The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


6    Bad Company & The Royal Family


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



The unity and continuity of the criminal underworld were provided by disorderly houses in disorderly neighbourhoods. For example, Ann Price, who was convicted for receiving stolen goods in 1749, kept a house in George Alley, off Shoe Lane, which was a bawdy house and a house where thieves sometimes stayed the night. If they were really destitute, she would refer them to a lodging house in Black Boy Alley. Stolen goods were regularly brought to her to dispose of; she would examine them in an upstairs room at her house, make an offer, then go out and sell them to a network of pawnbrokers, and then pay the thieves a fair share of what she had received for them. If she couldn’t dispose of them immediately, she would arrange for them to be hidden in another safe house or waste house. Sometimes she would give the robbers half a pint of gin in exchange for a piece of flowered linen. According to one of the robbers who sometimes lodged with her, ‘She bid us go out, and get more; telling us, she designed to take a house to keep people to go out a thieving; and she thought she might get 2d. a night of lodgers, as well as others.’ The criminal networks set up by entrepreneurs such as Ann Price will be examined in this chapter.

            Thieves sometimes described themselves as members of a ‘fraternity’, and prostitutes often called one another ‘sister’ or ‘cousin’. However, there was more solidarity among the women than the men. This partly arises from the greater combativeness and violence among males and, more specifically, from the criminal prosecution system which both rewarded and pardoned an accomplice who turned King’s evidence. The men could seldom trust one another wholeheartedly, for it was common knowledge that most street robbers, highwaymen and housebreakers were hanged on the evidence of one of their partners in crime. The prostitutes, on the other hand, did not feel this constant pressure, for no rewards were offered for exposing someone as a prostitute. In any case, there would be little to gain by escaping a whipping or a short spell in Bridewell by squealing on your friends, whereas felons who turned King’s evidence would escape a hanging. At least for a time – for it often transpired that criminals who gave evidence against an accomplice, found themselves convicted in the same court within the following six months, partly because they felt unable to leave off their criminal trade, and partly because their modus operandi was now known and they could be more easily traced in the future.


Bad Company


The Justiciary and the Clergy were not the only people to warn against the danger of ‘bad company’. Nearly all criminals themselves claimed that they were led astray by falling into bad company. Roger Bow, who was hanged at Tyburn on 9 July 1734 for murder, on the day before his execution sent a letter to his son:

Let me advise you, my Dear Child, and I beg you will always remember my advice, as the last request of your unfortunate and dying father, to use your utmost endeavours to shun all idle and dissolute company, which serve only to the encouragement of drunkenness and debauchery; be therefore careful to shun every temptation which may lead you thereto, and to avoid all loose and prophane companions; the want of observing that caution, has been the cause of my ruin. . . . But my dear Child, I earnestly beg of you to take warning by the dreadful example before you, that you may avoid splitting upon the same rock, on which I perish.

To some degree condemned malefactors will have ‘internalized’ such an ‘ideology’ while they were at the mercy of the browbeating of the Ordinary of Newgate during their final days. But in most cases the systematic corruption by this bad company can be objectively observed.

            Dissolute company was generally found in houses which entertained lewd persons, such as that kept by Humphrey Angier and his wife Elizabeth. Two or three criminal fraternities were interconnected through Humphrey Angier. He was Irish, and shortly after 1711, when he was about 17 years old, after briefly serving in the army, he came to London, where he became acquainted with John Dyer. Dyer was on the run after shooting a gentleman’s footman during a robbery, and he spent the days, muffled up in a great coat, at the house of a Mr Strickland in the Old Bailey, and slept at another house at night. He and Angier ‘quickly agreed to be joint adventurers’ and began by robbing on Blackheath. They robbed a wagon near Hyde Park Corner in 1711 (for which he was not charged until 1723). He then fell in with Will Duce and Duce’s sister, ‘who was a very industrious young woman in her calling, which was that of a buttock and file (a whore that picks pockets)’. He thought she would be a very agreeable help-mate, and they went to a gin-shop in Fleet Street, where they were made one flesh. He joined the gang of highway robbers consisting of Duce, William Mead and James Butler, and others, who were notorious for their treatment of their victims, whom they shot or cruelly abused. Once he wisely did not go out with them, and was regaled with their adventures after they returned from a robbery in Kent: ‘the best fun of all,’ said Mead, ‘was with a smooth-fac’d shoemaker, that we overtook in Dover Road [who] was just married, and was going home to his friends’ – whom they bound, gagged and robbed, ‘and then we were going away; but I was minded to have a little diversion with poor Peel-garlick, and so I clapt a pistol to his head, and shot his brains out.’ This was done merely for sport, not because they had been resisted or were in danger of being pursued.

            Angier and his wife set up an alehouse at Charing-Cross, ‘which they made not only a case, but a fence, that is, not only a place of rendezvous for thieves, but a magazine for stolen goods’. There he became acquainted with the gang consisting of Valentine Carrick, Daniel Carrol, William Lock, Thomas Milksop, and others. Part of their round of diversions was to watch hangings. On 15 August 1720 he went with a fellow soldier to see the execution of Maurice Fitzgerald, hanged for murdering a Watchman. The Angiers’ alehouse was used by prostitutes who robbed the men they brought there after having sex with them and getting them drunk. Angier was charged with being involved in such an incident but he and the prostitute were acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. His wife Elizabeth Angier was similarly acquitted for stealing a watch from a gentleman in July 1720. In January 1721 Angier had taken Rose Turner upstairs and his wife burst in upon them ‘and found them together in a posture not very decent’ and attacked Rose. Duce came upstairs to calm things down but the neighbours called for a constable to keep the peace. Rose charged Angier and his wife and Duce (who was Mrs Angier’s brother) with robbery and they were committed to Newgate. But the jury deemed it to be a drunken quarrel and acquitted them. In December 1721 Angier and Nathaniel, alias William Armstrong, were indicted for assaulting Richard Philpot on the highway, putting him in fear, and stealing a silver watch and money. But the prosecution was supported by a notorious whore, Betty Ennet, so the jury acquitted them.

            Angier’s alehouse had been steadily growing in notoriety because of the ill company he entertained there. Eventually it became so scandalous that no honest custom came his way. And, though he and his wife had always been acquitted, they were put to great expense at hiring witnesses and bribing prosecutors, ‘and being at the same time obliged to trust their effects to the care of servants, who were none of the most honest, [and] had reduced them to poverty’. A series of disasters obliged them to give up this alehouse, and they opened a little gin-shop in Short’s Gardens by Drury Lane, entertaining the same sort of company as before. In July 1723 Elizabeth Angier was charged with stealing a sword and money from some gentlemen in Bloomsbury with whom she drank, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. In August 1723 she was again charged with stealing a coat and wig and other things from another gentleman. She said ‘I don’t deny, but I kept a bawdy-house, and sometimes a few odd things were left in my care: But, then, I never wronged man, woman, or child.’ She was found guilty to the value of 10d. and transported.

            In that same month, August 1723, Angier was charged with highway robbery, acting as the assistant to John Dyer, who appeared in evidence against him (thus avoiding conviction himself). At first Angier denied any acquaintance with Dyer and said he was swearing falsely only for the sake of the reward, but Dyer explained to the Judge that they were old partners in robbery. The waggoner whom they had robbed twelve years ago appeared to give evidence. Dyer at first said they had committed the crime ten years ago, but the Judge pointed out the discrepancy.

Dyer: ‘Twelve Years? – Let me see. – Yes, I believe I have been in a mistake, it might be twelve years. – But, it being so long ago, I don’t remember the time exactly; though I could have been very punctual, if I had had my pocket-book here; but I have had the misfortune to lose it. For in that book I had entered down a very particular account of all the robberies I was ever concerned in, and the time, place, and manner in which they were committed.’

Court: ‘What was your design in keeping such a journal? Was it, that upon the perusal of your robberies, you might the more particularly repent of them?’

Dyer: ‘No, I thought nothing of repentance; but I did it to save myself from the gallows, that I might be the more exact whenever I should have an opportunity of securing my own life, by becoming an evidence against my companions.’

Angier then claimed that at the time of the robbery, Dyer and he were both in Newgate under suspicion of another robbery. The Court asked the Keeper of Newgate to bring in the books, which were examined and revealed that Dyer and Angier had been in Newgate about nine months before this robbery and had been released prior to the time of the robbery. Angier was sentenced to death.

            Because Angier had been a notorious thief himself, and ‘besides had large acquaintance among those of the same occupation, a great many people who had had their pockets pick’d of snuff-boxes, watches and other things, applied to him in Newgate, soon after he was committed, in hopes, at least, of hearing some news of what they had lost’. However, Angier claimed ‘I was never so mean-spirited as to submit to picking pockets’ and said that few of his comrades meddled with such things. He did, however, confess to several robberies, though he denied being involved in the murder of any victims. He repented that he had once indecently assaulted a woman passenger after robbing the St Albans coach, though he excused himself by claiming that he was drunk at the time. His father, a Chelsea Pensioner (i.e. living at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea founded by Charles II for retired soldiers), died of grief while his son and daughter-in-law awaited their fates in Newgate. Angier at his execution delivered a paper to the Ordinary, urging ‘all young men to be warned by me, and reject the solicitations of vicious companions’. He was hanged at Tyburn on 9 September 1723, age 29.

            The interconnected networks of the criminal underworld can be illustrated by examining two of the gangs with which Angier was directly associated. Angier’s long-time associate John Dyer was a member of the gang that included William Duce – Elizabeth Angier’s brother – and William Butler, who were indicted for highway robbery in July 1723. Butler pleaded guilty. Duce at first refused to plead, saying he expected to be made an evidence. The court said that was not to be, for the evidence was instead given by their accomplice Dyer. A fourth member, Joseph Rice, had been shot dead by the patrol guard while attempting to rob Colonel Chudleigh’s lady in her coach in the King’s Road. Dyer said Duce’s sister (Elizabeth Angier) ‘pawned her bed to raise the money with which we bought pistols to go a robbing with’. Duce, now 25 years old, had left Wolverhampton and come London, where he quickly went into debt, and was thrown into Newgate for debt for 15 months. ‘During this time of his imprisonment, he was very diligent in cultivating an acquaintance with most of the felons in the jail, and in learning all the roguery they could teach him.’ After being convicted, he confessed to half a dozen robberies on the highway, almost all with Butler and Rice and Dyer. This gang had also committed robberies in Hampshire in the company of Jack Meads, Ned Wade, a certain Darker, alias Darking, ‘and other thorough-paced rogues’. During several of these robberies they severely beat the men they robbed, and in one instance they stripped a man naked and shot him in the head. Thinking this had done the business, they were about to leave, but the ball had passed through one of his jaws and lodged in his mouth and ‘the man, feeling the bullet in his mouth, turn’d his face downward to let it drop out’. Butler perceiving he was not quite dead, began to reload his pistol to finish him off. The man with tears in his eyes begged for mercy, then collected all of his strength and ran for his life and escaped in the New Forest. Meads, Wade and Darking were condemned at the Winchester Assizes, and Butler was sent to Newgate by Habeas Corpus, then convicted at the Old Bailey. Butler, who had been a sailor most of his life, had previously been in Newgate in 1721, and had joined the group after getting out. He confessed to other robberies in which they shot their victims dead, and named other accomplices. Duce left a letter before being hanged, in which he forgave Dyer for being an evidence against him. Duce and Butler were hanged at Tyburn on Monday 5 August 1723.

            The other gang consisted of Valentine Carrick, Daniel Carrol, William Lock, Robert Wilkinson and James Lincoln, who committed robberies as a group during the night, sometimes from houses, sometimes on the highway. Lock eventually impeached his comrades and gave evidence about seventy robberies, for which many men were apprehended and convicted. During about twelve of the highway robberies they were joined by Joseph Blake, alias Blueskin, an associate of Jonathan Wild, to be discussed in the next chapter. In September 1722 Wilkinson and Lincoln were convicted of the murder of a Chelsea Pensioner, whom they had robbed together with Richard Oakey and Thomas Milksop (convicted of the robbery) and Carrick (since executed on another charge) and Carrol (who escaped to Ireland, where he was killed by a thief-taker). Lock acted as a kind of guard for them, and impeached them. Their victim, Peter Martin, had ‘cry’d out, Thieves! upon which Lincoln punch’d him in the face with a pistol, and knock’d him down’. He was pushed about between Carrick and Wilkinson, ‘and he not going fast enough, Wilkinson took a sword, and said, Damn ye, go along, and thrust it several times into his back. The deceased sunk down; Lincoln rifled his pockets; but finding nothing but a key and a knife, he threw them away, and said, Damn him! he has got no money; and so we went off.’ Wilkinson’s temperament was surly and brutish: ‘and, if he had any ambition, it was that of being a Bear-Garden Chief. There seldom was a boxing-match at Hockley in the Hole, but Bob was one of the combatants; and though he was but low in stature, yet, as he was very strong-limb’d, and a daily practitioner, he often carried the prize.’ Wilkinson had also robbed a man of a horse and saddle in the company of Thomas Milksop, alias Jennings, alias Ghenning, alias Trantum. Milksop had been born in Old Bailey street and had been fond of diverting company and jovial fellows, and had joined the gang of robbers which included James Wright and William Burridge, James Reading and James Shaw, but they had been taken and had all been hanged, and he confessed that he ‘has of late been so bad a plunderer, that he could provide nothing but a pistol and bullets’. He had a wife and child, who allegedly knew nothing of his robberies, as he always composed himself before returning to her each night. Wilkinson, age 35, Lincoln, somewhat younger, and Milksop, about 23, were hanged at Tyburn on 24 September 1722. To complete the review of the outer ripples of these networks: Reading was hanged at Tyburn on 11 September 1721, and had confessed ‘I kept very ill company in London, some of which I impeach’d to save myself. I chiefly follow’d the business of a footpad, and often robb’d in Hampstead Road; and two of my accomplices in these robberies have already been executed, but Burridge and Shaw have hitherto escap’d.’ But only temporarily: Shaw was duly hanged on 8 February 1722 and Burridge was hanged on 22 March 1722. Reading had impeached Shaw and Burridge, but Burridge had impeached Reading. Burridge after conviction confessed that he was saddened that his evidences had caused the executions of two former comrades, including Reading. Wright had been hanged earlier, on 22 December 1721.

            These criminal networks can be seen as interpenetrating circular ripples on a pool of water, which interlace with one another to start with, and then become more difficult to disentangle as the waves spread outward and as additional drops fall from above. Other circles could be pursued – for example, there was a ring of people associated with Wright, and another ring of people associated with Milksop – but these circles begin to lose direct contact with the ‘big splash’ with which we began this section – Humphrey Angier. Many of these men had associated with one another for three or four years before they were finally convicted, and some had known one another for more than twelve years. Dyer had kept a criminal diary for more than twelve years, an indication of his awareness of himself as a criminal rather than as a disadvantaged member of society at large. One point worth emphasizing is that these men became acquainted with one another not because they shared a similar type of employment such as weaving or carpentry, nor because they all lived in the same area (their fields of action ranged from Kingston upon Thames to Hampstead), nor merely because they occupied the same socio-economic class. It is disingenuous to suggest that there was a continuum within a lower-class community, of which such men formed an integral part: many of the men in the circles I’ve discussed were notorious for their brutality and were despised and feared by their more honest neighbours. These men operated within a recognizable criminal network, forming their friendships in Newgate prison and maintaining contact through disorderly houses such as Angier’s gin-cellar. In sum, they bear out the accuracy of the common charge that ‘they kept ill company’.


The Royal Family


By beginning with a single trial at the Old Bailey in which several accomplices were prosecuted, plus the trials at which they appeared as repeat offenders, and then moving on to the trials in which the accomplices of their accomplices appeared, and so on until the links produce no more leads, one can build up a picture of a unified criminal subculture in eighteenth-century London. As we examine the links between the men and women mentioned in these trials, we can trace not only the interrelationship of gangs, but also their evolution. Each gang may exist as a distinct unit for only a year or two, though some of its members can work in some gangs for five or six years, or even as many as ten years. Some gangs maintain their individuality (for the short period they last) while having links with other distinct gangs. As one gang is broken up, its survivors (i.e. those who have not been hanged or transported) go on to form new gangs with new accomplices. If all these links are charted on a graph, we can see a ‘wave’ moving across the chart chronologically, changing composition but still recognizably a wave – i.e. a gang – consisting of some members from the previous wave and some members going on to the next wave. Thus a stable criminal subculture continues even though its individual parts are highly unstable. Supporting the gang is its ‘infrastructure’: Much of the continuity of the underworld is underpinned by prominent disorderly houses which can function for ten or even fifteen years, and by a network of fences. Throughout the underworld, heists are planned and business is transacted through the principle ‘I know someone who knows someone who knows someone’: the underworld is a ‘family’ affair.

            On 20 January 1748, Thomas Quinn, Joseph Dowdell alias Dowdle, Garret Lawler, George Carter, John Brian, William Smith, and four other members of a gang calling themselves ‘the Royal Family’ broke into the Gatehouse, Westminster, and freed their associate Thomas Jones alias Harper. One of the men had visited Jones earlier that day, and had pried open the bars of a window to facilitate the evening attack, when the gang came equipped with pistols, cutlasses and sticks or clubs. The keeper and turnkey of the gaol were nearly blinded by powder from pistols being shot, while two other men defending the prison were stabbed. The Royal Family carried Jones off in triumph amidst great shouting as they marched through Whitehall, threatening to return and tear down the gaol. They had planned their raid in the Fox alehouse in Drury Lane, a house which ‘harboured nothing but thieves and highwaymen’, and was the base from which many of their operations during the previous twelve months were carried out. Some of these men had been associates for only three or four months, while others had known one another for many years. Brian and Smith had known each other for three or four years, since they were privateers together. Quinn and Dowdell had both been sailors; Dowdell had recently received his prize money and had returned to Dublin where he was arrested in connection with this raid, and where Lawler and Jones were also recaptured. Another member, Joseph Uptebacke, had served His Majesty at sea for seven years. Smith’s uncle was an attorney at Barnard’s Inn. A doctor and his wife specializing in venereal treatment testified that they were treating Smith to a salivation in his uncle’s chambers when the raid took place, so he could not have been part of it. But under cross-examination the ‘doctor’ and ‘nurse’ admitted that they had often been seen in Westminster Hall, offering to ensure bail for prisoners in similar situations, and the evidence of these professional suppliers of alibis was disregarded. The eight men, called ‘the Rescuers’ by the court reporter, were each branded in court and imprisoned for one year.

            Another member of the Royal Family, though not involved in the raid, was George Bowen, who was probably John Bowen’s brother. George Bowen accompanied Lawler and Carter in a burglary at a pub in High Holborn in December 1749. At this trial, when asked what Lawler’s occupation was, Bowen said that ‘Picking of pockets and house-breaking, is all I know of.’ They had also broken into a dwelling house in Bow Street, from which they stole three pistols, perhaps pistols used in the raid on the Westminster Gatehouse, and many yards of cloth and clothes. They had laid their plans while drinking in the Fox alehouse in Drury Lane. Usually their plans were made on the spur of the moment. In one case when they were drinking together, Lawler went out to make water and when he came in again said to his mates ‘I think it is a fine night to go out upon the mill’ (i.e. housebreaking), so they went out and broke into the first shop they came to.

            Meetings at the Fox alehouse were often headed by James ‘Jemmy’ Field, who lived in Angel Court, Drury Lane. Field’s wife Margaret acted as the fence for the goods stolen by the Royal Family. Having made a good haul, Bowen and his mates went to Field’s house and up one pair of stairs to divide the booty. They decided not to sell the shirts, but to keep them: they drew lots to determine in what order each of them in turn could choose a shirt that pleased them most. The remaining cloth and pistols were offered to Margaret Field for eight guineas; she said she’d give them three, then offered four; they said they’d go try elsewhere; while they were going downstairs she called down and offered them five, and the deal was made. On another occasion, Margaret Field went to Bowen’s lodgings, and ‘over haul’d’ the goods, and said she could not ‘put them off’; they asked six pounds for them, but accepted her bid of three guineas. Later that year she was transported on the evidence of Bowen.

            Bowen described how the Royal Family used to meet regularly at the Fox: ‘a gang and a guard of us used to use the Fox in Drury lane. Just as the candles are lighted, they all meet there together; four or five set in one box, and two or three in another, and entitle themselves the Family Men; they don’t care what it cost them, or what they swear, to save one another’s lives.’ This is borne out by the acquittal at the end of this trial, though the Court vigorously cross-examined the witnesses who provided the alibis, believing them to be doing so only for money. Anne Lewis, who provided a very precise alibi for Lawler, was indeed tried for perjury in October 1751, but was acquitted on the grounds that people can make mistakes when trying to remember dates. Another of the women who provided an alibi for one of the men, Mary Hall, was bound over for trial for perjury, but secreted herself and could not be found. Thomas Cullen was also probably a member of the Royal Family, as he was an accomplice with Quinn in a burglary in April 1751, from which Quinn escaped capture.

            Thomas Jones alias Harper, the man who was rescued from the Westminster Gatehouse in January 1748, was recaptured two years later and finally tried in February 1750 for the crime for which he had been committed to the Gatehouse. He was convicted of having stolen the gold watch and seals of General St Clair while the latter mingled with the crowd celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Wales outside the gate to the palace, and he was sentenced to death. That is not quite the last we hear of the Royal Family, however.

            In May 1751 Thomas Talbot, alias Crawford, alias Torbet, along with Royal Family members Quinn and Dowdell, were convicted of highway robbery on the evidence of their accomplice Cullen, and sentenced to death (there were also two other indictments against them for street robberies). Talbot had a very long criminal career. In October 1742 Talbot and his wife Margaret Pierce had been accused of murdering a man in Chelsea Fields whom Pierce picked up and then attempted to rob (Talbot was acting as her bully), but they were acquitted because the only strong evidence came from another woman who was also Talbot’s wife under a Fleet marriage. In November 1744 Talbot, in company with Benjamin McCoy, Patrick Casey and John Hawkins, stole goods from a clothing shop in High Holborn, and then stole periwigs from a barber’s shop in the Haymarket, for which Talbot was transported. Hawkins said they had gone out stealing many times before. In July 1749 Mary Dimer picked up a man in East Smithfield and tried to rob him, while Talbot her bully came up from behind and beat him about the head; they were both sentenced to death in September, she for the robbery and he for returning from transportation, but whereas Dimer was executed, Talbot was subsequently reprieved and transported yet again. However, as we have seen, he had again returned from transportation by May 1751. When he was captured he said he knew he was a dead man. The constable took him to Tothill Fields gaol where Cullen was lying in bed; he looked up and said ‘How do you do, Mr. Talbot?’ Talbot turned about and went out. He offered no defence at the trial in 1751, and was convicted and hanged, together with Quinn and Dowdell.

            The career of Margaret Pierce alias Talbot may have begun around February 1742, when she picked a man’s pocket, but was acquitted. We last see her in a trial in April 1752, when two women were tried (but acquitted) for stealing a silver watch from their client. The two streetwalkers would hang around outside the door of the Fox alehouse in Drury Lane, where they would pick up men and bring them to a room rented by Margaret Pierce in a notorious bawdy house in nearby Orange Court kept by Elizabeth Smallman. On this occasion the streetwalkers took the watch because the customer had no ready money to pay them; Mrs Smalllman sold the watch for two guineas and four shillings, and Margaret Pierce’s share of this was fourteen shillings and sixpence. Several other nightwalkers accused of stealing from their tricks regularly made their pick-ups outside the Fox alehouse. When one man in July 1747 challenged a woman for picking his pocket at the Fox, the people in what he called ‘her gang’ began to curse and swear at him and he was too afraid to haul her out to a constable. One of the women, Mary Johnson, engaged in such activities from at least 1747 through 1750, though she was always acquitted; in October 1749 she was apprehended in the Fox for having pawned stolen goods, but she turned King’s evidence and her accomplice, Lawrence Savage, was hanged in 1750. Savage had known Lawler for five years, and had appeared at Lawler’s trial in December 1749 to claim that he and Lawler were both in prison in Dublin at the time when Lawler was supposed to have committed the theft of which he was accused.

            Another Royal Family member, William Smith, also had a career. He was prosecuted for housebreaking in April 1751 but acquitted. In January 1749 he and Family member Brian and another man had broken into a house, but he was acquitted. Smith had been convicted of highway robbery in July 1749, when he was between 13 and 14 years old, for which he was sentenced to transportation. His accomplice, 13-year-old John Lee, in January 1747 had been convicted of stealing shirts from a hedge, together with his brother Henry, also a mere boy, and sentenced to transportation. John Lee’s career seems to have begun in July 1746, when he was tried for stealing chains from a farmyard, which he pawned with Joseph Marsh, a blacksmith who dealt in old iron in Tyburn road. (Lee and Marsh lived near one another in Oxford Road.) The judge reprimanded Marsh for not being very strict about asking the boy where the chains came from: ‘A mighty little boy to deal in old iron! ’Tis pretty odd for you to give three farthings a pound for these chains for old iron; in my opinion you are more guilty than the boy. ’Tis such as you that encourage such little thefts, in the receiving of stolen goods.’ Lee was acquitted but, as predicted by the judge, he would steadily advance from opportunistic petty theft to semi-organized housebreaking.

            The Fox alehouse in Drury Lane may have been used by different networks of thieves who did not necessarily work with one another, though since they all operated out of the house over a one- or two-year-period, it seems reasonable to suspect that they comprised at least a loose federation, if not a single gang. One night in November 1749 John Ecklin, Anthony Whittle, Edward Thorp and Anthony Bourne set out after 11 o'clock from the Fox, with an intent to break open a silversmith’s shop in the Barbican; but that proved too strong for them. In their return along Long Lane they broke into a stocking shop and stole some thirty dozen pairs of socks. They each kept two pairs of socks to wear themselves, and sold the rest to Samuel Cordosa (to be discussed in the following chapter on fencing) for about £14, which they spent partly on a celebratory dinner, then divided the rest between them. On another heist they stole fifty hats, which they also sold to Cordosa. Ecklin committed many robberies, for which he regularly turned King’s evidence (e.g. on his evidence Henry James Saunders was hanged in September 1750).

            In January 1751 Jemmy Field was convicted of theft for robbing a man and woman in Drury Lane, whom he attacked in company with Ecklin, Whittle, Thomas Pendergraft and Charles Campbell, for which he was hanged. Whittle pleaded guilty and was also hanged, but Pendergraft was acquitted. Pendergraft previously, in February 1750, was indicted for robbing a man in Southampton Row, on the basis of his accomplice Thomas Levise, who gave King’s evidence against many robbers, but was acquitted. On another occasion, on 25 November 1750, Field, together with three or four other men, according to William Freestone who turned King’s evidence, ‘met together at the Fox in Drury-lane; we agreed together in order to go out to rob the first person we met, that we thought worth robbing.’ They would meet at the lodgings of Pendergraft, which was connected to the rear of the Fox and faced into Orange Court, Drury Lane, to divide their share of the money received from selling their stolen goods. Pendergraft was an important link between the gangs who met at the Fox, who were not necessarily directly part of the Royal Family. One evening in June 1751 Daniel Thoroughgood, alias Dan the Baker, together with Richard Holland and Mark Chailes met outside the Fox and decided ‘to go on the scamp’; Holland’s wife took a pistol out of her bosom and gave it to Holland, and gave a hanger to Dan the Baker. They robbed about three men before daylight, and decided to meet at the Fox the following evening to divide the spoils. Dan the Baker on the way home met with Pendergraft, who said he had been a fool to go out robbing with Holland, because only a couple of weeks ago Holland had turned King’s evidence against some accomplices who were hanged after the Kingston assizes. Dan was so frightened, he decided to turn Holland in before Holland could turn him in. So he went immediately to a thief-taker, who arranged to arrest Dan, Holland and Chailes when they met at the Fox that evening. When they were arrested, Dan immediately confessed, and asked that he be made an evidence. But at the trial in July, it was Chailes who was made the evidence, so Dan the Baker was hanged together with Holland. Finally, in April 1752, John Brian, who had previously turned King’s evidence against his accomplices in the Royal Family, was convicted of theft and transported, on evidence from his associate Pendergraft, who said he had known him for the past six years. During this trial Brian revealed that Pendergraft was together with Quinn, Dowdell, Lawler, and the other members of the Royal Family who broke into the Westminster Gatehouse in January 1748. But Pendergraft always escaped conviction.

            Looking back over these trials, we can calculate that the Royal Family at its peak – the point at which fewest members were hanged or transported or in prison – probably consisted of about two dozen men plus their molls. Virtually all of them earned their living by crime. Of the men, only three had an honest occupation (a baker, a butcher, a shoemaker); three were unemployed sailors; and the rest were full-time thieves. Of the women, only one claimed to be a servant; the others were either prostitutes or traders in stolen goods. Although they were a ‘family’, like most criminal gangs they were finally broken up by impeaching one another. It is no accident that the family at the centre of Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is named Peachum.


The Rogues’ Lexicon


Criminal fraternities cement their bonds through the use of a common language, the ‘rogues’ lexicon’. It is often claimed that thieves’ cant is a secret language by which criminals can converse with one another without being understood by outsiders. This, however, has little basis in experience. If you went into a tavern and three men from the Royal Family were at the table next to you laying plans to chive the froes of their bung, or commending a cull who had a good hand upon the twang Adam cove, you would immediately suspect they were a pack of rogues. You might not realize that they were planning to cut off women’s pockets or praising a con-man with a gift for words, but you would certainly know they were up to no good. As a means of avoiding detection, their slang would have failed miserably. As Defoe says in Street-Robberies, Consider’d (1728), ‘whenever any person hears such a language, speech, or cant, or what you please to call it, let them take care of the speaker; for they may depend on’t they are certainly of the nimming clan, and therefore to be avoided.’

            Technically this slang language is ‘secret’, in the sense that it uses specialized jargon understood only by specialists, but in a wider sense its effect is the opposite of secrecy, for it renders conspicuous anyone who uses it in public. The overriding aim of argot is not to deceive outsiders, but to cement group solidarity and to help members of an in-group to identify one another. The ‘rogue’s lexicon’ constitutes major evidence of the existence of criminal subcultures and criminal identities. Criminal cant demonstrates not simply that some people commit crimes, but that for some groups, crime is a way of life. The sharing of a common language is one of the distinguishing features of the criminal underworld, perhaps even more important that the sharing of a common social background, common codes of behaviour, common associations, and common attitudes.

            Argots typically originate in tightly closed groups with a strong sense of camaraderie. Thieves’ cant seems to have arisen partly from the need for specialized vocabulary for specialized techniques, partly from the desire to confer a kind of ‘professional’ status upon a criminal ‘trade’, partly from the need to demonstrate one’s membership of the fraternity, partly as a way of compensating for hostility from respectable society and its legal institutions, and partly as way of defiantly establishing one’s superiority over legitimate norms. Many criminal biographies illustrate that thieves who worked in organized groups made a great effort to learn the language of their ‘craft’ and to teach this language to new recruits. Mastering this lexicon contributes greatly to a sense of pride and self-importance among gang members. The more familiar someone was with cant terms, the more trusted they would be by the criminal fraternity. Further, a flashy and defiant attitude among many criminals, together with the often dramatic nature of the risks they take, may partly account for the vivid imagery and bawdy or ‘salty’ humour so typical of criminal slang. Slang terms that emerge in the underworld are gradually diffused into the dominant respectable culture, often by way of journalists and by rebellious youth, or by respectable people ‘slumming it’, and by novelists wishing to create a dramatic and colourful narrative (extensive use of criminal slang was made by Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne and other writers during the eighteenth century).

            Compilers of the rogues’ lexicon sometimes drew upon earlier books, so that we cannot always be sure that the slang in some eighteenth-century documents is genuinely contemporary. The Memoirs of the Right Villainous John Hall, The Late Famous and Notorious Robber (4th edn, 1714) contains a three-page glossary of the ‘canting tongue’, including the words Bien, good; blunt, money; boozing-ken, an ale-house; case, a bawdy-house; cly, a pocket; darbies, fetters; flag, a groat; harminbeck, a constable; Jacob, a ladder; Jack, a farthing; juggler’s box, the bumming engine; nut-crackers, the pillory; nubbing-cheat , the gallows; pop, a pistol; queer, small, not good; queer cove, a rogue; swag, a shop; wit, Newgate. Though some of these terms duplicate entries in Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors published in 1566, it would not be accurate to say that Hall ‘stole’ the terms from Harman: many of the terms have been in continuous use over long periods of time. The canting language was not fabricated by literary writers, though they loved using it. Cant dictionaries published in northern Europe well before the eighteenth century were compiled from authentic material from criminal trials, and published so that ordinary people would recognize the tricks used by beggars and vagabonds.

            One clear marker of whether or not a witness at the Old Bailey was a member of the criminal underworld would be his or her use of underworld cant. Men who turned King’s evidence against their colleagues regularly introduced thieves’ cant into their testimony, which they explained for the benefit of the court. For example, in January 1734 in a trial involving the footpad William Fidzar, Fidzar’s wife went to a gaol to see one of the men her husband was going to turn King’s evidence against and said ‘my Husband bug you and get the Reward’. At another trial, one of the men whom Fidzar was evidence against, said that while he was in prison one of Fidzar’s friends came to him and said ‘Aye you rogue, he shall get the reward for banging you, and then he'll live honest.’ Criminals who found themselves in the dock were sometimes eager to display their knowledge of cant. Here is an excerpt from the testimony given in court in February 1732 by Thomas Beck, who gave information concerning three companions with whom he robbed a parson of his hat:

Beck:      About 11 o’clock, I and Thomas Edwards, and James Tripland met with Thomas Past in Bishopsgate-street. ‘My lads,’ says he, ‘what lay do you go upon.’ They told me they could find no better business than stealing lead. ‘That’s but a foolish way of living; you had much better stop a coach.’ I proposed to go into Widegate Alley to break open a house, but at last we agreed upon street robbery. We went to Shoreditch, and attempted to stop a coach, but the coachman whipped his horses, and drove into Hoxton-square. Going a little farther, Past cry’d out, ‘Boys, here’s a cock!

Court:    What did he mean by a ‘cock’?

Beck:     A man. We came up to this man, but he cry’d out ‘Fire! Fire!’ and so we let him pass, for fear he should alarm all the neighbourhood. We went along Old Street, and so to St John’s Street, without doing any business: But in St John’s Street, Past called out again, ‘Boys,’ says he, ‘Here’s a smallcoal-man; let us stop him, for they wear the best of hats.

Court:    A ‘smallcoal-man’, what did he mean by that?

Beck:     A Parson: We always call a parson a smallcoal-man, because their dresses are pretty much alike. So we look’d in the parson’s face, and let him go on, but we follow’d at a little distance. He turned down Swan-Alley, when Edwards stept forward with a knife in his hand, and stopt him.

In many trials, the Court often had to ask for explanations of what such ‘Newgate words’ meant.

            The argot of the underworld included terms denoting specialist criminal activities. In the memoirs of the robber John Hall we find an extensive list, including the following:

Hoisters, such as help one another upon their backs in the night-time to get into windows.

Sneakers, such as sneak into a house by night or day to steal.

Sneaking-Budgers, such as pilfer things off of a stall.

Tail-Drawers, such as take Gentlemen’s swords from their sides at the turning of a corner, or in a crowd.

Clouters, such as take handkerchiefs out of folk’s pockets.

Files, such as dive into folk’s pockets for money or watches.

Dubbers, such as rob dwelling-houses, warehouses, coach-houses or stables, by picking the locks thereof.

Chieving-Layers, such as cut the leathers which bear up coaches behind, and whilst the coachmen come off their boxes to see what’s the matter, they take a box or trunk from under his seat.

And so on through Waggon-Layers, Prad-Layers, Horse-Pads, Foot-Pads, Mill-Layers, Till-Divers, Running-Smoblers, Famp-Layers, Faggot and Stall, Sweetners, and Night-Gamesters. These apply chiefly to men. Far fewer slang terms were applied to women criminals, though the specialist terms for different types of pickpocketing applied largely to women.

            Aliases and nicknames are a characteristic feature of the criminal underworld, used mostly to forge subcultural identities. Criminals often have several aliases, or false but ordinary names, which would help them avoid being identified as a repeat offender if they were prosecuted on subsequent occasions. More interestingly, some criminals often sport a colourful ‘monicker’, which stays with them throughout their criminal life. A striking feature of the network of footpads to be examined in Chapter 9 is the men’s use of monikers or underworld nicknames: there was Stick in the Mud, Crab Jack, Beans, Jack the Hatter, Sick Will, Long Will, Smoaky Jack, Moco Jack and Bob the Glazier. Monickers were often linked to some physical characteristic, or celebrated some daring exploit, or called attention to a characteristic behaviour or attitude, or were simply an affectionate nickname which arose for no apparent reason and stuck.

            Joseph Blake was nicknamed Blueskin probably because he had a dark complexion. One of his chief associates was John Levee, who was nicknamed Junks. Another man with a dark complexion, the Norfolk smuggler John Blade, was nicknamed Black Jack of the West. Charles Cox, one of four highwaymen who made a desperate attempt to break out of the County Gaol in Hertford in July 1741, was nicknamed Bacon-Face. Barnard Solomon, the head of a gang of Jewish thieves who was transported for 14 years for receiving stolen goods in 1773, was commonly known by the name of The Bear. John Green, alias Gartering Jack, was a housebreaker (in 1734) with a great scar down his face and only one good eye. One of the housebreakers apprehended by Jonathan Wild was nicknamed Cock-eyed Jack. Other men whose physical disabilities are captured in their nicknames include the pickpocket Isaac Goldbourne, nicknamed Dumb Paw because he had a lame hand. James Sayteress, convicted of burglary in 1771, was nicknamed Dumb Jemmy. Luke Powell was nicknamed Hopp because he walked with a crutch, pretending to be lame. One of Francis Hackabout’s robber accomplices was John Hartley, alias Pokey. In contrast, the highwayman Richard Ferguson had once been a postillion, and was nicknamed Galloping Dick. The gentlemanly highwayman Thomas Butler was called both Thick-Legged Butler and Squire Becket. Two men who robbed a ship lying at the quay of King James’s Stairs in July 1734 were William Newell, alias Black-Head, and Thomas Martin, alias Paps-Nose.

            Many of the smugglers in Kent and Sussex in the 1740s had nicknames, for example Tall Boy and Jack-Come-Last. Thomas Gurr who was transported in 1739 was commonly called Stick in the Mud. In August 1748 one Farmer, a notorious smuggler nicknamed Bloodthirsty, was captured by a party of soldiers near Maidstone after making a desperate resistance. Bli Gonzalez, a native of Alicante, changed his name to John Symmonds when he came to England and joined the smugglers on the south coast, where he became known by the nickname Spanish Jack. He joined Randolph Branch’s gang of robbers in Deptford in 1752. The Hawkhurst Gang in the 1740s included men nicknamed Great Daniel, Halfcoat Robin, Trip, Blacktooth and Poison.

            John Smith, a shoplifter who worked the area of St Paul’s, Covent Garden and was convicted in 1745, was said to ‘go among the fraternity by the name of James the Minister’. One of the women who helped pawn his stolen goods was nicknamed Singing Moll. They both worked for what was known as Country Dick’s gang, several of whom were hanged. Thomas Jones, who was hanged in 1736 together with two members of his gang of horse-stealers, was known as ‘the Old Quaker’ – he affected the manner, dress and style of the Quakers, by which hypocrisy the unwary were more readily persuaded to buy his stolen horses. In contrast, John Sharpless, a pickpocket transported in 1739, was nicknamed Sweep because he was a chimney-sweep.

            Monikers are sometimes almost surreal. Charles Patrick, a 16-year-old boy who lead a gang of ‘Lilliputian’ street robbers in 1732, called himself Captain Cartouche. Three members of a gang who committed some 59 burglaries in the space of two months in 1736 were nicknamed Civil Joe, Frost and Flea-Bite. Two street robbers of the 1730s must have been preparing for a Victorian pantomime, for they were commonly known as Dicky Twankey and Nice Neddy. Clearly these real-life criminals were a match for the members of Macheath’s gang in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera: Jemmy Twitcher, Crook-Fingered Jack, Wat Dreary, Nimming Ned, Matt of the Mint and Filch.

            Women did not sport nicknames so often as men, other than shortened names such as Molly or Jenny. In Chapter 15 on prostitutes we will encounter Orford Bess, Claret-faced Hannah, and others. Prostitutes in general employ much less argot than other subcultural groups. Perhaps this is because they are already plentifully supplied with cant from the thieves with whom they associated, which they modify for their own uses, and many of them probably identified more with thieves rather than specifically with other prostitutes. As we will see, their ‘trade’ often entailed a larger element of theft than sex. The most frequent slang term, indicative of this, was ‘buttock and twang’: ‘Which is walking to be pick’d up, and frightning him that does it with her pretended husband, after she has pick’d his pocket, so that the fool runs gladly away without his watch or money.’ The term ‘buttock and file’ means the same thing except that ‘this is the better-natur’d beast of the two, and performs her stage before she takes her wages.’

            In July 1777 a woman nicknamed Hellcat Nan, alias Brimstone Moll, was arrested with three other women for robbing a farmer’s wife in Camberwell Fields and stripping her stark naked. Mary Perry, committed in 1738 for being a receiver of stolen goods, went by the name Polly Peachum, the name of the character in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. In 1745 Mary Cut and Come-again, a ballad singer with a hurly burly in Leicester Fields, was sentenced to death for assaulting and robbing a widow woman. When she was taken to the watchman’s for examination by a Justice of the Peace, she pulled her breasts out, and spurted her milk in the men’s faces, and said, ‘Damn your eyes, what do you want to take my life away?’ When the Justice ordered her to be fettered and handcuffed, she said if he would take the handcuffs off, she would tell him her real name; otherwise she would not; and indeed she was convicted under her colourful alias.


Return to The Georgian Underworld