David Hart d. 1783

Persistent Thief and Possible Ringleader of a Convicts' Mutiny


Little is known about David Hart's early life, although a newspaper report in 1783 claimed he ‘seemed near 40’, suggesting he may have been born in the 1730s or 1740s. 1 This report also indicates he was Jewish, so he may have been brought up in one of London’s Jewish Communities. One witness of his good character stated he was a ‘dealer’ in clothes and watches, whilst other trial witnesses described him as having grey eyes and ‘very little hair on his eyebrows’.

At some point he married a certain Francis or Fanny, who herself was charged several times with thefts of various articles of clothing and was eventually transported overseas for receiving stolen shoes. In nearly all cases Fanny was tried alongside accomplices with distinctly Jewish names, reinforcing the likelihood of her and David’s inclusion in a Jewish community.

The first possible record of David Hart is in the sessions papers for the 11th of September 1771 which indicate he was indicted in London for an unknown crime, but was acquitted when no one appeared to prosecute. He appeared again in a similar situation on the 1st of January 1773, noted in a list with others as 'discharged by proclamation' and 'bills not found.'

Old Bailey Appearance

The Old Bailey Proceedings for the 13th September 1780 record Hart’s trial for a theft committed on the 1st July of that year. He was indicted for ‘stealing two leather saddle bags’, containing a collection of clothes and hosieries that was valued at over 38 shillings. Hart had taken the saddlebags after they had been unloaded from a coach parked outside an inn. Realising what was happening, the coachman grabbed hold of the bags and called for help until Hart was secured by the inn staff. Despite good character references, including the woman who informs us of his occupation, Hart was found guilty sentenced to imprisonment for six months. We later learn he was imprisoned in the Woodstreet-compter.

Two Lucky Escapes

Following his discharge, David Hart was indicted two further times within the space of eighteen months, but was not found guilty in both cases. On the 9th January 1782 he was tried for the theft of cloth and handkerchiefs valued over 63 shillings, although no details of the actual crime were recorded in the Proceedings. Hart was acquitted.

Just over a year later Hart was tried alongside two others for the theft of a trunk containing bills in excess of 65 pounds, which was stolen whilst being unloaded from a coach. Hart’s role in the crime is ambiguous; aside from the indictment against him there is no mention of his involvement, and after the witnesses were examined the court declared there was 'no sufficient evidence' to convict him. His accomplices Charles Stokes and Phillip Gibson were found guilty, whilst Hart was acquitted.

Third Time Unlucky

Later that year, however, David Hart was successfully tried and convicted. This time the stolen goods were again a collection of various clothes and stockings valued over £14. It appears that Hart pretended to be a certain Mr Fosgate, a local merchant, and took the goods from a fourteen year old boy, Richard Nightingale, who had been ordered to deliver the bundle to Fosgate’s wife. Nightingale testified against Hart in court, and claimed to have recognised him due to him having 'very little hair on his eye brows.' Despite Hart's pleas that he was 'innocent as the child unborn' he was convicted and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

Mutiny on the 'Swift'

The story of David Hart as a common criminal appearing intermittently at the Old Bailey changes significantly the next time he appeared in the docks. This time the indictment was not for larceny but for 'returning from transportation, and being found at large' at Ashbourne, Kent. So began a remarkable case in which twenty four other escaped convicts were also tried, separately, but reported in the same edition of the Proceedings. After serving time in prison from April 1783, Hart had been put on board the 'Swift' at Blackwall on the 16th of August, which the press reported was bound for Canada to become part of the establishment of a new colony.

Since 1776 with the onset of the American Revolutionary War, transportation to the American colonies was forced to a halt. Most prisoners sentenced to transportation thus had to be detained on hulks (ships used as floating prisons) on the Thames. The strain on the system quickly became intolerable and attempts were soon made to transport criminals elsewhere, such as the western shores of Africa, where living conditions were extremely harsh. The prisoners delivered onto the 'Swift' had previously been held in Newgate with a convict who had returned early from being transported to West Africa, and it is believed in recounting his story that fear spread through the men that they, too, were being delivered to such a place. In actual fact the Swift was heading to Baltimore, in America, where the captain planned to attempt to deliver one last batch of criminals to America. Unaware this was the case, and fearing they would be sent to Africa, the prisoners panicked. 2

On the 28th of April several of the prisoners wrote to the captain demanding that he remove their chains or they would do it themselves. The captain refused and the men carried out their threat but were restrained below deck. The next day the captain allowed the prisoners on deck in small groups to get some air.3 According to the testimony of the ship's mate, once the ship left the Thames estuary on the 29th, 'the prisoner and the rest of them...made what they called a rush', armed themselves and secured the captain and all the ship's crew. That same day, forty eight of the prisoners boarded rowing boats and made it to the shore. The escaped prisoners split up, some making it as far as London, but most were recaptured within a week. Hart was picked up on the 31st April at Ashbourne, along with one other escapee, by a local butcher who had his suspicions that 'he and his mate were bad'. In his trial Hart claimed he had been forced into taking part in the mutiny by the other prisoners, who said ‘they would fire if I did not come’, and that he had done “no mischief to any body”.

Hart's was sentenced, along with the others, to be 'respectively hanged by the necks until you are dead'. However, of the twenty four convicted, eighteen were pardoned on condition of transportation. Nevertheless, six, including David Hart, did not receive mercy. Despite the declaration of another escapee, Charles Keeling, that Hart was not one of the ringleaders, it appeared the court thought otherwise. The ship's mate described the extent of each of the escapees’ participation and, in the case of Hart, declared that the defendant had had a 'musket or blunderbuss in his hand'.


On the 22nd of April Hart and the other seven convicts were taken by cart to Tyburn to be hanged. Being Jewish Hart and Abraham Hymans were carried in a separate cart to the others and ‘attended by a priest of their own religion’. The London Chronicle reported that the men ‘behaved well’ and after being turned off, were cut down by two Jews who took care to ensure they were properly taken away for burial. 4

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External Sources

 Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (London, 2006)

London Chronicle, Sept 20 1783- September 23 1783, issue 4196.


1 London Chronicle Sept 20 1783- Sept 23 1783. Issue 4196.

2 Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (London, 2006), pp. 216-219.

3 Hitchcock and Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court, p. 219.

4 London Chronicle Sept 20 1783- September 23 1783. Issue 4196.

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About this Biography

Created by

Alexander Taylor

Further contributions by

Eleanor Veryard