On Saturday 18 November 1750, Westminster Bridge was opened to the public for the first time. By linking Westminster to Southwark, it changed the character of the metropolis and laid the foundation for rapid expansion south of the river. Built of Portland stone in a plain neoclassical style, it was ‘allowed by Judges of Architecture to be one of the grandest Bridges in the World’. That night a procession crossed the new bridge with ‘Trumpets, Kettle-Drums, &c. with Guns firing during the Ceremony’. And on Sunday, ‘Westminster was all Day like a Fair, with People going to view the Bridge and walk over it’. With twelve new salaried watchmen and thirty-two street lights, the bridge set the tone and style for a fifty-year period of civic building in the capital that would include many of the city’s prisons and lock-ups, court houses and workhouses. And while ‘The Pickpockets made a fine Market of it, and many People lost their Money and Watches’, the bridge symbolised a new and more orderly London. But it also reinforced the sometimes brutal character of the systems of justice and social care that governed the lives of London’s working people. It became one of the specific and peculiar places where small crimes were made capital under statute law. Westminster Bridge joined the ‘bloody code’: ‘Persons wilfully and maliciously destroying or damaging the said Bridge … shall suffer Death as Felons without Benefit of Clergy.’ New and old architecture, new and old systems of police and punishment, new and old conceptions of community and social obligation jostled cheek by jowl in the 1750s, pitting innovation against social cohesion and resulting in growing conflict.
London at mid-century was wet and miserable. A long series of damp winters and soaking summers led to mildewed crops and rising food prices. After twenty relatively good years of high real wages and low food prices, the economic well-being of London’s workers was challenged year on year. In 1756 the highest wheat prices for two generations and a significant drop in real wages were witnessed, the beginning of a half-century-long decline that would reach its nadir only in the 1790s. This decline in living standards exacerbated on-going conflicts between plebeian Londoners and the ambitions of those who were responsible for the building of Westminster Bridge.
In the years following the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, the country’s governors felt under siege. Not only were there concerns about a major crime wave in London, but there were violent confrontations with gangs of smugglers on the south coast, turnpike riots in the West Country and keelmen’s strikes on the Tyne. It is against this backdrop of economic hardship and elite insecurity that the developments at mid-century must be read. While the comfortable middling sort were worrying about crime, and parliament was passing the Murder Act in 1752, mandating the immediate execution and dissection of those convicted of murder, artisans and labourers were beginning to struggle to make ends meet. And when Henry and John Fielding were designing a comprehensively reorganised system of poor relief and criminal justice, breathing new life into the discredited system of thief-takers and rewards, some of the working poor were going hungry. The gangs and criminals of the capital came into ever more open conflict with the authorities, while riots at Tyburn and popular disgust at the treatment of Bosavern Penlez cast a harsh light on the policies of the state and justices of the peace. Conflict on the streets and in the courtroom helped to define the growing gulf between self-styled reformers and their many enemies. Projectors and philanthropists used the new-fangled power of the associational charities to create the appearance of a more ordered metropolis where crime was not tolerated, and the poor were virtuous and hard working. However, through the Foundling Hospital they, in fact, inadvertently committed mass murder by neglect. In this difficult decade, plebeian London learned harsh lessons and in response refined their oppositional tactics and developed new ones, with varying degrees of success.
The crime wave and poverty’s knock
In July 1748, as the hostilities of the War of the Austrian Succession waned and the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle accelerated (it was signed in October), London’s elites grew anxious about rising crime and poverty. Many anticipated a post-war crime wave, in what turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. From late 1747, long before the troops arrived home and during a period of low food prices and temporarily rising real wages, crime reporting in the press increased, and victims of crime and judicial officials began to press charges more regularly. The same period witnessed renewed attempts by the City of London to control begging and vagrancy. At the beginning of February 1748–9, the Common Council determined to publicise the awards available for apprehending vagrants and admonished constables and private citizens to do their duty and prosecute the ‘great numbers of beggars rogues and vagabonds’ that pestered ‘the streets & publick passages of this city’. In the autumn of 1749, the grand jury in the City followed with a presentment that repeated the old claim that ‘idle vagrants & common beggars’ were a particular danger ’to child-bearing women’.
These concerns contributed to a wave of prosecutions at the end of the 1740s. The total number of offences tried at the Old Bailey increased by 84 per cent between 1745 and 1749, and while equivalent data from Bridewell and the London Workhouse are missing for these years, there was almost certainly a parallel growth in commitments for petty crimes, particularly vagrancy. The number of vagrants removed northward through the City grew substantially, rising by over 65 per cent, from 385 individuals in 1748 to 626 men, women and children in 1750. Expenditure by the City on vagrant rewards and removals increased even faster; rising from £35 3s. 4d. in 1747 to a new high of £131 11s. 9d. in 1751.
The coming of peace heralded a period of real hardship. A fall in real wages came first: from 1745 to 1749 real wages fell substantially before temporarily levelling out. Subsequently, the arrival of demobilised sailors and soldiers (40,000 by October 1749) increased unemployment. Increasing demand for relief led to a gradual increase in its cost; in Middlesex the years from 1748 to 1750 saw total expenditure rise from £79,181 in 1748 to £82,092 two years later. Similar data for the following years are not available, but records for individual parishes suggest that for many this increase became more dramatic during the 1750s. In St Clement Danes, for example, after remaining relatively stable at between £2,100 and £2,300 per year from 1746 to 1750, expenditure grew rapidly after 1750, reaching £2,977 in 1760.
Reform and the anxieties that drove it were shaped by expectations of the behaviour of the poor and the criminal. Anticipated fears of a crime wave by demobilised soldiers and sailors meant that violent thefts received disproportionate attention in the press, accounting for half of all crime reports in the newspapers. The result was that at the Old Bailey theft with violence accounted for a growing proportion of all prosecutions (rising from 3.8 per cent of all offences in 1747 to 13.0 per cent in 1750). At the same time, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the amount of actual crime committed, driven by the real hardship of the demobilised, unemployed and low paid, did increase. Certainly growing demands for, and expenditure on, poor relief had a substantive basis in the needs of individual men and women; and while costs rose and fell with the price of grain, the overall trend was upwards. Poor relief was more ‘demand led’ than was criminal justice. In between, sharing characteristics of both crime and poverty, vagrancy encompassed both immediate responses driven by perceptions of a problem and changes in the actual life experiences of the poor. It was the combination of the real pressures generated by poverty and crime and the distinctive character of elite perceptions of these problems which shaped the ensuing responses. In turn, the actual impact of these new initiatives was significantly influenced by the responses of plebeian London.
The celebrity highwayman
One of the ways in which criminals actively shaped the distinct and growing anxiety about their activities can be found in the audacious, publicity-seeking practices of some highwaymen. Amplified by newspapers and other publications that were always keen to retail ‘true crime’ to a paying audience, accounts of robberies called attention to the apparent impunity with which crimes were committed, while raising the even more alarming possibility that, owing to the sympathetic manner in which they were portrayed, elite Londoners were not fully committed to bringing these criminals to justice. In the past, in addition to individual publications, highwaymen had taken advantage of the sympathetic attitudes of the publisher of the Ordinary’s Accounts to get their story told. However, following the appointment of a new publisher of the Accounts in 1745 and a new Ordinary, John Taylor, in 1747, the Accounts became more closely guarded against attempts by criminals to justify themselves to the public. Instead, they relied much more heavily on separately published criminal biographies. Between 1747 and 1754, the lives of at least ten English (primarily London) highwaymen were published in separate printed pamphlets; in some cases in more than one version. Six of these lives were purportedly written by the robbers themselves, or at least compiled on the basis of information provided by them. While the criminal voices found in these pamphlets were certainly mediated, publishers went to great lengths to certify their authenticity. Readers of the Memoirs of Dennis Neale, for instance, were invited to view Neale’s original manuscript at the printer’s. Priced at between 2 pence and 1 shilling, these pamphlets were available to a broad reading public, and they were popular. Several were published in multiple editions; those of William Parsons and Dennis Neale went into three editions within a year, while there were eleven editions of The Discoveries of John Poulter in just the first two years after publication.
By retailing ‘intrigues’, ‘extraordinary adventures’ and ‘pranks’, these biographies provided light-hearted entertainment at a time of anxiety about violent crime. William Parsons, hanged at Tyburn in February 1751 for returning from transportation following his arrest for highway robbery, was described in his Memoirs as ‘perhaps as great a Genius for Tricking as any Man in the World’, and the Memoirs’ publication was justified on the grounds that ‘the artful manner he supplied himself from several young Ladies in Newfoundland, deserves the Publick’s Notice’. The text itself consisted largely of tales of his amorous adventures, rather than his crimes, the violence of which was markedly underplayed (’he robb’d several People, but always in the Night … but as nothing remarkable happened during these robberies, it is immaterial to give a Detail of the particular Circumstances’).
Highwaymen used these pamphlets as a form of self-justification, and a means of defending their reputations. Parsons claimed he had been denied support from his wealthy father, creating an ‘errant necessity that urged him to [rob] for a subsistence’, while others, including Thomas Munn, John Hall alias Rich, and William Farrer, claimed they had been corrupted by the bad influence of others, and/or that the robbery for which they had been condemned was their first and only offence. Others, particularly Nicholas Mooney and Matthew Lee , claimed to have been reformed following their arrests. Lee was the subject of a biography attributed to John Wesley in which he repented all his sins following a conversion experience. Even this tale of apparent redemption was subject to spin. While Lee’s biography claimed he pleaded guilty at his trial because he refused to lie following his conversion, in fact his plea was not guilty.
More subversively, as in the 1720s, some highwaymen justified their crimes as acts of social justice, claiming they were prompted by the ‘necessity’ of maintaining their alleged gentlemanly status, and that their actions were no worse than the crimes of their social superiors. Some of these legitimising notions date from before the ideal of the ‘gentleman highwayman’ was first articulated. But that they remained current at mid-century can be seen in the ballad The Flying Highwayman, which celebrated the exploits of ‘Young Morgan’, ‘a flashy blade’, with both social aspirations and a social conscience:
Soon he became a Gentleman,
And left off driving Asses.
I scorn poor people for to rob,
I thought it so my duty;
But when I met the rich and gay,
On them I made my Booty.
Morgan is arrested and sentenced to die, but like Macheath in the Beggar’s Opera, he is reprieved at the last minute.
The mixed messages about robbery disseminated at this time are most fully embodied in publications about the most famous highwayman of this era. James Maclaine largely succeeded in portraying himself as a gentleman, with the Gentleman’s Magazine reporting that he ‘had handsome lodgings in St James’s Street, at two guineas a week, and passed for an Irish gentleman at £700 a year’; the newspapers described him as ‘genteel’. Even before Maclaine emerged into the limelight following his arrest, his social aspirations were evident in the letter he wrote to Horace Walpole following his robbery of Walpole in Hyde Park in November 1749, during which Maclaine’s pistol was accidentally fired. Written on gilt-edged paper (but poorly spelled and ungrammatical), the letter assured Walpole that no harm had been intended and justified the crime and the ransom he demanded for the return of Walpole’s watch and seals on the grounds that ‘we Are Reduced by the misfortunes of the world and obliged to have Recourse to this method of getting money’, before promising to repay the small sum taken from Walpole’s footman. Similarly, when Maclaine and his accomplice William Plunket robbed the Salisbury coach, the crime for which Maclaine was arrested and tried, the two robbers made a great show of acting ‘politely’ and once again claimed ‘that it was necessity [that] forced them upon those hazardous enterprizes’. Plunket put away his pistol in order to reassure the passengers, and, ‘for fear of frightening the Lady, without forcing her out of the coach, took what small matter she offered without further search’.
Following his arrest Maclaine achieved celebrity status by playing to the gallery during his preliminary examination and at his Old Bailey trial, thereby obtaining the attention of the press. Portraying himself as a gentleman who had fallen on hard times, he evoked the tears of watching gentlewomen and men, obtaining both their sympathy and their financial support. By actively manipulating the public presentation of his case and his person, and through an account of his behaviour in prison penned by a sympathetic dissenting minister, he shaped the representation of his story and successfully generated widespread sympathy. Some of his victims, including Horace Walpole and Lord Eglington, refused to testify against him in court (and were praised for doing so). And at least nine ‘gentleman of credit’ and some ladies provided character witnesses at his trial. The Sunday following his conviction 3,000 people visited him in prison, and Horace Walpole commented that ‘you can’t conceive of this ridiculous rage there is of going to Newgate’. Some of his elite visitors apparently attempted to secure him a pardon, but they were unsuccessful.
Not everyone was taken in. The case prompted concern that the popularity of gentlemen highwaymen was subverting attempts to crack down on robbery during the post-war crisis. As John Taylor, Ordinary of Newgate, observed of Maclaine:
though he has been called the Gentleman Highwayman, and in his Dress and Equipage very much affected the fine Gentleman, yet to a Man acquainted with good Breeding, that can distinguish it from Impudence and Affectation, there was very little in his Address or Behaviour, that could entitle him to that Character.
Similarly, A Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of James Maclean, Highwayman, a pamphlet written with the express purpose of seeing him hanged, complained that ‘he has so far wrought himself into the esteem of persons of rank, that they have not only been induced to contribute to support him, but to solicit and use their utmost effort to save him’, when in fact ‘by the laws of this country he is undoubtedly to be deemed an enemy to society’. Even Horace Walpole, one of his most sympathetic victims, was moved to observe that ‘his profession is no joke’.
In short, at the same moment that the wave of prosecutions which followed the peace in the autumn of 1748 signalled rising anxieties about violent crime, the activities of the ‘gentlemen of the highway’ evidenced continuing sympathy for a particular type of robber. This ambivalence could not be allowed to remain unchallenged. As Fifield Allen observed, ‘robberies were so frequent, committed too by people of a genteel appearance like his’, that Maclaine and others like him simply had to be hanged. In one biography of the highwayman and robber William Parsons, the author felt obliged to defend the decision to prosecute him for returning from transportation, observing that bringing him to justice was ‘absolutely necessary for the safety of the community’. That this point even needed to be made suggests just how effective the self-presentation of these highwaymen had become. The publicity they achieved contributed to the growing sense of moral panic among the authorities, forcing them to develop new strategies to address the problem.
Henry Fielding’s great plan
At the centre of the post-war response to crime was Henry Fielding, already a well-known dramatist and novelist and, from 1748, an active and ambitious justice of the peace. Fielding was already serving as a publicist for the government in 1748 when his patron the Duke of Bedford secured his appointment as justice of the peace in Westminster, and following Bedford’s assistance in meeting the £100 property qualification, in Middlesex the following January. As Fielding told Bedford, ‘without this Addition [appointment to the Middlesex bench] I can not completely serve the Government in that Office’. From December 1748 Fielding was living in Bow Street, in the house formerly occupied by Thomas De Veil, and, like De Veil, he became ‘court justice’, the leading metropolitan justice charged with providing advice and support to the government, particularly on politically sensitive issues. As Malvin Zirker remarks, he was ‘a political appointee whose voice could never be entirely his own’.
Fielding hit the ground running immediately after he took the oath of office in January 1749. In March he was elected chairman of the Westminster sessions, and his first charge to the grand jury was delivered in June and published in July. Fielding’s ideas about poverty and crime are best known from his social policy writings, but these were informed by his day-to-day work at Bow Street. Evidence of his extensive judicial activity can be found not only throughout the Middlesex, Westminster and Old Bailey sessions records but also through his attempts at self-publicity, in reports he planted in newspapers such as the Public Advertiser and Whitehall Evening Post, and most substantially in his own Covent Garden Journal, published between 4 January and 25 November 1752. According to his more sympathetic biographers, Fielding ‘exercised as much latitude as possible under the law’ and ‘temper[ed] justice with mercy’, occasionally discharging or bailing prostitutes and petty thieves rather than committing them to prison, and sometimes relieving beggars rather than punishing them. Fielding certainly promoted this sympathetic view of his judicial practice, later suggesting that, unlike ‘trading justices’, his object was ‘composing, instead of inflaming, the quarrels of porters and beggars’, and claiming that he generally refused ‘to take a shilling from a man who most undoubtedly would not have had another left’.
Yet there was a darker side to Fielding’s activities. He did show real sympathy for some young girls seduced into prostitution, as when he described the case of Mary Parkington in the Covent Garden Journal: she was ‘a very beautiful Girl of sixteen Years of Age’ who was ‘seduced by a young Sea-Officer’ and taken to a brothel run by Philip Church. However, his role was compromised by exposing her name and circumstances in print, thereby destroying her reputation. Moreover, any sympathy Fielding may have shown for petty offenders was balanced by his merciless pursuit of more serious criminals. He led numerous raids against what he believed were ‘gangs’ of street robbers, highwaymen and housebreakers, including the ‘Royal Family’, led by Thomas Jones alias Harper in 1749, and worked tirelessly to ensure their conviction and execution. Fielding also created the Bow Street Runners as an effective tool in his campaign against felons.
It is the severely judgemental side of Fielding’s judicial personality which shines through in his social pamphlets. Despite the inclusion of many ‘low’ characters and scenes of licence in his fiction (including Tom Jones, published in February 1749, just as he began work as a justice), and the complicated and heart-breaking stories he heard on a daily basis at Bow Street, there is a noticeable lack of ‘irony and ambivalence’ in his other writings. In his widely read pronouncements on social policy, it was his role as a political appointee and self-appointed ‘censor’ of metropolitan morals that came to dominate.
Famously addicted to chewing tobacco, profligate with his own money and that of his friends, gout-ridden from decades of self-indulgence, Henry Fielding knew precisely where the blame lay for the ills of society. He argued that the perfect ancient balance of the English constitution had been corrupted by the ever-growing luxury and power of the poor. He lay responsibility for the problems faced by London squarely at the feet of ‘the mob’; of that ‘very large and powerful body which form the fourth Estate in this Community’, whose ambitious powers he believed extended to securing control over the execution of the laws, ‘particularly in the Case of the Gin-Act some Years ago’, and to ‘stifling’ the activities of informers. In his most substantial work on social policy, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers, published in 1751 at the height of the post-war panic over violent crime, he detailed how the ‘Dregs of the People’ had been transformed: ‘The narrowness of their Fortune is changed into Wealth; the Simplicity of their Manners into Craft; their Frugality into Luxury; their Humility into Pride, and their Subjection into Equality.’ In Fielding’s view, this doleful corruption, made possible by high wages, was manifest in their attendance at plays (some of which Fielding himself had written), pleasure gardens and masquerades, and in gin drinking and gambling; all of which led to crime via moral and financial bankruptcy. Moreover, Fielding believed the poor’s ‘wandering habits’ placed them beyond the oversight of the magistracy. The ‘mob’ needed to be brought to heel and disciplined to unrelieved labour: ‘throwing the Reins on the Neck of Idleness’.
Fielding undoubtedly had a ‘conservative social outlook’, and many of his solutions were the nostrums retailed in social welfare pamphlets published over the preceding two centuries. However, there are two facets of Fielding’s writings that are distinctive. First, he constantly and self-servingly emphasises the role of the justice of the peace and the county bench as the layer of government to be entrusted with additional responsibility. Almost all of Fielding’s solutions to social disorder involved shifting large amounts of power and expenditure from the parishes to the bench. And second, he takes an unusually draconian approach in advocating changes that would undermine the rights of defendants in court, and the poor to freedom of movement. He sought to reform the major systems of the social policy state – poor relief, felony prosecution and vagrancy – to ensure that those whose place it was to labour would suffer their poverty without cavil or complaint and without recourse to begging or theft.
The earliest clear statement of the remedies Fielding advocated can be found in the draft of a bill he submitted to the Lord Chancellor, Philip Hardwicke, in 1749, some six months after he took up his role as ‘court justice’. The bill advocated the creation of a ‘commission’ of justices empowered to oversee the night watch, and, if implemented, would have enhanced the powers of watchmen by providing them with arms and authorising them to arrest anyone found with a ‘dangerous weapon’, as well as ‘all suspicious Persons … standing in the streets Lanes or bye allys’. Two years later, in 1751, Fielding extended his analysis and his solutions in the Enquiry, before rounding off his consideration of poverty and crime with his Proposal for Making an effectual provision for the Poor, published in 1753.
Although historians have concentrated on his attitudes to policing and crime, the majority of Fielding’s published work on social policy focused on the interwoven issues of poverty and vagrancy. He felt the main weakness in the system of poor relief lay in the inadequacies and failures of parish officers, who had neglected their legal obligation to set the poor to work, and proposed a ‘county house’ able to accommodate 5,000 people, where the able-bodied and unemployed were to be set to work, while the vicious and workshy would be put to hard labour in a new ‘county house of correction’, able to imprison and set to hard labour some 600 vagrants. And to make this pabulum of oppression work, he outlined a revision of the system of settlement and certificates to ensure that all migratory poor were subject to universal enforced labour, and advocated beefing up the laws against vagrants to ensure they received appropriate corporal punishment. None of these proposals was new, but Fielding’s combined workhouse and house of correction did mark a new high point in relation to size and levels of complexity. It prefigured even the largest of nineteenth-century institutions and, if created, would have given the Middlesex bench an unprecedented budget and staff.
While poverty and vagrancy were the main focus of Fielding’s pamphlets, he also included substantial proposals for the reform of arrest, felony prosecution and execution. Here Fielding was slightly more innovative, although he was ‘preoccupied with the repressive aspects of penal policy’. Receivers of stolen goods were to be prosecuted even when the thief was acquitted; justices were to be given new powers to arrest suspicious persons; greater weight was to be placed on the role of pre-trial examination and interrogation; and in court the evidence of accomplices was to be given precedence over that of character witnesses. And once a defendant had been convicted, Fielding wished to limit the role of the royal pardon and to shift the place of executions from Tyburn to just outside the Old Bailey, and to conduct them in private as a means of eliminating the carnivalesque character of hanging days. Overall, he sought to make executions quicker, more certain and more terrible.
Henry Fielding’s great plan, including armed watchmen, forced labour for the poor and more frequent judicial murders, overseen by an increasingly powerful bench of magistrates, exemplifies one important strand in the thinking of elite Londoners in response to the post-war crisis and encompasses a set of ideas which would inform the evolution of social and criminal policy for the rest of the century. In the short term, its importance can be seen in the publishing success of the Enquiry – the first printing of 1,500 copies sold out quickly and a second of 2,000 was available within three weeks. It was ‘more frequently cited than any other social pamphlet during the early fifties’. But Fielding had his critics among Londoners of all social classes. While the long-term influence of his ideas on the evolution of policy was substantial, their direct and short-term effect was much more limited. His reputation was undermined by his involvement in two scandals which raised questions about his competence and independence as a justice: the execution of Bosavern Penlez in 1749 and the Elizabeth Canning case four years later.
In early July 1749 thousands of sailors destroyed brothels on the Strand after two of their number had been robbed in one of the houses, but it was Fielding’s zealous defence of the decision to execute one of the rioters which turned a traditional riot into a major crisis. After a superficial examination of the first prisoners arrested (while a mob gathered outside his door), Fielding committed them to Newgate prison. Ultimately only three of the rioters were tried at the Old Bailey the following September, charged with violating the 1715 Riot Act. In spite of questionable prosecution evidence (one witness declared ‘Upon my word … for my part I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence’) and good character references, two men were convicted: John Wilson and Bosavern Penlez. Though the jury recommended mercy, both were sentenced to death. These sentences provoked widespread outrage: there was substantial sympathy for the rioters’ aims (destruction of the brothels), and it was felt both Wilson and Penlez (a journeyman shoemaker and perukemaker respectively) were men of good character who had been accidentally caught up in the riots. A substantial petitioning campaign led to a last-minute pardon for Wilson, but Penlez was hanged.
Even before the execution, Fielding was criticised for his role in the case, with some even suggesting that he was protecting the brothels because he accepted bribes from their owners. More damning, however, was the evidence that later emerged of his role in ensuring Penlez was refused a pardon. It was alleged that Penlez had originally been arrested in possession of a bundle of linen taken from one of the brothels, and although he had been indicted for burglary he had not been tried for this offence at the Old Bailey. At the last minute Fielding brought evidence of the theft to the attention of the Privy Council, and against the backdrop of the crime wave, Penlez’s fate was sealed. Fielding’s behind-the-scenes role became public when he published his True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez in November, where he claimed, to his ‘satisfaction’, that his lobbying was responsible for the decision to pardon Wilson ‘as an Object of Mercy’ and execute Penlez as ‘an Object of Justice’.
The execution of Penlez proved to be crucial in the following month’s Westminster by-election, which the government very nearly lost. Westminster had a broad franchise and a history of radical politics, and was both one of the most important and one of the most fiercely contested parliamentary constituencies in the country. The opposition candidate in 1749, George Vandeput, represented a faction which styled itself the ‘Independent Electors of Westminster’, and his supporters were typically middle-class householders of the sort who had opposed reforms of the night watch and defended open vestries in the preceding decades. In contrast, Vandeput’s opponent, the court candidate Granville Leveson-Gower (Viscount Trentham), supported by Fielding, was tarred by his role in the Penlez affair (having failed to support the campaign for a pardon). Penlez featured frequently in the opposition’s election literature, and his ghost even appeared in a procession, in which ‘he frequently sat up and harangued the populace for his unhappy fate’. Some of Vandeput’s strongest support came from the parishes where the brothels were located and the Penlez riots took place: St Clement Danes, St Paul Covent Garden and St Martin in the Fields. Allying themselves with the sailors who attacked the brothels, these voters joined the public demonstrations in Vandeput’s support. Worryingly for Fielding, these were the very parishes most directly served by his Bow Street office.
In the end Trentham narrowly won the election, but the events of that autumn led the Duke of Richmond, Sir Thomas Robinson, to worry about the increasing powers of the mob:
I think in all future Elections the power of the Court is weakened & the lower Class of voters will determine Victory which ever side they take … [they] will be influenced from popular Cryes or Caprice or Money, for when we see what … Penley’s Ghost has done at this Juncture, can any Juncture be without Scarecrows of such base materials[?]
Four years later Fielding embroiled himself in another very public controversy, this time over the validity of the claims by Elizabeth Canning that she had been kidnapped and held prisoner in a house of ill repute for four weeks. Canning’s claim initially resulted in the conviction of Mary Squires and Susannah Wells for robbery. But eventually this verdict was overturned, and Canning herself was convicted of perjury. The dispute over the truth of Canning’s claims led to a major pamphlet war and debate in the newspapers lasting several months; the essayist Allan Ramsay claimed it was ‘the conversation of every alehouse within the bills of mortality’. This case has attracted substantial scholarly interest, but not enough attention has been paid to the damage to Fielding’s reputation caused by his role in coercing Virtue Hall into testifying against Squires and Wells in the original trial, testimony which she later recanted, leading to the trial of Canning. Once again, Fielding’s attempts to defend his actions in print only exacerbated the situation.
Fielding was a divisive figure, and his behaviour in the Penlez and Canning cases, when combined with his aggressive approach to the office of justice of the peace, stimulated opposition. He was caricatured for ‘his stern and arrogant demeanour on the bench, his habit of declaiming with his jaws crammed with tobacco, his way of favouring the rich and great while bullying the lower classes’. As a result of these very public challenges to his authority, some of those who were summoned to appear before him were energised to fight back. In his early days as a justice, following the Penlez riot but before his execution, some defendants incarcerated on Fielding’s warrants challenged their commitments under the Habeas Corpus Act, including Samuel Cross. Fielding committed Cross to prison following a brawl in which James Burford died, but Cross petitioned ‘that he may be either Tryed Bailed or Discharged’ for ‘the Said Supposed offence Pursuant to the Direction’s of the Habeas Corpus Act’. The following year Charles Pratt was more successful when, after he was accused of stealing a mourning ring and committed by Fielding to New Prison, he protested his innocence and lodged a similar petition (he was not tried). In the next two years at least seven appeals were launched against Fielding’s summary convictions, including those by four scavengers, who claimed their prosecution for not fulfilling their duties was itself ‘illegal’, and by Israel Walker, a housekeeper and dealer in brandy and other spirituous liquors. Committed by Fielding to the house of correction as a ‘Rogue & Vagabond’, Walker claimed he had been ‘unjustly charged’ with breaking a watchman’s lantern and playing at unlawful games. These challenges to Fielding’s authority may have provided him with additional motivation for reinforcing his powers through the promotion of the Bow Street Runners, but they may have also contributed to the popular opposition they encountered.
Two days before the publication of Fielding’s Enquiry, the king addressed the issue of rising crime and disorder in his speech opening parliament on 17 January 1751, exhorting the Lords and Commons ‘to make the best use of the present state of tranquillity … for enforcing the execution of the laws, and for suppressing those Outrages and Violences, which are inconsistent with all good Order and Government’. In response, the Commons set up a committee (the ‘Felonies Committee’), to investigate ‘the Laws in being, which relate to Felonies, and other Offences against the Peace’. Six weeks later their remit was extended to ‘the Defects, the Repeal, or Amendment of the Laws relating to the … Poor’. This committee was the first ‘national, central investigation into the issue of crime and justice as a whole’ ever conducted, and it was all the more remarkable for considering the issues of poor relief and settlement in the same report. And yet the legislation which resulted was of limited consequence. Owing to both elite opposition and anticipated plebeian resistance to more ambitious measures, and actual plebeian opposition to the implementation of the statutes that were passed, the aspirations of the committee were not realised.
The committee worked fast and in April reported a series of twenty-five resolutions identifying the defects of the laws concerning criminal justice; adding a further two substantive resolutions on poor relief in June. The most remarkable feature of these resolutions is that, like Fielding’s Enquiry (which had little direct influence on the committee’s findings), the responsibility for crime and poverty was placed firmly on the lower class, and measures were proposed to give magistrates greater control over ‘suspicious’ characters. According to the committee, both ‘the Increase of Thefts and Robberies of late’ and the recent increase in the expense of poor relief resulted directly from the ‘Habit of Idleness, in which the lower People have been bred often from their Youth’. The committee went on specifically to blame ‘the Multitude of Places of Entertainment for the lower Sort of People’ and ‘Gaming amongst the inferior Rank of People’ as ‘incitement[s] to theft’, before identifying the failure of the system of legal ‘Settlement’ to prevent the poor from wandering and poor parenting for propagating ‘a new Race of Chargeable Poor, from Generation to Generation’.
This was a good time for domestic legislation. It was peacetime and the government had firm control over the House of Commons. However, in comparison with the breadth of the committee’s recommendations, the legislative result was minimal, as ‘the seamless web’ of resolutions was chopped ‘into legislative rags’ and its radical poor law proposals were simply ignored. In part this reflects the impediments to law making at this time, but it also reflects the specific pressures under which MPs were working. Not only were there concerns about the costs of implementing new legislation, and its impact on the vocal and competing interests of the parishes, counties, the City of London and justices of the peace, but MPs also anticipated that new measures would be subverted by plebeian opposition. This was particularly relevant in the case of the dockyards hard labour bill. Nonetheless, three important statutes were passed: the Gin Act (1751), Disorderly Houses Act (1752) and Murder Act (1752).
The 1751 Gin Act did not emanate from the work of the Felonies Committee, but it was a product of the same reforming impetus. The bill was discussed in the whole house the same day the recommendations of the Felonies Committee were presented, and it addressed many of the same issues. Following the passage of the 1743 Gin Act, overall consumption of gin had been stable. Concern among reformers about its deleterious effects had nonetheless continued, and the perception of a post-war crime wave gave reformers a new opportunity to make their case. ‘The strategy’, as Patrick Dillon argues, ‘was to tie gin-drinking in with the crime wave’. In a coordinated campaign starting in early 1751, parliament was besieged by pamphlets and petitions, making arguments familiar from the 1730s that excessive drinking by the lower class was responsible for a spate of social problems.
Fielding’s was the first high-profile intervention. In section two of his Enquiry, he identified drunkenness as a key manifestation of the problem of the ‘Luxury of the Vulgar’, because it led to ‘so many temporal Mischiefs … amongst which are very frequently Robbery and Murder itself’. A fortnight later, Isaac Maddox, the Bishop of Worcester, published a sermon, The Expediency of Preventive Wisdom, which made similar arguments, but paid more attention to gin’s role in infant mortality while also arguing that if successful, plebeian resistance to the Gin Acts would lead to social levelling. As if on cue, Hogarth’s Gin Lane followed a fortnight later, with its evocative image of poverty, chaos and death juxtaposed with the order and respectability of Beer Street.
Despite Hogarth’s professed ambition to use his prints to reform the poor directly, the real point of these prints and pamphlets was to bring the problem to the attention of parliament and those responsible for governing London. In this they succeeded: London’s parish vestries, along with the Cities of London and Westminster and the Middlesex sessions, were prompted to petition parliament. The minutes of the vestry of St Clement Danes reveal that this was an organised campaign: the vestry met on 4 March to ‘to take the Opinion of the Inhabitants whether they will Join with the rest of the Inhabitants the City and Liberty of Westmr. in presenting a Petition to Parliament to Suppress the too common use of Spiritous Liquors’. The motion was ‘Carried in the Affirmative Nem Con’.
When combined with extensive coverage in the press, the pressure on parliament was substantial. And yet the ensuing bill was modest in its ambitions. The Act, against ‘the immoderate drinking of spirits amongst the meaner and lowest sort’, is generally perceived as having finally solved the gin problem, bringing to an end more than two decades of legislative failure. However, the extent of its impact is debatable, and the reasons for the lack of popular opposition to the bill, when compared to the resistance which led to the abandonment of attempts to enforce the 1736 Act, need to be considered.
Cognisant of the failure of previous bills, the Act targeted those who were most able, and likely, to comply, while avoiding mechanisms for enforcement which were likely to generate popular opposition. Its provisions, described by Horace Walpole as ‘slight ones indeed for so enormous an evil!’, meant that it stopped far short of total prohibition. As Patrick Dillon observes, ‘there were plenty of politicians and commentators who could remember the lesson of 1736’. Distillers were required to pay a substantially increased excise duty (up 4.5 pence a gallon) and prohibited from retailing gin, and retailers had to pay a higher licence fee (£2), while street selling remained prohibited. However, while informers, whose activities had provoked so much opposition in 1736, could still be used against retailers who sold gin without a licence, they were not given, as they were in 1736, any significant financial inducement to do so. Consequently, the Act led to few prosecutions.
Measured by levels of production, gin drinking fell in 1752 by over a third, but as with previous acts, levels of consumption rapidly recovered. Gin remained part of the daily life of plebeian Londoners. The number of trials at the Old Bailey in which ‘gin’ and/or ‘geneva’ is mentioned, as a stolen good or a drink consumed by the defendant and/or victim in the lead up to a crime, remained stable, averaging 11.7 a year under the 1743 Gin Act (1744–50) and 10.6 following the passage of the 1751 Act (1752–6). While, as a result of the growing number of trials heard in the 1750s, the percentage involving ‘gin’ or ‘geneva’ fell from a peak in 1744, gin recovered its role in the records of crime in the 1760s and 1770s (Figure 5.7). In their biographies of the condemned, the Ordinaries of Newgate continued to represent gin drinking as a lower-class curse: Hannah Wilson, convicted in 1753 of stealing a coat and ribbon from a child, ‘had been drinking that cursed Liquor, called Gin, and was drunk, or she had never have attempted to use the poor Baby ill’. Following the harvest failures of 1756–7 and a temporary ban on the domestic production of spirits, gin drinking declined temporarily, but judging by the frequency of mentions in Old Bailey trials, it soon recovered. Overall consumption did eventually decline, but this was due to the fact the price of gin had risen and an alternative, cheaper, drink (porter) became available. As Nicholas Rogers argues, ’the gin epidemic was ultimately contained by changes in consumer taste, not by regulation’.
Figure 5.7: Old Bailey trial reports including ‘Gin’ or ‘Geneva’, 1715-1780
Source: Old Bailey Online, keyword search. The total number of trials per year was calculated by William Turkel using the Old Bailey Online API.
Online dataset: Gin/Geneva in Old Bailey Trials (xlsx)
The two Acts passed in the following year in direct response to proposals from the Felonies Committee were also targeted at, and in some respects shaped by, plebeian London. The first, ‘A Bill for the better preventing Thefts and Robberies; and for regulating Places of publick Entertainment; and punishing Persons keeping disorderly Houses’, better known as the Disorderly Houses Act, contained a number of measures intended to make felonies easier to prosecute, in addition to specific measures targeted at ‘disorderly houses’. These were thought to harbour gaming, prostitution and excessive drinking, vices that were considered to lead ineluctably to more serious crime. Consequently, houses that provided ‘Publick Dancing, Musick, and other public Entertainment of the like kind’ within twenty miles of London would require a licence, which could only be granted by four or more justices of the peace, and anyone keeping an unlicensed house could be fined £100. Prosecution of ‘disorderly houses’, including ‘bawdy houses’ and ‘gaming houses’, was made easier by rewards paid to informers, and a legal injunction requiring constables to act on the complaints they received (their expenses were paid).
Like the Gin Act, the Disorderly Houses Act was specifically targeted at the poor. The measures were justified on the grounds that a
Multitude of places of Entertainment for the lower sort of People is a … great Cause of Thefts and Robberies, as they are thereby tempted to spend their small Substance in riotous Pleasures, and in Consequence are put on unlawful Methods of supplying their Wants, and renewing their Pleasures.
The Act was also designed to close various loopholes that had allowed the owners and operators of such houses to evade prosecution, as had occurred during the attempts to close down disorderly houses in the 1730s. It outlawed the common strategy of removing a case by a writ of certiorari to the Court of King’s Bench, which added substantially to the cost of a prosecution. The Act also closed the loophole which had allowed owners to evade prosecution by ensuring that they were not directly connected with running them.
There is little evidence that the Act had any real impact. In the short term, some pleasure gardens appear to have lost their music licences, and there may have been an increase in the number of presentments against disorderly houses in the City, but from 1753 presentments ‘decline[d] steadily’, since ‘the process of prosecution remained both expensive and time-consuming’. It appears there was little support for the new Act. Even the Gentleman’s Magazine complained that the proposed bill would ‘deny all amusements to the lower ranks of people’, and potentially ‘throw all those now engaged in exhibiting such amusement out of that way of getting their bread’, resulting in an ‘increase [in] robberies, instead of lessening them’. In the end, owing to reluctance to prosecute partly due to concerns about its impact on the poor, as well as anticipated continuing opposition to prosecutions, the Act made little difference, such that later in the decade campaigners against vice found it necessary to launch a new society for the reformation of manners. In 1758, when Justice Saunders Welch complained that owing to ‘the dread and terror every man is under of incurring the odious name of informer’, the Act had failed to close down even the most ‘bare-faced’ brothels. It has been estimated there were only ten to fifteen successful convictions across the whole metropolis. The problem of disorderly houses (and gin) remained in 1768, when John Fielding noted that they encouraged ‘gaming and other disorders’ and that many sold spirituous liquors, ‘of which they vend treble the Quantity they do of Beer, which is absolutely establishing Gin-Shops’. Neither is there any evidence that the provisions of the Act making felonies easier to prosecute had any impact – the number of offences tried at the Old Bailey in the subsequent decade fell by over a third (Figure 5.2).
If neither the Gin Act nor the Disorderly Houses Act had any substantive effect on plebeian behaviour, the Murder Act, also passed in 1752, was more successful – at least in as much as it altered penal practice with respect to those convicted of murder. Crowd behaviour at executions also changed, but disorder did not disappear. Although not a direct response to any of the recommendations of the Felonies Committee, the Murder Act was passed with ‘incredible speed’ in 1752, urged on its legislative course by a spate of widely publicised murders, including horrific crimes committed by Mary Blandy and Elizabeth Jefferies, collectively represented in the press as ‘a pressing social problem’. The Act modified the punishment for murder in order to add ‘some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy to the punishment of death’, by ensuring that convicted murderers were executed almost immediately following their conviction (two days later), and that their bodies were either hung in chains or handed over to the surgeons to be ‘dissected and anatomized’. This made execution more certain, as few pardons could be organised in the short space between sentence and execution, and more horrible, by playing on popular beliefs about the significance of keeping the corpse intact. At one and the same time, the Act attempted to reduce disorder at Tyburn while securing a regular supply of fresh cadavers for the dissection tables at Surgeons’ Hall.
In one respect this statute is most impressive for what it did not do. It did not follow the careworn pattern typical of early eighteenth-century legislation of extending capital punishment to a wider range of offences – there was no desire to increase the number of executions. This needs to be understood in the context of the dramatic increase in executions in the years 1749–52, driven by the post-war wave of prosecutions, and the disorder which accompanied them. Despite the presence of strong guards and the sheriffs’ attempts to negotiate with the crowd over control of the bodies of the executed, battles occasionally broke out between the crowd and the surgeon’s men, with sailors and the Irish (who also figure frequently among the executed) prominent in the mêlée, often armed with bludgeons.
The presence of a contingent of foot guards as well as civil officers at the execution in 1748 of former sailor John Lancaster, for example, did not prevent a ‘company of eight sailors with truncheons’ rescuing the body from the surgeons’ men after they left Tyburn and carrying it ‘in triumph through London’. The execution of the ‘Gentleman Highwayman’ James Maclaine, hanged with eleven other men in October 1750, unsurprisingly attracted a huge crowd: ‘the greatest Concourse of People at Tyburn ever known at any Execution’. In the chaos following the day’s executions, the negotiated allocation of the bodies between friends of the deceased and the surgeons broke down. Maclaine’s celebrity status meant that it was impossible to retain his body for dissection (though improbably his skeleton appears in the surgeons’ hall in Plate 4 of William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty). His body and that of William Smith (convicted of forgery) ‘were taken away by their friends in Hearses, in order to be interred’, while the surgeons were given the body of John Griffith (convicted of highway robbery). However, as the London Evening Post reported, while the bodies of ‘the others, who had Friends or Relations, were taken care of by them’, ‘three or four were suffer’d to be carried off by the Mob, who dragg’d their naked Bodies about’. After six men, including two Irishmen, were hanged in November 1751, the London Evening Post reported that the execution ‘was performed with great Decency and Order’, after ‘a great Number of Sailors, and others, appearing arm’d with Bludgeons, under pretence of rescuing their Acquaintances from the Surgeons’ were disarmed. But this paper failed to report that a battle took place involving ‘near a quarter of a hundred chairmen and milkmen, [who] seemed to be all concerned in taking away the cart [and] horses, with the bodies’ of two of the condemned. The men, including Michael MacGennis, an Irish milkman, had seized the cart in order to carry away the bodies, but the cart’s owner, Richard Shears, resisted, and in an ensuing scuffle Shears was fatally stabbed. Subsequently, MacGennis and his accomplice drove the cart in triumph to Tower Hill, where they exhibited the bodies.
Elite concerns about the disorder at ‘Tyburn Fair’, given renewed impetus by William Hogarth’s representation of Tyburn in Plate 11 of Industry and Idleness in 1747 and by Henry Fielding’s comments in his Enquiry four years later, were not without foundation, though they failed to understand plebeian motivations. Both forcibly suggested that the death penalty was not working because spectators had come to treat executions as a form of entertainment and were not learning the right lesson. Instead of recognising the consequences of sin, the terror of the gallows had become, in the words of another commentator, subject to ‘the ridicule and mockery of an audacious vulgar’. Contemporaries worried that at best the crowd treated executions as a holiday, while at worst they came to share in the defiance of those convicts who chose to die ‘game’. They believed ‘a bond had grown up between the condemned and the mob that the authorities were impotent to sever’.
The authorities had no wish to exacerbate this disorder, whether prompted by disputes over taking bodies for dissection or a more general challenge to the forces of order, by staging more executions. Instead, in an attempt to intimidate the crowd, the Act added a further dimension of terror to the executions of those convicted of the most egregious crimes. In a subsidiary clause, it addressed the problem of the grotesque fights over corpses at the gallows by prescribing transportation for anyone convicted of attempting to rescue the bodies of those sentenced to dissection or hanging in chains. The Act also constituted a direct challenge to the culture of defiance among convicts and their supporters. By requiring that condemned murderers be kept in solitary confinement during the much shortened interval between their sentence and their execution, the Act constrained the prison visits that contributed to the celebrity culture of crime and made the job of the criminal biographers more difficult.
Nonetheless, these provisions applied only to those convicted of murder. Prison visiting did not end, and criminal biographies continued to be published. While the Murder Act is generally believed to have reduced disorder at Tyburn, a strong potential for conflict remained when non-murderers were executed, and some riots still occurred. When five convicts were executed on 12 May 1755, for example, ‘the Surgeons had got Possession of two of the Bodies, but the Mob soon deprived them of their Prize, and buried them in the Fields’. To the extent that disorder did decrease after 1752, much of the explanation lies with the sharp fall in the number of executions between 1752 and the early 1760s, rather than in any change in the behaviour of surgeons and the crowd.
Rewards, thief-takers and the Bow Street Runners
The net result of the legislation passed in consequence of the post-war panic about crime was limited. The few Acts that made it onto the statute books were more significant for their aspirations to discipline plebeian London than for their impact in suppressing crime and vice or controlling the crowd. Several contemporary proposals which would have wrought substantial changes to policing were not adopted, including Henry Fielding’s 1749 draft bill, while the proposals that emerged from the Felonies Committee giving justices of the peace greater oversight over the parish watch and poor relief, designed ‘to induce Parishes to do their Duty’, were quietly shelved. The parishes won this battle for control of the watch and the workhouses, and the only legislation on policing passed took the form of additional watch acts, extending the system already in force in Westminster and the west end to the eastern and northern suburbs. Instead, the most significant development in policing in these years was the initiative of Henry Fielding, reacting to the threats posed by highwaymen (particularly when in gangs) and the corrupt thief-takers who were supposed to apprehend them, to create the Bow Street Runners.
Despite the executions of several members of the Black Boy Alley gang in 1744, groups of criminals continued to act in concert, elites continued to construe these groups into ever more threatening ‘gangs’ and the authorities were forced to respond. In the introduction to his Enquiry, Fielding claimed:
there is at this Time a great Gang of Rogues, whose Number falls little short of a Hundred, who are incorporated in one Body, have officers and a Treasury; and have reduced Theft and Robbery into a regular System.
Fielding was referring to the ‘Royal Family’ – a large group centred around members of a privateering squadron which included former participants in the Black Boy Alley gang. The Royal Family became notorious in January 1749 when they staged an armed attack on the Gatehouse Prison to rescue Thomas Jones alias Harper. Jones had been arrested for pickpocketing, and at least ten members of the gang were involved in the rescue. The Royal Family may not have been as large and coherent as Fielding claimed, but it was nonetheless formidable, and they were willing to publicly challenge judicial authority. One witness described how following the attack, ‘they made a terrible huzzaing; after they had got him out, I heard them say they would come back and pull down the goal [sic]’ . This was not the only gang active at this time: another, less well known (and unnamed), group was centred around Henry Webb and Benjamin Mason, alias Ben the Coalheaver. This group contained at least thirteen men, who ‘committed a great Number of Robberies together’.
The government’s response was the tried and failed one of offering rewards for the apprehension of the most notorious criminals. In February 1749 the £100 reward for the conviction of street robbers and highwaymen in London was reinstated (this remained available until early 1752), and in January 1750 a special £100 reward was offered for the capture of Thomas Jones. Other rewards were offered by parishes and individual victims. Measured by the amount of money paid out, these rewards were a huge success: in 1750–2 the government proclamations cost the Treasury £11,100, indicating at least eighty successful prosecutions for robbery. Many of the thief-takers who had been active in the 1740s were thereby enabled to continue or resume their activities, including William Palmer Hind, Charles Remington, John Berry and Stephen McDaniel, and many new ones became active. Ruth Paley lists twelve ‘leading thief-takers’ and twenty-two ‘less active ones’ working in this period. As always, thief-takers relied not only on supportive local justices of the peace but also on their connections with criminals for information. Many had criminal records themselves: Edward Mullins had been a member of the Royal Family.
Instead of preventing crime, the rewards encouraged it, as a result of thief-takers subverting their purpose. Taking advantage of the moral panic, it became easy for thief-takers to secure convictions, as their ‘evidence was received with extraordinary credulity’ in the courts. Consequently, thief-making gangs once again flourished, staging crimes and initiating false prosecutions in order to profit from the rewards. Through extensive use of perjury, extortion and blackmail, as well as violence, in Ruth Paley’s assessment they turned ‘the legal system into what was, in effect, a sophisticated offensive weapon’, for profit as well as in order to persecute their enemies. This amounted to ‘a systematic manipulation of the administration of the criminal law for personal gain’. In the end, the thief-takers were as much of a threat to law and order as the robbers they were meant to apprehend.
It was in response to both the apparently unprecedented law-breaking of highwaymen and gangs and the corruption of the thief-takers that Henry Fielding introduced the Bow Street Runners. In 1749–50 he organised a group of men, comprising constables, ex-constables, prison officers and thief-takers, whom he could send out on a regular basis to apprehend serious offenders for examination at Bow Street. While he paid these men a retainer (and thus maintained some control over them), they also kept any statutory rewards they were entitled to claim. According to many historians, these officers (they would not actually be called ‘Bow Street Runners’ for many years) mark the origins of the world’s first modern police detective force. Indeed, Fielding made strenuous attempts to emphasise the novel character of his runners, and to differentiate them from the frequently corrupt thief-takers who came before. However, this proved impossible. Joshua Brogden, Fielding’s clerk, had long-standing connections with thief-takers, and some of the men Fielding recruited in the early years were thief-takers themselves. There is even some evidence that Stephen McDaniel and John Berry were among Fielding’s recruits. These two men had already been involved in a thief-making scandal in 1747 and would be even more sensationally caught out in another one in 1754. Fielding soon replaced the most corrupt and criminal of these men and claimed that his officers were restricted either to constables or ex-constables, but nonetheless he felt the need to keep their names secret. Moreover, seeking to have it both ways, he justified the work of thief-takers in his Enquiry.
In spite of their tainted origins, by creating this new body of organised detectives Henry Fielding and his half-brother John, who took over the Bow Street office in January 1754, had radical ambitions to change how London was policed. Henry advocated withdrawing government rewards, and in 1752 convinced the Privy Council to stop offering extraordinary rewards by royal proclamation. Instead, he argued for his force to be at least partly funded from central resources, and from 1753 obtained £200 per annum from the government, increased to £400 in 1757. While the runners continued to rely on rewards offered by victims, this funding change altered the character of the relationship between criminals and the police charged with their capture.
Perhaps more importantly, victims of crime and the public were encouraged to rely on these officers to apprehend serious offenders, rather than attempt to capture them themselves. In newspaper advertisements from as early as 1749, the public were asked to send descriptions of thieves and stolen goods to Bow Street so they could be advertised, and from 1754 they were effectively requested to hand over responsibility for apprehending the culprits to the runners. This change was in part a response to the growing temerity of the public in seeking out and arresting criminals – something commentators including John Fielding frequently derided. However, it also represents an attempt to gain greater direct judicial control over the processes of detecting and arresting suspects in order to prevent extra-legal negotiations between criminals and those who apprehended them. The Bow Street Runners were also given wider policing responsibilities. In particular high-risk areas or where local inhabitants demanded it, such as in Westminster squares and on highways leading into the city, the officers conducted patrols both on foot and on horseback. As is clear from the accounts submitted by John Fielding to the Treasury, they also spent a substantial amount of time regulating and suppressing forms of popular recreation which were thought to lead to crime. As he explained in his Account of the Origin and Effects of a Police Set on Foot by His Grace the Duke of Newcastle in the Year 1753,
In large and populous Cities, especially in the Metropolis of a flourishing Kingdom, Artificers, Servants and Labourers, compose the Bulk of the People, and keeping them in good Order is the Object of the Police, the Care of the Legislature, and the Duty of the Magistrates, and all other Peace Officers.
In sum, through their prominent role in apprehending criminal suspects throughout the metropolis as well as in regulating popular entertainments, the Runners, in the words of John Beattie, ‘changed the face of official policing in London’. But since links with thief-taking were impossible to eliminate, the runners remained tainted by accusations of corruption (this was not helped by the fact that John Fielding continued to call them ‘thief-takers’). Hostility was also prompted by their methods. Like thief-takers, the Bow Street officers relied on paid informers who passed on gossip and rumours picked up in alehouses and taverns, and, in a new departure, they used the records kept by Fielding at Bow Street ‘about people suspected of committing offences and of those who had been charged but escaped conviction and punishment’. In some cases, ‘the runners went after men and women on their lists of “known offenders” who seemed to fit the descriptions given by the victims’. In the process, Fielding and the runners formalised the time-honoured police practice of ‘rounding up the usual suspects’. Focusing on the ‘usual suspects’, however, provoked hostility leading in turn to a need for anonymity for the Runners. As Fielding recognised, ‘as the thief-takers are extremely obnoxious to the common people, perhaps it might not be altogether politic to point them out to the mob’.
Despite popular hostility, the Fieldings claimed their new methods were a success. They planted numerous reports in the newspapers of robbers apprehended and gangs broken up by their men. In December 1753 Henry claimed that in the few weeks since the Duke of Newcastle had begun to fund the runners: ‘not one Robbery, or Cruelty hath been heard of in the Streets, except the Robbery of one Woman, the Person accused of which was immediately taken’. This was a disingenuous exaggeration since there are four trials in the Old Bailey Proceedings alone for violent thefts committed between 10 November and 4 December. And while 1754 did see a decline in prosecutions for violent theft, there were still twenty-seven offences prosecuted at the Old Bailey. Neither individual nor gang crime could be crushed so easily. Despite the onset of the Seven Years War in 1757, which was expected to lead to a reduction in crime, John Fielding reported that new gangs had begun to operate. Under the guise of the ‘Family Men’ or the ‘Coventry Gang’, members of the Royal Family continued to commit crimes into the 1760s.
There was also the continuing problem of thief-making. While the Bow Street officers appear to have pushed corrupt thief-takers out of Westminster, they continued to flourish in other parts of the metropolis throughout the 1750s, and, as Paley argues, ‘not only [Henry] Fielding but also the whole of the contemporary legal establishment must have been well aware of what was going on’. The most notorious scandal involved the thief-taker Stephen McDaniel, who had apparently acted as a Runner and participated in arresting a member of the Royal Family before he was dismissed from Bow Street by Fielding in 1751. McDaniel continued to act as a thief-taker and his ‘gang’ engaged in numerous thief-making conspiracies throughout the early 1750s, though they seem to have avoided bringing cases to the Old Bailey (prosecuting cases outside London instead). In August 1754 they were exposed at the Kent Assizes by Joseph Cox, high constable, who arrested McDaniel, John Berry, James Salmon and James Eagan and charged them with conspiracy to initiate a false prosecution against Peter Kelly and John Ellis for robbery in order to profit from the parliamentary reward. In February 1756 all four were tried and convicted of this conspiracy at the Old Bailey. Cox also exposed several of the gang’s other conspiracies. In June, McDaniel, Berry and Mary Jones were tried and convicted for the murder of Joshua Kidden , whom they had falsely charged and convicted of robbing Jones in February 1754. Kidden had ‘declar’d his innocence to the last’, and his friends and even the Ordinary of Newgate were entirely convinced. Regardless, he was hanged on Monday 4 February 1754, while the crowd threw snowballs and behaved as if they ’had been rather at a bear-baiting, than a solemn execution of the laws’.
Although sentenced to death, the punishments of McDaniel, Berry and Jones were never carried out, owing either to concerns about the legal validity of the offence of ‘murder by perjury’ or to a desire on the part of the legal establishment not to put these thief-takers in a position where they might expose damaging information about official collusion in their activities. They were sentenced to the pillory instead, and the fact that McDaniel and Berry were heavily protected by the keeper of Newgate and one of the sheriffs, shielding them from understandable popular outrage at their crimes, suggests that the officials were worried. As Ruth Paley argues, ‘the reason the thief-takers were tolerated for so long was that to make any move against them was to risk exposing the corruption of the whole system of the administration of the criminal law in the metropolis’.
Thief-taking (and no-doubt thief-making) continued, but defendants acquired a useful card to play in their defence. The ill-disguised link between the Runners and thief-taking provided defendants with a tactic to use in court, where they could attempt to discredit the Runners by accusing them of acting like thief-takers. When one of the most active early Runners, William Pentlow, testified against Thomas Lewis and Thomas May in a highway robbery case in 1750, ‘The two prisoners, especially May, much abused this headborough, as a person that would swear away any person’s life for a trifle.’ Henry Fielding was forced to rise to Pentlow’s defence, saying ‘he sincerely believed there was not an honester, or a braver man than he in the king’s dominion’, and the two defendants were convicted. Others were more successful. When William Page, a notorious highwayman zealously pursued by John Fielding, was finally tried at the Old Bailey in February 1758, he attacked the principal prosecution witness, his alleged accomplice William Darwell, suggesting that his association with Fielding undermined the validity of his testimony:
I know nothing of him, and why he should place this matter to my account, I don’t know. He has had access to my lodgings, and has had a long connection with Mr. Fielding from his own testimony. He is every thing that is bad and infamous, in declaring himself a highwayman. He would have given testimony against any person that he should happen to fix upon, to save his own life. He glories in his wickedness.
Page was acquitted. When the highwayman Paul Lewis was tried for robbing Mary Brook in 1762, he also conducted his own defence, carrying out robust cross-examinations of the prosecution witnesses. In doing so, he suggested that the prosecuting attorney had framed him and that the constable was a ‘hired constable’ and a ‘thief-catcher’ (he, too, was acquitted). These arguments were also used by defence counsel.
In response to the success of defence strategies like these, the Fieldings introduced a further innovation – more elaborate pre-trial hearings. Traditionally, the function of a preliminary hearing was limited, since justices were required to commit all accused felons to prison and forward the accusations against them for consideration by the grand jury. However, the Fieldings began to use their Bow Street office not simply to determine which of the accused to commit and take the necessary depositions but also to assess the evidence against suspects and solicit additional evidence where it was thought to be necessary to strengthen weak cases. As reports in his Covent Garden Journal suggest, Henry pioneered the practice of examining witnesses separately and waiting for the contradictions to emerge. While to modern eyes this seems like a natural detective practice, it was actually in contradiction of traditions of open justice in which all those involved in a dispute spoke to the same audience. Just as the introduction of counsel into criminal trials from the 1730s and 1740s had made the proceedings more ‘adversarial’, Fielding’s innovations meant that pre-trial hearings began to acquire the character of an increasingly unequal interrogation.
In cases where the evidence was judged to be weak, suspects were held while new victims and witnesses were located through advertisements in the press, inviting anyone with potentially useful information (or a grudge) to come and view the prisoner, and participate in a ‘re-examination’. Although this system was perfected by John Fielding, it was probably initiated by Henry, based on a provision of the 1752 Disorderly Houses Act which allowed justices to hold persons accused of theft for up to six days without charging them. Cases for the prosecution were thus potentially much stronger by the time they were forwarded to the Old Bailey, where cases originating at Bow Street became increasingly common. In John’s first decade in office (1756–66), ‘more than a third of the accused felons sent for trial at the Old Bailey from Middlesex were committed as a result of proceedings at Bow Street, the vast majority conducted by Fielding himself’. The pre-trial publicity Fielding generated by reporting these hearings in the newspapers provoked criticism in the 1770s, but from their beginning those subjected to the Fieldings’ new methods of arrest and pre-trial hearings fought back. When the burglar William Tidd was examined by Henry Fielding, he ‘d – d the justice, and said he was as big a thief as himself’. Innovations at Bow Street evolved in a continuing dialectic with the challenges posed by the thief-takers, thief-makers and the accused thieves of plebeian London.
‘The dogs of reformation’
Virtually the entire response to the post-war anxiety about crime can be seen as a renewed attempt at a reformation of manners, picking up where the previous campaign left off when it collapsed in 1738. Understandings of the causes of crime remained firmly traditional, blaming irreligion, immorality and idleness. The 1750s approach to the reformation of manners, however, was different in two respects. First, this new campaign more clearly differentiated the vices of the poor from the forgivable failings of the well-to-do. Henry Fielding’s social policy prescriptions explicitly focused on the poor and their supposed propensity for ‘luxury’. While he occasionally criticised the vices of the rich in the Covent Garden Journal and set himself up as ‘censor of the nation’s morals’, he did not think the wealthy needed judicial discipline. Similarly, his half-brother John opined in 1763 that while all brothels were to be condemned, the ones that needed to be closed most urgently were the ‘low, and common bawdy-houses, where vice is rendered cheap, and consequently within the reach of the common people’. The second distinctive feature was the limited involvement of magistrates. Despite resolutions passed by justices of the peace in the early years of the post-war crisis and the passage of the Gin and Disorderly Houses Acts in 1751–2, there were few extra prosecutions in the early 1750s. Magistrates were actively concerned about the opposition a new campaign would create. No doubt aware of the difficulties encountered during previous attempts to close down disorderly houses, particularly during the late 1720s, they treaded cautiously.
The only exceptions were the Fieldings, who, motivated by their ambitious redefinition of policing, defied the trend. In the early 1750s, Henry was involved in a campaign against gaming houses, and from 1755 John waged a battle against forms of popular culture which he believed encouraged vice. The annual accounts of expenditure he submitted to the Treasury between 1755 and 1758 include sums for suppressing several types of plebeian recreation, including ‘cock-scaling on Shrove Tuesday’ and ‘an illegal meeting of servants and apprentices at a dance at the Golden Lyon near Grosvenor Square’. He devoted even more effort to prosecuting vice following the onset of war in 1757. He drafted a successful bill which prohibited gaming by journeymen, labourers and servants in public houses, and pursued a vigorous campaign against gaming houses. While he attempted to avoid formal prosecutions, relying instead on warnings and threats to withdraw licences, his tactics, including paying large fees to secret informers (in one case he even paid for a ‘disguise’) and burning gaming tables in public, were deeply unpopular. As he himself recognised, he had become ‘obnoxious to many Bodies of People’. This may explain rumours spread in the summer of 1758 that he had been suspended from the bench and committed to Newgate prison.
Fielding did have some allies, particularly from August 1757 when a new society was formed to promote a ‘reformation of manners’. Consciously based on the ‘great’ societies of the 1690s, this group had a religious focus and was composed of seventy dissenters, twenty members of the established church, twenty supporters of George Whitefield and fifty supporters of John Wesley, and was most directly concerned to act against ‘the gross and open profanation of the Lord’s Day’. Significantly, their first move was to visit Fielding ‘for instruction’. With his approval and guidance, they sought and obtained approval from the City authorities, the county benches and the clergy. While, as Joanna Innes observes, unlike the earlier reformers this campaign ‘did not receive forceful backing from either the governmental or ecclesiastical elite’ and did not involve the direct participation of justices of the peace, it ‘clearly received enough support from metropolitan magistrates to flourish for some years’.
The reformers’ activities were initially focused on the dissemination of printed literature, including ‘dissuasives from Sabbath-breaking, extracts from Acts of Parliament against it, and notices to the offenders’. However, prosecutions soon followed and eventually extended to include people accused of profane swearing, unlawful gaming, ‘lewd women, and keepers of ill houses’, sellers of obscene prints and men accused of sodomy. By August 1762 they claimed 10,588 persons had been ‘brought to justice’, and by 1765 they had reportedly spent £1,000 on these activities. But while the list of offences targeted was ambitious in scope, in fact the vast majority of the offenders were accused of two easily detected offences, Sabbath breaking and prostitution.
The reformers quickly ran into a substantial barrage of opposition, similar to that experienced by the societies of the 1690s, 1700s and 1720s, and this time the campaign lasted only six years. The main reasons for opposition are familiar, but at mid-century the arguments had more purchase and the opponents (from all social classes) were stronger. First, the reformers were accused of hypocrisy because they only targeted the vices of the poor. As a letter to the London Chronicle complained, ‘the dogs of reformation’ were let loose only on those wearing ‘a dirty gown, [and who] want shoes to [their] feet’, while vice could be freely practised by those who ‘wear a coronet, or subscribe [themselves] noble’. In fact, the reformers readily admitted that they targeted ‘the thoughtless poor’. As before, the reformers were also accused of distorting normal judicial processes. With the advent of salaried night watchmen and the Bow Street Runners, the idea of private citizens taking the law into their own hands was becoming more objectionable. As ‘Persius’ complained in a letter to the London Chronicle, ‘For any number of individuals, to assume the place of the laws, to seize the sword of justice, and to arrogate a right both of ascertaining the degree of the crime, and affixing a punishment’ was to engage in ‘monstrous’ conduct.
However, as with previous antagonism to reformation of manners activities, the most effective opposition took place on the streets and in the courts. John Wesley complained that the informers who attempted to prevent tippling on the Sabbath ‘were exposed to abundance of reproach, to insult, and abuse of every kind; having not only the tipplers, to contend with, but rich and honourable men … all who gained by their sins’. In Wesley’s view, this
naturally encouraged ‘the beasts of the people’ to follow their example, and to use [those who ‘laid informations’] as fellows not fit to live upon the earth. Hence they made no scruple, not only to treat them with the basest language, not only to throw at them mud or stones, or whatever came to hand, but many times to beat them without mercy, and to drag them over the stones or through the kennels.
Those who attempted to arrest prostitutes were also targeted. In 1757 a military guard had to be summoned to protect constables attempting to clear prostitutes from the Strand after the constables were attacked ‘by Soldiers and others, who swear they are their Wives’. Similarly, an attempt to close some brothels and arrest prostitutes in March 1763 led to one thousand sailors assembling ‘in a line of battle’. Military assistance was called in, but the crowd ignored three readings of the Riot Act and forced the soldiers to allow the release of the eight women who had been arrested.
Despite the provisions of the Disorderly Houses Act which were intended to make prosecuting brothels easier, keepers were still able to use the law to stymie the reformers, primarily by filing malicious counter-prosecutions. A raid on the Sun Tavern in 1760, authorised by a warrant from John Fielding, failed to lead to a conviction when the keeper was acquitted and the headborough, William Payne, was charged in his place not only with assault and false imprisonment but also, incredibly, with planting ‘an almost naked man and woman’ in the house. When, the following year, James Braybrook, a thief-taker who had worked with Henry Fielding, was charged with keeping a disorderly house in Whitechapel, he conducted a war of attrition against his prosecutor, Mary Lowe. Following advice from his attorney, he repeatedly forfeited recognizances and delayed his trial from session to session, while harassing her, calling out ‘you Bitch i’ll do for you for i’ll never give it up to you … and Sayd he would Spend two hundred Pounds before she should have her ends’. Indeed, Lowe claimed she was subjected to several ‘false and feigned Prosecutions that hath been wickedly and untruly raised Stirred up and Commenced agt. her’, and had spent more than £30 defending herself. In the end, Braybrook was convicted, but Lowe was seriously out of pocket, and the bawdy house was ‘still kept on in like manner and as Infamous as ever’.
By 1765 the Society claimed it had spent almost £1,000 defending its members against malicious prosecutions. This sum included the case which led to its final collapse, following a raid in 1761 on the Rummer Tavern in Chancery Lane. The constables were once again charged with assault and false imprisonment, and the tavern keeper, a woman named Leeman, won the case and was awarded £300 damages. The fine was upheld on appeal. The reformers described this case as vexatious, and that may have been true. Despite the fact that twenty prosecution witnesses described the house as a place of good repute, the tavern was, in fact, a brothel. Nonetheless, there may have been real misbehaviour on the part of the ‘reforming constables’ when carrying out the initial arrest, and the judgement of the Chief Justice (Charles Pratt, Lord Camden) indicated a more principled objection to the reformers’ activities. According to the legal report of the appeal, the constables, ‘would not say what crime she was guilty of, or charged with; Allen the constable had a warrant but did not shew it … the defendants never prosecuted the plaintiff’. The informer, Abraham Tristram, who provided the original information against the house, had ‘fled for an abominable crime’ and, although subpoenaed, failed to appear at the trial. Chief Justice Pratt concluded his judgement, upholding the fine by saying ‘I think the King’s Bench would grant an information against these persons for setting themselves up as a kind of grand jury; an informer is a most odious character; and I am glad of an opportunity of declaring my dislike towards these reformers.’
Eventually, in 1765, the reformers managed to get their revenge when they successfully prosecuted the chief witness against them for perjury, but it was a pyrrhic victory. By that point legal costs and the £300 fine had forced the Society to close. Once again plebeian London, in alliance with more respectable Londoners who either profited from vice or objected in principle to the aggressive use of the law to prosecute it, had managed to defeat a reformation of manners campaign.
The costs of vagrancy
Part of the same basket of lower-class immorality, idleness and crime which was targeted by mid-century reformers, vagrancy was in many ways the easiest to prosecute. The flabby character of the statute law meant that a justice could define almost any plebeian man or woman outside their parish of settlement as a ‘vagrant’ and, once labelled, could use all the resources of the county to punish and remove them from the neighbourhood. The Vagrant Costs Act of 1699 had firmly located the administration of this system in the hands of the county bench, except in the City, where the punishment and removal of vagrants formed one of the main activities of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, with the Guildhall and Mansion House justice rooms witnessing hundreds of vagrant removals every year. During the first half of the century, this became an increasingly lucrative activity. Starting at 2 shillings, rewards for apprehending vagrants rose to 5 shillings in 1744 and 10 shillings at the discretion of the justice. In a petty version of the racketeering of the thief-takers, the constables for wards on the edge of the City who were responsible for removing vagrants made a substantial living. In 1751, just under a thousand vagrants were arrested and removed from the City, and in Middlesex and Westminster the numbers were even higher. Between, ‘July 1756 and July 1757’, a total of 1,951 ‘Orders of Conveying’ vagrants were issued, and rewards were distributed for the arrest of 498 people, at a cost of £246. And while these figures must be seen against the backdrop of a population of approximately 650,000, for a constable working with a justice willing to authorise a 10 shilling reward, the income could be substantial. In just six months in 1748, Thomas Sherratt, the constable for St Margaret Westminster, was paid £7 for the arrest of fourteen vagrants.
While constables and justices of the peace certainly believed they knew a vagrant when they saw one, the legal definition, while broad, was also obscure. The 1714, 1740 and 1744 Vagrancy Acts simply repeated an apparently random list of under-specified categories of the undesirable, including:
all persons going about as Patent Gatherers or Gatherers of Alms under Pretence of loss by Fire or other Casualty or as Collectors for prisons Goals or Hospitals and all persons wandering abroad and Lodging in Alehouse Barns outhouses or in the open Air not giving a good account of themselves and all other persons wandering abroad and begging …
The Acts went on to list ‘Fencers and bear wards … Common players of interludes … All minstrels, jugglers … All persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit or form of Egyptians’, and so on. In 1761 John Fielding included all these categories of the unacceptable under the general rubric of a ‘Description of disorderly persons’ in his Extracts from … the Penal Laws, justifying the vigorous prosecution of beggars, in particular, because in a phrase that echoed the discussion concerning the Westminster Watch Acts, they were ‘offensive to Passengers in general, and … dangerous to pregnant women’.
This lack of clarity allowed the system of vagrant removal to be applied to a wide range of people, including the settled poor (if deemed disorderly) and prostitutes and beggars, as well as migrant workers and itinerant chapmen. Typical of the variety of individuals labelled as vagrants were the five families and individuals arrested by William Andrews in the summer of 1757. They included:
Bazil Foster, a old man & his Wife Eliz:th & 4 children…
Mary & Sarah Stookes both publickly whipt & one child, all sent to … Stafford …
Mary Lund, begging & acting as a Vagtt … publickly whipt & sent by a Vagt pass to Newport in ye Isle of Wight …
Mary Morse big with child & one small child a soldier[’s] wife not permitted to go with her husband … sent by a Vagtt pass to Bristoll …
Sarah Gardiner acting as a vagtt … having veneriall disease ye Itch & almost starved sent by a Vagt pass to … Gloster …
Eliz Jones a Soldier[’s] wife & two small children laying in ye open air in ye high road sent by a vagtt pass to Gloster …
For his efforts, Andrews was rewarded £3 10s., at a rate of 10 shillings per individual adult or married couple, all signed off by Justice Samuel Bever.
A beggar or prostitute arrested by a beadle or watchman would have been taken first to the watch house, if it was night-time, or else directly to the justice’s house, Bow Street, or the Guildhall or Mansion House for immediate examination. Without time to marshal character witnesses or evidence, the resulting hearing was little more than an exercise in social power. In Amelia (1751), Henry Fielding knowingly depicts the scene in Justice Thrasher’s parlour as a travesty of prejudice, with the justice wielding his authority over a suspect on the basis of little more than bigotry: ‘Sirrah, your tongue betrays your guilt. You are an Irishman, and that is always sufficient evidence with me’.
According to statute, once arrested and examined by a justice, vagrants were to be ‘publickly whipt by the constable … or … sent to the house of correction till the next session, or for any less time, as… [the] justice shall think proper’ – normally at least a week at hard labour. If the case was deemed to warrant it, they could then be committed to up to six months’ further imprisonment on order of the quarter sessions; and if deemed to be an ‘incorrigible rogue’, either a further period of two years imprisonment, or else transportation. However, it is not at all clear what facet of being a ‘vagrant’ differentiated those who were ‘publickly whipt’ from those simply removed, or privately whipped and imprisoned.
Vagrants taken to the house of correction were delivered to the porter who was required to enter their name and the details of their offence and punishment into the prison register, before escorting them to the prison yard. Jacob Ilive, a religious radical committed to the Clerkenwell house of correction in 1757 for blasphemy, published a first-hand account of the mixed composition of the prison population, composed of ‘a great number of dirty young wenches, intermixed with some men; [and] some felons, who had fetters on, sitting on the ground against a wall, sunning and lousing themselves’. Conditions in houses of correction were tough for those with no money. Vagrants would have been hard pressed to provide the shilling required for a shared bed, or to supplement the county ration of a penny loaf of bread. For them, night would have been spent on straw with perhaps ten or twenty others, without sheeting under a rug provided by the master.
At the same time, it is clear that the community of prisoners made the best of a bad situation:
even while they are beating hemp, [they] sing the most lewd songs men or devils have invented … They take great delight in sitting in a ring, and telling stories of their own adventures; – how many men they had bilked, what sums they had robbed ’em of, and how many watches they had masoned. Tell who had their M[aidenhea]ds; – how they were first debauched; … As to their diversions, when they are not beating of hemp, they chiefly turn upon, Hunting the Slipper, Thread my Needle Nan and Prison and Bars. The men play at chuck-farthing, tossing up, Leap-Frog etc. They both take a particular delight in the Fairy Dance, called Rolly Powly, which is a very merry exercise, but abominably obscene.
Overall, the system of vagrant arrest and removal put the authorities and a wider plebeian public at loggerheads, which in turn created substantial systemic problems which had to be addressed. Many Londoners struggled to see a ‘vagrant’ in the pitiable visage of a beggar or luckless prostitute, and there was widespread public tolerance of these pauper strategies. In Middlesex, the bench complained that
the common People have not a proper Idea of the Offence of begging and have in many instances by their Obstruction rendered it very dangerous for the Peace Officers to whip Sturdy Beggars.
The tendency of Londoners to actively resist and resent the arrest of beggars and street entertainers as vagrants meant that the justices had to rely on rewards to motivate officers to undertake this unpopular task. However, this brought its own difficulties. As with felony prosecution, rewards led to corruption. The constables of Glass House Yard Liberty, for example, ‘to whom the Vagabonds from the East and London and Southwark are generally delivered in their Passage to the North, … have tried every Effort in their Power, to… Artfully prevail… upon a Magistrate at upwards of Ten Miles Distant … to sign such Orders [for rewards] to a large Amount’. Following an investigation in 1759, it emerged that these constables had subverted the entire system by subcontracting the task of removing vagrants to the county border, and, by a ‘Collusion between the Constable who delivers, and him that receives Vagrants’, they had ‘made a Sine Cure of upwards of £50 P Annum’. In an ironic mirror of the language usually applied to supposedly professional beggars, the Middlesex bench complained that vagrant removal had become ‘so lucrative that a kind of Trade has been made of it’.
Further difficulties were created by the complex pattern of local administration, with its essentially arbitrary boundaries between the City, Middlesex and Westminster. Poor relief might set parish against parish, but vagrancy set both parish against county and counties against each other, and allowed beggars and street vendors to work the system. A committee of Middlesex justices reported in April 1757 that as a result of the division between the City and Middlesex, and also because of the individual Watch Acts which governed most of Westminster, ’putting the Vagrant Act into execution’
brings a large Expence upon the County without producing the designed Effect to the publick for … [it is applied] only to one Species of Vagabonds, namely Beggars, those of them who are more the objects of Compassion than punishment feel the Lash of the Law, while the artificial Objects of Distress, who have reduced Begging into a Trade, well know how far the Whip of Justice extends and carefully avoid coming within its reach.
More difficult still was the structural tension created between the parishes and the county. Removing a pauper under the auspices of the laws of settlement fell to the parish accounts, but removing a vagrant was chalked up to the county. At the same time, while a pauper removal was subject to appeal at quarter sessions, removal under the vagrancy legislation was not. This essentially encouraged parish officers, with the connivance of local justices, to redefine paupers as vagrants, in order both to shift the expense of removing them to the county and to avoid a subsequent appeal – a redefinition made easy by the inchoate character of the statute law.
Mary Hyde, for example, was an inmate of the workhouse belonging to St Luke Chelsea. She was one of the migrant workers who ‘usually come every year to or near London to work in the summer season’; however, she was forced to apply for relief when her eyesight began to fail in the autumn of 1755. The parish referred her to Hyde Park Hospital for treatment. But when she was later ‘discharged … blind and incurable’, she was reclassified as a ‘vagrant’ by the local justice, Samuel Bever, allowing her to be removed to Shropshire at county expense. Bever’s practices were eventually investigated, but his slapdash approach was ascribed to the ‘Artifices of … [parish] Officers’, and no further action was taken.
The almost unbridled authority of constables and justices to arrest whomever they felt fell within the definition of a ‘vagrant’ remained in place throughout the eighteenth century, and was probably most strongly experienced by London paupers struggling to make a living at the edges of the settled economy. Prostitutes, drunks and out of place servants and apprentices almost certainly made up the majority of ‘vagrants’, and their treatment effectively ended with a week’s labour in a house of correction and a brief walk to a local parish of settlement, where they were handed over to the parish officers to be relieved. But, as with many of the ‘vagrants’ arrested by William Edwards, there were also those for whom being labelled a ‘vagrant’ formed the starting point for a long-distance relay race of removal from county to county, or indeed to Ireland. For these long-distance vagrants, the system changed significantly in 1757 when the county of Middlesex adopted a comprehensive system of ‘farming’ vagrant removal.
What had been a relatively informal system in which individual justices conducted examinations and issued removal orders, charging the constable to escort the named vagrant either to prison or the next parish became much more focused on the houses of correction and compters. Theoretically, though not in practice, from 1757 all vagrants were processed through the prisons and delivered to the newly appointed ‘vagrant contractor’, James Sturges Adams. His contract with the county specified that he should
provide himself with a Covered Cart and Proper Horses and Clear the Bridewells of all such Vagabonds … twice every Week that is to say those whose destination is to the North on one day every Week And those to the South and West on some other day every Week.
Two years later, the bench congratulated itself on having put an ‘effectual Stop to the granting Vagrant Passes to the casual Poor, where no Act of Vagrancy had been committed’. For the rest of the century, the vagrant cart could be seen making its regular journey, North, West, South and East, delivering thousands of men, women and children to their next staging post in the adjoining county. In many respects the action of the bench in sub-contracting vagrant removal reflected Henry and John Fielding’s belief that the effective administration of the laws against vagrancy, by preventing the ‘wandering’ of the poor, would contribute to social order. What is much less clear is who these vagrants and vagabonds were, and how they responded to their treatment.
We know that those processed as ‘vagrants’ were overwhelmingly women. In 1757 they outnumbered men by three to one among those removed from the City and Middlesex. Of the 189 female vagrants removed from Middlesex that year, 38.6 per cent were married or widows, many with small children in tow. As with workhouse populations, women of childbearing age made up the majority of vagrants, reflecting a powerful overlap between the simply poor and the vagrant. Like Mary Hyde, most vagrants were just unlucky.
The changes to vagrant removal outlined in this section were largely the result of a struggle between parishes and the county to control rapidly escalating costs; the role of the poor in this process was confined to the sheer weight of their rising demands for relief and their perceived disorder and criminality. It is unclear how the poor responded to these changes, and to what extent they were able to manipulate the system for their own ends. By separating them even more completely from their parish officers, these new arrangements forced accused vagrants, like accused felons, to develop new tactics for survival, but the limitations of the surviving evidence mean that those tactics are difficult to detect. One possibility was to exploit their newly determined legal settlement (which resulted from a formal vagrancy examination) to demand more extensive poor relief when they arrived at their settlement parish. Another was to take advantage of corrupt officials, as some vagrants did in the 1760s, to escape from the removal cart and return to their familiar haunts in London. But perhaps the most likely outcome was simply a lingering resentment against a system which had the power to forcibly transport so many paupers back to places which they no longer called home.
The penal stalemate
Punishments for felons had not changed substantially since the 1718 Transportation Act. At mid-century there were growing concerns that the present system was not working; concerns exacerbated by the growth in the number of felons convicted from 1748 and by continuing attempts by convicts to subvert existing punishments. The 1751 Felonies Committee expressed substantial reservations about the existing penal regime, identifying problems with the death penalty, transportation and imprisonment. Despite their concerns, and owing in large part to worries about anticipated plebeian responses, no major changes were implemented, with the exception of the Murder Act.
Despite calls, including from Henry Fielding, for more frequent executions, the number of felons executed, and the proportion of those sentenced to death who were actually executed, rose only briefly during the prosecution wave before returning to their previous level. The number of executions peaked at sixty-three in 1751, and the following year the proportion executed increased to 90.4 per cent of those sentenced; both figures then declined, to only fifteen executions (60 per cent of those sentenced) in 1762, before a new crime wave following the end of the Seven Years War led to more executions, though not an increase in the proportion executed.
Corporal punishment also declined, from 20.6 per cent of all felons sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1747 to just 3.1 per cent in 1762. Instead, an increasing number of convicts were sentenced to transportation, not only at the Old Bailey, where the proportion of convicts sentenced increased from 62.5 per cent in 1747–51 to 67.8 per cent in 1759–63, but also at quarter sessions.
Those convicted of the most serious offences were still hanged, and parliament continued to pass laws removing benefit of clergy (thus mandating a death sentence) from offences which were deemed to be particularly serious and threatening, such as the theft of goods worth more than 40 shillings from a ship or wharf, a crime which was thought to undermine trade. The passage of the Murder Act in 1752 demonstrates the continuing appeal of this ultimate sanction to law-makers, but it did not increase the number of capital offences, and as we have seen its impact was limited. There were increasing concerns expressed by commentators that hanging convicts was simply not working. Even the Felonies Committee resolved ‘That it would be reasonable to exchange the Punishment of Death, which is now inflicted for some Sorts of Offences, into some other adequate Punishment’. Yet, while the advent of the Seven Years War in 1756 accelerated the decline in executions, the approach of peace from 1761 reversed the trend. Once again judges and the Privy Council resorted to capital punishment as a means of addressing an anticipated post-war crime wave. Death had not yet been abandoned as the punishment of last resort, not least because all the alternative sanctions could, like Tyburn, be undermined by convicts and the crowd.
While the number of hangings fluctuated depending on perceived levels of crime, the Old Bailey judges appear to have substantially lost faith with whipping at mid-century. While to some extent the decline in sentences was due to the diversion of a substantial number of lesser larceny cases to the Middlesex sessions of the peace, there were also growing concerns about the practice of conducting whippings in public. From the 1730s, a new form of whipping, private whipping, emerged. According to the sheriff’s cravings (lists of fees claimed), between 1746 and 1759 more than half of the defendants whipped in London were punished privately, inside a prison or house of correction, or at a stationary post outside a prison or court house, in contrast to the traditional practice of being whipped at a cart’s tail along one hundred yards of a public street. While few reservations were openly expressed, judges and justices appear to have become increasingly concerned that public whipping was no longer effective. In part, this may have reflected concern that the crowds on London’s streets were no longer paying attention to the spectacle, but the issue of public order was also involved. As we have seen, at the height of the prosecution wave in 1751, a committee of Middlesex justices investigating the laws against ‘rogues and vagabonds’ resolved that it was ‘dangerous for the Constables to whip Vagrants in the publick streets’ and that they should instead be whipped in a house of correction. There were clearly also concerns that it was inappropriate to whip women in public, since only one-third of the women whipped in this period suffered their punishment in public, compared to almost two-thirds of men. This shift towards private whipping removed one of the most important characteristics of corporal punishments, their publicity.
Despite the widespread attraction of hard labour to those responsible for setting penal policy, the replacement for the declining proportion of convicts sentenced to death or whipping at the Old Bailey was not to be imprisonment, with or without hard labour. Despite the Felonies Committee’s concern to address the problem of idleness, the attempt, in the Felons Confinement in the Dockyards Bill in 1752, to introduce hard labour in the naval dockyards as a punishment for felons failed. As Nicholas Rogers observed, there were fears ‘that the concentration of convicts in the yards would simply generate a criminal sub-culture rather than a reformative atmosphere’. Among the objections raised against the bill were that ‘being in numbers [the convicts] may plot together’, ‘they may fire the yards and do other mischief’, and ‘they will escape’.
Experiences with disease and periodic escapes in London’s existing prisons made the authorities wary of incarcerating more convicts. Particularly during the post-war prosecution wave, London’s prisons were seriously overcrowded and insecure. Newgate could hold 150 prisoners, including debtors, yet that maximum was regularly exceeded, particularly in the days before each Old Bailey sessions. In the period from 1748 to 1751, an average of 1,020 accused criminals and 176 debtors were committed to the prison each year. Almost inevitably, given the poor sanitary conditions, epidemics followed, and this was forcefully brought home to the authorities in April 1750 when an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ (typhus) spread from the prisoners on trial to those present in the Old Bailey courtroom, killing the Lord Mayor, two judges, an alderman, and several lawyers and members of the jury. Almost immediately, plans for the rebuilding of Newgate were drawn up, though disagreements and the difficulty of obtaining funding meant that the actual rebuilding did not commence until 1769. In the short term, the only improvement was the addition of a windmill on the roof (for ventilation) in 1752, but this made little difference. Between 1755 and 1765, 132 prisoners died.
Another consequence of overcrowding was a regular pattern of escapes, not only from Newgate but from virtually all of London’s prisons, houses of correction and lockups. In 1748–9, at the height of the prosecution wave, there were escapes from New Prison, Bridewell, and the Wood Street and Poultry Compters, as well as two foiled escapes from Newgate. This problem was acknowledged by the Felonies Committee, which included among its resolutions that ‘persons breaking, or attempting to break, any Prison, should be made liable to some severer Penalties’. What is remarkable is how easy it seems to have been to effect an escape, owing to the poor state of the buildings and relatively open access given to visitors. Shortly before the execution of Bosavern Penlez in 1749, it was reported that ‘the convicts under sentence of Death in Newgate, having got a Quantity of Gunpowder, Chips and other Combustibles, convey’d to them, design’d to attempt an Escape, by Setting Fire to, or blowing up Part of the said Gaol’. That plan was foiled, but earlier that year John Stanton, committed for pilfering a linen handkerchief, escaped from Bridewell with the help of a ‘spring saw’ brought into the prison by Sarah Stanton and Marshe Dickenson. He was able ‘to saw off his feet lock & make his Escape’, while William Taylor, Elford Mills and Thomas Kempton escaped from New Prison in their irons by climbing over the wall ‘with the help of Ropes and other Instruments’. Three years later William Carney was able to break out of New Prison with the assistance of William Harvey, who smuggled in a disguise. Similarly, in 1762 Bartholomew Place brought William Place (perhaps his brother), detained for burglary in Bridewell, ‘a certain fustian frock … being a dress for the disguising the sd. Wm. Place without the Privity of the Keeper with intent to Aid & assist the Escape of the sd. Wm. Place’, as well as ‘a certain Instrumt. Made of Iron & Steel called a Punch (being an Instrumt. proper to facilitate the Escape of Prisoners)’. Although unsuccessful, the attempted escape of a group of felons awaiting transportation in June 1758 (they ‘had sawed through eight iron bars, each as thick as a man’s wrist’) provided a further reminder of the insecurity of London’s prisons.
As the escapes from Bridewell suggest, houses of correction were no better: the Felonies Committee reported that they suffered ‘great Defects … and Abuses’. These can be summarised as, in addition to the problems of overcrowding, disease and disrepair which affected all prisons, the prisoners’ poverty, and their defiance and recalcitrance in the face of attempts (unique in this period to houses of correction) to put them to hard labour and religious duty. Prisoners in London’s four houses of correction were some of the poorest in the metropolis. In 1741 the keeper of the Middlesex house in Clerkenwell observed that
the Persons in his Custody are even lower in Life & poorer than those committed to New Prison & often have not one Friend come near them during the whole Time they are confined … many of the Prisoners are in a dismall Condition near unto starving … they are often very ill and unable to be bro’t up to Court when sent for … & that he verily believed their Illness was often occasioned by their great Necessities & Want of Provision.
Although some money was provided to support such prisoners, the problem remained. Jacob Ilive, whose observations about vagrants in the house of correction have already been cited, observed in 1757 that ‘many persons die here, in the course of a year, for want of food and care’, in part because the keeper refused to discharge prisoners who could not pay their fees.
Among the prisoners who were able to feed themselves, through their own labour or from charity, the prison culture was debauched and defiant. Ilive described a ‘scene of debauchery’, as men went into the Clerkenwell house of correction to find prostitutes, and Henry Fielding dismissed ‘Bridewells’ as ‘Schools of Vice, Seminaries of Idleness, and Common-shores of Nastiness and Disease’. But house of correction prisoners did not simply descend into a riot of vice and debauchery; they conspired to resist their prosecutions and punishments. In April 1752 the Middlesex justices noted that prisoners in New Prison and the house of correction who had been accused of felonies ‘or some other Grand Misdemeanor’ had devised a scheme for escaping prosecutions. Before they were examined by a justice of the peace in front of their prosecutors, they ‘changed their Apparell and put on different Cloathing and so disguised themselves that the prosecutors have not known whether they were the same persons against whom they complained or not, By which Artifice such Offenders have escaped a prosecution’.
In addition, prisoners such as Ilive (admittedly atypical) used print (two pamphlets, published in 1757 and 1759) to highlight conditions in houses of correction, thereby forcing the justices to act. In 1760 the Middlesex bench asked a committee of justices to examine prisoners in the house of correction and New Prison ‘to inform themselves from the Prisoners what sort of Beds are provided for them and whether they are incommoded by any Sort of Vermin as has in print been asserted’. The court further recognised the power of prisoners’ complaints by resolving that prisoners should ‘be properly kept from hard usage to prevent Reflection either to the Magistracy or Keepers of the said Prisons’. Inadvertently, this and earlier justices’ orders helped make prisoners aware of the potency of their complaints through their power to influence the keepers and excuse their own misbehaviour. Sarah Griffith, charged with escaping from the Westminster house of correction in 1756 by using a knife to prise off an iron grate and climbing over a fifteen foot wall, justified her actions by claiming ‘I was there 3 weeks, and for four days without victuals, being obliged to eat the cabbage stalks off the dunghill, because there is no allowance for us’. Although the keeper claimed that he would have provided for her if she had only asked, Sarah was acquitted.
As in the past, felons in houses of correction presented a particular problem. Overcrowding at Newgate occasionally meant that felons could be found in these other prisons, which were intended only for the punishment and reform of petty offenders. Incarcerating felons in houses of correction had been tried before following an Act of 1706, but this policy had been subverted by prisoner behaviour, including a mutiny over the use of fetters in 1713. The experiment was briefly tried again in July 1750, when seven convicted thieves were sentenced to the Clerkenwell house of correction for six months, but there were similar problems. Fielding reported the following year that he had been informed by the keeper that it had been impossible to put the felons to hard labour ‘with any heavy or sharp Instruments of Work, lest they should be converted into Weapons’; and Ilive claimed that houses of correction were simply not suitable for felons because they were so easy to escape from.
With significant reservations over the use of hanging, whipping and imprisonment, many of which reflected convict resistance, the judges increased the number of sentences of transportation in the 1750s, although this punishment also generated both convict subversion and elite doubts. As we have seen, at the Old Bailey transportation accounted for a large and growing proportion of all punishments (Figure 5.9). From late 1749 the Middlesex justices also used transportation for those convicted of petty larceny at quarter sessions, drastically reducing the number of convicts who were whipped or sent to a house of correction. Between 1749 and 1754, 48 per cent of these convicts were sentenced to transportation.
Despite its popularity with judges and justices, substantial criticisms of transportation remained. It was thought that life in the American colonies had become too easy for transportation to act as a deterrent, that it could lead to depopulation and that returning from transportation was relatively straightforward for those who could afford to buy their freedom and a passage home. These concerns were exemplified by the case of John Poulter, alias Baxter, convicted at the Old Bailey of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation in 1746. A frequently republished account of Poulter’s multiple crimes demonstrated how easy it was to return from transportation (while not admitting that he had done so). Convicts only needed to purchase their freedom from the merchant or captain of the transport ship, and they would then be released ‘unmolested’ when they arrived in America. They were then able to return to England on any other ship (’if they can pay their passage they are refused no ship’). Those unable to purchase their freedom could run away from their masters and travel to Philadelphia, New York or Boston, ‘in which places no Questions are asked them’. Poulter claimed, therefore, that transportation was ‘but four or five months pleasure’.
Although it is impossible to determine how many convicts actually returned home (one estimate suggests the number was ‘relatively modest’), those who did so nonetheless constituted a headache for the authorities. Many became members of gangs, and returnees were surprisingly difficult to convict. Between 1748 and 1762, twenty-seven defendants were charged with returning from transportation at the Old Bailey, seventeen during the prosecution wave of 1748–53. Despite the relative ease of proving the offence (all that was required was proof of the defendant’s original conviction and sentence), seven were acquitted, owing to flaws in the indictments, lack of positive identifications or defendants’ successful arguments that they had been brought back to Britain against their wishes (e.g. as a prisoner of war). Consequently, the Felonies Committee proposed that ‘the method of convicting such Offenders should be rendered more easy and less expensive’.
The penal system in the 1750s had therefore reached a stalemate. Owing to both elite concerns and potential disorder at Tyburn, it was not thought politic to execute more convicts, but the alternatives of whipping and hard labour were also rejected due to fears that they, too, were both ineffective and easily subverted. While transportation was increasingly used, concerns were mounting that it suffered from similar disadvantages. This situation would not fundamentally change until transportation was interrupted by the outbreak of the American War two decades later.
London’s lost children
If policing and punishment struggled to cope with what seemed like a rising tide of disorder, the increasing number of associational charities such as the Foundling Hospital must have appeared to point the way towards a more orderly London. The metropolis had long been plagued by high levels of infant mortality. According to the Bills of Mortality, the death rate of children under ten typically stood at over 500 deaths per thousand christenings in the first half of the century. While in the 1740s the existence of the hospital appears to have reduced this by 5 per cent (largely by shifting the place of death from the town to the countryside), in the 1750s the mortality rate began to climb again, and it soon returned to half of all babies born in the capital, before finally starting a long slow decline in the second half of the century. The situation was particularly bad in the new workhouses. In 1750 a committee of the vestry at St Margaret Westminster reported on ‘all the children that have been born’ in their workhouse, ‘or sent in under the age of twenty months’, between February 1746 and May 1750. Fifty-six babies and toddlers had been delivered or admitted, of whom twelve had been discharged to friends or parents, their eventual fate unrecorded. Only six were reported as still living and in the house, and of these, five had been born in the house and were still under the age of twenty months. The committee could find only a single child above the age of twenty months who had been admitted as an infant and was still alive and in the house. St Margaret’s workhouse was quite simply a place of death. And the Foundling Hospital, which carefully screened the babies it admitted for signs of illness and poor health, and which developed a comprehensive system of rural nursing, managed little better. The first half of the 1750s saw the hospital experiencing a mortality rate of over 72 per cent. This figure rose to over four out of every five babies during the latter half of the decade, during the ‘General Reception’ (1756–60) when all infants were admitted.
For the elite men who ran the parishes, managed the charities and sat in judgement in the courts, it was clear enough who was to blame: the gin-soaked mothers of their imagination. When, in February 1751, William Hogarth published Gin Lane, he put centre stage a drunken crone, absent-mindedly dropping her unnaturally plump and healthy baby boy (Figure 5.5). Just as the apparent disorder associated with gin consumption was used to justify new controls, so the new associational charities and government policies that came in their wake – the ‘General Reception’ at the Foundling Hospital and Jonas Hanway’s Registration Acts (1761 and 1767) – identified concerns for the health of newborn Londoners as justification for exercising an intrusive civic authority over both the bodies of mothers and the lives of their children. In these initiatives can be found a concerted form of what Patricia Crawford has characterised as ‘civic fatherhood’. When parliament failed to legislate in response to what the Felonies Committee described as the propagation of ‘a new Race of chargeable Poor, from Generation to Generation’, the associational charities took on the challenge. Despite professed humanitarian aims, the impact of these new institutions and policies was both stark and divisive. For the babies left in the hands of the Foundling Hospital, the most likely outcome was a quick death, while effectively breaking up families and leaving a trail of heartbreak. At the same time, initiatives such as the new lying-in hospitals, the Marine Society and John Fielding’s Asylum for Orphan Girls, designed to support the production of healthy and useful children, redirected charitable resources to the settled poor by creating a complex series of admission tests designed to filter the moral and healthy from the dissolute and gin soaked. Collectively, the new policies of the 1750s both reinforced the division between the settled poor and a desperate residuum, and directly led to the deaths of thousands of babies and very young children.
A new procreative agenda had stuttered into life in the late 1730s and 1740s, and came to fruition in the 1750s. The response to alarmingly high rates of infant mortality was largely to remove the care of many expectant mothers from the parishes, and of the children of the poor from their parents. Just as the Foundling Hospital was being established, Richard Manningham founded the ‘Charitable Infirmary for the Relief of Poor Women Labouring of Child’. The next decade and a half witnessed the establishment of five further charities aimed at expectant mothers. In 1747 new lying-in wards were built at the Middlesex General Hospital, and in 1749 the British Lying-in Hospital in Brownlow Street was established. Next came the City of London Lying-in Hospital in 1750, followed by the General Lying-in Hospital, later Queen Charlotte’s in 1752, and finally, in 1757, the Lying-in Charity for Delivering Poor Married Women in their own Habitations. These mother and baby centred initiatives were mirrored by a series of charities aimed at older children, seeking to steer their youthful paths in the way of useful lives. Both Jonas Hanway’s Marine Society (1756) and John Fielding’s Asylum for Orphan Girls (1758) sought to capture the hearts and minds of the children of London, by removing them from the baleful influence of pauper parents. And finally, using state resources, the ‘General Reception’ at the Foundling Hospital was mandated by parliament in the spring of 1756, sparking the most expensive and murderous experiment in social welfare in British history, while encouraging widespread parental abandonment of their small children.
In combination with the evolution of workhouses into centres for the care and relief of younger women of child-bearing age, and the passage of Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753, which rendered most traditional forms of irregular marriage illegal, these charities and initiatives created a new reproductive regime in London. Elite male control was enhanced by the gradual introduction, from the 1730s, of male midwives into this traditionally female area of care. The state and the elite men who managed reproduction claimed a kind of collective oversight of pauper women’s bodies, and the children they produced. Working Londoners were largely excluded from this discussion, but the way they interacted with these new institutions would shape their development.
Each of these charities added a new landmark to the already complex landscape of relief and support which Londoners in desperate circumstances needed to navigate, and each had a different impact on their lives. The lying-in charities, for example, appear to have been reasonably popular, despite suspicion of the ‘man-midwifery’ associated with them. As Lisa Cody has demonstrated, they provided relatively good conditions for the settled poor. Even specialised parish provision of the sort provided by St Martin’s attracted a willing clientele, at least in the short term. At institutions such as the British Lying-in Hospital in Brownlow Street, conditions were of an even higher standard, with individual beds, clean clothing and nutritious food. Perhaps most significantly, the hospital ensured that most births were overseen by traditional midwives, and supported a full month of post-delivery rest and recuperation. Gin and gambling were forbidden, and a gruelling regime of religion was demanded. But all told, the lying-in hospitals represented a substantial financial and material contribution to the lives of the poor. The only problem was that they were difficult to access. As Cody relates, to gain admission to the British Lying-in Hospital, each prospective patient
needed to locate a governor who could give her a recommendation; she had to have proof of her marriage, or go to the Old Bailey to have an affidavit made out; and then she was interviewed at a Thursday board meeting, where she was asked about her menstrual cycle and other matters, examined by the matron, and, if determined a clean, proper object of charity, was allowed to ballot for a place.
These procedures effectively excluded the unsettled, the unmarried and the desperate. In effect, the existence of these new institutions pushed these mothers towards parish provision (or the Foundling Hospital), while the charities took on the care of more established women and their children. This in turn reinforced the association of parish relief with extreme poverty and moral turpitude, while ensuring that the capital’s workhouses would continue to be dominated by women of childbearing age who were excluded from the lying-in hospitals.
In order for even the respectable poor to obtain the benefit of the new charities, they needed to learn how to write petitions and secure the support of their richer neighbours. At the Asylum for Orphaned Girls, or Lambeth Asylum, founded in 1758, the requirements for admission included that
each object applying for Admission will be required to produce … a Certificate of their Age & Necessity as shall be satisfactory to the Guardians then present; each Certificate to be sign’d by two substantial House Keepers of the Parish where the Objects resides.
While the advertisements and rules were clear that the Asylum was intended to provide housing, care and education to orphaned and poor girls between the ages of eight and twelve who, in the words of Donna Andrew, were in danger of being ‘sold into prostitution’, the inevitable result of the selection process was that most of the girls accepted by the Asylum were much less at risk than the Society’s advertising suggested. Of the fifty-four girls admitted in the first three years to 1761, only eight were actually orphans; the rest had one or both parents still living. Many applicants were excluded on the grounds that they had a legal settlement, and several others on the grounds that their parents were ‘very well able to maintain them’. But overall the charity appears to have evolved into a support for established families seeking help with the costs of education and training, rather than as a facility for street children.
The poor seeking to benefit from this charity essentially colluded in a process of directing resources to the settled poor in direct contradiction to the objectives of the trustees. When in August 1759, Sarah Carpenter, Sarah Gelder and Mary Morris ‘got out at the Window and went home to their Parents, but returned in a few hours’, they were making the most of resources which were not actually intended for them.
Many of the other mid-century charities came to support precisely this same settled community, even when they claimed to be directed at the marginal and desperate, and in the process they had a similar effect on the wider population of the poor. Besides the half-dozen lying-in charities, this selectivity is also apparent in the workings of the Marine Society. This Society was and is dedicated to supporting recruitment to the Navy, and from its foundation in 1756 was primarily concerned with fitting out men and boys with the clothes and equipment they needed to serve at sea. Some basic training was also provided, and a subset of boys was trained to play the fife. Like the lying-in hospitals, this was a popular charity that provided substantial resources of clothing and bedding to the poor. The rhetoric associated with the Marine Society was about the problem of ‘vagabond boys who are in filth and rags and have no means of support but theft and beggary’, and its express purpose was to relieve London ‘from the burden of Idle and useless boys’. But as a result of the large number of boys presented, and the refusal of ship’s captains to take on vagrant and sickly children, the charity quickly abandoned its concentration on the very poor and became a resource for settled families looking to place their male children without the expense of a formal apprenticeship. Consequently, despite the fact Fielding had helped found it, the charity largely stopped accepting the children sent by him in July 1757. Instead, most of the Society’s recruits could read, were in stable employment and from settled backgrounds.
Thus, most of the charities established at mid-century appear to have evolved to support a form of settled poverty, with families figuring out how to use them as a way of securing care in childbirth and education for their children. To this extent, working Londoners learned how to exploit these charities, providing much-needed resources in support of families at two of the most difficult times in the life cycle. In effect these charities stepped into the breach left by the creation of parish workhouses, which sought to discourage applications from all but the most marginal Londoners. However, in order to generate the income from benefactors needed to provide this service, the hospitals and charities strove vigorously, one against the other, in ‘open competitions’ for resources that threatened to bring them all into disrepute, and which were built on a damning indictment of the London poor. In pursuit of charitable donations, and while it continued to recruit ‘stout lads’ of good parts from settled backgrounds, the Marine Society, for instance, constantly pointed up the criminal and feral character of London’s children. Similarly, the Lambeth Asylum depicted its own charges as preternaturally addicted to sex and gin.
The irony underpinning the hard work of even well-meaning philanthropists such as Jonas Hanway was that in order to provide what were generous conditions for London’s poor, they needed to paint women and children as vicious and libertine. In the short term, the respectable poor, who learned how to obtain these resources by presenting themselves as victims and personal failures, struck this bargain, despite the unflattering light it cast upon them. But in the longer term, the charities’ strategy effectively made working Londoners appear both in the guise of a problem in need of an elite solution and as a class of people beyond redemption or real empathy.
If the actions of the charitable and well-meaning tended to demean the poor in the course of providing them with much-needed support, the development of state policy in these same years, promoted by many of the same people, tended to actively destroy families and increase the murderous rate of infant mortality. By far the most expensive state intervention in the lives of poor Londoners between the establishment of the Old Poor Law and the creation of the modern welfare state, the ‘General Reception’ at the Foundling Hospital was mandated by parliament in March 1756, in response to a petition from the hospital. Motivated by the expectation that caring for foundlings would contribute to building up the armed forces, between June 1756 and March 1760 the Foundling Hospital was charged by parliament to accept all children offered to it under the age of two months. Over the next five years, 14,982 babies were admitted to the hospital at a direct cost of over £500,000. By comparison, at mid-century the parishes of London and Middlesex were spending in total between £80,000 and £90,000 per year on poor relief, and the annual national cost of parish relief was just under £700,000.
The babies admitted during the General Reception were brought by their mothers or fathers, or by parish officers, occasionally in cahoots with the fathers of illegitimate babies. For their parents, the hospital offered hope that their infants would obtain the secure upbringing they were unable to provide. As the testimony of Giuseppe Ricciardelli alias Joseph Geraldine, a poverty-stricken Italian immigrant sentenced to hang at Tyburn for murder, suggests, even in 1752 the hospital’s facilities seemed to offer the promise that someone would care for his child, when he himself faced oblivion. Just before his death, he wrote to a friend, to
recommend to you my unfortunate Wife, lately brought to Bed of a Son in Brownlow-Street Hospital … and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling-Hospital, and educated in the Protestant Religion.
Many of the notes left with the children express real gratitude for the care provided, and a belief that the child ‘could be plac’d no where safer, than under yr wise & good Government’.
However, the system was open to abuse. Even Jonas Hanway recognised that many infants were ‘torn by the Parish-Officers from the Breast of a shrieking Mother, with a View to save Expence to the Parish’. At least forty-three babies, for example, were sent to the hospital from St Martin’s workhouse. These included children such as Prudentia Miller, the illegitimate daughter of Anne Miller, born in the workhouse and sent unbaptised to the hospital at just six days old: ‘with a desire for her to be named Prudentia’. Anne Miller, a widow, had recently been removed to St Martin’s as a vagrant from Ealing along with her two older children, four-year-old James Edward and two-year-old Mary. It is unclear what happened to James Edward, but Anne and Mary left the workhouse a month after Prudentia’s birth, with ‘3 Shill[ing]; to Carry her into ye. Cuntry’. The parish officers had indeed been saved a deal of trouble and expense.
The most substantial effect of this essentially mercantilist attempt to break a perceived pattern of intergenerational poverty was simply thousands of dead children. From 24 June 1758 to 29 September 1760, 81 per cent of the 7,000 admitted, or just under 6,000, died, the vast majority under the age of one year. Of the children kept at the hospital itself (as opposed to those sent out to nurse), this figure rose to 94 per cent of the total. The Governors were fully aware of the problem, but kept the wider public largely in ignorance. The deaths continued through the summer of 1760, when parliament finally withdrew its financial support primarily because of the growing costs.
Of course, infant mortality was also high outside the hospital, and the governors of the Foundling Hospital were largely well-meaning; the 10,000 children whose deaths they facilitated in the first twenty years of the hospital’s operation were unintended consequences of simple hubris. However, the real impact of this initiative was on the families torn apart by the policy. Many contemporaries regretted the doleful effects of the General Reception on family relationships. Joseph Massie, for instance, worried that the policy would erode, ‘those natural Obligations’ upon which ‘the Happiness of Individuals, and the Welfare of Society, do very much depend’, leaving no one to ‘Maintain their Parents when they grow Old’, and leaving each foundling with no one ‘to give them good advice, to assist them when they behave well, or restrain them from doing Ill’.
More telling was the experience of Mary Hindes, hanged and anatomised in June 1768 for the murder of eighteen-month old John Smith. Mary was a widow living in St George Hanover Square workhouse, who regularly visited John’s parents in Green Street. On 17 April, Mary volunteered to take ‘Joe’, as his father called him, out to buy a cheesecake; and from there went from pub to pub, before eventually drowning him in the Serpentine. In her own estimation, she was
wearied of life, she had had a great many disquietudes … and … a couple of children [taken] from her, and put … into the Foundling-hospital, which had given her a great deal of anxiety; she concluded with saying, she was desirous of dying, and that led her to do that sort of an act, for which she said she knew she should receive no mercy of the jury …
It rapidly emerged that ‘Joe’ Smith was not Mary’s first victim and that she had been tried and acquitted of an almost identical crime seven years earlier, when she was accused of drowning five-month-old Edward Mulby, the son of Malachi and Sarah. Once again, she had taken an infant child from its mother as a favour, fed it and drowned it in a pond – this time near Knightsbridge. Theft was not the motive in either case, and it is clear that Mary Hindes was insane, gripped by a pathological interest in small children of an age with those taken from her. Just before she was turned off at Tyburn, on Wednesday 29 June 1768, she admitted to the hangman that she was also responsible for ‘destroying several other children’ in addition to Joe and Edward. Mary Hindes was a serial killer, the victim of a system that paid little heed of her emotional attachment to her own children.
By the end of the General Reception, even the Hospital’s most fervent proponents recognised that, in the words of Jonas Hanway, it was ‘the cause of the deaths of many thousands’, particularly among rural infants brought to London. Public charities as a whole were also brought in to disrepute. When the anonymous author of Some Considerations of the Fatal Effects … of the Present Excess of Publick Charities published his views in 1763, he directed his particular ire at recent London foundations, including ‘The Magdalene, Asylum, Foundling, Hospitals for Sick and Lame, Lying-in Hospitals, Charity Schools, and the Dissenting Fund’. The mid-century experiment in the foundation of new associational charities was largely finished.
London’s poor did not create these charities, though they were a response to growing poverty and its associated perceived and real social problems. Nor, for the most part, did they shape their form and direction. In many respects, as the case of Mary Hindes suggests, these policies were an unmitigated disaster for the poor. However, in their encounters with the gatekeepers of these charities, the poor did learn valuable lessons. They discovered how to manipulate the available resources for their own purposes, colluding with parish officers and charity officials where it was in their interests to do so, and in other circumstances playing them off against each other. Using petitions, letters of reference and personal lobbying, the poor, especially the more respectable poor, learned how to exploit these charities to get the support they needed. And by the sheer level of demand, they forced these charities into making what sometimes turned out to be disastrous policy choices. While, as in the case of the General Reception, the results of the policies were manifestly not in their interests, neither were they ultimately in the interests of the charities themselves.
However, to Jonas Hanway’s way of thinking, these failures did not invalidate his efforts to intervene to protect pauper children from both their parents and the parish officers. He knew the value of every child lost to gin and parochial greed, and calculated it at precisely £151 11s. 4d. per baby. And in the early 1760s, he determined to take the lessons he believed he had learned from the operation of the Foundling Hospital and apply them to the regulation of London’s parishes and workhouses. The result was An Act for the keeping regular, uniform and annual Registers, of all Parish Poor Infants under a certain Age , which formed the starting point for an increasingly aggressive assault on the right of pauper parents to care for and direct the lives of their children.
The resilient highwaymen
Collectively, the policy changes of the 1750s sought to transform the culture of idleness, immorality and crime that elite commentators thought characterised the lives of the labouring poor. However, as with the initiatives of the associational charities, the real outcomes were seldom straightforward and rarely conformed to the expectations of those who implemented them. Many aspects of popular culture, including the belief in polite highway robbery as a legitimate form of social mobility, were more resilient than this, and some more respectable Londoners remained sympathetic.
Despite growing criticisms, highwaymen continued to claim the label of gentlemen throughout the late 1750s and early 1760s, and to use it to their advantage. Victims continued to report that highwaymen treated them with politeness and civility, and the reading public continued to consume stories involving the gentlemen of the highway. The General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Pirates, Street-Robbers, and Thief-Takers was republished in 1758, along with pamphlet accounts of the lives of highwaymen including William Page, Isaac Darkin and Paul Lewis (published between 1758 and 1763). As they had been doing since the 1720s, this public profile allowed robbers to style themselves as gentlemen highwaymen, claiming that role through their dress, activities on the road and behaviour in public and in prison. When Page, the son of a bargeman, and his accomplice William Darwell robbed John Webb, they emphasised their social pretensions and ‘scorned to take any silver’, while Webb actively participated in what feels like a ritual between social equals by ‘desir[ing] him to take a crown for a bowl of punch’. Webb’s servant called the robbers ‘Gentlemen’. In an account of the trial of Isaac Darkin, the son of a corkcutter and a widowed gentlewoman, he is described as having ‘made no small figure in Publick: He frequented Places of Diversion, drove his Phaeton, and constantly appeared upon the Turf’. He was credited with having ‘a high Notion of Honour’.
Having attempted to play the gentleman on the road, these three robbers followed the example of highwaymen such as James Maclaine earlier in the decade and cooperated with authors and printers to ensure that sympathetic accounts of their stories reached a wider public. Although no copies have survived, the Genuine Life of Isaac Darking, alias Dumas was published, ‘Collected from his own Papers, and signed by himself the Day before his Execution’. Paul Lewis, who knew the Ordinary would not portray him in a sympathetic light, sold his story to another printer, who described him as ‘brave’, and as ‘a person of good natural parts, [with] a just sense of the Christian Religion’. Some newspapers repeated these claims: Page was ‘the gentleman highwayman’, and Lewis, a former sailor, was ‘Captain Lewis … the famous highwayman’.
Prison continued to afford highwaymen opportunities to publicise their genteel pretensions and recruit support from visitors and their fellow inmates. While imprisoned in Salisbury, Darkin’s
Sufferings made a deep Impression upon the tender Hearts of the Ladies, some of whom having visited him in his Confinement, his obliging Manner, genteel Address, lively Disposition, and whole Deportment, so struck them, that his Fame soon became the Discourse of the Tea Table.
He had ‘constant visitors’ in Newgate and Oxford prisons. While in Newgate, Paul Lewis ‘was surrounded by a croud of curious spectators’, whom he entertained with ‘his talent of prophane ribaldry’ and references to the Beggar’s Opera:
he affected to be a real M’Heath, ’tis said he boasted to a visitor that he could, like that hero, buy off the Old Baily; and merrily sang: If gold from law can take out the sting, &c. – as in the Beggar’s Opera.
Darkin also entered ‘thoroughly into the Spirit of Mackheath’s Part’. This behaviour continued at the scaffold, where both men, as well as Page, died ‘game’. During Lewis’s journey to Tyburn, according to the London Chronicle, ‘several officers and some of distinction … showed their respect to him as he passed along’.
The continuing power of the gentleman highwayman stereotype is reflected in its effect on James Boswell, who visited Paul Lewis in prison after his trial and went to see his execution. He recorded in his journal:
Paul, who had been in the sea-service and was called captain, was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was dressed in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver, with his hair neatly queued and silver-laced hat, smartly cocked. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said, ‘very well’; quite resigned. Poor fellow!
These highwaymen were ultimately executed, and to that extent their strategies of self-promotion clearly failed. However, this was only after pursuing sometimes long careers on the highway (Page: twelve years; Darkin: three years; Lewis: two years). Their ability to remain at large and prosper, despite the efforts of Henry and John Fielding and their Bow Street officers, resulted from a combination of marked public sympathy and their ability to manipulate the legal process. Some victims were reluctant to prosecute: Lord Ferrers, for instance, who was robbed by Page, refused to either pay the prosecution costs or give evidence at his trial. And just as had been the case in the 1740s, those accused of highway robbery between 1755 and 1763 were more likely than other defendants to hire counsel and to be acquitted. The introduction of more concise reporting of trials in the Old Bailey Proceedings in December 1749 means that the presence of counsel was even less consistently reported in the 1750s, but evidence from the trial notes of Chief Justice Dudley Ryder indicates that counsel (prosecution, defence or both) were present in 9 per cent of trials in 1754–6. In contrast, according to the limited reporting in the trial accounts, 13.4 per cent of accused highway robbers between 1755 and 1763 had defence counsel. This could be worthwhile: those charged with highway robbery were somewhat more likely to be acquitted than other defendants (41.2 per cent of verdicts, compared to 34.6 per cent for defendants as a whole).
While the trope of the gentleman highwayman became the subject of some scepticism in the 1750s, highwaymen still found a receptive audience. They used their claims to gentility and knowledge of the legal process to promote their interests successfully, avoiding some of the harsh treatment accorded to other robbers. Their use of print, and behaviour in the courts and in prison, demonstrate that they continued to constitute a substantial challenge to authority, which would eventually force further changes to the evolving system of police.
The period from 1748 to 1763 started with a prosecution wave and, following the Treaty of Paris, ended with one; in the intervening years, the real and perceived crimes and demands of London’s poor prompted multiple new disciplinary policies initiated by parliament, the Middlesex bench, the Fieldings and philanthropists. Many of the institutions that would come to characterise London in the next half-century can locate their origins to this period, including the Bow Street Runners and the associated system of ‘rotation offices’ (modelled on Bow Street). Efforts to both make hanging more terrible and rid Tyburn fair of its populist cast started here. London was beginning to turn into the kind of city that would justify the sleek neoclassical lines of Westminster Bridge. But in the process the authorities were often confronted by a plebeian London that had its own agenda and aspirations. Some highwaymen continued to stride the boards of Newgate and the Old Bailey to widespread acclaim, dying ‘game’ to the applause of an audience that was meant to cringe in fear of the power of state retribution.
As defendants, prisoners and convicts, and as vagrants, parish paupers and subjects of the new charities, poor Londoners often suffered under new policies, but they also learned how to navigate and manipulate the system. Their strategies of self-presentation became more sophisticated in dialogue with the new demands placed upon them, and in the process they were often able to constrain and deflect the fondest aspirations and most damaging intentions of men such as Henry and John Fielding, Jonas Hanway and Thomas Coram. Plans for grandiose prisons and houses of correction in which the poor were to be taught their place and set to labour were abandoned (at least for the time being). Defence counsel and corrupt thief-takers undercut attempts to institute a new style of detective policing and encourage more regular convictions for theft, while renewed attempts to prosecute vice were systematically undermined through violence and vexatious prosecutions.
While the initiatives of the 1750s set London’s elite against its poor, the decade’s innovations also divided plebeian London, labelling the unsettled and unemployed as gin-soaked and immoral, uncaring and workshy, while providing new charitable resources for the settled and working poor. In response, the latter formed temporary communities of interest with the parish and charity officers who relieved them, while at other times, such as in defence of Bosavern Penlez, plebeian London was united, in alliance with middling householders, against efforts to impose more rigorous standards of order. It was through shifting alliances that the poor and the criminal influenced social policy.
Ultimately, despite the building of new sites of civility such as Westminster Bridge, plebeian disorder, sometimes exploited by those of a higher class, proved difficult to shift. In May 1763 a ‘low wretch’ of a prostitute took James Boswell to the bridge to satisfy Boswell’s ‘brutish appetite’ in exchange for a few pence. Despite the twelve night watchmen stationed on the bridge and its thirty-two street lights, no one seems to have disturbed this commercial transaction.