Robert Abel, b. 1767

Innocent Boy Transported

Robert Abel was probably born on the 4th of March 1767 in the parish of St Stephen Coleman Street to Edward and Jane Abel.

The Trial

Robert Abel and William Rellions were tried for highway robbery at the Old Bailey in September 1784. Willam Rough, a labourer, testified that he was attacked on a Sunday evening at 10:15 in Stepney Fields by two men with a pistol, who demanded "your money or your life!" When he told his attackers he had no money, they knocked him down and "mauled me on my head and shoulders". They then took five shillings and one penny from his pocket and fled, threatening to blow his brains out if he followed them.

Rellions was apprehended the following Wednesday by William Selby, John Olive, and Joseph Levy (possibly Bow Street Runners), "having some informations", but Abel was not arrested until about six weeks later. Nonetheless, Rough testified they were the two men who had robbed him. While Rellions confessed that "I am the lad that did the robbery", he exonerated Abel, claiming that Rough "has sworn to this lad wrongfully". In his defence Abel testified "I know no more of the robbery than the child unborn", but when asked if he had any friends to provide a character witness, he said "I have nobody living but a brother, and he is just come home from sea". Instructed by the judge, Baron Eyre, to ignore Rellion's testimony as it could be accorded no validity in law, the jury convicted both defendants, and Eyre sentenced both to death.

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A Stay of Execution

Both were due to be executed on Wednesday 17 November. Two days before, the Recorder of London, James Adair, requested a stay of execution as there appeared to be doubt as to Abel's guilt, as it "depended wholly on the recollection of the prosecutor, at some distance of time, under circumstances not very favourable to recollection, and confirmed by no circumstances whatever on the trial". 1 Midford Young, an undersheriff, reported that Rellions claimed William Collop, not Abel, had been concerned with him in the robbery, a fact confirmed by Collop.2

After a strict enquiry, the Undersheriff, together with Reverend Villette, Ordinary of Newgate, confirmed that Rellions and Collop both stated that Abel was innocent, and that "the prosecutor [Rough] was a common labourer, living in Gravel Lane, the known haunt of the lowest and worst of the people, swearing under the temptation of sharing a reward of £40 for each prisoner, whom he shod be able to convict. The case as to Abell rests wholly on his evidence not confirmed by any circumstances whatsoever, swearing to a person, at the distance of 6 weeks whom he had never seen but once, in a sudden in the fields, at 10 o’clock at night [although it was a moonlit night] and when he admits that he was much stunned, by the first blow he received from Rellions. He speaks also throughout his evidence, of the persons who robbed him as two men. Rellions and Collop were stout lads of about 20, but Abell is I[‘m] informed a boy of 17, very slight and low of stature."

However, the Recorder considered Abel to be "a bad boy",who had "connected himself with thieves and pick pockets". He therefore did "not wish him to be turned loose upon the public", and suggested that transportation for 7 years would be the best course of action. 3

Abel was transported to New South Wales on the Alexander, one of the ships of the first fleet that transported convicts to Australia in 1787/8.

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External Sources

  • The National Archives, HO 47/3/22 ff.68-9, 71, 73 (15-22 Nov. 1784).


1 The National Archives, HO 47/3/22 ff.68-9 J Adair, Recorder of London, 15 Nov. 1784.

2 HO 47/3/22 f.71 Midford Young to James Adair, 14 Nov. 1784.

3 HO 47/3/22 f.73 J Adair, Recorder of London, 22 Nov. 1784.

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About this Biography

Created by

Mary Clayton 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker