William Jobbins, 1769-1790

"Little Doctor", Thief, and Arsonist

Despite his respectable upbringing, William Jobbins' career ambitions were frustrated and he fell into bad company, leading him to commit an egregious crime.

A Clever Boy and a Good Apprentice

William Jobbins was born in London in 1769. He lived with his father, John Jobbins, a widower employed as an official at the Custom's House. They resided together on the entire first floor of a "double house" on the corner of Goswell Street and Rotten Row in Clerkenwell.

William appears to have been a bright boy. Aged eleven in 1780, he was admitted as a scholar to St Paul's School.1 He remained at the school for six years. When he left, aged seventeen, his father obtained an apprenticeship for him at the cost of 50 guineas with a surgeon and apothecary, a Mr Cowley. This apprenticeship progressed well for two and a half years, William being regarded as a studious young man who took well to anatomical science. However, at the end of two and a half years his father decided to end the apprenticeship. The reason given was Cowley's ill-treatment of his son. He tried unsuccessfully to place him in another apprenticeship with a surgeon at St Bartholemew's Hospital.

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Left to his Own Devices

For the next two years William lived, studied and worked in his father's house, as "his own master". He had a library there, containing his school books and a number of medical books. He also practised medicine in a small way, prescribing and preparing remedies for a variety of disorders. He was known around Clerkenwell as "the Little Doctor". Money was in short supply both for obtaining ingredients for making medicines and for the kind of life he wished to lead. He fell into the company of a number of young men with whom he spent much time drinking and pipe smoking in the many public houses of Clerkenwell. His new acquaintances included Edward Lowe, James Flindell (or Flindall) and Timothy Barnard, experienced thieves and receivers of stolen goods. They went "thieving" as a routine matter, often unsuccessfully. Flindell, aged 20 in 1790, had already been tried in court several times for theft and from September to April served six months in prison for entering a dwelling house with intent to steal. William Jobbins' father, out at work between 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, seems to have had little idea of what his son was up to.

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"The Great Aldersgate Street Fire" of 16 May 1790

Jobbins, with Lowe, Flindell and Barnard, spent a considerable time between about the 12th and 16th of May 1790 at Lowe's house off Golden Lane (where Lowe's wife, Catherine, was involved in their discussions) and in the Sun ale house in Cowcross Street, planning how to set fire to a property. Arson was not their main purpose, but the theft which could be carried out in the ensuing confusion. They would pretend to assist the residents of the property by carrying their goods to safety but would in fact hide them to be removed later. They selected the dwelling, office, and workshop of a Mr Francis Gilding adjoining the Red Lion Inn, with a court letting into Aldersgate Street. They believed, rightly, that these would be easy buildings to set on fire since they included a hay loft where there had been a recent delivery of clover hay.

During this time of planning, they continued their day-to-day thieving activities, and practised setting fire to other properties to see how it might be done. These attempts, one at a printer in Shoe Lane, another at a coachmaker's in Worship Street, were unsuccessful, presumably as they would have been suspected. In the very early hours of 16 May, with a glove full of rags and wood soaked in turpentine and a lighted clay pipe as a match, the Aldersgate Street fire was started. It was shockingly successful, spreading to a number of surrounding buildings. The residents were successfully assisted in removing their belongings to "safety", and the plunder in furniture, plate and clothing was enormous.

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Escape to the Navy

Only Flindell was apprehended following the fire as he carried stolen goods in a drawer on his head on his way to hide them in Thomas Barnard's house in Pear Tree Court. Flindell was tried at Old Bailey later in May, and sentenced to seven years transportation. Subsequently he was pardoned on the understanding that he would give evidence against William Jobbins and Edward Lowe. Jobbins and Lowe had made their escape from London, intending to go to sea. Jobbins told his father that he wished to go as an assistant surgeon in the British navy to help with the war effort. He changed his name to George Burne, hoping that his father would not be able to trace him since he was able only to sign on as a "common foremast man". Thanks to the work of an investigator from the Sun Fire Office, encouraged by a substantial reward, Jobbins was apprehended on board the Crescent at Spithead; Lowe, under the name of Edward Price, was similarly apprehended on board the Brunswick.

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Trials and Execution

William Jobbins and Edward Lowe were tried for arson at the October sessions of the Old Bailey in 1790. The evidence of Flindell was crucial and the report of the case lengthy and detailed. Both were sentenced to death. For good measure, they were both also tried for a theft of wet laundered clothing drying in Vineyard Gardens, Cold Bath Fields, which they had carried out in April the same year. They were both found guilty and each given a second death sentence. Flindell had also been involved in this theft, but was not prosecuted for it since again his evidence against Jobbins and Lowe was crucial. In addition, Lowe was charged, together with Timothy Barnard, with theft from the buildings they had set on fire; while Lowe received a third death sentence, Barnard was found not guilty. Lowe and his wife Catherine were then charged with the theft of a silk cloak on 10 May 1790. In view of the earlier death sentences, the prosecution declined to bring evidence and they were found not guilty.

At the end of the sessions, Jobbins and Lowe were brought up to the court to hear their sentence, and the Recorder delivered a speech of unusual vehemence against their crime. They were executed on a temporary gallows erected in Aldersgate Street opposite where Gilding's house had stood, having been displayed to the crowd on a special high seat.2

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External Sources

  • The Complete Newgate Calender. 1926 edn, vol. 4, pp. 178-80.
  • Bussey, David. John Colet's Children: the Boys of St Paul's School in Later Life, 1509-2009. Oxford, 2009, p. 58.
  • Gardiner, Robert Barlow. Admission Registers of St Paul's School from 1748 to 1876. 1884, p. 174.


1 In the school's admission register, his father was listed as John Jobbins, "officer in the Customs of Paul's Chain": Robert Barlow Gardiner, Admission Registers of St Paul's School from 1748 to 1876 (1884), p. 174; David Bussey, John Colet's Children: the Boys of St Paul's School in Later Life, 1509-2009 (Oxford, 2009), p. 58. This record suggests that the age of 19 years given as William's age in 1790 is incorrect; he would have been 21 or 22. This may have been a deliberate error to obtain sympathy for William's youth.

2 The Complete Newgate Calender (1926 edn), vol. 4, pp. 178-80. The Ordinary of Newgate who accompanied Jobbins to the scaffold and prayed with the two men was the Revd. John Villette, himself a scholar at St Paul's school (admitted in 1757): Gardiner, Admission Register 1748-1876, p. 111.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

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