Philip James May, fl. 1762-1788

Ordinary Man of the Law and a Victim of Crime

A respectable solicitor, and partner in the law firm of May, Norton and May, Philip James May was unable to use his knowledge of the legal system to his advantage when both he and his son were victims of thefts.

Early Life

Little is on record of his personal and earlier life. He was married, and had at least three daughters and two sons, John and James, who were involved with him in his legal work. His character was summed up in The Times, shortly before his death, rather cryptically, as "as wet a dog as you ever smoked a pipe with".1

May lived in the parish of St Matthew, Bethnal Green, in a turning just off Bethnal Green Road, not far from the parish church. He was a reasonably wealthy man: he insured his house with the Sun Fire Insurance Company for £400 in 1778, and the following year for £500.

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Court Business

May was engaged as clerk to the grand jury at the Middlesex Sessions between 1767 and the 1780s. His name appears on many documents over this period, usually as witness to quit-claims or general releases, whereby victims of alleged crimes, usually assault, formally relinquished all intent to prosecute (usually in return for financial compensation for the alleged wrong). He also stood bail for other accused persons.

He was himself summoned to appear at the City of London sessions in October 1773 for a recognisance he had entered into to be estreated. In May that year, his son, John, had been the victim of a theft of a handkerchief by a ten year-old pickpocket. Philip James May was to be the main witness and was to present the bill of indictment before the grand jury at the Old Bailey. During the same week as the Old Bailey sessions were taking place, May senior was acting as clerk at the Middlesex sessions. However, on being informed that the Old Bailey grand jury would sit until the Saturday, and that he would be released from work at the Middlesex sessions on Friday, he felt confident of appearing at the Old Bailey to prefer the bill. When he arrived on Saturday, it was to find that the grand jury had been discharged on Friday and had thrown out his bill against the presumed pickpocket as neither May nor his son had attended. The City of London sessions accepted May's assurance that he had wished the boy to be tried and had not sought to avoid his public duty to prosecute, but that he was legitimately prevented from attending. His recognizance was therefore discharged.

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Vestry Clerk, St Matthew, Bethnal Green

From 1762, May was parish clerk to St Matthew's, and from 1767 until his death in 1788 (or shortly before) he was also vestry clerk, for which roles he was paid 40 guineas a year until 1774 when his salary was raised to £60. St Matthew's was well known for being a problematic and turbulent parish - although not as turbulent as it was to become.2 The records show him involved at the Middlesex sessions in 1778, representing the parish against a man who had fraudulently claimed lying-in expenses for the birth of a bastard child.

He was succeeded as vestry clerk by his son, James, who also became clerk to the trustees of the Bethnal Green police authorities. James had an altogether more exciting time than his father in this post. He was the parish's legal advisor and representative during its remarkable struggle to curb and prosecute its churchwarden, brothel-keeper, street bull-runner and dog fight promoter, the infamous Joseph Merceron.3

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Victim of Assault and Highway Robbery

Perhaps the most dramatic incident in Philip James's legal career involved his appearance at the Old Bailey in September 1784 when he appeared as the victim and prosecutor of two men, Joseph Nash and William Pearman, whom he accused of highway robbery and assault near the May home in Bethnal Green on 25 July. Philip James had been to the Golden Key public house in Cock Lane, in the west of the parish, near Shoreditch. Here he had met a client whom he was assisting in settling some business with a third party; John and James May were also present. The client had stood a good supper for all and they had stayed in the public house together until 1 am. John and James had a lively discussion with the client and Philip James decided to walk home alone with his dog. In Bethnal Green Road he was attacked by two men and beaten seriously, though he returned their blows. They stole a penknife, a hat, two shoe buckles, and 3s 6d in money. Although he was generally regarded as a respectable and dependable citizen, the famous lawyer, William Garrow, acting for the defence, was successfully able to insinuate that Philip James had been drunk following his supper and had misidentified his attackers on the unlit, dark highway. Both the accused were found not guilty.

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May died four years later. His will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 13 December 1788.

External Sources


1 The Times, 18 Sept. 1788, p. 1c.

2 T. F. T. Baker, ed., A History of the County of Middlesex; Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998), pp. 190-202, accessed 21 October 2009.

3 Baker, History of the County of Middlesex, pp. 190-202.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker