Thomas Limpus, with whom this book began, spent the 1790s in Australia.1 While attempts in the previous decade to transport him and others ‘beyond the seas’ – to Africa, revolutionary America, Canada and Honduras – had been stopgap and incompetent measures that collapsed in the face of plebeian resistance and settler opposition, his transportation to Australia was permanent. Sheer distance, combined with military power, limited indigenous opposition and a colonialist agenda that placed a new positive value on his life and labour, ensured that he would stay put. He died on Norfolk Island sometime before 1801.2

Many of the other men and women who had stymied the best efforts of the judicial establishment over the course of the 1770s and 1780s also ended their lives in Australia. Robert Sideaway had been first convicted and sentenced to the hulks soon after Thomas Limpus in 1778.3 Like Limpus, he was later charged with returning from transportation, in his case following a daring escape from Newgate prison dressed in women’s clothes.4 Despite his counsel’s attempt to secure his release on a technicality, Sideaway was transported on the First Fleet. He went on to establish a successful bakery, and opened Australia’s first theatre in 1796. He died there in 1809.5 So did Mary Burgess, whom the clerk at the Home Office described as: ‘5 f[oot] 4 in[ches, with] Grey Eyes, Brown hair [and a] Sallow Complexion’.6 In the spring and summer of 1789, she had been one of the men and women who had publicly challenged the court at the Old Bailey by refusing the royal pardon. Following an escape from her transport ship, the Lady Juliana , the night before it was due to weigh anchor, she spent the next three years selling old clothes in Petticoat Lane before she was finally recaptured. She arrived in Australia on 4 October 1794.7

However, if these rebels were finally forced into exile, many others remained in the capital, continuing to successfully play the system. Sarah Cowden, for instance, had stood beside Mary Burgess when they refused their pardons in 1789 and then escaped with her from the Lady Juliana. But unlike Burgess, Cowden made a successful fist of her freedom. She had been raised a parish pauper in St Botolph Aldgate and appeared together with her three sisters in the local version of Jonas Hanway’s ‘Register of Parish Children’. Her experience of dealing with authority was deep. Following her escape from the transport ship she made a successful living in the Spitalfields silk industry. She was ‘Five foot 3", [with] dark hair [and] Hazel Eyes’, and when she was finally rearrested in September 1794 (just a month after Burgess’s trial), Cowden was able to use her experience of the law to her advantage.8 Even the guard who testified to her previous conviction volunteered that ‘she has behaved very well’. While her performance in court and a string of convincing character witnesses could not prevent a guilty verdict in an open and shut case, they were compelling enough to move both the jury and the court to ‘Recommend [her] to mercy’.9 In the end she convinced a jury of matrons that she was with child, and her sentence of death was ‘Respited on account of Pregnancy’. She was given a ‘free pardon’.10

Lives of poverty remained on their frequently tragic course, but paupers continued to wrest necessary resources from the parish, driving up the cost of poor relief in the process. When, in the autumn of 1793, Mary Dyson felt she was being ill-treated by St Clement Danes she knew what to do.11 Fifty years old and mired in poverty, Mary summoned her friends and demanded the support she needed by ’abusing the [parish] officers at their own Houses & … putting the officers at defiance and parading the Strand with a Number of people after her and by her intimidations, extorting Money’.12 The parish punished her defiance, but they could not escape responsibility for her support.

Just as transportation to Australia resulted in lifelong exile for many, London’s pauper children and their parents were also forced to confront new systems of exile. Between 1784 and 1814, some 4,414 of the country’s most vulnerable children were apprenticed to the new industrial mills of the North, the vast majority from the capital.13

Harriet Russell, for instance, born in December 1779, spent her first decade in the care of St Clement Danes, mainly with nurse Thurling in Low Layton.14 She was the illegitimate child of Elizabeth Russell and William Augustus Howard, and her father, a doctor, put up a bond for £40 to indemnify the parish for the expense of caring for her.15 When she was eleven years old, the overseers ensured that she would have no future claim on the parish by apprenticing her hundreds of miles away. She was one of the at least 99 girls and 180 boys sent north by St Clement’s in the three decades after 1786. Most were sent to John Birch ’s cotton mill in Cumbria, but Harriet and two other girls were sent to Wells and Middleton’s cotton mill in Sheffield. According to Katrina Honeyman, the mill was below standard on almost every measure except the quality of the medical provision, but between 1789 and 1808 the proprietors were nevertheless allowed to take on precisely 100 London apprentices – 56 girls and 44 boys.16 With an apprenticeship went a settlement that overrode place of birth or parental connection, and with the exception of Harriet Russell we can locate none of the children from St Clement’s in the parish records following their industrial exile, suggesting that few if any returned.

However, on completion of her term Harriet headed ‘home’, and in early September 1797 the vestry was confronted by ‘A girl of the name of Harriet Russell’ and forced to listen.17 A special meeting of the churchwardens and overseers was ‘called for the Purpose’ of hearing her story, together with ‘Reading Letters from Backborrow from some boys there’.18 In the end Harriet’s complaints of mistreatment did not directly change parish policy. Nevertheless, it was difficult for even the most patronising of vestrymen and magistrates to entirely dismiss the voice of experience. Paupers like Harriet and the boys of Backborrow contributed to the perception of the mills as unhealthy and miserable, feeding a wave of concern that resulted a few years later in an ‘Act for the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices … employed in … Mills and … Factories’ (1802).19 Consequently parishes, including St Clement’s, were forced to develop a more comprehensive regime of inspection. 20

Despite attempts to control costs, as a result of harvest failures driving up prices, and trade disruption leading to under-employment and poverty, the cost of poor relief in the metropolis increased substantially in the 1790s, outstripping both inflation and the rate of increase in the country as a whole. By 1803 Londoners were spending £525,261 a year on relieving the parish poor and administering the system, over two and a half times the figure twenty-five years earlier.21 In the City expenditure on apprehending and removing vagrants also rose substantially – only in part as a result of more aggressive policing, as the poor learned how to turn this system to their advantage. What in 1690 had been a decentralised and relatively inexpensive system of policing migration ended the eighteenth century as a powerfully bureaucratic, county-based regime which was passing thousands of vagrants a year through a complex system of independent contractors and way stations. In the decade after 1789, the cost of apprehending and removing vagrants from the City rose from £293 to over £1,800 a year.22 However, most of the money was not spent on removing vagrants – instead, it went on caring for the sick, as those liable to removal sought medical care from some of the country’s best hospitals. The poor were increasingly skilled at securing support from their parishes and the City – and they needed it. Wheat prices reached a new high in 1795 following harvest failure, and real wages reached a new low in 1800 – down over half on their eighteenth-century peak fifty-six years earlier.23 In 1795 and 1800 London experienced the rare phenomenon (for the metropolis) of food riots.24

From the point of view of the authorities and elite Londoners, the 1790s experienced what must have felt like unprecedented social and political challenges from below. In addition to the more confident behaviour of plebeian London, whether in securing poor relief, defending themselves in court or protesting on the streets, the radicalism stimulated by the French Revolution raised the threat to the established order to a new level. While hardly a typical criminal, the moral panic over the minor violence committed by the ‘Monster’, Rhynwick Williams, between 1788 and 1790 reflects the febrile state of public opinion.25 Even before local and national government embarked on a period of substantial political repression in 1792, a concerted effort was under way to subject those considered prone to crime, immorality and poverty to new forms of control.

The attack on suspicious London

By 1789 plebeian Londoners were adept at defending their interests, but in the following decade they were confronted by rapidly changing systems of poor relief and criminal justice. Unprecedented numbers of boys and girls were being shipped to an unknown life in the factories of the North, while, if convicted of a felony, their older brothers and sisters, if not executed on the new gallows outside Newgate, were vulnerable to being transported beyond ken to the other side of the world.26 Against this backdrop the French Revolution sparked the development of both a new radicalism and a conservative backlash. Many Londoners concluded with Thomas Paine that, ‘When … we see age going to the workhouse, and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government’.27 The co-evolution of plebeian resistance with radical politics precipitated the development of additional new forms of policing, punishment and surveillance.

The creation of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) in January 1792, open to ‘members unlimited’ and with its goal of universal male suffrage and annual parliaments, set in train the first wave of political repression. Described by Boyd Hilton as the ‘first time ordinary working people took part in organised political activity entirely on their own initiative’, the LCS attracted thousands of supporters drawn primarily from among the artisans of the capital.28 Most members were of a higher social standing than those involved in many of the acts of plebeian resistance identified in this book, but they were frequently shoemakers, tailors, weavers and clockmakers; men of the class who had earlier fought for the right to speak at an open vestry and sought to defend the parish pension against the creation of workhouses.29

In response – both to the French Revolution itself (as it descended into the Terror) and the rise of the LCS – the government embarked on a period of sustained political repression. Seditious meetings and publications were outlawed, and loyalist associations were promoted (and encouraged to disrupt radical meetings). Habeas Corpus was suspended, radicals were prosecuted for sedition and treason, and new Combination Acts were passed prohibiting trade union activity.30 At the same time, and motivated by similar concerns, policing and punishment were strengthened. Innovations that had been designed to address the plebeian challenges to public order of the preceding decades, but had been deemed too ambitious, could now be justified on account of the crises of revolution and radicalism.

One measure of this co-evolution of anti-radicalism and a heightened concern to control public disorder can be found in the passage of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792. This implemented key provisions of the failed London and Westminster Police Bill of 1785, in the context of both the crackdown on radicalism and concerns about the ‘alarming increase’ of crime.31 Building on the precedent established decades earlier at Bow Street, the Act created a system of stipendiary magistrates covering the whole of the metropolis apart from the City. Based in seven police offices, each staffed by three magistrates, two clerks and six constables paid on a retainer, these ‘rotation offices’ were funded through fees charged to those who attended. In effect (and intent), the Act suppressed the activities of ‘trading justices’. Following its passage the number of recognizances issued by Middlesex justices, a legal instrument frequently used when mediating disputes, plummeted by over 60 per cent, from 7,322 in 1791 to 2,752 in 1793.32 As one supporter of the Act commented, it ‘contributed to quell a spirit of litigation among the lower classes’ – the poor had lost a vital source of redress.33 But not only did this Act remove a form of inexpensive and independent justice for the poor, it also empowered constables and watchmen to arrest them if they fitted a loose definition of suspicious behaviour. The Act allowed officers to apprehend ‘divers ill-disposed and suspected persons, and reputed thieves’ as vagrants on the oath of ‘one or more credible witnesses’, if there was ‘just ground to believe that such person’ had intent to commit a felony and was unable ‘to give a satisfactory account of himself … and of his … way of living’.34 The contemporaneous 1792 Vagrancy Act further broadened this already wide definition of suspicious behaviour, while attempting to impose more consistent punishments, whipping for male offenders and a week in a house of correction for both men and women.35 In 1802 these principles were embodied in the first ‘sus’ law, where the definition of those who could be arrested for vagrancy was extended still further.36 In the context of previous plebeian legal challenges to arrests for vaguely-defined offences, the provisions of these statutes represent attempts to establish firmer statutory foundations for police powers. However, the result was that the poor’s civil liberties were substantially eroded.

The City of London, which by consent was excluded from the Middlesex Justices Act, pursued a similar policy without parliamentary interference. The duties of the City patrole were expanded to include daytime patrols, and officers were encouraged to arrest ‘Pick Pockets known Thieves and suspected Persons’. In addition, from 1793 the City beefed up its policing in response to fears of public disorder, substantially increasing the number of constables deployed at public gatherings such as notorious trials and executions. Between 900 and 1,200 extra constables were employed during the 1794 treason trials.37

One of the leading new stipendiary justices in Middlesex was Patrick Colquhoun, a maverick reformer who contributed to the expansion of police powers, motivated by his profound belief in the essential criminality of the lower orders. Colquhoun employed an extensive network of spies and informers to report on weavers who embezzled silk, and was criticised for violating suspects’ rights in his examinations.38 He was the leading proponent of the development of the Marine Police, established in 1798 with funding from West India merchants. Not only did this office employ a substantial body of officers (almost twice as many as employed by all the other rotation offices combined),39 but it sought to extend direct control over labour by setting itself up as an employment agency for the ‘lumpers’ who unloaded ships. The office regulated their pay and working conditions, and constables searched the men every day when they finished work.40 The fact that even Colquhoun estimated the losses in the port at less than 1 per cent of the value of the goods exported and imported suggests that the main purpose of the scheme was to control the labour force rather than reduce theft.41 In 1800 the Thames Police Office (minus control over the lumpers’ pay and conditions but with a strong ‘suspected persons’ clause) was given statutory backing as the eighth magistrates’ office in the metropolis.42

As a part of this campaign against radicalism and disorder, the magistrates themselves were subjected to greater control by the Home Office. Established in 1782 and given responsibility for the magistracy, in the early 1790s the Home Office used its authority to involve JPs in its campaign of spying on and suppressing the radical societies as well as controlling crime. From 1792 the new stipendiaries were required to provide the Home Office with regular reports of crime in their areas.43 Following the death of Sampson Wright, John Fielding ‘s successor, in 1793, the Home Office also took more direct control of Bow Street, which had been excluded from the 1792 Act. The Runners were used in ’the government’s programme to suppress the radical societies and counter threats of sedition’, while one Bow Street magistrate, Richard Ford, effectively acted as a ‘third under-secretary’, attending the Home Office on a daily basis.44

For those accused of crime, there were attempts to limit the possibilities of mounting an effective defence by, among other policies, censoring the Old Bailey Proceedings. In the 1780s, under the proprietorship of Edmund Hodgson, the Proceedings had included ever more detailed trial accounts, including some of the longest reports of the century, with particularly detailed evidence reflecting the role of defence counsel. They also reported at length episodes such as the nineteen men and women who refused the royal pardon. However, this generated growing concern that criminals were being given too much information. In 1787 a City committee complained that the ‘very extensive publication of all the trials indiscriminately’ taught criminals both new law-breaking strategies and the ‘manner of fabricating defences, especially alibis’, while the Recorder of London complained that reporting ‘the arguments of counsel’ had been ‘the occasion of the prisoners being acquitted’. In response, in October 1790 the City eliminated all reports of trials that ended in acquittals (comprising about 40 per cent of verdicts). This is the only time in the 239-year history of the Proceedings that there was such a substantial attempt at censorship. The policy backfired as sales plummeted, and trial reports resulting in acquittals were restored in December 1792. Nonetheless, particularly from 1796, the activities of counsel were frequently ‘bleached out’ in the reports.45

Many defendants, however, never made it to the Old Bailey, as the creation of magistrates’ courts circumvented the evolving legal protection available to those represented by counsel in felony trials. While the poor could occasionally use summary justice to their advantage, Bruce Smith has argued that in many of the statutes enforced by these courts there was no presumption of innocence, and in its place there was a ‘statutory presumption of guilt’.46 In particular, men and women charged with possessing stolen goods on the basis of, in Colquhoun’s words, ‘circumstantial evidence … and in default of regular Proof’, were obliged to prove their ownership and their innocence in an often hostile context, shaped by his and others’ beliefs in the fundamental criminality of the poor.47 Those arrested for vagrancy faced a similar disadvantage, being obliged to give a ‘satisfactory account’ of themselves, including their settlement and how they earned their living, if they were to avoid punishment and removal. Although, like the prostitutes who challenged commitments by John Fielding, those convicted sometimes appealed to King’s Bench or by petition to the Home Office, the high courts were extremely reluctant to overturn magistrates’ summary decisions.48

The 1790s also witnessed a sea change in penal strategies, as imprisonment finally became the sentence most frequently imposed on felons. Between 1789 and 1799 the proportion of imprisonment sentences at the Old Bailey doubled from 16.4 per cent of all sentences to 32.4 per cent, more than half of which involved a commitment to a house of correction.49 Convict resistance to the unreformed prison and alternative forms of punishment had forced the hands of the authorities in London, who started building prisons on the penitentiary model, with solitary confinement and the provision of more onerous forms of hard labour. In 1791 the City opened Giltspur Street Compter, which included separate sections for different categories of offenders and individual cells for felons.50 From 1794 felons in Middlesex were incarcerated in the new Cold Bath Fields prison (although a ‘house of correction’, the prison also held felons), built according to designs originally drawn up for the 1779 Penitentiary Act. Cold Bath Fields held 384 prisoners, 232 of whom were held in solitary confinement. Prisoners were subjected to mandatory religious instruction and put to hard labour. In practice, exploitation and mistreatment by the first keeper, Thomas Aris, ensured that they suffered cold, starvation and disease as well.51 Five years later, a new Surrey county gaol at Horsemonger Lane opened with ‘every reformed requisite’ of a new prison, including 177 cells and a centrally located keeper’s house from which eight separate courtyards could be surveyed.52

During these same years the growing cost of poor relief constituted a further headache for the authorities, but owing in part to fears of insurrection there was little innovation. In rural England, new ways of subsidising inadequate wages were implemented – the Speenhamland system – but in the metropolis parishes and paupers just got by as best they could. A new poor law, passed in 1795, limited the ability of parishes to remove paupers prior to their becoming ‘chargeable’, but overall in London, in stark contrast to developments in policing and punishment, these years were characterised more by drift and argument than by real change.53 In public discourse, however, there were important developments that prefigure the 1834 New Poor Law. Colquhoun published long Treatises in an attempt to colour working people in the darkest shade of immorality and scare the public, while T. R. Malthus achieved the same end by raising the spectre of unsustainable population growth and starvation, and Jeremy Bentham added his own redesigned workhouses to his penitentiary prisons.54 But for the moment, the old poor law stood, and these pamphlets and panaceas largely remained fodder for the coffee house fire.

Perhaps the most important developments at the end of the century involved the first substantial glimmerings of a new ‘information state’. Anxiety concerning political radicalism and public disorder, as well as the rising costs of poor relief and vagrancy, all contributed to a change in the character of policy-making that in the longer term would profoundly affect how plebeian Londoners interacted with the authorities. Many late eighteenth-century innovations were the result of a new impetus to collect and compare information about the poor and the criminal in order to control them. The convening of a national convention of magistrates, organised by the Proclamation Society, for example, allowed a national picture of vagrancy to emerge for the first time and led directly to the passage of the 1792 Vagrancy Act.55 But more substantially, the sheer volume of documentation collected about the lives of plebeian Londoners grew exponentially. One of the arguments of this book has been that the increasing use of settlement examinations, and to a lesser extent certificates and trial reports, created a bureaucratic system that enabled plebeian Londoners to escape the system of deference that invested so much authority in parish officers and magistrates. However, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, that scaffolding of paperwork was increasingly put to a new use by the authorities.

The origins of this new ecology of information can be traced back to the middle of the eighteenth century. John Fielding’s files of suspected criminals (destroyed by the mob in the Gordon Riots) and the Jonas Hanway-inspired registers of parish children were just two instances of a broader data-gathering exercise that in itself helped to focus public attention on the criminal and the poor as a distinct and supposedly knowable group. The rise of parliamentary commissions, encouraged by the work of Jonas Hanway, Thomas Gilbert and John Howard among a host of others, created a new pattern of collecting and publishing often highly problematic data about social problems that would justify legislation and become a normal part of both parliamentary practice and social investigation in the next century. We have seen how Hanway used questionable statistics about infant deaths to discredit parochial nursing and pass new legislation requiring pauper infants to be nursed in the country. Similarly, Colquhoun relied on detailed, but highly dubious, statistics to justify his proposals for greater police powers.56 When, in 1782, parliament demanded that gaol calendars include details of each prisoner – their sex, age, conduct and literacy, as well as their crime and punishment – a new way of representing and understanding a specific social problem was created.57

However, it was in the late 1780s and 1790s, with the creation of the Criminal Registers , initially covering only London and Middlesex, and with national surveys of the cost of poor relief and vagrancy, that these trends in collecting and analysing information about plebeian Londoners were first used to real effect.58 It was the Criminal Registers (lists of prisoners accused of crimes, which include a physical description, place of birth, occupation, evidence of previous convictions, as well as details of the subsequent judicial process) which finally doomed the long-term recidivist Charlotte Walker to transportation in 1799.59 As a result, the literary stereotypes and well-understood narratives that lay behind understandings of poverty and crime in the early eighteenth century were replaced by an esoteric knowledge recorded in tables, which could easily be restricted and used against individuals and groups of criminals and paupers. An entry in the Criminal Register, available to the judge but not the defendant, or comparative figures for local poor relief expenditure, privileged elite knowledge over personal experience. Jeremy Bentham’s proposed panopticon prisons and workhouses were merely an architectural expression of a wider transition in which elite reformers developed a technology for the comprehensive oversight of criminals and paupers, including the distant perspective of statistics.60

When Matthew Martin began interviewing London’s street beggars in 1796 in order to lay a solid statistical foundation for his Plan for the Suppression of Beggary, he combined both old and new forms of gathering knowledge about the poor. By paying his informers a few pence each for their stories, he purchased thousands of well-crafted narratives that had allowed beggars and paupers to survive on the streets of London against the letter of the law and principles of parish relief for decades. Some were true, and all were credible, but when Martin incorporated the information gathered into simplified statistical tables that would help inform state policy towards the poor over the next twenty years, the potency of the beggars’ side of the story was lost.61 In the 1790s the power of systematically collected data and statistics was increasingly set against the power of narrative, to the disadvantage of the poor.

The evolution of plebeian tactics

The implementation of new regimes of surveillance and discipline was a response to the pressures generated by plebeian London over the previous decades, as well as the political challenges precipitated by the French Revolution. If we trace the story of plebeian agency past 1789, we find that Londoners responded to the increasing powers of the state with a combination of old and new tactics. Building on the skills and methods developed over the preceding hard decades and taking advantage of the development of radicalism, they found new ways to challenge authority. As a result plebeian Londoners would continue to play a central role in shaping the development of social policy, even as the locus of policy formation moved to a national arena.

Old patterns of behaviour remained useful in many circumstances. The continuing roles of riot and legal argument, for instance, are exemplified in the opposition to the short-lived reformation of manners campaign, founded in 1787 by the Proclamation Society.62 The Society’s attempt in June 1792 to suppress a servants’ dance in Mayfair was countered by five days of rioting. The watchhouse and house of the constable who served the warrant were attacked, and soldiers were repeatedly summoned to disperse the rioters.63 Consequently, the magistrates were forced to dismiss most of those arrested. Later in the decade attempts to prosecute the publishers of indecent literature were stymied by defence lawyers who repeatedly challenged the use of paid informers. As a result of these and other forms of opposition, once again an attempted reformation of manners campaign was undermined. The Society responded by diversifying into other reforming activities which were less likely to encounter resistance, such as inspecting prisons and setting up a separate society, the ‘Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor’. By 1801 the original Society was ‘effectively out of action’.64

Defendants’ use of legal advice in felony trials continued to increase significantly, making the presence of defence counsel almost the norm at the Old Bailey. Between 1795 and 1800 defence counsel are recorded as present in more than a third of Old Bailey trials, 70 per cent more than the number of trials with prosecution counsel and by far the highest levels in the century.65 In light of the selective reporting in the Proceedings, it is likely that the real figure was even higher. In 1793, the Home Secretary was warned of the existence of a large criminal gang that ‘have a Treasury for the necessary expences of evading Justice, feeing Counsel, Support in Prison, and other Incidents’.66 Although it is not possible to determine how the presence of defence counsel affected trial outcomes, defendants clearly expected an increased chance of acquittal. We have seen that cross-examinations raised the standards of evidence needed to convict and helped to establish the idea that the defendant was innocent until proven guilty. Counsel may have also, as Colquhoun believed, encouraged acquittals through greater use of false alibis.67 In addition, as Sir John Hawkins worried in 1787, the fear of aggressive cross-examinations may have discouraged some victims from prosecuting crimes in the first place.68 Two decades later Thomas Rowlandson included being cross-examined at the Old Bailey among the ‘Miseries of Human Life’.69

The increased presence of counsel for the defence in felony trials may have been partly motivated by political concerns, as it certainly was in the case of the radicals tried in 1794 for treason.70 Thomas Erskine was hired to defend all twelve defendants, but the trials were abandoned after the first three, including that of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker and the secretary of the LCS, resulted in acquittals. As David Lemmings has observed, these ‘triumphs … tended to inhibit government prosecutions of radicals which depended on the constructive extensions of the law of treason’, and Erskine’s actions helped inspire ‘the next generation of defence counsel’.71 There is some evidence that legal representation was being extended to the summary courts, where as we have seen a presumption of innocence was often absent. In 1800 Patrick Colquhoun noted that those prosecuted under the ‘Bumboat Act’, which allowed dockers to be searched for pilfered goods at the end of the working day, had formed a ‘general Subscription Club, for the purpose of defraying all expences arising from the detections, penalties, and forfeitures’. These expenses are likely to have included taking professional legal advice. Bruce Smith has noted that ‘during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a smattering of attorneys – and persons claiming to be attorneys — emerged to offer legal services to defendants tried in the police offices of London’.72

Another tactic honed by plebeian Londoners over the eighteenth century was letter writing. As the system of settlement in the provision of poor relief accommodated itself to labour mobility (the 1795 Poor Law Act was explicitly directed to this end), the role of pauper letters, demanding support under the threat of returning to the settlement parish at much greater cost, grew. Examples can be found dating from the late 1730s (those of Catherine Jones, and Paul Patrick Kearney in the 1760s, discussed in Chapter 6, are particularly good ones), but the heyday of the pauper letter was the last three decades of the Old Poor Law, from when thousands of letters survive.73 From 1795 one’s home parish could be charged for the cost of medical care even if that care was provided by another parish. This added role of pauper letters (as evidence of potential parish liabilities) helps explain their greater survival after 1795, but the continuity in the kinds of narratives and language used by paupers over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reflects the on-going effectiveness of this tactic.74

In a similar way, petitioning retained both its power to leverage resources from charities and parishes, and its central role in the workings of criminal justice. The growing number of private charities in London ensured that the skilful crafting of a petition for admission to a hospital or an almshouse would remain a central attribute of a successful pauper. However, petitioning was even more vital for those convicted of crimes, since it allowed convicts to plead to have their sentences reduced from death or transportation to a lesser punishment by means of a conditional pardon. Since, as Edmund Burke noted in 1780 in the context of the Gordon Riots, staging too many executions would ‘exasperate’ the people, the state needed reasons to pardon a significant proportion of capital convicts. When transportation was resumed in 1787, it was used for a much smaller proportion of convicts than previously, leading to the significant possibility of avoiding this punishment. Convicts grew more adept at providing justifications for such remissions. V. A. C. Gatrell has noted a significant increase in the early nineteenth century in the number of petitions ‘submitted by or on behalf of felons sentenced to death, transportation, or rotting years on the prison hulks’; these were ‘sent in by a high proportion even of those who could not realistically hope for redress’. While historians have debated whether the language of these texts was deferential, the key point is that plebeian letter writers and petitioners, often with the aid of professional writers and legal advice, learned to express the right combination of sentiments (including not only submission, but also anger and implied threat) to create the best chance of achieving the desired outcome. Tactics included complaining about ‘over-hasty trials and indifferent judges, perjured evidence, unexamined witnesses, unheard alibis, and misunderstood motivations’; all plausible defects in trials whose length at the Old Bailey could still be measured in minutes rather than hours. By the early 1820s, ‘even rather obscure people were learning to challenge the more dubious sentences with new confidence and sophistication’.75

Some letters, as E. P. Thompson demonstrated, took the form of anonymous threats of damage to persons and property. While such letters can be found throughout the eighteenth century, Thompson found the number increased dramatically in the 1790s and 1800s, and their tone changed: ‘seditious or levelling threats became more general’.76 In 1810 a London criminal prosecutor received a letter complaining that his actions had led to two men being sentenced to transportation, and demanding that he secure them a pardon:

If I had known that you & your Cleark would have prosecuted them I would have put them & you & your Cleark out of the way I am determined on killing you both … if you do not get them both off.77

The literacy skills evident in plebeian letters were also put to good use in writing and reading (and hearing) printed literature. The explosion in cheap print from the 1780s, in the form of ballads, handbills, small books and pamphlets, provided the opportunity for plebeian views to achieve wider circulation.78 The perceived power of cheap print is evident in the fact that in response conservatives such as Hannah More published her moralising Cheap Repository Tracts . She described her publications as ‘substituting something better [than] ballad singing’, but plebeian readers preferred other texts.79 Handbills and posters were used to recruit support for public protests, including the food riots in 1800. During the 1794 ‘Crimp’ riots (which involved attacks on houses where men were allegedly forced to enrol in the military), the most serious disturbances in London since the Gordon Riots, printed handbills were used to encourage the crowd and turn the riots into an attack on Colquhoun and his ‘informers, spies and agents’.80 Ballads had long expressed qualified admiration for highwaymen and ‘game’ criminals, and continued to do so.81 Others expressed a new defiance. In the 1790s and into the nineteenth century, a number of ballads addressed transportation.82 ‘The Convict Maid’ complains ‘My punishment is most severe / My woe is great and I’m afraid / That I shall die a convict maid’.83 But in contrast to the convicts who refused the royal pardon in the late 1780s, by the following decade many convicts (or at least ballads about them) refused to take transportation seriously. In ‘The Jolly Lad’s Trip to Botany Bay’ (c. 1795?), the transportees reassure each other that they are going to a place where there may be ‘many a pretty lass’. The key stanza ends, ‘A fig for transportation little do we care’.84

To these more traditional forms of plebeian literature, the decades after 1790 added a new genre. Taking a variety of forms – political lives designed to influence policy, brief epilogues to published poetry, religious narratives of redemption and simple stories intended to raise money – working-class autobiography flourished. Robert Blincoe was a London pauper raised in the St Pancras workhouse in the 1790s, and apprenticed, like so many others, to a cotton mill in the North. His classic Memoir of … An Orphan Boy formed a piece of campaigning literature specifically designed to expose the ‘Horrors of a Cotton-Mill’ to a national audience.85 Just as instrumental, but in an entirely different way, Ann Candler ‘s account of her life and experience in the Tattingstone House of Industry, when appended to her cottage poetry, formed what amounted to a sophisticated petition for help, and it provided her with a passport to a secure and respected old age.86 While Mary Saxby’s Memoirs of a Female Vagrant, published in 1806, had the external form of a conversion narrative, it was explicitly dedicated to demonstrating the proverb: ’One half of the world does not know how the other half lives’.87

Many of the methods in the increasingly sophisticated armoury of plebeian Londoners were in evidence during the campaign against solitary confinement and the mistreatment of prisoners in Cold Bath Fields that raged from 1798 to 1800. As a result of the confinement of the Nore mutineers and LCS members in 1798, radicals became aware of the appalling conditions inside this new ‘reformed’ prison, demanding a parliamentary investigation and using it as an election issue. The campaign included plebeian voices and traditional tactics: echoing the escapes which had long marked the history of imprisonment, eleven Nore mutineers broke out, and there were riots inside and outside the prison. New tactics were also used: petitions were sent to the Middlesex magistrates, the coroner and MP Sir Francis Burdett calling attention to conditions in the prison, and in 1800 a pamphlet was published describing the atrocious treatment of Mary Rich, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped while a prisoner. The issue was taken up by Burdett in the parliamentary election of 1802, in which he narrowly defeated Charles Mainwaring, the chairman of the Middlesex bench. Although the keeper of the prison, Thomas Aris, continued in his post and the regime at Cold Bath Fields did not dramatically change, the resistance to solitary confinement was enduring and ‘was one major reason why penitentiary ideas spread so slowly in England after the years of innovation in the 1780s’.88

By the turn of the nineteenth century, plebeian Londoners, both individually and collectively, had developed a wide range of skills and tactics for defending themselves and pursuing their interests in ways which forced the authorities to respond.89 In relation to criminal justice, continuing pressure ensured that the policing and punishment of crime would remain on politicians’ agendas throughout the first half of the new century, while poor relief gradually built to a powerful systemic crisis. By 1800 plebeian tactics were more politically aware, evident in the protests over Cold Bath Fields, providing a new language in which to express grievances and militate for resources. Plebeian agency was by no means solely responsible for driving social policy in these or earlier decades; nor were plebeian Londoners likely to have been satisfied with the reformed institutions and policies which resulted. Nevertheless, the pressures and demands we have described were instrumental in forcing change. In the new century, with the effective abandonment of the bloody code and the creation of the Metropolitan Police, with the passage of the New Poor Law and the 1832 Reform Act, plebeian demands and challenges would combine with a new politics to quicken the pace of change, both locally and nationally. Plebeian Londoners continued to play a key role in the development of the modern state.


  1. LL, set, ‘Thomas Limpus’.

  2. For more on Limpus, see Emma Christopher, A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain’s Convict Disaster in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011), passim.

  3. LL, set, ‘Robert Sideaway’.

  4. LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 16 October 1782 (t17821016-35).

  5. Vivienne Parsons, ‘Robert Sidaway 1758–1809’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. II (Manchester University Press, 1967), 10 April 2020.

  6. LL, set, ‘Mary Burgess’; Home Office: Criminal Registers of Prisoners in Middlesex and the City, September 1793 – September 1794 (NAHOCR700070012).

  7. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (London: Hodder Arnold, 2007), p. 351.

  8. LL, Home Office: Criminal Registers of Prisoners in Middlesex and the City, September 1792 – September 1793 (NAHOCR700060023).

  9. LL, Old Bailey Proceedings, 31 October 1792 (t17921031-7).

  10. LL, Home Office: Criminal Registers of Prisoners in Middlesex and the City, September 1792 – September 1793 (NAHOCR700060023).

  11. LL, set, ‘Mary Dyson’.

  12. LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries, 13 July 1787 – 6 August 1795 (WCCDMV362050278).

  13. Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780–1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), Table 5.2, pp. 100–1. See also Joanna Innes, ‘Origins of the factory acts: The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, 1802’, in Norma Landau, ed., Law, Crime and Society, 1660–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 236.

  14. LL, set, ‘Harriet Russell’.

  15. LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Pauper Settlement, Vagrancy and Bastardy Exams, 26 January 1779 – 29 March 1783 (WCCDEP358090076); St Clement Danes Parish: Enfield Books – Parish Children Put Out to Nurse (WCCDBE356030047).

  16. Honeyman, Child Workers, pp. 59–60 (Table 4.1), 242, 290.

  17. LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries, 1 December 1796 – 4 December 1800 (WCCDMV36201MV362010042).

  18. LL, St Clement Danes Parish: Minute Books of Parish Vestry Sub-Committees, 31 August 1790 – 27 February 1798 (WCCDMO361040145); St Clement Danes Parish: Minutes of Parish Vestries, 1 December 1796 – 4 December 1800 (WCCDMV362010047).

  19. 42 Geo. III c. 73, ‘An Act for the preservation of the health and morals of apprentices’.

  20. Innes, ‘Origins of the factory acts’, pp. 230–55.

  21. PP, ‘Abstract of the answers and returns made… relative to the expense and maintenance of the poor in England’, 1803–4.

  22. See Figure 7.13. For the equivalent figure in 1799, see LMA, City of London: ‘City’s cash accounts’, COL/CHD/CT/01/068, 1799, ff. 263–6.

  23. Real Wage Rates of London Bricklayers, Carpenters and their Labourers, 1696–1800 (Online dataset: Wages and Prices.xlsx); based on Leonard Schwarz, ‘The standard of living in the long run: London, 1700–1860’, Economic History Review, 2nd Series, 38:1 (1985), 28, Fig. 1 and 36–40, Appendix 1.

  24. John Stevenson, Popular Disturbances in England: 1700–1832 (Harlow: Longman, 1992), pp. 214, 220–1.

  25. LL, set, ‘Rhynwick Williams’; Jan Bondeson, The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); Robert Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), ch. 10.

  26. In the decade after 1789, 1,781 children were apprenticed to northern factories from London in this way. Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers, Table 5.2, pp. 100–1.

  27. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, for the Use and Benefit of All Mankind, Vol. II (1792, 1795 edn), p. 124.

  28. Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 66. In 1795 Francis Place estimated that the LCS had 2,000 members: Mary Thale, ed., The Autobiography of Francis Place (1771–1854) (Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 140, n.

  29. Mary Thale, ed., Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792–1799 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. xix.

  30. For a general survey of these developments, see Hilton, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People?, ch. 2.

  31. 32 Geo. III c. 53, ‘An Act for more effectual administration of the office of a justice of the peace in such parts of the counties of Middlesex and Surrey as lie in and near the metropolis’. For the political impetus behind the bill, see Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?, p. 68, and Elaine A. Reynolds, Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720–1830 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 85–6; for the ‘alarming increase’ of crime, see David Philips, ‘“A new engine of power and authority”: the institutionalization of law-enforcement in England 1780–1830’, in V. A. C. Gatrell, Bruce Lenman and Geoffrey Parker, eds., Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500 (London: Europa Publications, 1980), p. 170.

  32. Norma Landau, ‘The trading justice’s trade’, in Landau, ed., Law, Crime and Society, 1660–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 68; Ruth Paley, ‘The Middlesex Justices Act of 1792: its origins and effects’ (PhD dissertation, University of Reading, 1983), p. 394.

  33. Cited by Landau, ‘The trading justice’s trade’, p. 69.

  34. 32 Geo. III c. 53, ‘An Act for more effectual administration of the office of a justice of the peace’, s. 17; see also Bruce P. Smith, ‘The presumption of guilt and the English law of theft, 1750–1850’, Law and History Review, 23:1 (2005), 164.

  35. 32 Geo. III c. 45, ‘An Act to explain and amend an Act … relating to rogues, vagabonds and other idle and disorderly persons’.

  36. 42 Geo. III c. 76, ‘An Act for repealing two Acts… for the more effectual administration of the office of a justice of the peace’; Nicholas Rogers, ‘Policing the poor in eighteenth-century London: the vagrancy laws and their administration’, Histoire sociale – Social History, 29:47 (1991), 145.

  37. Andrew T. Harris, Policing the City: Crime and Legal Authority in London, 1780–1840 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004), ch. 3, quotation from p. 76.

  38. Paley, ‘Middlesex Justices Act’, pp. 336–7; Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Allen Lane, 1991), p. 409. See also Leon Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, Vol. III (London: Stevens and Sons, 1957), ch. 9.

  39. Leon Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, Vol. II (London: Stevens and Sons, 1956), p. 365.

  40. Reynolds, Before the Bobbies, p. 76; Paley, ‘Middlesex Justices Act’, pp. 349–50; Harris, Policing the City, p. 73; Linebaugh, London Hanged, pp. 430–1.

  41. Radzinowicz, History of English Criminal Law, Vol.II, pp. 359, 487.

  42. 39 and 40 Geo. III c. 87, ‘An Act for the more effectual prevention of depredations on the River Thames’.

  43. Philips, ‘“A new engine of power and authority”’, pp. 168–9; Reynolds, Before the Bobbies, p. 86; Radzinowicz, History of English Criminal Law, Vol.II, p. 416.

  44. Paley, ‘Middlesex Justices Act’, p. 286; John Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750–1840 (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 168, 184–9; Radzinowicz, History of English Criminal Law, Vol.II, p. 407.

  45. Robert Shoemaker, ‘Representing the adversary criminal trial: lawyers in the Old Bailey Proceedings, 1770–1800’, in David Lemmings, ed., Courtrooms and the Public Sphere in Britain, 1700–1850 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 83–90; John H. Langbein, The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 190.

  46. Drew Gray, Crime, Prosecution and Social Relations: The Summary Courts of the City of London in the Late Eighteenth Century (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2009); Smith, ‘Presumption’, 133–71, quote from p. 135 (see also the subsequent debate in the same issue of this journal).

  47. Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (London, 1800), pp. 279, 674–5.

  48. Douglas Hay, ‘Dread of Crown Office: the English magistracy and King’s Bench, 1740–1800’, in Landau, ed., Law, Crime and Society, pp. 19–45; Hay, ‘Legislation, magistrates and judges: high law and low law in England and the empire’, in David Lemmings, ed., The British and their Laws in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), pp. 59–79.

  49. Old Bailey Punishment Sentences, 1690–1800 (Online dataset: Punishment Statistics, 1690–1800.xlsx); Old Bailey Online, Statistics: Punishment Category by Year, 1789–99, Punishment Subcategories: Imprisonment, 1799.

  50. C. W. Chalklin, ‘The reconstruction of London’s prisons, 1770–1799: an aspect of the growth of Georgian London’, London Journal, 9:1 (1983), 24–5; Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London (London: Harrap, 1989), pp. 47–50.

  51. Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), pp. 127–8; Rules, Orders, and Regulations for the Management of the New House of Correction for the County of Middlesex (1795).

  52. Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1982; repr. 2011), p. 185; Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, pp. 113–14.

  53. 35 Geo. III c. 101, ‘An Act to prevent the removal of poor persons, until they shall come actually chargeable’.

  54. For an overview of this literature, see Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700–1948 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), ch. 3.

  55. Joanna Innes, Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policies in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 45, 208–9.

  56. Radzinowicz, History of English Criminal Law, Vol.III, p. 243; Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis … The Sixth Edition (1800), passim.

  57. Innes, Inferior Politics, ch. 4, esp. p. 163.

  58. Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, ‘Criminal registers’, London Lives, 1690–1800.

  59. LL, Mary Clayton, ‘Charlotte Walker’.

  60. Sandra Sherman, Imagining Poverty: Quantification and the Decline of Paternalism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001), passim.

  61. Innes, Inferior Politics, p. 165; Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), pp. 3–5; Lynn MacKay, Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870: The Value of Virtue (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), pp. 108–9. See also Matthew Martin, An Appeal to Public Benevolence for the Relief of Beggars: With a View to a Plan for the Suppression of Beggary (London, 1812).

  62. Shoemaker, London Mob, pp. 146–8.

  63. BL, Add. Ms. 51020, ff. 37–9; The Times, 6–9 June 1792, 10 April 2020.

  64. M. J. D. Roberts, Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787–1886 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 52–3, 63–4, 71.

  65. See Figure 7.7: Legal Counsel at the Old Bailey, 1770–1800, as reported in the Proceedings.

  66. TNA, Home Office, ‘Letters and Papers’, HO42/25, ff. 622–3. We are indebted to Joseph Cozens for this reference.

  67. Colquhoun, Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, pp. 20, 424.

  68. John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Dublin, 1787), p. 522.

  69. Thomas Rowlandson, ‘More miseries’, Miseries of Human Life (1807–8), British Museum, 1869,0213.100.

  70. David Lemmings, Professors of the Law: Barristers and English Legal Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 216–17, 225.

  71. David Lemmings, ‘Erskine, Thomas, first Baron Erskine (1750–1823)’, ODNB.

  72. Colquhoun, Treatise … River Thames, p. 48; Smith, ‘Presumption of guilt’, 171.

  73. LL, Deirdre Palk, ‘Catherine Jones’; LL, Tim Hitchcock, ‘Paul Patrick Kearney’; Thomas Sokoll, ed., Essex Pauper Letters, 1731–1837 (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 19–20.

  74. Steven King, Thomas Nunn and Allannah Tomkins, eds., Narratives of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century England, Vol. I: Voices of the Poor (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006), pp. xxxiii–liv.

  75. V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868 (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 197–8, 204, 207. For the pardoning archives in TNA, see Home Office, ‘Judges’ reports on criminals’, HO47, and ‘Criminal petitions, series I’, HO17.

  76. E. P. Thompson, ‘The crime of anonymity’, in Douglas Hay et al., eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Allen Lane, 1975), pp. 255–308, quote from p. 281.

  77. London Gazette, issue 16341, 10 January 1810, p. 221, 10 April 2020.

  78. While the number of titles published increased substantially at the end of the century, their average page length decreased: Michael Suarez, ‘Towards a bibliometric analysis of the surviving record, 1701–1800’, in Michael F. Suarez and Michael L. Turner, eds., The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Vol. V: 1695–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 43, 60.

  79. Quoted in Gatrell, Hanging Tree, p. 125; Robin Ganev, Songs of Protest, Songs of Love: Popular Ballads in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Manchester University Press, 2009), pp. 201–8.

  80. Stevenson, Popular Disturbances, pp. 220–1; idem, ‘The London “Crimp” riots of 1794’, International Review of Social History, 16:1 (1971), 45; Paley, ‘Middlesex Justices Act’, p. 337.

  81. Gatrell, Hanging Tree, pp. 156–68.

  82. Roly Brown, ‘Glimpses into the 19th century broadside ballad trade, number 20: Transports’, Musical Traditions (23 May 2006), 10 April 2020.

  83. Mark Gregory, Australian Folk Songs, 2 Jan. 2014.

  84. John Holloway and Joan Black, Later English Broadside Ballads, Vol. I (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 145–6.

  85. Robert Blincoe, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy; sent from the Workhouse of St Pancras, London, at seven years of age to Endure the Horrors of a Cotton-Mill (Manchester, 1832; repr. Caliban Books, 1977).

  86. Ann Candler, Poetical Attempts by Ann Candler, a Suffolk Cottager with a Short Narrative of Her Life (Ipswich, 1803).

  87. Mary Saxby, Memoirs of a Female Vagrant, Written by Herself (1806).

  88. Ignatieff, Just Measure of Pain, pp. 126–42; Innes, Inferior Politics, pp. 225–6.

  89. Using a similar definition of ‘plebeian London’, Lynn MacKay has recently argued that between 1780 and 1870 plebeian Londoners resisted, or reached their own accommodation with, prevailing notions of ‘respectability’: MacKay, Respectability and the London Poor.