Margaret Larney, c. 1724-1758

Irish Coiner and Mother of Five Children

A poor woman, Margaret Larney resorted to filing coins to supplement her income, a capital offence. Female convicts who were pregnant at the time they were sentenced to death were normally eventually pardoned, but Margaret Larney's crime was deemed so serious that her sentence was carried out following the birth of a son.

From Dublin to London

Margaret Larney and her husband Terence came from Ireland to London sometime between 1748 and 1752. Margaret is said to have been born in County Wicklow around 1724. It is suggested in the Ordinary of Newgate's Account of October 1758 that at that time she had been married to Terence for 19 years; this would mean that she married him in 1739 when she was only 15 or 16 years old. They initially lived in Dublin, where Margaret kept a public house and worked as a nurse for several gentlemen's families. In 1744 she had the first of her five children.

Financial problems brought them to London, where they had friends. The Larneys lived at various addresses, including Drury Lane and at least two lodgings in Holborn. Terence was a labourer who sometimes worked for a hatter, making ladies' straw hats, for which he could earn 15 shillings a week. Margaret did washing and "plainwork". During the day time she had to employ another woman to take care of her smaller children when she was out.

In order to supplement the family income Margaret was in the habit of filing gold sovereigns, selling the filed dust to a Jew, Abraham Jacob, for about £3 per ounce, and passing off the "light" coins. She obtained the sovereigns from pawnbrokers in exchange for silver coins or clothes that she pawned. She does not seem to have been involved in melting the filings to create new coins. She was known to be very poor, and to borrow money from anybody she could. When friends came over from Ireland to London, she would beg money from them, telling them it was easy to make more money than the worth of the coin they provided.

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Trial for "Degrading the Coin of the Realm"

On 13 January 1758, she was tried at the Old Bailey for degrading the coin of the realm, a charge of high treason. The main witnesses against her were Alice and John Diamond. Margaret had known Alice (as Alice Boyce) since their childhood. The Diamonds had themselves been apprehended for passing off "light" sovereigns and guineas but had been discharged by the Justices, to be used as witnesses for the prosecution in similar cases. In addition to giving evidence against Margaret Larney, the Diamonds were witnesses on the same day in a similar case against Alice Davis, who was found guilty and also executed.

The Diamonds' evidence in Margaret Larney's case was confused and somewhat insecure. It is not surprising that her defence should have begun with the words, "I am as wrong'd as much as any creature that ever was before you". She later said that confusion was caused by her trying to protect Alice Diamond, since Diamond was fully involved in coin degradation and had been apprehended previously; Larney felt that Diamond was vulnerable to extreme punishment, while she herself would be let off lightly.

However Margaret was found guilty, and since the crime of which she was convicted was defined as treason, the sentence prescribed was death, preceded by being drawn on a hurdle or sledge to the place of execution and, because she was a woman, burned at the stake rather than drawn and quartered. She "pleaded her belly" and was found to be pregnant . This meant that her execution would be delayed until her child was born. She remained in Newgate Prison from January to October 1758.

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The Fate of the Family

At the point of Margaret's conviction, her husband Terence appears to have absconded. On 14 February 1758, two of their children, James, 5 years old, and Elizabeth, 3 years old, underwent a pauper examination in the parish of St Martin in the Fields. Evidence was given that the Larneys had no settlement in England and had not tried to gain one. James and Elizabeth were admitted that day into the St Martin's workhouse. Elizabeth died there on May 20th of the same year, and James died just over a month later on July 2nd.

Their mother clearly had little idea where her children had ended up. She seemed certain that James had been admitted to the Foundling Hospital in February when she was first incarcerated in Newgate. A petition from her to the Governors of the hospital states confidently: "I had a child put in here before when I was sent here [to Newgate] his name is James Larney". By the time she presented this petition, she had given birth in Newgate to another son, John (who the newspapers called "a fine boy")1 and asked for his admission to the hospital, poignantly and pointlessly requesting the Governors to "let them know one another".2

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Death for Endangering the Economy

Having given birth, Margaret Larney's death sentence was confirmed on 26 September 1758. The Ordinary of Newgate records her hope that, after such a long wait, she would be spared death and face a sentence of transportation to America instead. But, he pompously says, she had contravened a law "so important and necessary to the preservation of the current coin of the nation entire and undiminished, on which the public credit, commerce, national justice, and the facility of dealing do greatly depend", that her death was necessary. He had seen a slight chance of converting her from her Roman Catholic faith since she attended Anglican worship in the prison, but was thwarted by visits of her priest, and his account of her life descends into a lengthy diatribe against the nefarious practices of Rome.

She was executed on 2 October 1758, continuing to protest strongly that false witness had been given against her by the Diamonds, much to the distaste of the Ordinary who wanted her to accept her fate. However, the delay in her execution did benefit her in one way--there is no evidence that she was drawn to the place of execution, nor burned at the stake.

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External Sources

  • London Chronicle. 24 June 1758.


1 London Chronicle, 24 June 1758.

2 This petition is undated; it bears a reference no. 8186. Confusingly it states that baby John was born on "the King's Coronation day 1758". This year saw no coronation in England; any anniversary of the coronation of George II would have been about the 11th of October. This could have been a reference to some other national or royal celebration. It is possible that John Larney was admitted to the Foundling Hospital since this was during the period of the "general reception" (1756-1760) when the Hospital was obliged to admit all children presented to it.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker