Alexander Scott, b. 1747

Bill Sticker, Thief-Taker, and Local Busybody

Alexander Scott's frequent appearances as a prosecution witness at the Old Bailey reflect the activities of a man who was active in his local community, but not always to good effect.

Early Life

Scott was born in 1747 in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn to William and Sarah Scott. 1 He appears to have been very much a "local" man about whom there is very little on record of a personal nature. When he was 28 he was described in a fire insurance policy as a printer with property insured to the value of £100, and living in Union Court, which opened off the north side of Holborn immediately opposite St Andrew's church. He had begins to appear in the public record a year earlier, when he was already the father of several children.

Back to Top

"For the Good of the Community at Large"

He was well-known locally and was well acquainted with those who frequented his area, particularly those who were up to no good. Although he was to claim that he worked "for the good of the community at large", his motivation was also self-interested, and his local knowledge worked to his own financial advantage.

His bill sticking activities were perhaps a sideline. He was paid for posting bills, usually for a printer and publisher named Strahan, an activity that was to land him in trouble. His main claim to local usefulness was as fire engine keeper of St Andrew's. This meant that he was alert to any need to produce the engine and other firefighting and rescue equipment at the scene of a fire, particularly since the keeper of the first engine to arrive might qualify for a payment of thirty shillings.2

His local knowledge was also used lucratively as a thief taker. It is not clear whether he undertook this work on an ad hoc basis in expectation of a reward from victims of crimes, or as an aid to the official local representatives of order and justice. In this guise, he was a prosecution witness twelve times at the Old Bailey in felony trials between 1774 and 1793. Towards the end of this period, he was variously described as a constable, or officer of the night, or beadle of St Andrew's parish. He was also maliciously taunted as a thief-taker by counsel for some defendents.

Back to Top

Early Appearances at the Old Bailey

In 1774 Alexander Scott was a witness for the prosecution in two cases. In September, he witnessed a theft as he stood outside St Andrew's church. He shouted "stop thief" to summon assistance and chased the thief up Hatton Garden to ensure his apprehension. In December, in the case of a theft of a handkerchief on Blackfriars Bridge on Lord Mayor's day, he only corroborated the evidence of the victim.

Back to Top

On Trial for Treason

To his obvious surprise, Scott found himself on trial at the Old Bailey in June 1778, charged with the treasonable offence of giving "false news whereby discord ... might grow between our Lord the King and his people". An unknown person, claiming to be sent by the printer Strahan, asked Scott on 22nd April to post a limited number of bills at the Royal Exchange and Wood Street. These bills announced, in the name of the deputy earl marshal of England, that war was to be declared against France on the 24th of April. Apparently not having read what they said, Scott did what was requested. Acquaintances suggested that he might have been taken for a fool, so, on going to see one of the City Justices to swear an affidavit in connection with a fire, he explained what had happened and was told that this could be serious for him - he could face the death penalty. However, at the ensuing trial the jury accepted that Scott had not understood the content and possible impact of the bills and found him not guilty. The story was to stick to him, however, and he was sometimes taunted about it in court by defence counsel.

Back to Top

A Busy Witness

Following this nasty experience, Scott continued his thief-taking and witnessing work. He gave evidence in September 1778 in a case of the theft of 26 lbs of tea; he told the court he saw the theft in Union Court, followed one of the thieves and fetched a constable to apprehend both of them. In June 1780, he was an informant at the London sessions against a man, Abraham Bassett, whom he alleged had been involved in burning property during the Gordon riots. In April 1783 he witnessed a case of serious assault near St Andrew's church and offered his services at the Litchfield Street rotation office to see the perpetrator condemned. In July 1784, it was the theft of a snuff box near St Sepulchre, and in September 1785, a ten year-old stealing a handkerchief near St Andrew's church, which occasioned his next appearance in court.

In January 1786, in a lengthy and complex case against three men for the forgery of the will of a man who lived in St Andrew's parish, Scott was used as a witness to the handwriting of one of them. He knew the man and his writing since "he had signed bills for me for fires, when fires happened in the neighbourhood". Scott was roughly treated by counsel for the defence who could not resist telling him: "I believe you are the man that declared war with the king of France".

In February 1786, he was involved in a case of breaking and entering a dwelling in Union Court. He heard a shout at 4 am, thought it was "Scott", heard roof tiles shattering and believed a fire had broken out, leapt from his bed, grabbed his fire axe and rushed to the scene. He found that the shout had been for the watch. Yet he knew the two defendants as suspicious characters and was glad to be able to testify against them. In May 1786 he helped the prosecution in a case of the theft of clothes in a shop. In this case, William Garrow, counsel for the defence, needled Scott by saying "Master Scott, are we to have war or peace with France?" In August 1786, he gave evidence against two young men for the theft of a pair of shoes near the church; they had previously shown interest in them in the shop, and Scott had spoken to the shopkeeper and secretly marked the shoes so that they could be identified if the thieves returned and stole them. In October 1786, he acted as witness to the theft of a handkerchief, which he himself recovered before the victim even knew it was gone.

Back to Top

Shady Dealings

The last recorded Old Bailey case in which Scott was involved was heard in September 1793. A local woman he knew well had stolen money in the street at night from a man to whom Scott seems to have taken exception. Despite formal requests from the victim, he refused to search the woman and had advised her to make a counter charge against the victim for assault. There were a number of other irregularities in his procedures, and he was asked to confirm that he was "still" employed as a beadle in St Andrew's parish. He confirmed that he was and was told by the judge that it was likely that he would be turned out of his office for misbehaviour in this case. This perhaps explains the end of his multiple roles at the Old Bailey.

Back to Top

External Sources


1 He was baptised on 9 August 1747 at St Andrew, Holborn: Family Search.

2 14 George 3 c. 78 (1774), clause 76; Danby Pickering, The Statutes at Large from Magna Charta to the end of the Thirteenth Paliament of Great Britain Anno 1773 (Cambridge, 1773), vol. xxx, pp. 529-531.

Back to Top

About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

Further contributions by