Sophia Pringle, c.1767-1787

Servant who Forged to Support Her Lover

Unable to support her ill lover without resorting to crime, Sophia Pringle's forgeries led to a sensational trial and execution.

Early Life and Domestic Service

Sophia Pringle was the daughter of a journeyman tailor of Cannon Row, Ratcliffe Highway in east London. She was probably born around 1767.1 In 1785 she left her father's house and lived as servant to Mrs Meadows, a lady from America, at Duke Street, Portland Chapel. While there, she fell in love with a lottery-office keeper, who is not named in any of the sources. The two seem to have considered marriage.

After a short while, her service with Mrs Meadows ended, and she went to lodge with a friend, William Lewis, a black hairdresser who lived in Oxford Street. Her lottery-office keeper became ill and unable to work, and came to lodge with her. She made herself responsible for paying board and lodging for them both, but by November 1786, she was no longer able to pay Lewis, and disappeared after telling him she was going to visit friends in Clapham who would give her money.

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Forged Powers of Attorney

In December 1786, she embarked on a bold plan to obtain money by producing a forged power of attorney. She was able, calling herself Elizabeth Winterbourne, to procure the services of a broker to draw up a document to sell £100 of stock which, she said, belonged to her aged father, William Winterbourne. (Winterbourne was actually a sawyer who had lodged for many years in her father's house at Cannon Row). She also said that her father had injured his foot, was with friends in Clapham and could not come to the City, so wanted her to act for him. The power was made out, she tricked a chairman into signing it for her, and then went to the Bank of England, which, without any trouble, paid her the £100.

Spurred on by this success, she made the error of returning to the broker less than a week later to ask for another power to be made out to sell a further £150 of Winterbourne's stock. This was done, but the broker was struck by the fact that she "who had appeared on 13th to 15th December in the habit of a servant, should so recently return... with her muff and feathers and dress which it seemed she could not afford". By the time she presented herself at the Bank of England, their suspicions had been raised. The real Mr Winterbourne was advised and he identified Sophia Pringle as his landlord's daughter.

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A Sensational Trial

The Bank of England's lawyers took over her case with their usual thoroughness, treating her with respect and with as much compassion as they could, both while she was held in the Poultry Compter before her trial and in Newgate Prison thereafter. They paid for her to enter the "state side" (fee-paying) of Newgate, for a woman to attend her and for wine, and ensured that her mother was able to visit her.2

Her trial was sensational, attracting huge crowds wishing to view a young woman who faced such a serious charge. The crowds were so large that a key witness, Willliam Winterbourne, was unable to get into the courtroom when called to give evidence.3 Sophia Pringle was in a pitiful state throughout the trial, fainting, falling to the ground and being attended by the surgeon who called for her to be given wine and water to try to revive her, but she continued to fall "into a... fit". Her head had to be forced up for witnesses to identify her.

Sophia was found guilty and sentenced to death. She pleaded her belly, but was found "Not with Quick Child", that is not pregnant.

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An Equally Sensational Execution

On 27 February 1787, Sophia Pringle was executed before huge crowds, who witnessed her acute distress, fainting, and raving, forcing her to be seated in a chair on the scaffold.4 Despite this, she is reported to have addressed spectators "in a very animated manner, conjuring them to take warning by her sad example and to pursue the paths of virtue...; [and] cautioned the youthful part of her own sex against improper and vicious connexions".5 There was a deal of outrage that such a young woman had been executed while the shadowy figure of her lover had gone unpunished. It was suggested that she had been offered a pardon should she impeach her "accomplice" but she refused, saying his life was dearer to her than her own. One report stated that he was so affected by her execution "that he hath ever since been forcibly chained down to the floor from a Delirium occasioned through agony and despair, in one of the dreary mansions, allotted for the confinement of the insane, in the outskirts of London".6

No evidence has been found so far of the offer of a pardon to Pringle if she would denounce her lover. But further feeling of this sort appears in a poem by the Reverend William Cole published two years later. In a lengthy work full of pathos, picturesque language and exaggerated sensitivity, he concludes "Mark well the tale, thence dread example take;/Reflect, and weep for poor Sophia's sake:/ Yet act those tears a mean, a mimic part,/Which grace the cheek, but not amend the heart.-/'Tis perservering innocence alone,/'Tis wedded love, that makes sweet peace your own./Law, mildly stern, and yet severely wise, spare a mean culprit, but a forger dies".7

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External Sources

  • Bank of England, Freshfields Papers, F25/1/24-35.
  • Bath Chronicle. 13 January 1787.
  • Felix Farleys British Journal. Bristol, 21 April 1787.
  • London Chronicle. 1 March 1787.
  • The World and Fashionable Advertiser. 15 January 1787.
  • Cole, Reverend W. Exalted Affection or Sophia Pringle, A Poem. Salisbury, 1789.


1 Searches in the parish registers for St George in the East for a record of her birth have so far been negative. The Bath Chronicle, 13 January 1787, reported that at her trial in 1787 "she is not 20" and The World and Fashionable Advertiser, 15 January 1787 said that she was "not yet 19".

2 Bank of England, Freshfields Papers, F25/1/26-35.

3 In November 1787 William Winterbourne's recognizance was considered estreated and he was summoned to appear before the Court of Exchequer to be fined £100. He called on the Bank of England's assistance, swearing an affidavit to say he was present in court to give evidence: Freshfields Papers, F25/1/24-25.

4 St James' Chronicle, 27 February 1787; General Evening Post, 1 March 1787; London Chronicle, 1 March 1787.

5 London Chronicle, 1 March 1787.

6 Felix Farleys British Journal, Bristol, 21 April 1787.

7 Reverend W. Cole, Exalted Affection or Sophia Pringle, A Poem (Salisbury, 1789).

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

Further contributions by

Sharon Howard