Paul Patrick Kearney, fl.1727-1771

An Extremely Troublesome Pauper

On a warm and cloudy Thursday, 8 May 1766, Richard James, Henry Newton, Jason Herbert, Francis Leech and William Kippax, the overseers and churchwardens of the parish of St Dionis Backchurch in the heart of the City of London, went out for a meal to celebrate Ascension Day. At Walter Stanisford's tavern they sat down to an asparagus salad, with radishes and spinach; they had veal and fowl; they ate six lobsters and three turbot, dipped in a butter sauce and gravy. They followed this with cheese and oranges, lemons and sugar. For pudding they had cakes and pastry, and to wash it all down, they drank gallons of beer, Madeira and punch. They spent over two pounds on wine alone, and the final bill came to £12 16s -- twice the annual wage of a female domestic servant. Afterwards, as they sat drinking strong beer and smoking the two shillings' worth of tobacco supplied by the tavern, the conversation might well have turned to the case of Paul Patrick Kearney.1

A couple of years earlier, while the cold breath of winter clung to the streets and alleys of the City, Kearney, "with the most sensibly heart felt grief and shame, blushing with sorrow, humbly applied to one … of the churchwardens … for common necessaries of life, as one of the poor … who insolently refused him the same …" This was the beginning of a seven year long struggle between Kearney and these well fed, but not uncharitable, parish officers of St Dionis Backchurch.2

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Early Troubles

Born and raised in Ireland, Kearney was well educated, possessed of a practised tongue and a fraudulent past. In 1728 he was tried and found guilty of forgery of a bill of lading at the Old Bailey and sentenced to stand in the pillory at the gate of the Royal Exchange, where "He was very much pelted by the Populace, and fell from the Pillory several Times, and when taken down seem'd almost dead."3 He was also condemned to Newgate prison as a debtor until he could pay a fine of £50, and only secured his release after advertising his intention to take up the provisions of the Act to Relieve Insolvent Debtors.4

A few years later, in the late 1720s or early 1730s, he fell in with Mark McCarty, a respected merchant shipwright, and set up a partnership in Fenchurch Street. It was this partnership that would later form the basis for his claim to a settlement in the parish of St Dionis Backchurch, but it also embroiled him in a positively Dickensesque case in Chancery. Mark McCarty died in 1738, leaving Kearney with power of attorney over his three orphaned grandchildren and their inheritance. The widow of one of these children later accused Kearney of falsifying his identity, forging both the power of attorney and the will of one of the grandchildren, and stealing money meant for their support. In submissions to Chancery verbose enough to require a small flock of sheep to supply the parchment, accusation and counter-accusation grew ever more bitter. Dead children back from the grave, elopements and false marriages, accusations of forgery and perjury resulted in a great deal of heat, but very little light. The case finally collapsed in 1743 when, according to Kearney, Charles Kemp and Nathaniel Dealtry broke in to Kearney's home and stole his books and papers, leaving him "so much impoverished and afflicted in body and … ruined thereby" that he was driven to the edge of sanity.5 In 1744 an advertisement appeared in the London Gazette, reporting that "Paul Kearney and William Deere have been removed as Assignees of the estate of Philip Shehan".6.

By the late 1740s Kearney was writing to members of the government with dire warnings about Jacobite plots. In 1748, well after the Duke of Cumberland had earned his title of butcher of the Highlands, Kearney warned that three or four thousand Scottish men were ready to rise up at any moment. Lieutenant General Bland was sanguine enough to advise that the letter could be safely ignored, as "the contents … are so inconsistent with common sense".7 Kearney's final descent into poverty, however, came in 1761 when he himself appears to have suffered from the financial improvidence of a business associate. In October of that year he prosecuted Charles Cole, of Wallingford in Berkshire, a hempdresser, for an unknown debt and had him imprisoned in the Poultry Compter. As Kearney had himself done thirty years before, Cole took advantage of an Insolvency Act and secured his release from both prison and the debt, presumably leaving Kearney substantially worse off.8

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Kearney Hits Rock Bottom

If Kearney had suffered at the hands of the law at both the Old Bailey and Chancery, been treated with contempt by ministers of the crown, and suffered from legislation that was intended to help the financially distressed, his most challenging entanglement with the British state was yet to come. Over the course of the early 1760s his condition became worse. He was "afflicted with a complication of distempers which disable him from work or labour without great pain and uneasiness of body, whereby he has been … reduced to very great poverty and distress and want of food, apparel, lodging, furniture, advice, physick, nursing and accommodation". By the winter of 1764, barefoot and ragged, he had reached rock bottom.9

He applied to St Dionis Backchurch for relief. Kearney approached Thomas Pope, the churchwarden, sometime in the winter of 1764, and was refused. Nevertheless, Kearney managed to raise a shilling's worth of charity from a Mr Read "which saved [him] from perishing in the streets that winter night". The next day he approached William Kippax, the churchwarden, and was refused again. Kearney's next step was open to any pauper in the City of London. He appealed to the Lord Mayor sitting as a magistrate in the Mansion House Justice Room. In 1764 the Lord Mayor was William Bridgen, Esquire. Bridgen probably knew the churchwarden, William Kippax, as the two of them had sat together for three days at the Old Bailey in January that year, Bridgen as judge and Kippax as juryman. Kippax was also brought back in February to sit on a specially empanelled jury, again with Bridgen sitting as judge.10 Nevertheless, at Kearney's request the Lord Mayor summoned Kippax to appear before him at the Mansion House. According to Kearney, "Mr Kippax … vindictively attempted to shew cause to his Lordship why … [he] should not be relieved [and] told his Lordship several untruths …" In response Kearney "justly and truly contradicted" the claims and demanded that Kippax swear an oath supporting them. Kippax refused, and in response was given short shrift from the Lord Mayor, who declared, the "parish can get no credit by giving this [man] such treatment … and ordered [him] to be … relieved". "Kippax then and there promised his Lordship to relieve [Kearney, and gave him] a note in his … own handwriting directed to one Richard Birch in Rose Lane …"

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Richard Birch's Workhouse in Rose Lane

From 1761 to 1767 the parish contracted out its poor relief to a "pauper farm" or private workhouse run by Birch at the eastern approaches to the City.11 To Kearney's horror he was sent outside of the parish and more ominously, outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. In Kearney's words the note he received:

instead of being an order for [his] relief was a warrant of commitment of [his] body to imprisonment, labour or work in an infected filthy dungeon called a workhouse kept by … Richard Birch, containing near one hundred poor victims to parish cruelty, but not capacious enough healthily to hold forty …

Nevertheless, Kearney was forced to move in to the workhouse in Rose Lane.

The conditions in contract workhouses were notoriously bad, but there is good reason to think Kearney overstated his case. From the beginning of St Dionis Backchurch's contractual relationship with Richard Birch and his pauper farm, the overseers regularly inspected conditions and recorded their findings in a workhouse inquest book. On each visit they gave out six pence to each of the poor, and later provided an extra shilling a week in cash to those paupers who had previously been householders in the parish, to spend as they chose. On Thursday 11 June 1761 they:

There is also evidence both that the poor had an acknowledged claim on the concern of the parish officers, and that the parish officers understood their duty in response. In June, Elizabeth Thomas spoke up for all the poor and demanded more beer be served on meat days. And when, two months later, Richard Birch struck Hannah Morris on the head, the overseers made a detailed enquiry and found:

Despite the relatively careful management of the house (at least by contemporary standards), Kearney was less than impressed and immediately set about forcing the parish to maintain him outside of the workhouse. A few years later he described his experience, and how he had been kept at demeaning and inappropriate labour to the damage of his health:

Birch grossly insulted and abused and ordered [me] to work at emptying the soil out of vaults that pass in drains or sewers through under or in the said mock work house which so over came [me, that I] fainted and fell sick and was in that condition forced into a nasty bed … swarmed with lice and the itch, mange and a malignant or pocky leprosy …

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A Patient at Guy's Hospital

His obvious willingness to complain ensured that he very soon found himself back on the streets of London. After just three weeks and three days at the Rose Lane workhouse, on a cold and clear Monday in late May he was discharged back on to the streets with a new great coat, hat and waistcoat worth some £1 1s. During the next two months he received further items of clothing from the parish -- a double cap, a pair of yarn hose, a single cap, until on 7 August he gained admission, at parish expense, to Guy's Hospital. Here, in his own words, he was put "under the care of an eminent physician surgeon and apothecary who did all they could to cure him".

By early November Kearney had fully ingratiated himself with the steward at Guy's, William Robinson. Robinson wrote to the churchwardens at Kearney's behest, asking for "some allowance towards washing his body linen", and suggesting that he "is civil and good, and I have not had any complaint of him …" By early December, however, Robinson's tone had changed. In a letter dripping with sarcasm, he wrote to the parish to inform the officers that "the Great Paul Patrick Kearney was discharged … yesterday much dissatisfied with the sister of the ward about washing money for his body linen, which he wanted her to pay him". The parish had supplied two shillings for two months’ worth of washing, with the expectation that the linen would be put out to an independent washerwoman. Instead, Kearney "would not let her put his linen out to wash … but would have the money himself". William Robinson concluded that Kearney was "a very singular man indeed", and promptly landed the parish with a bill of £2 2s for his care at Guy's.

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The Lord Mayor, the Aldermen, the Churchwardens and Kearney

In the spring of 1767 William Kippax had been replaced by John Haydon and William Lem as churchwardens for St Dionis Backchurch. For most of that year, Kearney was able to squeeze regular relief from the parish. Kearney later claimed that during this period he was "often reduced to the want of every necessary of life and applied to [the churchwardens ] who ever refused him relief …", but the parish accounts suggest a rather different story. From the spring of 1767 his name appears regularly against notes of expenditure amongst the parish vouchers. He received a weekly pension of between 2s 6d and 2s 10d. The parish also paid 12s for medicine to help cure his several complaints, including a course of balsalmic tincture and balsamic lohock or linctus. He was also given a new great coat, a pair of breeches, and a new pair of shoes. In this one year alone the parish spent over £4 16s 1d on medicine and clothing, and at least a similar amount on lodging and a cash pension.

The following spring the identity of the parish officers changed once more. William Lem and John Haydon were replaced by John Green and a Mr Chesson. In the process the institutions of the parish and the City, which had supplied so many of Kearney's needs, turned against him. He later claimed that the churchwardens:

went unknown and behind [his] back to and by fraud, art and false insinuations to Mr Alderman Turner when Lord Mayor of London [and had him] before his Lordship in custody with their beadle attending as a peace officer of London at the Mansion House … as a criminal. His Lordship told [him] that he should not be relieved but go to the workhouse …

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Phillips' and Hughes's Pauper Farm

In the previous year the parish cancelled its contract with Richard Birch and transferred its poor to one of the larger pauper farms located in Hoxton, run by John Hughes and William Phillips -- where, for 4s per week, several small central London parishes boarded their poor. By this time Hoxton had become a veritable village of pauper farms, almshouses and private madhouses, including the Weavers’ and Drapers’ Almshouse, the Fullers' Almshouses, the Haberdashers' Hospital, Robertson's Pauper Farm, as well as Tipple's, and Hughes and Phillips'. St Dionis Backchurch transferred thirteen people from Rose Lane to Hoxton in early July 1767.

Despite Kearney's plea to the Lord Mayor that he had never "had the small pox, and that the … workhouse was a murdering place", he was given 18d and an order to present himself at the door of this "mock workhouse in Islington". Barefoot, "near naked, near blind, near deaf and lost his smelling", Kearney walked to Hoxton, arriving too late at night to be admitted. Refusing this indignity, he turned his back on London and for the next two years seems to have begged his way across southern Britain and Ireland. He "languished a long time at Bath and elsewhere" and "went to Ireland to take possession of an estate there".

By early 1771, back in London, staying at the Ipswich Arms in Cullum Street, just off Fenchurch Street, Kearney was willing to chance his luck with the Lord Mayor one more time. On a cold and stormy Tuesday, 11 February, he swore an affidavit at the Mansion House before Brass Crosby. He detailed his experience at Richard Birch's Rose Lane workhouse and his treatment by a succession of churchwardens. He claimed that the parish had retained his papers and as a result prevented him from collecting money due to him. He pleaded with the Lord Mayor, and described how, "he has not had any food since last Tuesday and must have perished of hunger and thirst, cold and misery for want of apparel and lodging". Having taken the initiative, this time the Lord Mayor issued a printed summons requiring the churchwardens to attend, "at the Mansion House … at eleven of the clock in the fore noon, to answer the complaint of Paul Pat Kearney for refusing to relieve him … Fail not …, Brass Crosby, Mayor".

In the event the case was heard by aldermen sitting at the Guildhall the following day, and Kearney was once more sent to the pauper farm at Hoxton; "into prison to be bodily and unlawfully punished and mentally tortured in a slaughter house for poor human bodies unlawfully kept by John Hughes and William Phillips and their accomplices". When the churchwardens performed their monthly inspection of the poor in Hoxton, Kearney complained that he:

was perishing of cold for want of clean, warm apparel and lodging, ill of a complication of the distemper occasioned by the cruelties exercised at … Birches etc, and that I could not eat half the victuals allowed me because of my illness and their being cold and not warm victuals fit for an ailing person, nor any spoon meat, not even sage tea and but 3 pints of small beer which occasion'd my drinking more water there than beer daily … . I was insulted, tormented, vexed and otherwise constantly abused in so much that my life was a burthen to me there.

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Advertising for a Position

He was also threatened with Cope's Madhouse in Bethnal Green. Faced with a stark choice between real incarceration and escape Kearney made one last deal. Although still living in Hoxton, Kearney marshalled the support of George Millar, the keeper of the Ipswich Arms in Cullum Street, where Kearney had lodged two years before, and advertised for work. He described himself as "an English Protestant who has travel'd and at some of the Courts of Europe, acquired the most polite national as well as courtly and elegant pronunciation of several languages, which he was classically taught at home". He offered "Persons of either sex, any country or age" the opportunity to learn how to pronounce foreign languages properly, as well as suggesting he could teach, "all methods of keeping accompts, at sea or on shore, correspondence, history, natural and moral philosophy, ethics, logic, rhetoric, algebra" and much more. He offered to travel wherever required, as long as "travelling expences first paid him according to distance from … Cullum Street, London".

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Forty Shillings to be Rid of this Troublesome Pauper

Some time later, the advertisement generated a response, and he was offered the place of "secretary, precept or clerk tutor or agent for three or four years out of England" to a Captain Scot. After haggling over the salary, but with Cope's Madhouse still hanging in the air, Kearney wrote one last letter to the churchwardens of St Dionis Backchurch in March 1771. He explained about the prospective position with Captain Scot, and offered the parish a deal, "that I never would demand, ask or claim any relief of St Dionis's parish if you would furnish me now with about forty shillings to get my things to fit me for that place …" He signed his note, "Your afflicted and abused neighbour, P. Kearney". The response to this request is not known, but he does not appear in the parish records again.

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External Sources

  • London Metropolitan Library (LMA), St Dionis Backchurch, papers relating to a poor law appeal from Paul Patrick Kearney, 1771, MS 11280C.
  • LMA, St Dionis Backchurch, vouchers, 1766-72, MS 11280 box 6.
  • The National Archives (TNA), McCarty v. Kearney, George I and II, C11/1329/41.
  • TNA, Ma'Carty v. Kearny, C11/2473/28.
  • TNA, Paul Kearney to W[illia]m Sharpe, 17 June 1748, SP 54/39/45B.
  • TNA, Lt Gen Bland to John Potter, 19 July 1748, SP 54/39/47A.
  • Daily Post. Friday, October 11, 1728; Wednesday, January 15, 1729.
  • Daily Journal. Saturday, December 14, 1728; Tuesday, December 17, 1728; Saturday, December 21, 1728.
  • London Evening Post. Thursday, October 10, 1728.
  • London Journal. Saturday, October 12, 1728.
  • London Gazette. Saturday, December 6, 1729; Saturday, January 24, 1730; Tuesday, March 9, 1731.
  • Public Ledger or The Daily Register of Commerce and Intelligence. Tuesday, October 27, 1761.
  • Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal. Saturday, October 12, 1728.
  • Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004, pp. 125-132.

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1 London Metropolitan Archive (LMA), St Dionis Backchurch, vouchers, 1766-72, Ms 11280 box 6, no.11.

2 LMA, St Dionis Backchurch, papers relating to a poor law appeal from Paul Patrick Kearney, 1771, Ms 11280C.

3 For Kearney's experience in the pillory see, Daily Post, Wednesday, January 15, 1729.

4 London Gazette, Saturday, December 6, 1729.

5 The National Archives (TNA), McCarty v. Kearney, George I and II, C11/1329/41; Ma'Carty v. Kearny, C11/2473/28.

6 London Gazette, Tuesday, December 25, 1744.

7 TNA, Paul Kearney to Wm Sharpe, 17 June 1748, SP 54/39/45B; Lt Gen Bland to John Potter, 19 July 1748, SP 54/39/47A.

8 Public Ledger or The Daily Register of Commerce and Intelligence, Tuesday, October 27, 1761.

9 Unless otherwise noted, material in this life is drawn from the LMA, St Dionis Backchurch, papers relating to a poor law appeal from Paul Patrick Kearney, 1771, Ms 11280C; and/or St Dionis Backchurch, vouchers, 1766-72, Ms 11280 box 6.

10 Old Bailey Proceedings, William Kippax appears on the jury list at the front of the Session held on 13 January 1764; see also the trial of John Franklin, 22 February 1764.

11 For a general account of contract workhouses see, Elaine Murphy, The Metropolitan Pauper Farms, 1722-1834, London Journal, 27 (2002), pp. 1-18.

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About this Biography

Created by

Tim Hitchcock 

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