John Bevan, fl. 1763-1784

Mariner, Defendant, and Victim

Though never wealthy, John Bevan was a successful seaman who served in positions of trust. At the same time, John and his family found themselves entangled with both the criminal justice parish relief systems - John as a perpetrator of crime and a victim; and his family as paupers seeking parish relief during his long absences as sea.

Born in Ireland, by the early 1760s John was living in the East End parish of St Boltoph Aldgate with his wife Ann, who gave birth to their daughter, also named Ann, in 1763. When John's wife was examined concerning her settlement in 1770, she reported that he was at sea, and had never paid poor rates or the king's tax. She signed the settlement examination with a mark.

John's frequent brushes with the law stemmed in part from the stereotypical activities of Irishmen and sailors: theft, fights, and consorting with prostitutes. But his experience as a prosecution witness also illustrates that he was a trusted member of a professional community.

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Accused of Crime

John first appears in London Lives when he was indicted in October 1778, with William Bevan (possibly his brother), for committing an assault with a knife on James (or Joseph) Harley, and "threatening to rip him open". Joseph Harrison, a gentleman from St Katherine's Parish, and George Yeatman, from East Smithfield, provided bail. Both of the accused were found not guilty.

Only two years later John appeared in court again, this time charged with stealing 17 hempen sacks, valued at 30s, and 68 bushels of malt, valued at £10, from a Mr Samuel Thornton, who claimed to have found the goods on John Bevan's barge moored in Wapping. Benjamin Miller gave evidence against John during the trial. He claimed that Bevan

But it emerged during cross-examination, that Miller had originally been charged with the theft himself, and been persuaded to testify against Bevan in order to avoid punishment. This, in combination with a large number of witnesses testifying to Bevan's good character, resulted in his acquittal once again.

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Victim and Witness

In December 1781 Bevan again found himself in court, but this time as the victim of theft. He claimed that on Wednesday the 14th of November he was drinking with his fellow shipmates at the Seven Stars pub in Blue Anchor Yard, Rosemary Lane, when Mary Mulley snatched his silver watch, valued at 8s, and took it to Richard Phares, a pawnbroker, claiming it was her husband's. In her defence, Mary claimed that Bevan had wanted to have sex with her and that since he did not have any money, "he put his watch down my bosom and insisted on my taking the watch". She was acquitted.

Bevan appears to have returned to sea after this incident, resulting in his wife's need to turn to the parish for relief. In 1783 she was examined a second time and declared that John was "now absent from her at Sea". By the following year he had returned and appears in two theft cases relating to the Bellmont, an East India Ship on which he worked. The first case involved James Lee, a lumper employed on unloading the Bellmont, who was discovered concealing a quantity of salt petre (potassium nitrate) in his stockings. Bevan, the Chief Mate aboard the ship, secured him and brought him before a Justice. It is unclear whether this case went to trial.

The second incident occurred in the same year. William Benton was accused of stealing several silver goods, including plates and a tankard, from the ship. Despite Bevan's claim that he had known Benton for two years and felt him to "be a perfect honest man, as far as my duty and his were connected; he had very great charges under his care, in all which he conducted himself with propriety in every respect", Benton was found guilty and sentenced to death.

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Accused Again

In December 1791 Bevan was once again on the wrong side of the law when he was indicted for assaulting Thomas Usher. He was found guilty, fined £50, and committed to the house of correction at Clerkenwell. This type of fine was frequently reduced if the defendant could reach an accommodation with his antagonist; and it appears in this instance, that Bevan was able to do so. The fine was later reduced to one shilling and paid.1

There are other crimes involving a John Bevan, but the name is relatively common and without corroborating evidence, we cannot be certain these refer to the same individual. In any case, this John Bevan was clearly someone with considerable experience of the criminal justice system, on both sides of the law; and that his profession also forced his wife Ann to navigate her own journey through the parochial poor relief system.

External Sources

  • Sutton, Jean. Lords of the East: the East India Company and its ships (1600-1874). 2000, p. 153.


1 For the actual indictment, see London Metropolitan Archives, MJ/SR/3538 (October 1791), ind. 67.

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About this Biography

Created by

Victoria Philpott 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker