Mary Knight, c.1685-1716

Prostitute and Thief

Ruined by a bad marriage, Mary Knight claimed she turned to prostitution and theft in order to "keep herself from starving".

Early Life, Apprenticeship, and Marriage

Mary Knight was born around 1685 in Yarmouth. Presumably an orphan, she was raised by her uncle in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. In the early 1700s she moved to London and became an apprentice to a fish woman in Billingsgate, where she remained for seven years.

She set herself up in the trade in Billingsgate, soon marrying a seaman "who prov'd a bad husband" and who helped reduce her to poverty. She claimed that poverty-stricken, she was driven to follow an "ill course of life".

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The first evidence of her prostitution comes on the 19th of October 1705 when she was committed to Bridewell and put to hard labour for being a "lewd person" and a "common nightwalker". She was soon back in Bridewell, committed again on November 5th of the same year for "being taken with a strange man in an alehouse in a private room the man confessing before Sir Richard [Levet] she picked him up in the street". At this point she was sent to St Bartholomew's Hospital to treat "her deploreable Condicon being almost Eaten up wth the foul Disease" (venereal disease), returning to Bridewell once cured.

She then disappears from the records for almost ten years. It is possible that improved economic circumstances meant that she did not need to return to prostitution, or that she was dissuaded by the unpleasant treatment she received for venereal disease. (It is also possible that the Mary Knight sent to Bridewell in 1705 is not the same woman as the one who appears in the records in 1715 and 1716).

The situation changed, however in 1715. In January 1716 she confessed to the Ordinary:

Correspondingly, she appears on the calendars of prisoners at New Prison and the house of correction in Clerkenwell three times in 1715, in February, May, and September. Each time she was discharged when sessions met, and ordered to pay a discharge fee of one or two shillings.

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Trial and Execution

In January 1716, Mary, along with Margaret Hopkins, was indicted for stealing nine guineas and fourteen shillings from William Cane, a seaman, on 10 December 1715. Cane claimed that when walking home whilst slightly drunk, Mary offered to take him home, but instead led him to the Ship tavern in Church Lane, where he fell asleep and she robbed him.

Having confessed their crimes before a Justice, both women were found guilty and sentenced to death. Both "pleaded their bellies", but only Hopkins was found to be pregnant by the jury of matrons, and Knight's sentence was confirmed.

She was executed at Tyburn on Friday 27 January 1716.

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External Sources

  • British Weekly Mercury. Wednesday, January 25, 1716, issue 553.
  • News-Letter. Saturday, January 28, 1716.
  • Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer. Saturday, January 28, 1716.

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About this Biography

Created by

Victoria Philpott 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker