised by relative calm and prosperity. The decade after 1729, in particular, witnessed a sustained series of good harvests driven by a unique series of mild winters and warm summers, resulting in high real wages.5 Acquittal rates at the Old Bailey rose, while prosecutions and committals to Bridewell both slid gradually downward. Marginally fewer convicts were hanged or transported. Following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739, the years between 1740 and 1748 also saw relatively good conditions. Many young men were drawn into the military, while prices and wages remained steady.
These halcyon decades were punctuated by one severe climatic event – the ‘hard winter’ of 1739–40, which recorded the lowest average temperatures for the whole century and resulted in the Thames freezing over from Christmas Eve 1739 to early March of 1740.6 Some enjoyed the Frost Fair established on the river, but most struggled to make ends meet.7 That winter and spring, workhouse numbers and wheat prices rose as the temperature fell. At St Martin’s workhouse, January alone saw 163 new admissions, up 83 per cent on the same month a year before.8
Even accounting for the winter of 1739–40, for plebeian Londoners these decades were relatively prosperous. And yet, driven by continuing elite anxieties, the period also witnessed a series of major innovations in criminal justice and poor relief policies. Concern about the increasing cost of poor relief, driven ever upwards by the cost of the new workhouses and by the growing demands of the poor (in spite of relative prosperity), together with new anxieties about gin drinking by the poor and the role of criminal ‘gangs’, resulted in attempts to reorganise local government and policing. Through the Westminster Watch Acts and activities of the associated select vestries, and through the efforts of Thomas De Veil as ‘court justice’ and the creation of the first magistrates’ court in the City, local government was reformulated.
These innovations were challenged at many levels, by ratepayers and tradesmen as well as by street sellers and members of ‘gangs’. And there were some real victories. The 1736 Gin Act was rendered almost totally ineffective by popular resistance to the activities of informers, leading in turn to the collapse of the reformation of manners societies. And in the courts, the growing use of government-sponsored lawyers for the prosecution, together with the continued use of thief-takers, led to the admission and substantive use of defence counsel at the Old Bailey, partially rebalancing the scales of justice. Select vestries were forced to defend themselves against continuing charges of corruption and brutality, as revealed in the St Martin’s roundhouse disaster, while parishes responded to the demands of the poor by largely abandoning their attempts to make a profit from their labour. The poor gradually forced parish workhouses to take on the character of general parish institutions run with the consent of the ‘workhouse family’, and they learned how to engage with the growing number of associational charities and hospitals.
With the creation of workhouses by most of the large suburban parishes in the 1720s, supplemented by traditional ‘outdoor relief’, parish support for paupers had become more diverse. In the 1740s London’s poor had an additional set of options, as the new associational charities, such as the Foundling Hospital, began to offer specialised services. Collectively, these innovations made poor relief more expensive, while allowing the poor, and to a lesser extent, the parishes, to play one source of relief against another. The ratepayers and householders who were expected to foot the bill became increasingly restive.
Who were the poor, and who was able to obtain relief? The most extensive and detailed surviving workhouse registers, those for St Martin in the Fields, record just over 10,000 workhouse admissions for the period from 1738 to 1748. Sources such as this reveal institutions dominated by women and children. At St Martin’s, 51 per cent of inmates were adult women (aged 15 to 59), with children under 15 making up a further 26 per cent. The elderly, both men and women of 60 and over, made up a further 9 per cent, with adult men between 15 and 59 constituting just under 13 per cent of the total.
It was not simply adult women, but women of a child-bearing age who formed the largest group of admissions. While the number of girls and boys in the workhouse population was roughly equal, this diverged markedly from around the age of fourteen, with girls and young women becoming increasingly dominant, while young men either found the workhouse door firmly closed to them or chose not to attempt to enter.
Analysis of other London workhouses reinforces this basic pattern. In St Luke Chelsea, on the rural fringe of the capital and affected by the large number of ‘out-pensioners’ drawn to the locality by the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, the elderly component of the workhouse population was higher, but the dominance of adult women and children remained marked.9
However, this apparently consistent story of the prominence of women and children at the relative expense of men and the elderly is only part of a more complex pattern. It almost certainly holds true for the workhouses run by the forty-nine parishes that can be identified as either having a workhouse, or contracting out the care of the parish poor, by mid-century, but it reflects only a fraction of the broader parochial provision.10 Almost no parish was able to maintain a strict ‘workhouse test’ for any extended period. Relatively quickly after establishing a workhouse, most parishes resumed providing at least some limited forms of casual and outdoor relief. Entirely typical was St Bride Fleet Street. After establishing a workhouse in the spring of 1727, the parish initially attempted to impose a strict test. But hard cases rapidly forced it to backtrack, and within a year the workhouse committee had begun to admit exceptions: ‘no person should be allow’d any money unless the head of the family be sick’.11 A few years later, in the nearby parish of St Ann Blackfriars, the workhouse committee attempted to make a virtue out of failure. In 1734 they declared that ‘no person be relieved out of the Workhouse… except on emergent occasions’ and went on to opine that relief of this sort should ‘be Sparingly Granted and only upon Terms Evidently for the Benefit of the Parish’.12 In most instances, it was hard cases that forced the parishes to relent. The head of a large household, ill and unable to work, if unsupported could bring four or five dependants onto the parish books. These poor, in need of a few pence to tide them over, would cost many times this amount if admitted to the workhouse. Compromise was almost always to ‘the Benefit of the parish’.
Online dataset: St Martins Workhouse Registers (xlsx)
Note: these figures are based on ‘admissions’ rather than individual paupers, who frequently entered the house on several occasions. The quality of the registers also varied over time, with standards of record keeping rising and falling with the character of the parish staff. The registers are relatively weak for the decade up to 1738. The figures used here have been cleaned to eliminate repeated entries.
It is also important to remember that although workhouses served over half of the metropolitan population, there remained over a hundred other parishes and liberties containing at least 250,000 people that continued to relieve the poor largely with cash doles and pensions.13 In combination with the growing role of associational charities, and with the complex landscape of hospital and independent charitable provision, the settled poor of London, in particular, could choose between a patchwork of increasingly diverse relief opportunities.
The profound and evolving difference that the establishment of workhouses made for London’s poor, and the complexity of the system as a whole, is reflected in the experience of those who continued to be relieved ‘out of doors’. One of the few large London parishes that did not establish a workhouse in the 1720s and 1730s was St Clement Danes. In a rare comprehensive census of its poor completed in 1745, the parish officers recorded the names, settlements and ages of their dependent poor, dividing them between the ‘casual poor’ (those who had a right to occasional relief as the need arose) and the ‘monthly poor’ (who received a regular income from the parish).
In total, the census provides details of 461 parish paupers, 344 of whom received a monthly pension, while the rest were in receipt of irregular or ‘casual’ doles. Of these, we know the ages of 301 individuals, from infants to the estimable and grey-haired Mary Curtis , who at ninety-four was the oldest person in the list.14 This census is not entirely comparable with workhouse registers, as St Clement’s continued to use a system of contract nursing for emergency and neo-natal care, and it is not clear whether the paupers cared for under contract in this way were included in the census, but there remains a marked disparity between paupers in receipt of ‘outdoor relief’ and listed in the census, and those admitted to the capital’s workhouses. In the St Clement Danes census, women and children continue to dominate the list, but here older women form the largest proportion of poor relief recipients, with women of sixty and over constituting 29 per cent of all paupers. The large bulge of younger women admitted to workhouses is entirely absent, and a wider population of paupers has become apparent.
Online dataset: St Clements Census of Pensioners 1745 (xlsx)
Of the 228 individuals for whom we have information about the length of time they spent on the parish books, the average period of dependence prior to 1745 is sixteen years. In other words, while workhouse populations were dominated by short-term emergency relief, the pensions and doles provided ‘out of doors’ tended to go to those who had established a regular relationship with the parish, often spanning decades and constituting a substantial financial burden on the parish. Many had been passed on appeal from other London parishes, establishing an irrefutable ‘settlement’. However, just as typical was sixty-year-old Hannah Davis , who was first admitted as a parish pensioner in 1713, thirty-two years prior to her appearance in the census, on the basis of ‘her father’s Renting a house of £18, a Yeare in Milford Lane [the] Strand’.15 For at least the next three decades, Hannah received a pension of between 6 and 10 shillings a month.16
This same pattern of long-term support, focused particularly on elderly women, can also be seen in the records of the small and wealthy parish of St Dionis Backchurch, straddling Fenchurch Street, deep in the heart of the City. St Dionis had a population of just under a thousand in the 1740s and provided regular and relatively generous relief for just a couple of dozen paupers. It attempted and failed to establish a workhouse in 1725, and again in 1730. In 1733 it subcontracted the care of a small subset of its dependent poor to John Thruckstone , who ran a workhouse at Tottenham High Cross.17 This arrangement lasted only a year and collapsed in the face of pauper demands: ‘They all Complain of the Hardship in the Winter by having no Fire, the Floor being of Loam & very cold.’ A group of the most vocal were brought to give evidence to the vestry:
That such of the Poor as are now attending at the Door of the Vestry be called in and Frances Bunting, Mary Fairbrother & the Sister of Judith Rayner appearing were severally heard relating to the Hardships complained of.18
James Dorselt, ‘a Boy’, complained he was ’not taught to read’.19 The parish transferred these paupers to a house run by the parish of St Mary Newington and continued to support a small proportion of its poor in a series of contract workhouses for the rest of the century.20
But most of St Dionis’s dependent poor continued to receive outdoor relief according to a finely tuned hierarchy of merit and circumstances. The parish was responsible for distributing a range of charitable gifts amounting to approximately £32 a year to ‘poor householders’ and the ‘deserving’ poor.21 It preserved the distinction between ‘collectioners’, relieved from funds generated from passing the plate at church on Sunday, and ‘pensioners’, relieved from the rates; and within this group, between weekly and quarterly pensioners. ‘Collectioners’ tended to be older and more established parishioners, while ‘pensioners’ were more likely to be disabled, foundlings (frequently identifiable by the use of ‘Dionis’ as their surname), or those temporarily out of work or overburdened with children.22 In addition ‘casual’ and emergency relief was also provided. The handful of people sent to the workhouse was drawn exclusively from among the ‘pensioners’.
Typical of one sort of pauper was Elizabeth Yexley , whose settlement was based on her deceased husband’s rental of a shop in the parish decades before she and her daughter were removed to St Dionis from St Giles Cripplegate after she threatened to become ‘chargeable’.23 The process of removal gave Elizabeth a secure legal right to relief, and she was supported on a casual basis over several years before finally being sent to the contract workhouse, where she was repeatedly reprimanded for her ‘Elopement from the House and her infamous behaviour’.24
Equally typical was John Clifton.25 In the 1730s Clifton was a householder in good standing and made regular contributions to the poor rates.26 He also served as a ‘Constable, Scavenger and Inquestman’ in 1734, and sat on the vestry in the early 1740s.27 However, following a period of declining fortunes during which he was regularly excused from serving in parish offices, he started to receive ‘sacrament money’ in November 1756, was subsequently included in the list of recipients for parish ‘gifts’ and began to receive extensive casual relief.28 By 1759 he was an established collectioner, receiving a total of £23 7s. 9d. in parish relief, including £5 4s. contributed by his brother but distributed by the parish.29 This included £4 in annual rent, a fortnightly allowance of 14s. and 18s. 9d. worth of coal.
All these forms of relief, both outdoor relief and in workhouses, responded to the demands of the poor. But their impact was felt most strongly on the newest, and most problematic form of relief, the workhouse. From the late 1720s, most London workhouses had evolved from institutions dedicated to putting the poor to work to care centres providing emergency and medical relief. In a large parish such as St Martin in the Fields, the workhouse served as a general homeless shelter, contained the parish morgue and housed the parish shell or stretcher. By the 1740s it also had specialised accommodation for the sick, those suffering from infectious diseases and women lying in.30
St Martin’s was actually quite late in establishing dedicated medical wards in its workhouse, but in August 1736 the workhouse committee decided to buy a two-storey house adjacent to the main building and fit it up as a series of wards for the sick and pregnant:
in the Upper Floor there be a Ward for the sick, another for the Smallpox and another for the Lying in Women, and … the House should be painted withoutside and Whitewashed within from Top to Bottom.31
Sixty new beech bedsteads were provided with new flock bolsters, coverlets and two blankets each. And eighty pairs of sheets were also purchased. In the words of Kevin Siena, developments of this sort were driven by the ‘London poor simply … turning up at the parish door, exercising… what they believed were legitimate demands for medical care’.32
This relationship is illustrated by the response to the opening of St Martin’s new lying-in facility in the late autumn of 1736. The comprehensive registers of admissions for its workhouse date from the opening of the house in 1725, and for the first few years it admitted lying-in women in emergencies and also became home to the abandoned infants of the parish.33 There is a significant gap in the records from 1731 to 1736, but when the register resumes in 1737 the impact of a new lying-in ward is evident. From 1737 the number of babies born in the house and of infants abandoned to its care increased significantly over the figures for the 1720s.
Between 1738 and 1741 the number of babies born in the house reached an average of fifty-nine per annum, or approximately 8 per cent of all parish christenings.34 During the same years an average of almost twenty-three babies a year were described in the registers as being ‘foundlings’ or having been ‘dropt’ prior to their arrival at the workhouse door. This rise in abandoned children largely reflects the influence of the Foundling Hospital, whose charter was issued in 1739 and which opened in 1741. However, it also reflects real demand. Along with the sick, the ill and the injured, pregnant women and new mothers helped transform the workhouses of London into de facto hospitals for the poor. The provision of substantial resources in response to demand reinforced that process, hurrying along what Jeremy Boulton and Leonard Schwarz have described on the basis of the evidence from St Martin in the Fields as the ‘medicalisation’ of London’s workhouse provision.35
In the nature of a dialogue, unmet demand from the poor had forced the parish to create new facilities for the ill and for lying-in women, which in turn generated a new demand for the provision of care. But having observed the health outcomes for babies and their mothers, it appears the poor decided to shift their demand elsewhere. Of the 184 babies born in the house between January 1739 and December 1741, we know the immediate fate of 182: 68 were discharged from the house alive, while 114 were buried from it.36 After 1741, the number of babies born in the house declined substantially.
There was another problem. The impact of rising demand for relief and the capital costs of moving from a system of universal outdoor relief, to one characterised by institutions supplemented by pensions and casual payments, generated conflict between the parish and the householders who were obliged to foot the bill. In two decades of relative prosperity during which real wages remained high, expenditure on poor relief nonetheless continued to grow. Workhouses were expensive. Where a new workhouse was created, this usually entailed the parish taking on substantial debt to raise the necessary capital and ensured it became wholly responsible for all the needs of those pensioners admitted to the house. A system of outdoor relief, in which most doles and pensions could be adjusted in light of the ability of the pauper to do at least some work in their own support, was replaced by one in which every need, from clean linen to the Christmas feast, was marked up to the parish account.
However, even in a parish such as St Clement Danes, which avoided the establishment of a workhouse and persevered with pensions and doles, the cost of poor relief grew substantially. In St Clement’s the population declined by 6 per cent in the first half of the eighteenth century, but the cost of relief doubled in the two decades after 1730.37 In 1731 the annual cost of relieving the poor came to £1,189, and by 1748 this had risen to £2,319.38 In part the explanation for this growth in expenditure lay in the system of settlement and removal. As examinations and certificates – all the bureaucracy of identity and legal ‘settlement’ – came to encompass an ever-growing proportion of the population, it became more difficult to question the ‘right to relief’ of the supplicant at the overseers’ door. The presence in Westminster of numerous ‘trading justices’ willing, at a moderate charge, to conduct an examination and sign a removal order inadvertently empowered the poor. At the same time, as evidenced in the new Watch Acts, tolerance for public begging was on the decline. For the poor, the alternative to casual door-to-door begging for broken food and small change – for the substance of neighbourliness – was frequently an appeal to the parish. Both the demands of the poor and the perhaps unintended consequences of new policies drove up the cost of relief. This set the scene for new disputes over the organisation of local government and the role of poorer householders in parish administration.
At the same time as the cost of poor relief was rising, many householders found themselves increasingly excluded from parish government. The simmering disputes that characterised the 1710s and 1720s, the workhouse scandals and parliamentary investigations into peculation and corruption, laid the foundations for continuing conflict. When combined with the radical re-crafting of the administrative landscape of London through the creation of ten new parishes between 1720 and 1733 (with their select vestries) and at least thirty-two new poor relief institutions, these conflicts fuelled an on-going battle for control of local government that helped to redraw the lines of social class. In effect the new workhouses separated out the poor, even those who had once been householders, forcing on them a new identity as members of the ‘workhouse family’, while select vestries, aided by ‘select justices’, grew ever more powerful.39 Squeezed between were the ‘Antient Inhabitants’ of the parish, disenfranchised by the vestry and apparently taxed without end; householders Daniel Defoe characterised as ‘the working or middling people who maintain not only those below, but those above them’.40 The workhouses became a focus of ratepayer resentment and dispute, as both a financial liability and a feared resting place in old age.
The creation of closed or select vestries can be traced back to the sixteenth century and before.41 However, the dominance of this form of government grew substantially in the 1720s and became the focus of vociferous opposition in the 1730s, in part as a result of their role in authorising the new workhouses.42 On the eastern side of the City in St Botolph Aldersgate, for instance, the establishment of a workhouse by the select vestry led to the unprecedented move to create a separate ‘general vestry’ in February 1732. Having called a meeting, this general vestry in turn mandated a thorough-going investigation into parish finances.43 The resulting sixty-page committee report led to the abolition of the select vestry and the creation of a body able to clean up parish politics. It was resolved ‘That no business whatsoever … be determined by any committee but by the General Vestry only’.44 The remarkable aspect of this dispute lies in the vitriol and class hatred the campaign exposed. While the report itself is relatively tame, the manuscript notes and annotations made by the curate of the parish, William Freeman, reflect the depth of local feeling. Freeman notes the lowly occupations of the men who called the general vestry: soap boilers, shoemakers and tobacconists jostle for position with grocers and innkeepers. But he reserved his greatest ire for those supporting the workhouse and the closed vestry. One of the parish’s long-serving churchwardens is described as, ‘of a fiery temper, very Peevish & quarrelsome and bigoted to the Jacobite Party’, whose untimely death was ascribed to ‘overheating himself with passion, & quarrelling with Mr Scarr at the vestry’.45 Freeman notes that another member of the select vestry, Samuel Smith, was publicly called a ‘pickpocket’ at a local alehouse by a supporter of the general vestry, and goes on to characterise him as ‘a very saucy, Impudent Malicious Fellow, & was universally hated, he had neither judgement nor industry in any thing but frequenting Taverns, & Railing at his Neighbours’.46 The transition from a select to a general vestry was the result of nothing short of a parochial revolution.
In Westminster the struggle for control of local government between the select vestries, the Middlesex bench and the Court of Burgesses that had rumbled on since the mid-1710s continued, but with the added complication of a new form of ratepayer activism in part motivated by the growing expenditure associated with the new workhouses. The dispute revolved most closely around the night watch, which did not seem to be doing enough to stop begging and crime. In the early spring of 1733, the Court of Burgesses petitioned parliament for an Act to reinforce its powers to collect rates in support of the watch. They had recently discovered that while they had the power to set the rate, they could not collect it.47 Although permission was granted to introduce the bill, it was killed stone dead on its second reading as a result of opposition from the select vestries of St George Hanover Square and St James Piccadilly, leaving the field open for the vestries of Westminster to step in directly.48
The two parishes had been created from St Martin in the Fields, and their select vestries included some of the most politically powerful men in the country. Promoted by these same parishes, the first parochial watch acts handed power to the vestries both to raise money for and to regulate the watch. This first Act was rapidly followed by legislation of an almost precisely similar character covering the other parishes of Westminster, first St Martin in the Fields, then St Margaret’s and St John the Evangelist, followed by St Paul Covent Garden.49 The only power left to the Court of Burgesses in relation to the policing of Westminster was the appointment of the high constable and his deputies, who as ‘constables of the night’ sat in preliminary judgement on the men and women arrested by the watch and confined in the roundhouses located in each parish.
Most historians have seen the flurry of Watch Acts passed in the mid-1730s as a response to violent crime.50 However, the first Act primarily resulted from concerns about poverty and begging, and the querulous behaviour of ratepayers. The only crimes mentioned in justification of the Act were a series of thefts of lead from the roofs of new built houses, while debate focused on an account of a one-armed beggar who had discomforted the pregnant daughter of a ‘Lady of Quality’ by aggressively waving his stump hand in her direction.51
Rather than crime, what motivated the passage of these Acts was the perception that ‘the Streets have been every Day more and more pestered with idle vagrant Beggars, to the great Annoyance of Passengers’, and that, as noted the previous year by the Court of Burgesses, ‘the Methods hitherto practised, for raising Money to maintain the … [watchmen and] Beadles, have been very precarious and unwarrantable’.52 Most of the text of the first and subsequent Acts is taken up with issues of rating and taxation rather than with the watch itself, and had the effect of reinforcing the powers of the select vestries. At the same time, the Acts also encouraged the vestries to collaborate more closely with the justices of the Middlesex bench in pursuing their new rights of taxation and enforcement.
There is some evidence that the select vestries of Westminster began to adopt the practice of incorporating justices into their number and constituting themselves as a petty sessions as early as 1715.53 Traditionally, petty sessions were held separately from the vestry, allowing two or more justices to meet and hear poor law appeals and a wide variety of criminal complaints.54 In the normal course of events, justices rarely attended the vestry more than once a year, in order to audit the overseers’ accounts at Easter. But the practice of justices regularly attending vestries became normalised in many suburban parishes in the 1730s, allowing the vestries in collaboration with justices to take direct control of setting and auditing their own rates, sit in judgement on poor law and vagrancy cases, and generally assume the full authority of the law.55
Described by his first biographer as the ‘oracle of the vestry’, Thomas De Veil, the single most significant justice of the period, attended the vestries of several west end parishes.56 However, he was just one of a dozen or so justices who developed close relationships with individual vestries. By 1742, activists seeking to reform the select vestry system in Westminster claimed it was normal for
the Vestry [to] give Notice to the Justices, and order them to attend …; but that the Vestry attend likewise, and the business is done in a Vestry: That the Justices … are meer Cyphers, and that the Vestry govern and manage all these Matters … and that the Vestry do what they will in every Thing.57
In effect the Watch Acts had mandated this development, and in any case it was in the interests of the justices and vestrymen to work together, combining what Joseph Phipps described as ‘select vestries’ with ‘select justices’, who ‘are so concurrent in their Dispositions and Judgments one with another, that they can’t bear the Sight of one another’s Failings’. This resulted in parishes where the ‘Justices are one with the Rest, and share in devouring the Publick Money’.58
The problems generated by these acts are best illustrated in the experiences of St Martin in the Fields.59 From 3 May 1736, the vestry took full control of the nightly watch and daily policing of the parish, appointing forty-one night watchmen, a principal watchman, a roundhouse keeper who was also charged with collecting the new watch rate, and eight beadles responsible for clearing the streets of beggars and nuisances. Many, such as Thomas Middleton, the rate collector and roundhouse keeper, simply continued in their existing role, doing what they had always done.
Nevertheless, each watchman was obliged to pay heed to a new set of rules: to arrive promptly at the roundhouse each evening, carrying his lantern and his staff, ‘and keep watch and ward in his said walk or round from that hour till after five of the clock in the morning’.60 Each beadle was expected to
every day constantly walk in the streets and other places … and apprehend all idle persons as he shall find wandering and begging there or using any subtle craft or unlawful games or plays …
make an exact list of the names of all such persons as keep houses rented under ten pounds by the year and of all inmates entertained in such houses.61
These rules did not go unchallenged. Within a month one of the watchmen who had almost certainly been in post before the passage of the Act, William Morgan, ‘endeavoured to foment an uneasiness among the rest of the watchmen appointed by this vestry and … procured a scandalous writing to be drawn up for their signing’. We do not know the contents of the paper, but at least seven of Morgan’s fellow watchmen added their names to it. All eight were summarily dismissed. That summer, the watchmen also found themselves at loggerheads with the wider population they were expected to police. Week after week they came to the vestry to complain about assaults by both householders and their servants, obliging the vestry to pass an explicit resolution that they would, ‘stand by every watchman that shall be ill used’. Similarly, the beadles struggled to fulfil their obligations. Their returns listing all householders paying under £10 per year in rent were found to be inadequate, and when they were questioned on the matter, they ‘alledged in excuse the great difficulty they met with in obtaining the names of such persons’.62
Even the keeper of the parish roundhouse, Thomas Middleton, struggled to make the new arrangements work. He began to question the legality of his role, letting various prisoners go on the grounds that the act of parliament did not give him the authority to hold them in the absence of the constable of the night, appointed by the Court of Burgesses.63 The vestry stood on the authority of the Act, and in the end Middleton resigned his place as keeper of the roundhouse and was replaced by William Bird in July 1739.64
On the face of it, the role of keeper of the roundhouse was a good one, but by accepting this post at a time when the powers of the vestry were being challenged, Bird placed himself between several competing interests: the vestry, Court of Burgesses, local justices, householders who paid the watch rates and those who walked the streets. In particular, the householders were aggrieved at having to pay the cost of a service over which they had no control. In 1740 a group of householders took the vestry to court in order to overturn the watch rate, a case which was eventually heard at King’s Bench.65 The householders observed ‘that they were … deprived of all hope of relief … against this exclusive and excessive authority, void of all control, and privately conducted and vested in a few, who perpetuated their government by an arbitrary election of the members of their own body’.66 Many householders simply refused to pay, leaving Bird, who was responsible for collecting the watch rate, in serious difficulties that would rumble on until the roundhouse disaster two years later.67
In St Martin ‘s, what started as a new system under new authority quickly descended into a running battle, with the good order and the well-being of the parish the primary losers. However, it was not just in St Martin’s that problems began to emerge, and they appeared not just in relation to the new night watch, or over questions of taxation. All of the parishes that had sought to reinforce the power of their select vestries, including St George Hanover Square, St Anne, St Margaret and St James, as well as St Martin’s, became the objects of a concerted ratepayers’ campaign focusing on both the corrupt practices of the vestrymen and the lack of representation of their interests.
To take the example of St James – one of the richest and least diverse parishes of the west end, with a powerful select vestry packed with elite men – running the new institutions of parish government, including both a workhouse and the watch, proved almost beyond their capacity.68 A group of justices fell out with the select vestrymen and attempted to exclude them:
Several of the Justices of the Peace having taken upon them to give Directions concerning the Management of the Workhouse without the participation of the rest of the committee … and having refused to meet … though daily summoned thereto … the affairs there run into disorder …[and] Extreme bad conditions.69
In the end, the parish had to take legal advice to secure the authority of the select vestry over that of the justices, but even this did not prevent the administration of the parish descending into chaos.70 By April 1738, the ‘early deaths of infants’ in the workhouse reached an unacceptable level. The workhouse master was infirm, the mistress dead and the affairs of the house in ‘great disorder’.71 By March 1741 the house was ‘in a very nasty condition, the stench hardly supportable, poor creatures, almost naked, and the living to bed with the Dead’. Even the governor refused to join the workhouse family in prayer, on the grounds that they were ‘a rude, illiterate Rabble’, while the health of everyone was affected by
a scorbutick distemper which hardly any young fresh persons escape … and when they are discharged … nobody will employ them; so that they pine and starve about the streets, till they are almost eaten up of it, and frequently die a lingering miserable death.72
St James had failed in its first duty of good management. While none of the parishes of Westminster could give up the night watch, St James eventually took the significant step of closing its workhouse in April 1742, certainly aware of the doleful conditions in the house, but also no doubt wary of the growing anti-select vestry campaign just reaching its climax in parliament.73
Two months before St James closed its workhouse, on 26 February 1742 at the Globe Tavern in the Strand, the ratepayers of Westminster met and sought to overturn the authority of their vestrymen.74 Sixty-one men, mainly petty tradesmen, from the parishes of St James’s, St Martin’s, St George Hanover Square and St Anne Soho were constituted as a committee to petition parliament. The next week they were joined by twenty further representatives from St Margaret’s.75
The resulting petition was submitted on 11 March and led to a series of detailed investigations in the House of Commons. What emerged were repeated examples of unfair rating practices, of vestrymen themselves being regularly undercharged and underrated, along with more serious accusations of outright corruption. Thomas Middleton, who had resigned from his post as keeper of the St Martin’s Roundhouse, explained how (unlike William Bird) he had managed to retain the good opinion of the vestry only by varying the rates as they saw fit, with the support of the ‘umpire of the vestry’, William Godfrey, the clerk. At St Martin’s the beginning of the rot in parish standards and accounting was traced back to the loan raised to finance the building of the parish workhouse in 1724, when the first ‘illegal application of the parish money’ was made at the ‘caprice of the vestry’. This was followed by a tale of junketing, drinking and peculation. In a single year, £44 was spent on ‘Account of Sacrament Wine’, which on examination turned out to include, ‘Sack, Hock, white Wine, or other Liquors, which … were never used in the Celebration of that solemn Ceremony’.76
In five separate inquiries, the select vestries of Westminster were exposed, and permission was given for a bill to be brought in designed to reform them all. The draft legislation mandated a thorough-going reconfiguration of the running of the vestry, with churchwardens and overseers to be chosen through an open poll, returning officers, an electoral register, voting by secret ballot and a franchise extending to everyone paying the poor rate. For a moment it seemed that the struggle for Westminster, the struggle between the select vestries and the wider population of householders, might be resolved in favour of the latter. However, in the end, the bill was voted down by 160 votes to 131, on May 28 1742.77
While in most parishes the select vestries and dependent justices retained their authority, the campaigns against them did not end. Eleven years after the householders of St Botolph Aldersgate had reclaimed their parish for a ‘general vestry’, St Anne Westminster followed suit. In this rich parish, many of the same individuals who had been involved in the wider anti-select vestry campaign of 1742 stormed a select meeting called to elect parish officers in January 1744 and asserted their right to an open vestry. At the all-important Easter meeting in 1745, when new parish officers were chosen and the accounts audited, at least ninety-nine householders attended an open meeting, wresting at least some authority back from the select vestry to the wider community of householders.78 And, in St Martin in the Fields a concerted effort to overturn the select vestry continued. In May 1744 a group of householders charged into a meeting, forcing the vestrymen to retire to the ‘library’.79 Justified in part as a response to the seemingly intractable problems of begging and crime, the select vestries experienced on-going opposition from a broad coalition of ratepayers.
Disillusionment with parish government was reinforced by each new scandal. In 1742 a tragedy once again helped expose the failings of both the parishes and the magistrates who oversaw them, prompting a direct response from plebeian London.80
William Bird, the ill-starred keeper of St Martin in the Fields roundhouse, whom the vestry had unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss for his failure to collect the watch rate in 1740, continued in place.81 While he was not ‘properly a constable’, he was ‘deemed the officer’ responsible for the roundhouse by other parish employees.82 On the evening of 15 July 1742, Bird, as usual, was sitting at a long table next to the constable of the night, overseeing the work of the parish’s forty-three watchmen. On this particular hot Thursday, the roundhouse also hosted the constables of St Paul Covent Garden and the High Constable of Westminster, Booker Holden . They were there to check in before setting out on a ‘midnight reformation’, which had been authorised by a warrant signed by Justices Thomas De Veil and John Bromfield to arrest ‘vagabonds, pickpockets, and other dissolute and disorderly persons’.83
Holden and his assistants targeted a range of houses and streets. Sarah Bland and Mary Maurice were picked up in the street ‘just by the round-house’.84 Elizabeth Amey , a prostitute who had previously worked at a notorious brothel, The Rose in Oxenden Street just west of Leicester Fields, was arrested in a cook shop.85 Ann Norton was ‘taken out of … Bed from my Husband and carried to the Watchhouse’.86 In total, twenty-six women and nine men were arrested that evening.87
The roundhouse was on St Martin’s Lane just south of Duke’s Court and opposite the parish church.88 It was made up of three floors, and a set of stocks, capped by an ornate wooden carving depicting one man flogging another, stood in the street outside.89 The lower ground floor contained two cells, one each for men and women. The women’s cell, or hole, was ‘about six Foot six Inches in Length, six Foot three or four Inches in Breadth’.90
By one o’clock in the morning, with almost twenty people in the women’s cell, the heat was intense, and the drunken camaraderie which had earlier greeted the women as they came down the stairs was gradually transformed into desperation. Stripped down to their shifts or completely naked, they began to struggle for breath, while their clothes became soaked in sweat. Mary Cosier later testified that her handkerchief was as ‘stiff as Buckram, with Sweat from the Heat of the Place’.91 They beat on the low ceiling of the cell with their shoes trying to attract attention and cried out that one of them was in labour and needed relief. But mainly they cried out for water: ‘for Christ’s Sake let us have Water; for the Lord’s Sake a little Water’.92 The next morning, when the cell door was opened William Anderson found the place ‘very nauseous, and the smell so strong, that I thought it would have struck me down’.93 At least four people lay dead or dying.
De Veil, who had signed off on the original warrant, was also responsible for examining the survivors, and gradually realising the seriousness of the situation, he dismissed all the prisoners.94 However, by the evening a crowd began to gather in St Martin’s Lane. Stones and bricks were thrown at the house and by midnight a riot was in full progress. It took Justice James Frazier at least two hours to restore order.95
The situation for De Veil, the most prominent signatory of the warrant, was a delicate one, and he was ‘greatly scared’ by the likely popular reaction to the disaster.96 A coroner’s inquest convened the following day brought in a verdict of wilful murder against William Bird for the suffocation of Mary Maurice and three others.97 De Veil attempted to deflect public outrage away from himself and the select vestries by publishing his own version of events early the next week. In his account, Booker Holden was named as the moving spirit behind the warrant, and De Veil went on to blame the constables (all appointees of the Court of Burgesses) for having ‘greatly misbehaved’ themselves, before offering up William Bird as a possible scapegoat.98 No mention was made of the legion of parish employees who had participated in the arrests that night.99
Bird eventually stood trial at the Old Bailey on a charge of murder two months later. Counsel were just beginning to participate in trials, and four experienced attorneys were commissioned to make up the prosecution team. Bird’s attempt to find a barrister to represent him, however, met a wall of indifference. By the day of his first trial in mid-September, Bird had failed to locate anyone willing to act – two claimed to be out of town, two others ‘desired to be excused’, while a fifth simply returned the brief without explanation. Bird, whom the trial records describe as a ‘labourer’, was forced to defend himself.100 He was found guilty at his second trial and sentenced to hang.101
In the months after the disaster, the parish rebuilt the roundhouse at a cost of £83 15s., adding piped water and a new set of iron palings, five feet, eight inches high.102 But the roundhouse continued to be a target of regular popular attacks. The following year St Martin ’s spent a further £8 19s. repairing damage done to the house by a population that saw in it a continuing symbol of oppression, and in each succeeding year for the next decade a similar sum was spent on repairs.103 This was no doubt one reason why the parish strengthened its watch and revised its Watch Act.104 In addition, the role of the beadles was regularised, and they were given new uniforms at the cost of £36 17s.105 Despite all the Watch Acts, the denigration of the Court of Burgesses and the newly powerful position of the select vestries, magistrates and vestrymen found it impossible to secure more than the grudging consent of the wider population to their policies and were continually forced onto the defensive.
While innovations in parish relief and governance stuttered forward in the face of householder and popular resistance, the new associational charities of the 1730s and 1740s seemed to provide welcome new resources for the poor and a new approach to social problems. Neither substantial charitable provision for London’s poor nor subscription and associational charities, in which donors committed to making annual contributions, were entirely new in the 1730s. The charity school movement, led by the SPCK, had established subscription schools from the late 1690s, and the Westminster Infirmary, whose subscription charity was established in 1716, successfully used this model.106 However, following the passage of the Mortmain Act in 1736, the next few decades witnessed the establishment of several new charities built around sociability and the contributions of living men and women.107
The Mortmain Act, meaning ‘dead hand’, was designed to discourage deathbed bequests of land to charitable uses. Instead, from 1736 most London charities were organised as associations of living donors, who contributed annually to the cause of their choice. In the 1740s alone, the London Infirmary, later the London Hospital (1740), the Foundling Hospital (1741), the Lock Hospital for venereal patients (1746) and the Lying-In Hospital for poor married women, later the British Lying-In Hospital (1749), were all established on this basis. At least twenty further London-based associational charities were created in the decades up to 1770.108
As well as responding to the provisions of the Mortmain Act, these new charities also reflected a wider disillusionment with parochial government and relief. As vestries became more ‘select’ and paupers shaped the distribution of parish relief, the subscription charity offered an alternative. The antagonism between these two very different charitable mechanisms was occasionally explicit. The Foundling Hospital justified its existence on the grounds that:
The [parish] Officers … charged with the Care of the Poor, have been so negligent … that some Infants have been suffered to perish with Cold and Hunger in the Streets, without any Attempt for their Relief.
And its regulations prominently declared:
That no … [parish] officer … shall have or exercise any Power or Authority in … [the] Hospital … nor shall have any authority to enquire concerning the Birth or Settlement of [the] … children.109
The 1739 Act of parliament passed in support of the hospital authorised it to fine any parish officer interfering in the workings of the charity.110
As the parishes found their hands forced by pauper demands (in some measure taking advantage of the rules of settlement) to relieve a more diverse group of the poor, associational charities gave their patrons the secure knowledge that only the most sympathetic of objects would benefit. This led to the creation of a newly competitive market for charitable giving as different organisations sought to attract wealthy benefactors – focusing charitable giving on paupers who made good advertising copy while encouraging the poor to present themselves in new ways.
To take a single example, the model for most associational charities, and the most influential of the 1740s foundations, was the Foundling Hospital. Captain Thomas Coram spent the 1730s working to establish a hospital for the reception of abandoned babies, justified by despair at the perceived inhumanity of the poor and concerns about population and national efficiency.111 In the words of the charity’s charter, the hospital’s supporters were motivated by the terrible knowledge of the
frequent murders committed on poor miserable infants by their parents to hide their shame, and the inhuman custom of exposing new-born children to perish in the streets, or training them up in idleness, beggary or theft.112
The charity opened on 25 March 1741, and on the occasion of the first ‘takings-in’, some thirty babies were accepted before the doors were finally closed at midnight. While the demand for its services suggests it was fulfilling a real need, as is so often the case the unintended consequences of the opening of the hospital were substantial. Its immediate impact was to spark a murderous wave of child abandonment. In the year before it was awarded its royal charter in 1739, just nineteen deaths, overwhelmingly made up of abandoned infants, were recorded as ‘found’ on the streets in the Bills of Mortality. The 1730s as a whole saw 380 deaths of this sort. But in the two years following the award of the charter, during which the new charitable provision for abandoned babies was regularly discussed in the press, the bodies of some ninety-eight babies were found. And in the first full year following the opening of the hospital in 1741, the rate of abandonment reached an all-time peak. Seventy-one bodies were recorded in the Bills of Mortality as ‘found’; while the 1740s as a whole witnessed a total of 526.113 This pattern and impact extended to foundlings abandoned to parish care as well. As Figure 4.4 illustrates, at St Martin’s workhouse thirty-one infants were given over to the parish as either ‘dropt’ or ‘foundling’ in 1740, and the following year saw twenty-nine – the two highest recorded figures for the whole of the eighteenth century.
Online dataset: St Martins Workhouse Registers (xlsx)
For the first twenty years of its existence, the Foundling Hospital accepted children presented to them regardless of the background of the parents, ‘with no Preference to any Person whatsoever’. In the process, it appears to have positively encouraged the abandonment of infants to the hospital, with parents choosing, if this did not work out, to leave unwanted babies on the streets. In part, this behaviour must have been a response to hardening social attitudes towards plebeian mothers. Employers faced with a pregnant servant could afford to take a tougher line in the knowledge that the child could be abandoned to the Foundling Hospital without bringing their own failure as householders and employers to the attention of the parish. Alternatively, perhaps simple elite patronage for the idea of abandonment was in itself enough to legitimate the process. In either case the prospect of public care for abandoned children generated its own demand, which the Foundling Hospital could not possibly meet. In the spring of 1741, at the first ‘taking-in’ where a system of balloting allows us to know the numbers of people who actually came in hope of leaving a child, forty-seven mothers arrived, seeking one of only 24 available places. The number of applicants grew as the decade advanced. In May 1746, seventy-nine mothers presented their children in hope of gaining access to one of 25 places.114
The increasingly complex landscape of charities multiplied the opportunities open to the poor for support, but each had its own admissions system which they needed to learn how to navigate. While at the Foundling Hospital monthly ‘takings-in’ involved an evening ballot and a largely random selection process, at St Thomas’s Thursday mornings were set aside for admissions, when a sub-committee of the governors assessed the mandatory petitions and examined the medical needs of each patient.115 St Bartholomew’s and Guy’s hospitals had different systems again, as did the Westminster Infirmary. The one-to-one relationship between a decayed householder and the parish overseer, in which needs were assessed and relieved (or not), was increasingly replaced by a pick and mix assortment of relief bodies, each designed for a different malady – whether illness, infancy or simple poverty – and open to supplications from the poor, which then had to be evaluated.
The impact of these new institutions was at best ambiguous. While they undoubtedly provided additional resources, directed at real needs, they also complicated the relationship between paupers and the parish. In part, they made it possible for parish officers to evade their obligations, and allowed overseers to point to the charities as an excuse for denying relief. Some parishes actively sought to make use of these new institutions to offload their paupers. When the Foundling Hospital, for example, opened its doors to all comers in the following decade, the officers of St Martin ‘s simply took the opportunity of dumping many of the newborn babies and foundlings in their care onto the hospital. But more fundamentally, the associational charities tended to create a new understanding of poverty. By defining poverty in terms of an abstract and compelling need, rather than as a normal part of the life cycle that deserved support from one’s immediate neighbours, the charities subverted the role of the parish, and in the process, the poor’s claim upon it. As the new charities responded to separate categories of headline-grabbing social problems among the ’deserving poor’, whether abandoned babies, seduced girls or disabled soldiers, the parish was left to deal with an increasingly ‘undeserving’ residuum.
The poor learned how to navigate this new and complex landscape of relief but, as with the abandoned babies, the results were often cruel. Some twelve years after the Foundling Hospital opened, it received Mary Larkin , only a few weeks old.116 The illegitimate child of Patrick Bourne and Mary Larkin, the baby was born in Rochester in April 1753.117 The parish officers arrested the father, ‘by a Warrant from a Justice of the Peace and … Comitted [him] to … his Majesty’s Prison at Rochester … for the Space of Three Days’, until he provided a bond for the support of the child – money that would normally have been used by the parish to support the mother and baby. To escape a continuing obligation, Bourne responded by taking the baby to London, with the connivance of the parish officers but without apparent reference to the mother, where he paid a guinea to Mary Thornton, a midwife, to secure its admission to the Foundling Hospital.118 The child was dead within a few days, and because Bourne needed proof of the death in order for the parish to discharge his bond, Thornton was eventually tried for murder. She was acquitted in October 1753, and Bourne was discharged from his bond. He and the parish officers were no doubt satisfied, but the baby was dead.
Sir Thomas De Veil, who sat uncomfortably as a principal participant in the roundhouse disaster, was at the centre of judicial reform and parochial politics in the 1730s and 1740s. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1729 and was involved in the campaign against disorderly houses over the next two years. Unlike many justices, he adopted a proactive approach to the office, making himself available to hear criminal complaints, breaking up groups of high-profile criminals (notably the ‘gang’ led by William Wreathock ) and pursuing murderers.119 More than this, he took a particular interest in political dissent and from 1734 received a £250 government pension from the Secret Service Fund for his role in suppressing Jacobitism and anti-government sedition.120 In 1738 he was given the sinecure of inspector-general of exports and imports (which provided a further £500 a year), he was knighted in 1744 and he was a colonel in the Westminster militia.121 De Veil was ‘court justice’ – the chief metropolitan magistrate upon whom the government relied to convey its orders to the Middlesex bench.122
From his houses, first in Leicester Square, and then in Bow Street just east of Covent Garden (a house which would later be taken over by Henry and John Fielding), De Veil ran an extensive network of informers, thief-takers and spies.123 Nonetheless, many of the poor appear to have brought their criminal complaints to him, hoping that his fierce reputation would bring their adversaries to justice. According to his posthumously published Memoirs , ‘the readiness and facility with which he entered into all the branches’ of the office of a justice, and the money he earned as a consequence, made him the ‘envy’ of the ‘trading justices’, since their normal clients, the poor, chose to bring their business before him instead.124
However, as the figure of authority publicly involved in almost every local controversy in Westminster in these years, De Veil repeatedly attracted popular hostility. With some exceptions, such as the day following the roundhouse disaster, he was happy to confront a mob, and on several occasions read out the Riot Act and successfully dispersed crowds. Yet he also recognised the limitations of his powers. In 1738 an audience at the New Theatre in the Haymarket succeeded in preventing a performance by French players, at a time when English actors were unable to find work as a result of the Licensing Act of 1737. On this occasion De Veil’s carefully choreographed plans failed. At the beginning of the performance, and in the face of a disorderly audience, De Veil claimed to have stationed troops outside and threatened to read the Riot Act. Nevertheless, he let himself be drawn into a debate with the audience and the hecklers won, with De Veil left impotently calling for candles by which to read the Act.125 As reported in De Veil’s purported Memoirs :
The Colonel then began to talk in the language of power, which is always out of season, when not immediately backed by superior force. The people in the pit thought they had power too, and began to exert it without farther ceremony, by pulling up benches and forms, and throwing all things into confusion, and it was in this temper of mind the company parted.126
De Veil was left ‘pale and passive’ as the audience yelled, ‘No Treaties’, and ‘the mob in the streets broke the windows of the house all to pieces’.127
On this occasion De Veil avoided becoming the focus of the crowd’s violence at the cost of finally giving in to popular opposition. And while he similarly managed to escape retribution following the roundhouse disaster, he was not always so fortunate. In May 1741, in response to his support for court candidates at the general election, a ‘dreadful tumultuous mob’ attacked his house. As he complained in a letter to the secretary of state asking that a reward be offered for the apprehension of the ringleaders,
the word was given, one and all, to pull down the House of the Manager (as they were pleased to call me) of My Lord Sundons and Sir Charles Wager ’s election, and at the same time a volley of large stones brought down the best part of all the windows of my House, which being often repeated has left me in a frightful condition.
His hope was that a quick, government-backed prosecution would demonstrate to the ‘mob’ that he had ‘the honour to be under the safeguard and protection of the government’.128 De Veil, however, was eventually forced to prosecute the case himself at quarter sessions, and informers were found to give evidence against five men. But after a nine-hour trial and a stern direction from the bench to bring in a guilty verdict, the jury acquitted them all.129 And when, in 1744, he arrested three men following an attempt to break up a meeting of footmen objecting to the employment of foreign servants, the crowd broke into his house and rescued them.130 By way of xenophobia and Jacobitism, via theatres and the hustings, and through murderous disasters and simple miscalculations, De Veil’s authority over the crowd had largely vanished by the mid-1740s. But the issue that did the most to undermine his reputation in the eyes of plebeian London was his role in the failed campaign against gin drinking.
In the late 1720s and early 1730s, the concerns about increasing levels of crime and disorder which had driven the campaign against disorderly houses in the previous decade found a new objective in an aggressive but ultimately futile campaign against gin. Justices of the peace and supporters of a reformation of manners had long been concerned about the constellation of social problems that seemed to emanate from excessive drinking and the sociable spaces where it was encouraged. But in the 1720s these wider concerns rapidly coalesced around the specific issue of ‘Geneva and other Spirituous Liquors’.131 In January 1726 this new emphasis is evident in a report to the Middlesex bench that implausibly concluded that in Middlesex and Westminster alone (excluding the City and Southwark), there were ‘Six Thousand one Hundred and Eighty Seaven Houses and Shopps, wherein Geneva or other strong Waters are publickly sold by retail’, amounting ‘in some parishes [to] every Tenth House, in others every seventh, and in one of the largest every Fifth house’.132 For the next twenty-five years, in an extended series of acts of parliament and a major campaign of enforcement, gin took centre stage, but the attempt to dislodge it from plebeian culture failed.
Was gin drinking a problem? There was certainly an increase in the volume of spirits produced in these years, and gin was cheap and strong.133 The 1730s saw rising real wages which meant working men and women could afford to drink more spirits than previously. However, it is impossible to prove that this led to either a significant increase in the consumption of gin by the poor in particular, or an increase in drunkenness. However, the actions of plebeian Londoners contributed to raising official awareness of gin drinking as a component of wider social problems in two ways. First, the legal provision exempting retailers of spirits from quartering soldiers ‘put all sorts of inferior trades on Selling Strong waters’.134 In effect, this legal loophole simultaneously encouraged poor households to add the sale of spirits to whatever other economic activities they were engaged in and brought the poor’s gin-selling activities to the attention of the authorities attempting to organise the quartering of soldiers. Second, the profile of gin as a perceived cause of crime was raised by the growing tendency of defendants to cite drunkenness as an aspect of an ‘amplified … language of mental excuse’ in mitigation.135 When asked in 1727 at her trial for petty larceny to explain her presence in someone else’s house, Elizabeth Plat told the court that ‘she had been that Afternoon a little too busy with Madam Geneva, and being intoxicated, tumbled in their [sic] by Accident’.136 Although Plat was found guilty, drunkenness became a common defence strategy. The report of the trial of Rose Roberts for stealing a gold necklace a few months later notes that the prosecution was deemed to be malicious because ‘upon Examination [the necklace] appeared only to be a gilt one, and the Assault no other than a Geneva Jostle’, an accident prompted by drink and without malicious intent.137 From 1728 onwards, the Ordinary of Newgate’s biographies of the lives of the condemned occasionally cite gin as one of the causes that led them down the road towards Tyburn.138
Following reports from the Middlesex justices and several pamphlets decrying the evils of gin, the first Act to regulate its sale passed swiftly through parliament in three weeks in the spring of 1729.139 It placed a duty of 5 shillings per gallon on distilled gin, required retailers to acquire a licence costing £20 a year and, most importantly, legislated a complete ban on street selling – on the livelihoods of the dozens of mainly women who made a meagre living selling gin by the glass. However, banning the public sale of gin was to prove an impossible task, and Londoners quickly became adept at circumventing these legal controls.140 This first Act, for example, could be avoided by switching from selling gin to raw spirits, which fell outside the scope of the Act and gained the ironic name of ‘Parliamentary Brandy’. In the eyes of the reformers, the first Act was a failure and was replaced in 1733 by a second Act, which took established retailers out of the picture and concentrated on street sellers. But this was also largely a dead letter as the street sellers it made subject to draconian fines were next to beggars and unable to pay the fines levied upon them. Very few were actually prosecuted.141
As gin moved further up the reformers’ agenda in the early 1730s, it also acquired a strong gender dimension. Women were prominent participants in the gin trade, both as street sellers (because this was an easy trade to enter) and as consumers (because they did not need to go into male-dominated alehouses to purchase it). A tendency to identify women, particularly single women and young mothers, as well as the poor more generally, as the chief consumers of gin was evident as early as 1726, but the theme that these groups were particularly adversely affected by the ‘craze’ became increasingly prominent in the 1730s. In 1736, a justices’ report complained:
With Regard to the Female Sex we find the Contagion has Spread even among them, And that to a Degree hardly possible to be Conceived. Unhappy Mothers habituate themselves to these distill’d Liquors, whose Children are born weakly & Sickly and often look Shriveld & old, as tho they had Numbered many Years; Others again daily give it to their Children whilst young and learn them even before they can go to taste & approve of this Certain great Destroyer.142
Gin drinking came to be gendered female, with the sobriquet ‘Madam Geneva’ embodying the fear that gin threatened the gender, as well as the social, order.
The history of gin craze has been told many times, but traditionally the only agency ascribed to the targets of reform has been located in their facility for getting publicly drunk. Recent research, however, has problematized this story in two important ways. First, the scale of the actual social problems caused by gin has been questioned, suggesting that efforts to curtail gin drinking were at least as much the result of moral panic and social anxiety as they were a response to a genuine problem.143 Second, historians have begun to give greater emphasis to the major role played by the poor in opposing the implementation of the gin legislation. Just as they successfully opposed other aspects of the reformation of manners agenda, the poor effectively prevented the legal regulation of gin consumption for more than two decades, until the 1751 Gin Act finally implemented a feasible compromise (though the impact of even this Act was limited).
Popular opposition was at its strongest following the passage of the 1736–7 Gin Acts. The first was promoted by a familiar group of reformers attached to the SPCK and the reformation of manners societies. Together with the London magistracy, they conducted an orchestrated campaign in support of more stringent regulation. In 1734 and 1735, magistrates in the City and Middlesex once again launched investigations into selling distilled spirits without a licence, and in January 1736 the Middlesex bench issued a new report outlining the ‘pernicious’ effects of gin drinking and petitioned parliament to do something about it. They told MPs:
That the Constant & Excessive use thereof as now practiced, hath already destroyed thousands of his Majesties Subjects, and renders great Numbers of others unfitt for usefull Labour & Service, debauching at the […] same time their Moralls & driving them into all Manner of Vice & Wickedness.144
The 1736 Act, sponsored by Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls, was passed in May.145 It placed a duty on retailed gin of 20 shillings a gallon and required all retailers to take out an annual £50 licence. More significantly, it facilitated the prosecution of small-scale retailers by providing for fines of £10 for anyone found guilty of selling gin without a licence, including chandlers, alehouse keepers and apothecaries. The proceeds of these fines were to be divided equally between informers willing to provide sworn evidence and the local overseers of the poor. Anyone unable to pay the fine was to serve two months’ hard labour in a house of correction. Initially this Act was just as ineffective as the two that preceded it, with the production of spirits dropping only marginally. Just twenty licences were issued to retailers, generating only £500 in duty.146 Once again, it was easy to avoid prosecution, as there was little point in prosecuting sellers who were unable to pay the fines. However, in 1737 the excise office was empowered to pay the rewards for convictions in such cases, which suddenly made informing on a gin seller extremely profitable.147 From this point the number of prosecutions increased dramatically. Reports in the press claiming that there had been some 12,000 convictions by August 1738 were wildly overstated, but 435 people were convicted following prosecutions by the excise in the months to March 1738, and several hundred more street sellers were punished by justices of the peace.148
Despite these prosecutions, the 1736–7 Acts failed to halt the sale and consumption of gin, as they were fatally subverted by a combination of subterfuge, legal action and popular protest. The Acts were evaded by creating various unregulated alternative strong alcoholic drinks such as sangree (created from Madeira wine), by purchasing two gallons (the minimum quantity which could legally be sold) on long-term credit (taking away a small amount at a time), or, most ingeniously, through the invention of a clever contraption, the ‘puss and mew’ – an automated dispenser of gin, set into a wall, that prevented informers and constables from identifying the seller.149 As Read’s Weekly Journal reported in February 1738:
The Way is this, the Buyer comes into the Entry and Cries Puss, and is immediately answer’d by a Voice from within, Mew. A Drawer is then thrust out, in which the Buyer puts his Money, which when drawn back, is soon after thrust out again, with the Quantity of Gin requir’d; the Master of this new Improvement in Mechanicks, remaining all the while unseen; whereby all Informations are defeated, and the Penalty of the Gin Act evaded.150
Popular opposition also took the form of frequent attacks on the informers, excise men and justices of the peace who enforced the Acts. The informers (almost 200), often poor men and women themselves, prosecuted thousands of their fellow Londoners.151 Distaste for those who profited from prosecuting their neighbours had a long history, as was evident in the antipathy to reformation of manners informers in the 1690s and early 1700s. And like this earlier opposition, popular resistance to informers successfully undermined the efforts of parliament.
It was not simply the use of informers that attracted opposition, but also the underhand tactics they employed. To obtain evidence of the illegal activity of selling gin, informers needed to purchase spirits, trapping the gin seller. They had to enter unlicensed premises and prevail upon the owner to act illicitly by selling them gin, normally by playing to the owner’s familiarity with the purchaser as a known member of the community. Another ploy was to claim that they needed the gin for medicinal use. Either way, the violations of trust evident in the subsequent prosecutions generated considerable hostility, both on the streets and in the courtroom.152 Following her testimony against Mary Tidcomb for selling two glasses of ‘Spirituos [sic] Liquor call’d Geneva’ in 1739, Catherine Norton was shunned by others as ‘one that laid Informations against People’.153 She was tried (though acquitted) at the Old Bailey for perjury and conspiracy.
On 16 August 1738, Sarah Miller stood outside the home of Anne Adams and started screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘Damn you, you informing Bitch!’ She went on to describe Anne as an ‘informing Bitch who goes partners with the Informers’ and told her ‘you had Share of the money… which you bought your Scarlett cloack with’. Twenty or thirty passers-by joined the protest, and Anne was so frightened she miscarried.154 Community disapproval was emphasised by the shaming nature of many similar attacks: informers were forced to ride on an ass, burned in effigy, dragged through the kennel or dunked in a muddy ditch or the Thames. However, the violence was not merely symbolic: informers were beaten and pelted with dirt and stones. During the lifetime of the 1736 Act, informers were subject to no less than fifty-seven reported attacks and were the object of seven riots. At least four were beaten to death.155 Many of those arrested for selling gin were rescued, as when two persons who had been sentenced to a stint in the house of correction cried out ‘Informers’ and ‘were rescued out of the Hands of the Constable, who with his Assistants narrowly escap’d the rough Discipline of the Rabble’.156 As Jessica Warner concludes: ‘for two years, from 1736 until 1738, hardly a day passed in which an informer was not attacked on the streets of London; during the same two years hardly a month passed without a major riot’.157 By 1744, to be ‘tossed about like a Gin Informer’ had become proverbial in the mouths of Londoners.158
Justices of the peace and the excise officers who encouraged the informers were also targeted. On at least nine occasions, protesting crowds gathered in front of a justice’s house or the Excise Office, including three times at the house of Thomas De Veil, the most active judicial supporter of the Acts.159 The most serious of these riots occurred on 23 January 1738 after De Veil issued a warrant for the arrest of a man, Edward Arnold, who had threatened to kill an informer, Martha Beezley, for testifying against him. When a crowd formed to protect Arnold from arrest, Beezley and a fellow informer took refuge in De Veil’s house, fearing retribution. The crowd outside the house grew to more than a thousand, and when De Veil read the Riot Act, Roger Allen allegedly stepped forward and urged the crowd to pull down the house and murder the two informers. In the end, the military was summoned, Allen was arrested and the protest suppressed, but the strength of feeling was clear. Perhaps in order to avoid letting Allen benefit from the sympathy of an Old Bailey jury, De Veil chose to prosecute him for violating the Riot Act at King’s Bench. This tactic failed, however, as reported by the author of De Veil’s Memoirs . A ‘prodigious mob’ attended the trial, both inside Westminster Hall and in the Palace Yards, and when the jury, quite possibly influenced by the crowd, acquitted Allen, there was a ‘universal huzza’, and ‘as soon as [he] was discharged’, they ‘sat him upon their heads and carried him off in triumph’. Allen told the crowd that his verdict had preserved ‘the great liberty of mobbing a justice now and then’.160 Edward Parker, an excise officer who had testified against Allen, later claimed that, ‘Witnesses were so terrified on Allens Acquittal that he [Parker] could not prevail on many of them to appear as usual’ against retailers.161
Informers were regularly subjected to successful counter prosecutions, many of which were probably vexatious. Just under a third (nineteen of sixty-three) of the most active informers under the 1736 Act were prosecuted, seven for extortion and twelve for perjury, and the prosecutors were frequently successful: seventeen of twenty-six informers charged with perjury, and fourteen of fifteen accused of extortion were convicted.162 Mary Pocock, for example, was found guilty of perjury in October 1738 after testifying, along with Edward Parker, that Thomas Pepper had sold her a quarter pint of geneva. Pepper, supported by several witnesses, claimed he had never seen Pocock and never sold gin, while Pocock claimed that Pepper had a vendetta against her, having threatened her, ‘I’ll put you into the Half-Moon (the Pillory), and if I can’t do your Business, I’ll get others that shall.’163
With such widespread popular hostility, clearly shared by the propertied members of Old Bailey juries, law enforcement officers as well as informers grew reluctant to act. As Warner argues, ‘by the end of 1738, ordinary Londoners had succeeded in cowing both the men who judged them and the men who governed them’.164 Constables became unwilling to arrest gin sellers, the Commissioners of the Excise began to reduce their fines and obstruct the informers, and justices of the peace stopped encouraging prosecutions and made fewer convictions.165 Parish vestries even started returning the fines levied on convicted gin sellers. The Middlesex sessions complained that, ‘in Stead of applying Such Conviction money to the use of the poor of their parish’, as required by law, some churchwardens and overseers of the poor ’have returned the Same back to the party or partys so convicted upon pretence of their being poor, which this Court doth adjudge to be a misapplication, and contrary to the meaning of the Said Act’.166
Together with their allies, plebeian London rendered the 1736–7 Gin Acts, which were specifically targeted against them, a dead letter. There was a temporary dip in overall gin consumption in 1737, but consumption then resumed its upward trajectory, surpassing the 1736 figure by 1740.167 An attempt to bolster the law in May 1738, when a statute made it a felony to attack an informer,168 encouraged a brief increase in convictions, but assaults against informers continued and prosecutions for gin selling declined, particularly after December 1738 when one of the most active excise men, Edward Parker, was exposed as corrupt. Instead of handing over half of the £10 fines to the local parishes for distribution to the poor, Parker had pocketed the money.169 The Gin Acts were only lightly enforced after 1738 and were finally repealed in 1743, when a new Act, intended primarily as a money-raising measure, reduced licensing fees but increased the excise on gin. Crucially, the 1743 Act made no provision for the payment of rewards in cases where gin sellers were too poor to pay the fine; the government essentially admitted ‘that dram drinking could not be eliminated’.170 Without financial incentives for prosecution, and with popular opinion still strongly antagonistic to informers, few bothered to prosecute. As Patrick Dillon observes, ‘the authorities had accepted that the war on gin had failed … Never again would a British Parliament set out to eradicate gin-drinking.’171
Efforts to regulate the sale of gin, however, were renewed with another revenue-raising measure in 1747, and a more substantial Act in 1751. In this limited sense, the authorities eventually prevailed. However, the defeat of the 1736–8 campaign against plebeian gin drinkers and sellers had important consequences for the future of policing in the metropolis. Most directly, it further stained the reputation of informers, making it highly unlikely that any future effort to eradicate vice would rely on them, and rendering the wholesale prosecution of victimless crimes almost impossible. Related to this, the opposition to the Gin Acts provided the final nail in the coffin of the first reformation of manners campaign. Prosecutions initiated by the societies in the 1730s were already running at only a quarter of the number prosecuted in the first half of the 1720s, while the societies’ sermons in these last years ‘were full of disillusionment’.172 The demise of this long-running campaign can be attributed to a number of causes, including a growing tolerance of sexual immorality.173 But the loss of their chief weapon, the informer, in 1737–8, together with an associated loss of magisterial backing, proved to be the final straw.174 The annual report of their activities for 1738 was to be their last.
In the longer term, this undermining of voluntary informers contributed to the bureaucratisation of metropolitan policing, which became ever more dependent on paid personnel, including watchmen and ‘runners’ attached to magistrates’ offices, distanced from the communities they policed.175 One facet of this transformation lay in the changing character of the relationship between some justices of the peace and their local communities. The Middlesex bench responded to accusations of corruption by encouraging justices to act more formally, by hearing violations of the Gin Acts ‘only at their Meetings appointed for that purpose, and not at their own houses’.176 In the City, this practice extended to all crimes and was formalised by the establishment of the first rotation office . In December 1737, building on the established practice of the Lord Mayor, the aldermen established a court ‘for the public administration of justice’ in the Guildhall, where they sat in their role as local justices, at regular hours in rotation, assisted by a clerk. It was this bureaucratic model that De Veil adopted when he purchased his house in Bow Street in 1740. By establishing a courtroom in the house, and ensuring it was properly staffed, he set a pattern that would in its turn be adopted by the Fieldings.177
However, not all justices conformed to this new model, and many suffered for their unwillingness to do so. Justice Clifford William Phillips , who sat on the original committee of Middlesex justices which drew up the petition to parliament for the regulation of gin in January 1736, subsequently turned against the informers who enforced the Act.178 Phillips allegedly told a fellow justice, Richard Farmer, who was active in hearing informations, ‘that by encouraging such Rascally Scoundrell Fellows of Informers’ he ‘not only unjustly deprived a great many poor familys from honestly getting their Bread but likewise promised him the Curses of all poor persons’. That Phillips, in contrast, sought to retain the support of the poor in his east end neighbourhood is evident in a letter written by the minister, churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish of Whitechapel, who informed the Lord High Chancellor that ‘by his knowledge and impartiality in the Discharge of his Duties’, Phillips had ‘acquired the Love and Esteem of the Inhabitants of our said parish’.179 Nonetheless, Phillips was expelled from the commission of the peace in July 1738, along with forty-one other members of the Westminster bench and seventy-five members of the Middlesex bench (many men were on both commissions).180 While there were many individual reasons for these expulsions (the Lord Chancellor did not have to justify his actions), the failure by some justices to navigate the pressures surrounding the enforcement of the Gin Acts was probably one of them.
In enforcing the Gin Acts, justices were forced to choose between adopting a systematic and formal approach to the law, as encouraged by the government, and siding with their poor neighbours, who repeatedly sought their assistance. By acting more discreetly, and less publicly, than Phillips, many of those who chose the latter avoided expulsion from the commission. However, because these justices sided with the poor, they were derided for their supposed low social status and became known as ‘trading justices’. It was alleged that these magistrates lived off the fees they charged complainants and were corrupt. A satirical poem published in the Gentleman’s Magazine celebrated the expulsions from the commissions as a victory over, paradoxically, both informers and trading justices:
Tho’ much too late. Sure this will purge the Bench.
Informers now may find th’ Employment bad;
And Justice may from Justices be had.
So sorely did the trading Harpies roast us,
We suffer’d less by Spanish Guarda Costa’s.181
But the trading justices were more enduring than informers, because they responded to the needs of their communities. As Norma Landau has shown, they offered important services to the poor, often mediating disputes for low fees. While such justices can be found dating back to at least the Restoration, they became an increasingly important feature of London justice from the 1730s.182 Even De Veil was attacked for acting like a trading justice; Henry Fielding claimed that he ‘used to boast’ he earned £1,000 a year from the business he conducted as a justice.183 In fact, according to De Veil’s Memoirs , he was frequently attacked by trading justices, who it was claimed had lost their business to him, as they ‘fell much beneath him in credit’. De Veil was a master of appearing all things to all people. In any case, this author’s unsympathetic description of trading justices (the ‘common people … apply to them upon every trivial occasion, to gratify their own spleen and malice against their neighbours’) demonstrates just how important they had become to the poor by 1748. As Landau argues, ‘to some extent, the demands of the urban poor therefore created the trading justice’.184 However, they also played an important role for the state, which explains why many were allowed to remain in the commission. Describing trading justices as ‘necessary evils’, the author of the Memoirs continued, ‘if there were not such little magistrates, the laws could not be well put in execution, or the common people kept within any bounds in regard to their superiors, or to one another’.185
Conflicts over the enforcement of the Gin Acts opened up dramatic differences among justices of the peace in terms of their approach to the enforcement of the law. Responding to the growing demand among the poor for accessible justice, ‘trading justices’ offered an important counterpoint to the more bureaucratic justice attempted by Thomas De Veil, and later, and more successfully, by Henry and John Fielding.
In the aftermath of the failure of the Gin Acts to modify popular behaviour, the authorities focused on a new source of social anxiety: criminal gangs. In the modern, sociological sense of a group with a clear membership and rituals of collective identity, gangs did not exist in the eighteenth century.186 Nonetheless, there were criminals in London who belonged to loose subcultures, in which thieves and their families, friends and neighbours defended each other against arrest and prosecution. These groups may have been weakly organised, but in shifting alliances they carried out crimes together over periods of months and even years. In the 1720s, gangs coalesced around prolific robbers such as John and William Hawkins, James Shaw, Edward Burnworth, James Carrick and others, and they form part of the defiant criminal culture of that decade.187 In the following decade, other gangs came to the attention of the authorities and the press. Thomas MacCray , sometime solicitor and highwayman, led a gang in the early 1730s which allegedly planned to assassinate Thomas De Veil in retribution for his attempts to prosecute them.188 And Mary Young , alias Jenny Diver, was portrayed as the leader of a large gang of pickpockets following her arrest in 1741.189
However, by far the most substantial and frightening gang active in these years was the Black Boy Alley gang, named after a turning off Chick Lane on the western edge of the City of London – one of the ill-policed boundary areas that surrounded the City. In the autumn of 1744, press reporting of the activities of this gang precipitated a ‘moral panic’ about highway robbery.190 Even if the gang was depicted as a more formidable threat than was actually the case, the crimes and acts of resistance committed by members of this group constituted a genuine threat to public order. Not only did they break the law with impunity, but they were also frequently successful in defending themselves from arrest and conviction.
The Black Boy Alley gang may have been active for years (one member, William Norwell , told the Ordinary of Newgate in December 1744 that ‘he had been a Street-Robber for these seven Years past’), but its role in a spate of street robberies in September 1744 marked a significant escalation of its activities and attracted the attention of the authorities.191 The gang was feared not simply for the number of crimes they committed but for their violence and audacity, and for the direct challenge they seemed to pose to authority. Over the course of that autumn, victims retailed horrific stories of violent assaults by members of the gang, who were often described as only ‘boys’. One victim, Thomas Welldy, testified that he was walking in Moorfields in November, when Robert Carter , ‘a little boy’, and a woman came up to him, and said:192
D – n your eyes, what do you want? the little boy drew a knife at me, and said he would immediately let my puddings out, if I did not let him have what I had; the woman had a knife, and she threatened to rip me up.193
William Harper , who turned king’s evidence, testified that William Billingsly and John Potbury ‘were generally very cruel; for if a person did but turn about to look at them, they would knock them down’.194 One identified gang member, Joseph Field , exposed what were thought to be its normal procedures by allegedly telling his confederates ‘it was wrong to cut and slash People after they had robbed them’.195
The gang’s apparently large size and willingness to rescue members who had been arrested also constituted a direct challenge to authority. Harper explained that the gang ‘always helped one another, if they knew them … If we met a man with a Constable in the Street … we went to rescue him.’196 Following the arrest of two boys accused of robbery in September, their victims reported, ‘up came four or five lusty fellows and said, D—n your eyes let them go, or we will cut you as small as sausages’.197 After Joseph Field was apprehended picking a gentleman’s pocket in 1742, his accomplice William Billingsly followed him as he was taken to Thomas De Veil ’s house for examination, and then put in a coach to be taken to Newgate prison. In the words of the Ordinary of Newgate, Billingsly,
seeing that, immediately makes the best of his Way to Black-Boy-Alley, in Chick Lane, to raise a Posse to rescue him; he got six of his own Gang, and all had got large Broomsticks; just at Holborn Bars they met the Coach, and one of them went to the Coachman and ordered him to stop his Horses, or else he would knock his Brains out, whilst the others got to the Coach-door, and let out their Companion, and carried him off in Triumph to Black-Boy-Alley, in Defiance of Justice.198
The challenge to authority was explicit. When Edward Jones, the City Marshall, attempted to arrest Billingsley in Drury Lane two years later, ‘he made his Escape, and in 3 Minutes rais’d a Posse of twelve Villains, arm’d with Cutlasses, and two with Pistols, who all together attack’d Mr Jones’ and his assistants. When the officers drew their guns and threatened to fire, they ‘were so far from being intimidated, that they cried out, “We know what you have been about, and defy all Power”’. Returning fire, they wounded Jones and escaped.199
This was a group with a clear sense of collective opposition to authority, adept at using threatening language to manifest their power. Welldy reported that one of his attackers said to him in November, as ‘he gave me a great blow, … D – n your eyes, take that, all the black-boy-alley boys are not taken yet’.200 Allegiance to the group was cemented by their ‘custom’, in the words of the Ordinary of Newgate, of giving ‘foolish, insignificant Nick Names to one another’.201 One trial in December 1744 included John Potbury, otherwise Jack the Sailor, William Billingsly, otherwise Gugg, and Henry Gadd , otherwise Scampey.202 The accomplice who testified against them, William Harper, was known as Old Daddy or Old Man.
As a result of the group’s violence and resistance to authority, Black Boy Alley itself became a dangerous place for constables and the watch. When Alexander Forfar, thief-taker and headborough of the parish of St James Clerkenwell, along with five assistants including Robert Montgomery attempted to make an arrest at the house of Joseph Field , they were denied entrance, attacked by a mob, wounded and eventually driven off.203 As a witness later reported, ‘the people said that Montgomery and the constable were attacked by the people of Black Boy Alley’.204 A few days later twelve men went to the house of one of the constables involved, William Body , a prominent thief-taker, who testified that they ‘came to his house with drawn cutlasses in their hands, and pistols cocked, and said, D – n their Eyes and Blood, we will have him out of his house, for we will have his Head, and this Night his Brains shall be broiled in Black-Boy-Alley’.205
Sensationalist reporting of these attacks in the newspapers in the second half of 1744 stimulated public fears about street robbers and gangs, as Londoners came to believe they were under siege.206 In response, the authorities increased the rewards for apprehending offenders. In September Portsoken Ward offered a reward for ‘apprehending any of the persons concerned’ in the attack on Alexander Forfar.207 In the same month the vestry of St Clement Danes, noting that ‘The Highways & Streets in this Parish being of late greatly infested by a Notorious Gang of Street Robbers & Pick pockets’ and acting like other select vestries in a quasi-judicial capacity, offered a reward of ten guineas for the arrest of any gang member.208 A month later, in November, the state reissued its proclamation offering the still larger reward of one hundred pounds, in addition to the statutory reward of forty pounds, for the conviction of robbers, while the City of London offered five pounds simply for the arrest of suspects.209
As intended, these rewards attracted the attention of thief-takers, and together with searches undertaken by the constables, this led to a significant increase in the number of indictments for highway robbery tried at the Old Bailey.210 While the first five meetings of the court in 1744 averaged 2.2 indictments per session, the next three sessions, in September, October and December, saw an average of 18 indictments each. Many of those charged that autumn were members of the Black Boy Alley gang: nineteen members, including four women, were tried at the Old Bailey for highway robbery in the last four months of the year.
Many of these prosecutions were initiated by thief-takers. Although in part discredited by the conviction of Jonathan Wild, ‘thief-taking’ had continued after his execution in 1725. Supported by rewards, the practice thrived on the back of both the authorities’ desire to prosecute threatening criminals and the victims’ desire to get their goods back. Judging by the distribution of rewards recorded in the City, John Beattie suggests there was a significant increase in the number of thief-takers active in the 1740s, explicitly encouraged by magistrates, including De Veil.211 The rewards offered in late 1744 provided a lucrative new opportunity, and thief-takers, including Alexander Forfar and William Body, seized the moment. Both played a major role in prosecuting alleged members of the Black Boy Alley gang, often on the basis of dubious evidence. Of the forty-two individuals who shared in rewards for the conviction of purported members of the gang, amounting to £1,400 by December 1744, at least half were thief-takers or constables. These included John Berry and Stephen McDaniel , whose thief-taking activities date back to 1735 and 1741 respectively, and whose later involvement in thief-making scandals in 1747 and 1754 points to their direct involvement as active collaborators in crime.212
Some of the trials of the Black Boy Alley gang in 1744 were simple stitch ups. The ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of Ann Collier for assaulting Alexander Forfar and stealing a silk handkerchief, powder horn and pistol in December 1744, for example, was based on weak evidence and exposed the thief-takers’ own criminal pursuit of rewards at any cost.213 Forfar had received £5 9s. for his part in the conviction of Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot in October, but appears to have fallen out with his fellow thief-takers over the distribution of this and other rewards.214 In Collier’s trial Forfar provided the only direct evidence implicating her, while the other prosecution witnesses refused to provide positive confirmation of her participation in the violent attack on Forfar. This not only undermined his testimony but also focused the legal spotlight on Forfar himself. John Blewmire, described by Forfar as ‘my constable’, turned on him and testified that the prosecution of Collier was motivated by greed alone. He reported that Forfar told him,’now is the time, ‘tis near Christmas, if you have a mind for a piece of beef, we may keep Christmas well if Nan Collier was convicted, and a little matter will hang her’.215 While this did not necessarily mean that the allegations against Collier were fabricated, the evidence of Robert Marcrost, a marshals’ court officer, did. Referring to William Harper, who turned king’s evidence following his own arrest, Marcrost told the court that Forfar had ‘agreed to swear that Harper was at the riot, whether he was or was not, and that he had robbed him of the pistol’, claiming that Harper would be convicted simply because he lived in Black Boy Alley: ’’tis a bad place, the very sanction of Black-boy-alley will hang an hundred of them with very little evidence, no matter who swears’. With respect to Ann Collier, Marcrost testified that Forfar,
said it was worth while to prosecute her, and if he did not, some body else would, for there would be an hundred pieces for her by the late Proclamation. – I believe Forfar does this for the sake of the reward, and nothing else, for he is a very wicked man.
Despite the dubious quality of the evidence provided by the character witnesses called in her defence, including William Buckland ‘s comment that’she had the general character of keeping a very bad house, and harboured thieves; I have heard Murder cried out there‘, Collier was acquitted.216 It is no wonder, in John Beattie ’s words, that thief-takers were ’hated by a large part of the population’.217
In response to this wave of often false prosecutions, members of the Black Boy Alley gang and others sought and obtained legal advice, from both solicitors and barristers. This was not entirely new in 1744; we have already noted the use made of the law and lawyers by those accused of running disorderly houses in the 1720s, and Dabhoiwala notes that it ‘was not uncommon for solicitors and barristers’ to defend bawds and their associates in the 1730s.218 Other accused criminals followed suit in the 1730s, with members of the MacCray and Wreathock gangs, both of which were actually led by solicitors, at the forefront of this development. As claimed in De Veil’s purported Memoirs , some gang members
were retainers to the law, who understood all the dark arts that qualified Newgate solicitors, and these fellows provided and managed everything, and that too with such dexterity, that there was nothing they could not prove, or disprove upon very short notice.219
While solicitors had been assisting defendants for decades, counsel for the defence in felony trials, however, were not allowed to appear at the Old Bailey until 1732 (prosecution counsel had been permitted from the 1720s). As John Langbein has argued, the ‘epochal decision’ to admit defence counsel was strongly influenced by two scandals involving perjured prosecution evidence given for the sake of obtaining rewards in 1732.220 One involved the notorious informer John Waller, who was convicted of perjury in May for falsely charging John Edlin with highway robbery.221 When, as his punishment, Waller was placed on the pillory he was violently attacked and killed by a mob led by Edward Dalton, brother of the executed highwayman James Dalton.222
To rebalance the legal process, the judges decided to allow defendants access to legal counsel to challenge precisely the kind of perjured evidence used in this case, although until 1836 defence counsel were not allowed to address the jury on matters of fact.223 However, while it was the judges who agreed to allow this change in 1732, defence counsel would only begin to appear in significant numbers when defendants decided to hire them. This only happened in 1744, as criminal gangs began to rely on counsel to defend themselves. In this sense, while the judges permitted defence counsel to appear, it was the actions of those accused of crime that actually led to the ‘lawyerisation’ of the criminal trial. While plebeian Londoners may have struggled to raise the minimum fee of half a guinea required to hire a barrister, evidence from the 1780s demonstrates that it was possible. Despite claims that ‘only the affluent had defence counsel’, defendants with legal representation included a significant number of artisans, labourers, servants and even prostitutes.224
Before the 1780s, reporting of the role of lawyers in the Old Bailey Proceedings was inconsistent, but the evidence available suggests that defence counsel were present in only a handful of trials in the 1730s, primarily in cases involving middle-class or elite defendants. Langbein identifies only nine trials involving defence lawyers in 1736, accounting for just 1.8 per cent of the trials that year, while Landsman counted fifteen the following year, or 3.4 per cent of all trials.225 However, 1737 was atypical and the number of trials involving defence counsel remained in single figures until 1744. Including the four lawyers hired to prosecute him, and following three failed attempts to secure defence counsel, William Bird’s trial probably exhausted the list of barristers willing to act in this capacity on both sides in 1742. The autumn of 1744 witnessed a step change in this pattern.
Of the at least twenty-four trials in 1744 where defence counsel appeared (accounting for 6.3 per cent of all trials), almost half (eleven) involved charges of highway robbery, and many of these involved members of the Black Boy Alley gang.226 Before 1744 there are only two cases of highway robbery in the entire run of the Proceedings in which defence counsel were clearly present. In contrast, between 1744 and 1748 13.5 per cent of the defendants charged with highway robbery had counsel.227 Thus, the significant increase in the presence of defence counsel in Old Bailey trials in 1744 was driven by the actions of defendants accused of highway robbery. Moreover, as the data from sample years in Figure 4.6 show, from the mid-1740s use of defence counsel exceeded that of prosecution counsel, further underlining the point that it was the former which drove the lawyerisation of the criminal trial. This pattern, though subject to fluctuations, was largely maintained into the following decade, with defence counsel making up an increasing proportion of the total number of counsel present.
Source: This database and chart are based on data for selected years collected by John Beattie, ‘Scales of justice: defense counsel and the English criminal trial in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Law and History Review, 9 , 227 and Stephen Landsman ‘The rise of the contentious spirit: advocacy procedure in eighteenth-century England’, Cornell Law Review, 75 , 607; and the Old Bailey Online, keyword search for: counsel, council, councel, counc* etc.; and cross examined and cross examination.
NB: counsel were usually, but not always, present in trials which include the terms cross examined or cross examination. Where both Beattie and Landsman provide figures for the same years, the higher figure was used when calculating percentages. At the time of writing, Beattie is in the process of revising his figures.
Online dataset: Legal Counsel at the Old Bailey 1715-1800 (xlsx)
These lawyers were effective, developing new strategies for challenging and cross-examining prosecution witnesses which began to alter the balance of power in criminal trials. Their presence may have encouraged the development of the ‘corroboration rule’, in which defendants were acquitted if the only evidence against them came from an accomplice turning king’s evidence. Langbein notes the ‘sudden’ application of this practice in three trials at the height of the prosecutions of the Black Boy Alley gang in December 1744, including that of street robbers Edward and John Hill (father and son).228 Where thief-takers were involved, as we have seen in the trial of Ann Collier , counsel often discredited victims and witnesses by accusing them of being motivated by greed.229 In the trial of Samuel Goodman for robbing Mary Footman, for example, Footman was aggressively cross-examined by an unnamed lawyer who asked her, ’‘Tis for the sake of the great reward, I suppose that you do this?’ Similarly, her husband was asked, ‘Did not you know of the reward which is promised for taking of street robbers?’230 In other trials counsel went further and suggested that, like Jonathan Wild, thief-takers had staged the crimes in order to collect the reward. In the trial of the Hills for robbing Elizabeth Quaite, counsel asked the victim: ‘Was not you directed to go into the King’s Road in order to be robbed?’, while her husband Francis was asked, ‘Did not you go out that night on purpose to go a thief-taking?’231 These and other defence strategies were remarkably successful, leading to a significantly higher acquittal rate when defence counsel was present. Of the twenty trials for highway robbery between 1744 and 1748 which demonstrably included defence counsel, fourteen (70 per cent), ended in acquittals. In comparison, when counsel were not present only 42 per cent were acquitted.
Unsurprisingly, defendants who did not have counsel began to use the same techniques. In December 1744, at his third trial at the Old Bailey in three months, Theophilus Watson challenged the evidence of his accomplice turned prosecution witness William Harper: ‘Did not the thieftakers after you were taken up, threaten to hang you if you did not make a discovery of such and such things; and you said then you did not know any thing of them?’232 When William Taylor was charged with pickpocketing the following month on the evidence of two thief-takers, Charles Remington and William Palmer Hind , Taylor attacked the thief-takers and attempted to shift the blame onto an accomplice who had turned king’s evidence (and was in fact another thief-taker), Stephen McDonald (possibly an alias of Stephen McDaniel ).233 He told the court: ‘McDonald is the person who took the handkerchief out of the gentleman’s pocket, and now he wants to push it upon me. They (the prosecution) are the greatest rogues and thief-takers in the world; they do it for the sake of the reward.’234 Tactics such as these, learned by Old Bailey defendants from their fellow prisoners at Newgate or from watching or reading about Old Bailey trials, were adopted by defendants even when they were unable to afford counsel. In this way the more vigorous efforts to combat crime in 1744 were matched by the growing sophistication of the strategies used by defendants in court.
Consequently, the Black Boy Alley gang survived the moral panic. Despite the execution of nine men and women associated with the gang in December 1744, the Alley continued to be a centre of criminal activity. In 1747 William Body testified at the Old Bailey that when he attempted to arrest two street robbers on nearby Chick Lane in July, ‘there was so many of them, that we were afraid to attack them’. And when he accidentally encountered the two robbers the following Saturday between 10 and 11 in the morning, ‘I was knock’d down; and I must speak it to the Praise of the House-keepers of Chick-lane, not one of them came to my Assistance.’235
In the first instance, the response at both local and national level to an apparent epidemic of gang-related crime in 1744 was to increase the rewards available for the prosecution and conviction of highway robbers. This, as we have seen, led to a significant expansion in thief-taking, and, like the gang itself, thief-takers continued active after 1744. Later in the decade, the activities of men such as William Palmer Hind, Charles Remington and Stephen McDaniel set the stage for Henry Fielding’s only partially successful attempt to reform thief-takers through the creation of his influential group of ‘runners’ in 1749. Both corrupt thief-takers and gangs continued to plague London into the 1750s, when the McDaniel gang combined these two forms of criminality and caused a major scandal in 1754.
The anxiety generated by the Black Boy Alley gang may also have contributed to a change in the tone and content of the Ordinary’s Accounts. In the 1730s, when the Accounts were published by John Applebee, they had expanded to include, in addition to the usual biographies of those convicted at Tyburn, ‘lengthy appendices containing letters and supposed autobiographies of some of the most notorious criminals’. These included stories of highwaymen’s ‘pranks’ and ‘frolicks’ involving thefts from misers, lawyers and quack doctors, which had ‘the ring, if not exactly of verisimilitude, at least of popular appropriation and self-representation’. In some cases these sympathetic representations of criminal behaviour included highwaymen’s justifications for their crimes, such as Tom Easter’s claim that he ‘rob[s] the Rich to give to the Poor’.236 Following the December 1744 issue of the Account, however, which included a lengthy if unsympathetic account of the crimes of the ‘profligate Sett of audacious Bloodthirsty, desperate, and harden’d Villains’ who comprised the Black Boy Alley gang, the Ordinary, James Guthrie, sacked Applebee.237 Henceforth, the Accounts became more serious and less empathetic. When Mary Cooper took over as printer in June 1745, the title page announced that the tone would be raised. In contrast to the previous ‘stile and language [which was] a little too gross and indelicate’, the Accounts would now express a more censorious view of crime, in which criminals were described as ‘poor wretches’ and ‘born thieves’, and the Account itself was reframed as an attempt to educate the ‘better kind of readers’ in their obligations to devise more effective means of preventing crime.238 The activities of the Black Boy Alley gang in 1744 and the responses they provoked resulted in significant changes, played out both in the short term and in ensuing decades, to policing, the criminal trial and the literature of crime.
In two decades marked by relatively high wages, low prices and generally fine weather, but also by concerns (and some real threats) about gin drinking, criminal gangs and the growing cost of poor relief (and the corruption of those who administered it), elite Londoners attempted to create a new system of governance. In the parishes the ‘Antient Inhabitants’ were increasingly excluded from the select vestries, which in turn took on the legal powers of a petty sessions. While many ‘trading justices’ resisted, Thomas De Veil and his allies sought to create a more systematic approach to policing. They sought to use informers, thief-takers and rewards to attack the problems of gin and gangs. The night watch in Westminster was put on a new legal footing, and the Court of Burgesses was finally eclipsed. In the City, the first rotation office, providing a regular system of justice, was opened for business. And finally, the associational charities created a system for relieving the most sympathetic forms of poverty to the exclusion of all others.
However, at almost every turn reformers were faced with opposition. Petty householders in the parishes opposed the select vestries, using petitions, rate revolts and simple force of numbers to try and hold them in check (albeit with limited success), while the justices were simply attacked. Their houses were mobbed, their prisoners rescued and informers and thief-takers were brutally assaulted with all the violence and shaming strategies of the early modern communal tradition. Using their strength in numbers as well as their new access to legal counsel, Londoners rose up in defence of the right of ‘mobbing a justice now and then’.
To some degree these disputes can be mapped onto contemporary political divisions. The tradition of popular Jacobitism with its inchoate appeal to warm beer and neighbourliness provided one cultural context, while many justices and vestrymen were part of a culture of clientage, their actions motivated by a sycophantic dependency on the whig aristocracy.239 Certainly the opponents of the Gin Acts rendered their message more potent when they shouted ‘No Gin, No King’, and highwaymen, smugglers and poachers sometimes justified their crimes in Jacobite language.240 However, for plebeian London these battles were more closely concerned with the visceral and monetary issues of poverty and taxation, and a desire for community stability, rather than with the rights of distant princes, whether Stuart or Hanoverian.
By 1748, many aspects of the new systems of policing and parish governance had been challenged. The publication of two pamphlets seeking to defend the reputation of Thomas De Veil following his death in 1746 is just one measure of the extent to which he divided opinion.241 The annual cycle of destruction meted out on the St Martin’s roundhouse, the final collapse of the reformation of manners campaign and the abandonment of the attempt to suppress gin sellers all speak of an oppositional plebeian culture that left many, with De Veil, ‘pale and passive’ in the face of a wider population.242 With the occasional support of Old Bailey jurors and others, London’s poor had achieved some substantial victories. In the workhouses new medical provisions were created to meet their demands for care, while in the courts they brought in defence counsel to rebalance the scales of justice. Thief-takers walked in fear, and the informers dared not accept their rewards. More problematically (because the poor were victims as well as perpetrators of violence), a self-confident criminal culture survived the sporadic attempts to suppress it. And if, in the end, many of the popular battles fought against change were lost, the developments of these years had created opportunities for plebeian Londoners to manipulate the system, while enhancing their culture of opposition.
Faced with reform, many poorer Londoners, like the highwayman Henry Simms and the ballad singer and thief Mary Cut and Come-again, simply resisted. Simms was described by the Ordinary of Newgate, ‘as famous a Thief as ever yet adorn’d the Gallows’.243 When he turned king’s evidence after his arrest in March 1745, he retracted in court all the charges he had laid against his accomplices following his arrest, telling the incredulous judges, while smiling, that ‘not a word’ of his previous information was true and, in effect, challenging the judges to do something about it.244 He was not prosecuted for perjury, and when he was finally convicted and sentenced to death in February 1747, he apparently assisted in the publication of a subversive pamphlet, Hanging no Dishonour , which claimed that the corruption of kings, statesmen and ministers was a far greater evil than the crimes of a small ‘rogue’ like ‘Gentleman Harry, [who] is but a Novice in Wickedness to one of them’.245
Also arrested in 1745, Mary Cut and Come-again similarly challenged the court.246 Mary refused to divulge her real name until just before her death and declared that if she had to suffer a system that left her excluded and powerless, well: ‘D–n my eyes then I shall have a ride for the money’.247
Grace Powell’s settlement examination states that her husband Daniel, a shoemaker, had died some three months earlier, and that she was pregnant in December 1735. LL, St Martin in the Fields Settlement Examinations, 6 December 1735 (smdsset_22_2276). Our thanks to Jeremy Boulton for additional details on Grace’s background.↩
In 1732, the rate reached 49.7 per cent, and in 1747, 40.4 per cent. The average for the period 1731 to 1748 was 37.6 per cent. See Old Bailey Online, Statistics: Verdicts by year, 1731–48 (counting by defendant).↩
Brian R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 754–6; E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England, 1541–1871: A Reconstruction (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), p. 432, Figure 10.12; and Leonard Schwarz, ‘The standard of living in the long run: London, 1700–1860’, Economic History Review, 2nd Series, 38:1 (1985), 24–41. This is not to suggest that the economy as a whole was necessarily thriving. The London building trades in particular stagnated in these decades. See Leonard Schwarz, London in the Age of Industrialisation: Entrepreneurs, Labour Force and Living Conditions, 1700–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 79–83.↩
Tim Joslin estimates that in combination, the mild conditions of the 1730s and the harsh winter of 1739–40 represent a one in 10,000 year event. See ‘1740 and all that’, 6 March 2010 (unchartedterritory.wordpress.com, 1 Jan. 2014). These same conditions created a famine in Ireland in the subsequent year.↩
The ice was thick enough to support dozens of tented businesses, including a printing press. See British Museum Collection Online, An Exact Draught of Frost Fair on the River Thames as it Appear’d from White Hall Stairs in the Year 1740 (1889,0420.112); and Printed Ticket from the 1739–40 Frost Fair on the Thames (1880,1113.1802).↩
Comparing admissions, 1–31 Jan. 1740, to admissions, 1–31 Jan. 1739. LL, St Martin in the Fields Workhouse Registers 1725 to 1819, gives a higher overall figure (397), but this has been corrected to account for duplicate entries in the registers. In 1739 wheat prices climbed 23.6 per cent above the thirty-one-year average, and the following spring of 1740 witnessed actual dearth (50.5 per cent above average): W. G. Hoskins, ‘Harvest fluctuations and English economic history, 1620–1759’, Agricultural History Review, 16:1 (1968), 31.↩
See Tim Hitchcock, ‘Unlawfully begotten on her body: illegitimacy and the parish poor in St Luke Chelsea’, in Tim Hitchcock et al., eds., Chronicling Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640–1840 (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1997), pp. 76, 84 (nn. 12 and 13). A similar pattern has also been identified in St Marylebone: Alysa Levene, ‘Children, childhood and the workhouse: St Marylebone, 1769–1781’, London Journal, 9:1 (2008), 41–60.↩
See Timothy Hitchcock, ‘The English workhouse: a study of institutional poor relief in selected counties, 1696–1750’ (D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford University, 1985), Appendix, pp. 270–5. The London Workhouse has been excluded from this total.↩
LMA, St Bride Fleet Street, ‘Vestry minutes’, 1715–27, P69/BRI/B/001/MS06554/004, 9 March 1726–7; St Bride Fleet Street, ‘Vestry minutes’, 1727–66, P69/BRI/B/001/MS06554/005, 25 April 1728, f. 4; and St Bride Fleet Street, ‘Miscellaneous parish papers’, 1666–1756, P69/BRI/B/012/MS06570/002, no. 181.↩
LMA, St Ann Blackfriars, ‘Workhouse committee book’, 1734–67, P69/ANN/B/074/MS08690, 25 July 1734.↩
The population of the parishes with a workhouse total some 339,000 according to figures calculated from the Bills of Mortality. This same source puts the overall population at 587,000 in the 1740s. Both figures are dubious and are probably underestimates, but they reflect a realistic order of magnitude and proportion. See Locating London’s Past, Estimating London’s Population. The underlying spreadsheet can be downloaded from the website (www.locatinglondon.org/static/population.html).↩
There is also a mention of a sister Margaret for the first decade. See LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries, 18 November 1716 – 3 June 1725 (WCCDMV362130035), 7 November 1717.↩
In 1818 the parliamentary returns recorded the parish as being in receipt of £32 8s. 8d. per annum from its charitable holdings: PP, ‘Abridgement of abstract of answers and returns relative to expense and maintenance of poor in England and Wales’, 1818, pp. 266–7.↩
At least thirty people with the surname ‘Dionis’ appear in the parish records for St Dionis Backchurch. These include Timothy Dionis , a foundling baptised in 1704 who continued to receive parish relief until his death in 1765, and Charlotte Dionis , who was born in 1761 and disappears from the records in 1781, having received extensive support from the parish over the previous twenty years. See LL, Deirdre Palk, ‘Timothy Dionis, 1704–1765’, and Deirdre Palk, ‘Charlotte Dionis, b. 1761’.↩
He is listed, for, instance, as paying 13s. in 1730. LL, St Dionis Backchurch Parish: Churchwarden’s Vouchers/Receipts, 7 May 1727 – 1 June 1748 (GLDBPP307000019), 30 October 1730.↩
In the parish’s comprehensive listing of ward and parish officers, Clifton is listed as having first served the ward from 18 December 1734; and to have last served the parish on 17 April 1740. See LL, St Dionis Backchurch Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries, 24 April 1712 – 20 February 1759 (GLDBMV305010221), 18 December 1734; and St Dionis Backchurch Parish: Miscellaneous Parish and Bridewell Papers, 1 January 1708 – 4 May 1742 (GLDBPM306090027).↩
For a comprehensive treatment of the role of the St Martin’s workhouse in the provision of medical care, see Jeremy Boulton and Leonard Schwarz, ‘The parish workhouse, the parish and parochial medical provision in eighteenth-century London’, in Pauper Lives in Georgian London and Manchester (research.ncl.ac.uk/pauperlives, 1 Jan. 2014). See also Jeremy Boulton, Romola Davenport and Leonard Schwarz, “These ANTE-CHAMBERS OF THE GRAVE”? Mortality, medicine and the ‘workhouse in Georgian London’, in Jonathan Reinarz and Leonard Schwarz, eds., Medicine and the Workhouse (University of Rochester Press, 2013), pp. 58–85, and Kevin P. Siena, Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor: London’s ‘Foul Wards’ 1600–1800 (Rochester University Press, 2004), pp. 152–61.↩
WAC, St Martin in the Fields, ‘Vestry minutes’, 1716–39, STM/F/1/2006, 23 August 1736, p. 454.↩
For the impact of the establishment of the workhouse in 1725 on the provision of parish relief in St Martin’s, see Jeremy Boulton, ‘Welfare systems and the parish nurse in early modern London, 1650–1725’, Family & Community History, 10:2 (2007), 127–51.↩
This percentage is based on a birth rate of one child per thirty-five of the population, calculated from the Bills of Mortality for Westminster for the 1740s. This calculation gives an overall figure of approximately 786 births for a population of 27,502 for the parish as a whole. See LL, St Martin in the Fields Workhouse Registers 1725–1824, ‘Westminster population estimates’, 1740s (Online dataset: St Martins Workhouse Registers.xlsx).↩
Based on all entries in the dataset where the word ‘born’ is present, for the period 1 Jan. 1739 to 31 Dec. 1741. See LL, St Martin in the Fields Workhouse Registers: ’Born*’. These figures have been edited to eliminate duplicate entries.↩
Poor Relief Expenditure for St Clement Danes, 1706–1803 (Online dataset: St Clement Danes Poor Law Expenditure 1706–1803.xlsx).↩
The term ‘select justice’ is used by Joseph Phipps, The Vestry Laid Open (2nd edn, 1739), p. 26.↩
These new parishes normally took the form of government that existed in the parish from which they were created. So St George Hanover Square, carved from St Martin in the Fields in 1724, simply reproduced the select vestry system in place in St Martin’s and appealed to its mother parish for precedent and authority when defending its organisation in court.↩
The Report of the Committee Appointed by a General Vestry of the Inhabitants of the Parish of St Botolph without Aldersgate, London: February 22d 1732. With some methods proposed to prevent abuses for the future (1733), pp. 6–13.↩
Richard Scarr was active in the campaign for a general vestry. The manuscript elements are reproduced with a copy of the printed report as one of two copies available through Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. See Report of the Committee Appointed, image 98.↩
PP, Journals of the House of Commons, 7–8 March 1733–4, p. 273.↩
PP, Journals of the House of Commons, 12–13 March, 1733–4, p. 278. For the role of the parishes in killing the bill, see Elaine A. Reynolds, Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720–1830 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p. 16.↩
St Paul Covent Garden had an open or general vestry, in contrast to the others. St George Hanover Square and St James’s, 8 George II c. 15; St Martin in the Fields, 9 George II c. 8; St Paul Covent Garden, 9 George II c. 13; St Anne, 9 George II c. 19; St Margaret and St John, 9 George II c. 17.↩
The most comprehensive account of the politics and evolution of parochial government in Westminster in this period remains Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, English Local Government, Vol. I: The Parish and the County (London: Frank Cass, 1906; repr. 1963), pp. 227–62. For a recent account of the evolution of the watch, which identifies concerns about crime as a key motivating force, see Reynolds, Before the Bobbies.↩
PP, Journals of the House of Commons, 18 March 1735, p. 420. This account appears to refer to the same individual who was arrested and sent to Bridewell on the orders of Sir John Gonson in September 1731. ‘Philanthropos’, writing in The Daily Courant, expressed the fear that allowing this beggar to go free would result in his disfigurement being passed onto the children of the aristocracy. Daily Courant, 20 September 1731 (Burney).↩
PP, Journals of the House of Commons, 27–28 February 1734, p. 395.↩
In that year the vestry at St Clement Danes received a request from ‘the Petty Sessions at St Martyn’s Vestry’ asking that the parish nominate an officer to attend this new hybrid institution. LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries (WCCDMV362120238), 13 April 1715.↩
Lee Davison et al., ‘The reactive state: English governance and society, 1689–1750’, in Lee Davison et al., eds., Stilling the Grumbling Hive: The Response to Social and Economic Problems in England, 1689–1750 (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992), pp. xxxvi–xxxvii.↩
Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Thomas De Veil, Knight, One of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, for the Counties of Middlesex, Essex, Surrey and Hertfordshire, The City and Liberty of Westminster, The Tower of London, and the Liberties thereof, &c. (1748), p. 46.↩
Phipps, Vestry Laid Open, p. 26. A similar Act for the City of London carefully located the right to rate householders for the nightly watch in the wards rather than in the parish vestries. John Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London 1660–1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 192–7.↩
‘An Act for the better regulating the nightly watch and beadles within the parish of St Martin in the Fields’, 9 George II c. 8. A manuscript version of the Act is contained in WAC, St Martin in the Fields Parish Records, ‘Vestry draft minutes’, F2028, 1736–54, pp. 1–5. For a sense of the sophistication of the parish administration of St Martin in the Fields, see Jeremy Boulton, ‘Going on the parish: the parish pension and its meaning in the London suburbs, 1640–1724’, in Hitchcock et al., eds., Chronicling Poverty, pp. 19–46; and for a brief introduction to the variety of materials produced by the administration of this parish, see Jeremy Boulton, ‘The most visible poor in England? Constructing pauper biographies in early-modern Westminster’, Westminster Historical Review, 1 (1997), 13–21.↩
WAC, St Martin in the Fields Parish Records, ‘Vestry draft minutes’, F2028, 1736–54, pp. 19–20.↩
‘Vestry draft minutes’, 1736–54, p. 24.↩
‘Vestry draft minutes’, 1736–54, pp. 30, 34–5.↩
‘Vestry draft minutes’, 1736–54, p. 102.↩
The vestry determined on building a house in December 1724, but it was not completed until three years later. The house was built on the local burying ground, over the objection that the putrid exhalations of the dead would harm the poor; and a few years later was described as housing 302 paupers, in a ‘new spacious brick house’. WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1759, 1712–36, pp. 270–1; for discussion of the health issues associated with the burial ground, see pp. 272–5. See also An Account of Several Workhouses (2nd edn, 1732), p. 54.↩
WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1759, 1712–36, pp. 343–4.↩
WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1759, 1712–36, p. 339.↩
WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1760, 1736–50, pp. 50, 115.↩
WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1760, 1736–50, pp. 149–50.↩
WAC, St James Westminster, ‘Vestry minutes’, D1760, 1736–50, pp. 177–8.↩
The best account of these developments, and the basis for much of this discussion is Gillian Williamson, ‘The nature of mid-eighteenth-century popular politics in the City of Westminster: the select vestry committee of 1742 and the parish of St George Hanover Square’ (MA thesis, Birkbeck College, London, 2008). It is noteworthy that this was the same tavern used for meetings of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. See The Address Published by the London Corresponding Society, at the General Meeting, Held at the Globe Tavern, Strand, on Monday the 20th of January, 1794 [London, 1794]; and William Cobbett and David Jardine, Complete collection of state trials and proceedings for … 1794, Vol. XXIII (1817), p. 1233.↩
This campaign can also be seen against the backdrop of the febrile parliamentary politics of 1741 and 1742, but unlike most parliamentary activity, the anti-vestry committee was not apparently subject to elite patronage or direction. Williamson, ‘Mid-eighteenth-century popular politics’, pp. 16–20.↩
PP, Journals of the House of Commons, 4 May 1742, pp. 196–7, 200–1.↩
Williamson, ‘Mid-eighteenth-century popular politics’, p. 28 and fn. 94.↩
Williamson, ‘Mid-eighteenth-century popular politics’, p. 34.↩
Webb and Webb, Parish and the County, p. 259; King’s Bench, Ferrers v. Nind, 1744. See James Manning and Archer Ryland, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King’s Bench (1828), pp. 649–51.↩
For more detailed accounts of the roundhouse disaster, see Tim Hitchcock, ‘You bitches … die and be damned: gender, authority and the mob in St Martin’s roundhouse disaster of 1742’, in Tim Hitchcock and Heather Shore, eds., The Streets of London from the Great Fire to the Great Stink (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2003), pp. 69–81; and Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006), pp. 35–42.↩
LL, set, ‘Elizabeth Amey’. See LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 13 October 1742 (t17421013-19). Amey claimed that she had worked as a waiter.↩
The site is shown on a map included in Survey of London, Vol. XX: Trafalgar Square and Neighbourhood, ed. George Gater and Walter H. Godfrey (The Parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Part III, 1940), plate 2 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol20/pt3).↩
LL, set, ‘James Frazier’. By the following morning the whole front of the roundhouse had been reduced to rubble. WAC, St Martin in the Fields, Parish Records, ‘Vestry draft minutes’, F2028, 1736–54, pp. 253–4.↩
The Champion; or the Evening Advertiser, 20 July 1742 (Burney).↩
The London Evening-Post, 15–17 July 1742 (Burney). The same advertisement is reproduced in The Annals of Europe for the year 1742, pp. 307–11. At the trial De Veil disclaimed responsibility for this publication and challenged William Bird to ‘prove… [he] put anything in the News’. See LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 9 September 1742 (t17420909-37).↩
At his trial Bird claimed that the advertisement purposely made him appear to be as ‘cruel a dog as ever lived’. See LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 9 September 1742 (t17420909-37).↩
London Evening Post, 14–16 October 1742 (Burney). This was commuted to fourteen years transportation, and he was starved to death on the voyage. TNA, High Court of Admiralty, ‘Criminal records’, HCA 1/20, part 1, item 9: ‘Indictment of Barnett Bond, for the murder of William Bird, 26 April 1744’. See also Gentleman’s Magazine, xiv (1744), p. 226.↩
WAC, St Martin in the Fields, ‘Vestry draft minutes’, F2028, 1736–54, pp. 274, 281.↩
WAC, St Martin in the Fields, ‘Watch rates, collectors book’, F2676, 1735–57, pp. 153, 183, 241, 271, 273, 299, 323, 327, 351, 355, 381, 485.↩
WAC, St Martin in the Fields, ‘Parish records, watch rates, collectors book’, F2676, 1735–57, pp. 125–7.↩
Notably, the leading figure in the establishment of the Westminster Infirmary was the SPCK supporter and banker, Henry Hoare, while its early publications were produced by the SPCK’s printer, Joseph Downing. J. G. Humble and Peter Hansell, Westminster Hospital 1716–1974 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing, 2nd edn, 1974), pp. 1–39.↩
9 George II c. 36. The only sustained treatment of the Act is Gareth Jones, History of the Law of Charity, 1532–1827 (Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 109–19.↩
See Donna T. Andrew, Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 57–73; for the estimate of the number established to 1770, see Donna T. Andrew, ‘Two medical charities in eighteenth-century London: The Lock Hospital and the Lying-In Charity for married women’, in Jonathan Barry and Colin Jones, eds., Medicine and Charity before the Welfare State (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 82.↩
Ruth K. McClure, Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), p. 39.↩
A Collection of the Yearly Bills of Mortality, from 1657 to 1758 Inclusive. Together with several other bills of an earlier date (1759), returns for 1741. The extent to which this category of the dead in the Bills is populated by abandoned infants is reflected in the dramatic fall in numbers recorded during the ‘General Reception’, when all foundlings brought to the hospital were admitted. In the four years between 1757 and 1760, just 19 deaths are recorded as ‘found’, compared to 102 deaths in the preceding four years.↩
Philip Sugden, ‘Veil, Sir Thomas de(1684–1746)’, ODNB, 1 Jan. 2014).↩
For ‘court justices’, see Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Thomas De Veil, pp. 21–5.↩
Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Thomas De Veil, pp. 72–80; Gentleman’s Magazine, 17 (1747), p. 563.↩
Thomas Lockwood, ‘Cross-Channel dramatics in the Little Haymarket theatre riot of 1738’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 25 (1996), 65; A. H. Scouten, ed., The London Stage, 1660–1800: Part 3, 1729–1747 (Bloomington: Southern Illinois University Press,1961), pp. 735–6.↩
Benjamin Victor, History of the Theatres of London and Dublin, Vol. I (1761), p. 59; London Evening Post, 7–10 October 1738 (Burney).↩
TNA, State Papers Domestic, ‘George II’, SP 36/56, f. 48, 17 May 1741.↩
Daily Gazetteer (London Edition), Tuesday, 2 June 1741; Monday, 29 June 1741 (Burney).↩
LL, Middlesex Sessions: General Orders of the Court, 13 October 1725 (LMSMGO556000070). See also Georges Lamoine, ed., Charges to the Grand Jury 1689–1803, Camden Fourth Series, vol. 43 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1992), p. 208.↩
PP, ‘Report of the commissioners of the Inland Revenue of the duties under their management’, 1870 [C.82-1], II, pp. 4–6. See also John Chartres, ‘Food consumption and internal trade’, in A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay, eds., London 1500–1700: The Making of the Metropolis (London: Longman, 1986), p. 175.↩
See, for example, the account of the life of George Weedon. LL, Ordinary of Newgate Prison: Ordinary’s Accounts, 4 January 1728 (OA172802122802120003).↩
The Charge of Sir John Gonson, Knt. to the Grand Jury of the Royalty of the Tower of London (1728), reprinted in Lamoine, ed., Charges to the Grand Jury, p. 236; The Historical Register, Containing an Impartial Relation of all Transactions, Foreign and Domestic (), pp. 154–5; 2 George II c. 17.↩
Lee Davison, ‘Experiments in the social regulation of industry: gin legislation, 1729–1751’, in Davison et al., Stilling, pp. 25–48.↩
M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1925; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2nd edn, 1966), p. 51; Peter Clark, ‘The “Mother Gin” controversy in the early eighteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Series, 38 (1988), 71–2; Jonathan White, ‘The “slow but sure poyson”: the representation of gin and its drinkers, 1736–1751’, Journal of British Studies, 42:1 (2003), 35–64. The most recent survey of eighteenth-century London observes that ‘it is very difficult to disentangle myth from reality when considering the place of gin in London life in these years’: Jerry White, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (London: Bodley Head, 2012), p. 329. Two important popular histories of this subject are Patrick Dillon, The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: The Eighteenth-Century Gin Craze (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2003) and Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003).↩
Davison, ‘Experiments in the social regulation of industry’ in Davison et al., Stilling, pp. 35–6.↩
Davison, ‘Experiments in the social regulation of industry’ in Davison et al., Stilling, pp. 36–7, 39–40. The erratic survival of evidence of justices’ summary convictions and commitments to houses of correction makes it impossible to determine the precise number.↩
Read’s Weekly Journal, or British Gazetteer, 18 February 1738 (Burney). Dudley Bradstreet identified himself as the inventor of this ruse in his 1755 autobiography. See The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet (Dublin, 1755), p. 79.↩
LMA, City of London: Sessions, ‘City sessions rolls’, CLA/047/LJ/03, October 1738, quoted in Warner and Ivis, ‘“Damn you, you informing bitch”’, 299.↩
Warner and Ivis, ‘“Damn you, you informing bitch”’, 300, 309. See also Dillon, Much-Lamented, pp. 169–89.↩
Read’s Weekly Journal, or British Gazetteer, 18 February 1738; Warner and Ivis, ‘“Damn you, you informing bitch”’, 309–13.↩
TNA, PC/1/15/5, part 1, 1738; cited by Warner and Ivis, ‘“Damn you, you informing bitch”’, 318.↩
PP, ‘Report of the commissioners’, p. 6.↩
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 2012). See also G. V. Portus, Caritas Anglicana: or, an Historical Inquiry into those Religious and Philanthropical Societies that Flourished in England between the years 1678 and 1740 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1912), pp. 182–90; Tina Beth Isaacs, ‘Moral crime, moral reform, and the state in early eighteenth-century England: a study of piety and politics’ (PhD dissertation, University of Rochester, 1979), pp. 310–18; Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment, pp. 270–1.↩
LL, Westminster Sessions: Sessions Papers, October 1738 (LMWJPS654140014). For the Middlesex expulsions, see Norma Landau, The Justices of the Peace, 1679–1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 126–7.↩
Norma Landau, ‘The trading justice’s trade’, in Norma Landau, ed., Law, Crime and Society, 1660–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 64–70; Landau, Justices of the Peace, pp. 184–90; Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment, pp. 226–30.↩
Landau, Justices of the Peace, p. 203.↩
On modern ‘gangs’ and the complex ways in which reporting both defines and in some ways creates them, see Simon Hallsworth, ‘Gangland Britain? Realities, fantasies and industry’, in Barry Goldson, ed., Youth in Crisis? ‘Gangs’, Territoriality and Violence (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 183–97; and for a wider historical account, see Heather Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720 – c. 1930: A Social and Cultural History, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).↩
John Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660–1800 (Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 252–63; Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds; Gerald Howson, Thief-Taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (London: Hutchinson, 1970; repr. 1987), pp. 312–14. Howson exaggerates the coherence of these gangs.↩
General Advertiser, 3079, 26 September 1744, (Burney) p. 1.↩
Ward argues that it was only from December that the Black Boy Alley gang was retrospectively blamed for the crime wave, which initially was attributed to wider concerns: ‘Print culture, moral panic, and the administration of the law’.↩
London Gazette, 8378, 6–10 November 1744 (Burney); LMA, City of London: ‘Repertories of the Court of Aldermen’, COL/CA/01/01/152, pp. 411, 419–20, 425, 446–9.↩
LL, set, ‘John Berry’, and set, ‘Stephen McDaniel’; LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 9 September 1747 (t17470909-1). See also Joseph Cox, A Faithful Narrative of the Most Wicked and Inhuman Transactions of that Bloody-Minded Gang of Thief-takers, alias Thief-Makers (1756), pp. 60–2; Beattie, Policing and Punishment, p. 411; Ruth Paley, ‘Thief-takers in London in the age of the McDaniel gang, c. 1745–1754’, in Douglas Hay and Francis Snyder, eds., Policing and Prosecution in Britain, 1750–1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 319. For an innovative recent study that locates thief-takers within a strongly local and gendered context, see Janice Turner, ‘“Ill-favoured sluts”? The disorderly women of Rosemary Lane and Rag Fair’, London Journal, 38:2 (July, 2013), 95–109.↩
LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 5 December 1744 (t17441205-61); Old Bailey Proceedings, 17 October 1744 (t17441017-6); and Old Bailey Proceedings, 17 October 1744 (t17441017-22). See also, LL, set, ‘Ann Duck’, and set, ‘Ann Barefoot’.↩
Edward Dalton was seeking revenge for Waller’s perjured testimony in 1730 which led to James’s execution. LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 6 December 1732 (t17320906-69); and LL, set, ‘James Dalton’.↩
Langbein, Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial, p. 318; David Lemmings, Professors of the Law: Barristers and English Legal Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 213–15.↩
John H. Langbein, ‘The criminal trial before the lawyers’, University of Chicago Law Review, 45:2 (1978), 311–12; Landsman, ‘Rise of the contentious spirit’, 607. The total number of trials in these years was calculated using the Old Bailey Online API.↩
Because this methodology is based on keyword searching, with checking to determine whether the counsel present acted for the defence, it represents a minimum number of trials in which lawyers were present.↩
Among these defendants in 1744–6, as reported in the Proceedings, were a tailor, street seller, cooper, breeches maker, cabinet maker and two tavern keepers.↩
LL, set, ‘Tom Easter’; LL, Ordinary of Newgate Prison: Ordinary’s Accounts, 7 April 1742 (OA174204074204070014). See also Andrea McKenzie, ‘The real Macheath: social satire, appropriation, and eighteenth-century criminal biography’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 69:4 (2006), 592–3.↩
LL, Ordinary of Newgate Prison: Ordinary’s Accounts, 24 December 1744 (OA174412244412240032); LMA, Court of Aldermen Papers, ‘The humble complaint of James Guthrie, Ordinary of Newgate, read 19 Feb. 1744[/5]’, COL/CA/05/01/0093; Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675–1775 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 152.↩
For an overview of the role of Jacobitism in London politics, see Paul Monod, Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 225–32. For clientage relations in Westminster, see Nicholas Rogers, ‘Aristocratic clientage, trade and independency: popular politics in pre-radical Westminster’, Past & Present, 61 (1973), 70–106.↩
According to Lord Egmont, this phrase was used by a mob that surrounded the Queen’s coach in the autumn of 1736 (quoted in Dillon, Much-Lamented, p. 160). See also Monod, Jacobitism, pp. 111–19; Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 50–1.↩
LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 24 April 1745 (t17450424-31). For a full account of Mary White, alias Mary Cut and Come-again, see Hitchcock and Shoemaker, Tales, pp. 50–4.↩