The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

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


7    Spitalfields Jews, Snow Hill Pawnbrokers, & Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General


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.



A 1745 account of the robberies of John Jeffs and Joseph Lucas, whose gang specialized in robbing the Western coaches as they arrived at Piccadilly, claimed that Lucas rose to become the ‘Captain General of Thieves’ with 7,000 men under his military-style command. Though the size of the gang was substantial, its success was due primarily to its efficient network of nine receivers, all women married to men in the gang. The importance of receivers of stolen goods, or ‘fences’, can hardly be overestimated. The systematic and orderly disposal of stolen goods is the key defining feature of ‘organized crime’. Colquhoun in A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1795) suggested that at the end of the century fifty or sixty large-scale receivers operated in London, supported by several thousand small-time fences.

            Fencing networks were often controlled by Jews, who were often perceived as specializing in shady financial dealings, and who often engaged in pawnbroking and ‘usury’ because of restrictions placed upon their employment by Christian host countries for many centuries. The major receiver for Randolph Branch’s gang of street robbers in the 1750s was Philip Abraham, who was known as Scampy the Jew. He was finally captured in January 1764, the same month that another Jewish receiver, Hyman Levy, died while in gaol in New Prison, Clerkenwell.

            Four members of a Jewish gang of crooked merchants and thieves were hanged at Tyburn on 17 February 1744. Joseph Isaacs, age 19, was born in Dukes Place, where there were two Jewish Synagogues and where many Jews resided. He was ‘bred to merchandizing, for which the Jews have a natural genius’, but became involved with the gang. He confessed to several robberies, and turned King’s evidence against other Jewish colleagues. Samuel Moses, age 35, born in West Friesland, confessed to a life of pickpocketing, thieving, robbing and housebreaking. He had travelled throughout the United Provinces, Flanders, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and could speak the languages of all these countries. According to James Guthrie, the Ordinary of Newgate, ‘He was the father and counsellor of a set of vile young rogues of [the Jewish] nation, whom he led on to the stealing plate, rings, and other valuable goods, and breaking goldsmiths or jewellers shops, and stealing such like things out of gentlemen’s houses in the country, wheresoever they could possibly find any opportunity.’ Moses confessed not only to the robbery for which he was convicted, but to many others, in association with Michael Jude and Solomon Athorn. Solomon Athorn, age 19, born in Poland, angered Guthrie by insisting on wearing his hat when he attended Chapel in Newgate (as of course is the custom among the Jews). Jacob Cordosa, age 24, sentenced to death for returning from transportation, was also a wide traveller and spoke many languages. He confessed to several robberies and breaking into shops and warehouses in company with other Jewish boys. On a previous occasion he had organized a break-out from Newgate prison. All these men were obstinate in maintaining their Jewish religious principles to the end, much to the annoyance of Guthrie, who wanted to ‘reclaim the infidels’. At the place of execution the four Jews sang Hebrew songs, which Guthrie complained were too loud and disturbed the quiet meditations of six Christian felons who were to suffer with them the same day. ‘They seemed somewhat displeased at my speaking, alleging, they ought to pray in their own way; this I allowed, but not in such a noisy way, as to disturb the Christians in their devotions.’ Some rabbis attended them at the foot of the stairs in the Press Yard at Newgate, and one accompanied them to Tyburn, where they confessed their sins to him. They were interred in the Jewish burial ground at Mile End, ‘with their cloaths on, and the halters about their necks, the Jews never stripping any person, who does not die a natural death’. One of the receivers used by this Jewish gang was the ‘pawnbroker’ Isaac Alvarez Dacosta, who also worked for the Royal Family, discussed in the previous chapter.

            Though the Royal Family was predominantly Irish, it was linked to a gang operating out of Spitalfields during 1747 which was predominantly Jewish, operating with Jewish fences. William Smith, a member of the Royal Family, may have begun his career in March 1747 when he, together with the one-armed shoplifter John Brown, Thomas Lane, William Clark and William Sims stole some men’s hats from a shop in Cursitor Street. They were all practised shoplifters. I will discuss some incidents involving John Brown in detail in Chapter 11 on shoplifters. Brown had been convicted in 1740 for shoplifting, but when he returned from transportation seven years later he took up where he left off, and throughout 1747 went out shoplifting with several men including Moses Holloway and Samuel Cobb, who were central figures in the Spitalfields gang. Most of the members of that Jewish gang were tried in February 1747: Cobb, Holloway and Richard Bunney stole 200 buckles and other silver and metal goods such as seals and corkscrews (by blowing out the candle in a shop one evening and making off with an entire showcase before the proprietor re-lit the candle), which they then passed to Moses Newnez Cordoso, Manasseh Alexander and Abraham Jacobs, who were tried for receiving stolen goods. They were all discovered by a headborough and several officers who went into a disorderly house because they were making so much noise. This ‘pack of thieves’ and ‘pack of Jews’ met regularly to transact their business at a Mrs Grey’s in Cobb’s Court, near Cox’s Square, Spitalfields, ‘a little nasty hole, where they sold gin’. A total of twelve men were arrested there on this occasion. Holloway turned King’s evidence, but ten men and six women testified to everyone’s good character and they were all acquitted. The court reporter wryly observed: ‘if they were not guilty, they were got in exceeding bad company; for three of that same gang had facts brought quite home to them, viz. Thomas McLane, Edward Edwards, and Thomas Jackson.’ McLane, also arrested at Mrs Grey’s in Cobb’s Court, was separately convicted in February 1747 for stealing some of the silver buckles with Holloway as his accomplice; he was only eleven years old, but no stranger to the court; he was whipped and then volunteered to be sent aboard a Man of War, that is pressed into the navy, rather than be transported. In a separate trial that Sessions (February 1747), Edwards and Jackson were convicted for stealing silk and worsted stockings from a haberdasher’s shop in Hanover Square, with their accomplice Holloway (who turned King’s evidence), which they carried back to Cobb’s Court, where they were arrested together with the rest of the pack. The constables had raided the house as a meeting was taking place to dispose of these goods stolen in different incidents. As Holloway explained, the two Jewish men were present as ‘buyers’ and the third Jewish man was there to carry away the goods once they were bought. Edwards and Jackson were transported. In April 1747 Samuel Cobb and John Ryley were tried for burglary, their accomplices being John Brown and Samuel Holloway (who turned King’s evidence). Many people appeared as character witnesses for Cobb, and both men were acquitted, but Cobb was held over and tried on a second count of theft with Bryan Overy; Overy was acquitted, but Cobb was convicted, and transported. The court reporter observed: ‘All Cobb’s friends and neighbours appeared for him again, as upon his former trial, saying they never heard any hurt of him, a very sober honest man; either they must have been very ignorant of his conduct, which can hardly be imagined, or, what is to be feared, much worse, all perjured.’

            Perjury had been integral to the protection of the gang for the past few years. In February 1745 Margaret Mears alias Kirby, Jane Smerk alias Singing Jenny, Catherine Bowyer, Mary Whaley, and Samuel Cobb robbed Mr and Mrs Harrison in the street. Mary ‘Moll’ Whaley, who turned King’s evidence, said ‘we went all out together with a design to knock down any man or woman that we met, or to pick any man up, or to do any thing that we could.’ Cobb went up to Mrs Harrison and thrust his hand into her bosom, and in due course stole her cloak and other things. They brought their goods to Peg Mears’s mother to fence. Cobb escaped and was not captured, but Mears, Smerk and Bowyer were convicted and transported, despite the fact that many people came forward to testify to their good character. William Sims (who would be part of the shoplifting adventure of March 1747 mentioned above) testified that ‘Jenny Smerk worked with me as a servant by the week within this 12 month. I have goods worth forty or fifty pounds in my house at any time, which she might have taken; and I never had any mistrust of her.’

            The other Jewish receiver who had been present when the house in Cobb’s Court was raided, but who managed to escape, was Isaac Alvarez Dacosta. In July 1747 he was indicted for receiving tea stolen by Holloway and another probable member of the Spitalfields gang, John Hudson, for which Hudson had been convicted in April 1747. Hudson had been acquitted at yet another trial the previous year, for theft in which the goods were passed ‘to one Alverass; he buys things known to be stolen’ presumably this was Isaac Alvarez Dacosta. Dacosta, however, even though ‘he is very notorious for encouraging all such vile practices’, managed to escape the reward of his crimes by His Majesty’s Royal Act of Grace, which prior to the trial granted amnesty for everyone under indictment or who surrendered themselves and repented (excluding those charged with serious crimes such as murder). (Acts of Grace allowed everyone in the kingdom to joyfully celebrate a royal birthday or marriage; they also regularly emptied the over-flowing prisons.) But Dacosta did not take this opportunity to reform his ways. In October 1748 he was convicted of stealing 27 yards of superfine scarlet cloth from a warehouse, and transported. Benjamin Sampson, a money-changer who testified in support of Dacosta’s claim that he had bought the goods from a Polander, was held over to be tried for perjury. Dacosta was shopped by someone sending an anonymous letter to the owner of the warehouse, telling him he could find the stolen cloth in Dacosta’s lodgings at an infamous house in Cock and Hoop Yard, Houndsditch. The landlady of the lodgings, Mrs Barnes, assumed he was a smuggler.

            When Dacosta was taken, he was in a meeting with Samuel Cordosa (who at the time lived in Gravel Lane, Houndsditch), who was a well-known receiver of stolen goods (not to be confused with Moses Newnez Cordoso). On several occasions Samuel Cordosa had appeared at the Old Bailey to testify that he had bought stolen goods – not knowing them to be stolen, of course – such as the three gold watches and one silver watch which John Ecklin or Eckley, Thomas Lewis, John Stanton, James Webster and Richard Holland stole when they stopped a carriage carrying Lord Bury, the Countess of Albemarle and another lady in February 1750. Lewis turned King’s evidence against Stanton and Webster, but at their trial Cordosa refused to identify them, even though he acknowledged that Lewis and a gang of men were at his house from 2.30 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, haggling over the value of the goods. Cordoso presumably realized that without his identification the alleged thieves would be acquitted, as they were, and without their conviction he could not be charged for receiving stolen goods. Lewis, who gave evidence against several men, was himself convicted and hanged in April 1750. Men who operated from the Fox in Drury Lane, such as Anthony Whittle and John Ecklin (who were members of the Royal Family), regularly sold their stolen goods to Samuel Cordosa. In September 1750 Cordosa was prosecuted for stealing some gowns, which he admitted selling to a keeper of a bawdy house; he was convicted and transported. Cordosa had had a thriving business trading in stolen goods, which he shipped to Holland. Fielding in his 1751 Enquiry complains about some notable Jews in the City, such as Cordosa, ‘who in an almost public manner have carried on a trade for many years with Rotterdam, where they have their warehouses and factors, and whither they export their goods with prodigious profit, and as prodigious impunity’.




Thieves who did not employ professional Jewish fences such as Cordosa nevertheless found a ready market for their booty, as in Rag Fair and its many pawnbroker’s shops, discussed in Chapter 4. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between fences and pawnbrokers. In February 1753, Michael Haws stole 71 pairs of silk stockings from the Towcester wagon which was unloaded at 4 or 5 in the morning at Newgate Market, which he sold to four fences, Mary Clark, Mary Ridge who traded in women’s clothes in Field Lane (and also had premises in Shoemaker Row and in Bishopsgate Street), Elizabeth Pearce who lived in Field Lane, and Elizabeth Moor (at whose house Haws lodged). The four women in turn disposed of the goods to pawn shops and old clothes shops in Bride Lane, Snow Hill.

            Theft and pawnbroking were integrally linked. In 1756 William Shervey, who kept a public house in Field Lane, challenged his servant Martha Eaton, whom he suspected of stealing some shirts from him. She denied it, but admitted it when he said he would forgive her. However, he soon missed other things as well: sheets, a blanket, aprons, a handkerchief and a copper coffee pot. She owned up to these thefts as well, explaining that the coffee pot was pawned at Mr Brown’s on Snow Hill, the sheets and blankets at the pawnbroker’s at the corner of Hosier Lane, and the handkerchiefs at a pawnbroker’s in Chick Lane. Shervey, fed up with his servant, prosecuted her and she was transported. The pawnbrokers, of course, were not prosecuted. The Westminster magistrate Colonel De Veil in the 1730s regularly threatened pawnbrokers with prosecution for receiving stolen goods unless they agreed to provide detailed descriptions of the goods they received, which he would publish in the newspapers, inviting people to come to his office at set times to identify them – and subsequently to testify against those who brought in the goods.

            From mid-century, pawnbrokers were supposed to keep records of the goods brought to them, though they did not have to be licensed until 1785. At nearly every Session at the Old Bailey, pawnbrokers would be called to Court to produce the stolen goods, which they sometimes grudgingly released after being presented with a warrant, and to identify the prisoner at the bar as the one who had pawned them. Certain pawnbrokers were very regular visitors to the Court: it is clear that they seldom asked questions when goods were brought in for a loan, and that some were complicit in these dealings and very regular receivers of such goods.

            Some idea of the pawnbroker network can be gained by a focus on the trials at the Old Bailey at which pawnbrokers appeared during just one single year, 1758. The Session in January was well attended by pawnbrokers:

  • Edward Jolly was convicted after a pawnbroker, Mr Fell, brought a stolen silver spoon to the butler of Granvile Leveson, Earl Gower, and the butler realized his friend Jolly must have taken it during a recent visit to him in the pantry.
  • Elizabeth Tomkinson was convicted of stealing many items of clothing on the basis of evidence given by Sarah Platt, who kept a clothes shop in Monmouth Street, and by four different pawnbrokers: John Herring, whose pawn shop was in Grafton Street near where Elizabeth Tomkinson lived, and who said that she often brought things to him to be pawned; James Styles, a pawnbroker in Castle Street; Mr Pash, a pawnbroker in Bow Street, Bloomsbury; and Deborah Humphrys, who was probably the wife of the pawnbroker William Humphrys, who was a friend of John Herring. Elizabeth Tomkinson was indicted on another similar charge: she was obviously a professional who dealt in large quantities of stolen goods. She was sentenced to death, but the sentence was respited due to her pregnancy.
  • Joseph Weeley was sentenced to death after large quantities of stolen cloth were identified at Mr Coyde’s pawn shop in Leather Lane. Coyde’s journeyman William Bowyer appeared in court to testify that Weeley for the past three years had regularly come to them to pawn quantities of silk. Mr Coyde initially refused to pass the goods to the constable, until presented with a search warrant provided by Justice Fielding. The Court asked why Mr Coyde was not himself in court that morning, to which no one had any answer.
  • Jane Preston admitted stealing a sheet, which was identified in court by Mary Aliss, a servant to a pawnbroker.
  • Elizabeth, wife of John Taylor, was accused of receiving stolen goods, namely a linen apron stolen by Elizabeth Chetham, which was identified by Nathaniel Warner, a pawnbroker at the Three Golden Balls in St John’s Street. She was acquitted because Chetham herself had not been prosecuted for theft. Chetham regularly used another pawnbroker’s shop kept by Benjamin Street, near Cow Cross, who refused to look for goods pawned in Elizabeth’s name.
  • Elizabeth, wife of John Ross, was branded for stealing many items of silver plate and tablecloths and napkins, which a constable found a pawnbroker’s regularly used by her, on the corner of Half Moon Street in the Strand.
  • Elizabeth Simonds alias Mitchel was convicted of minor theft after a constable went with a warrant to fetch the goods she stole at the pawnshop kept by James Jervis at Fetter Lane.
  • Alice, wife of John Davis, who was convicted of coining, went to Mr Alexander, a pawnbroker at Snow Hill, who gave her a guinea for some silver (which she had filed from silver coins), but when she did this on several occasions, and when she explicitly asked that he be sure to give her good guineas, his suspicion was raised and he refused; another pawnbroker gave her gold for her silver.

The Session in February was hardly less busy:

  • James Hunt, servant to Mr Stubbs a pawnbroker near Oxford Street, identified a stolen silver spoon brought into the shop by Mary Perfect, a friend of Mary Cottis, the alleged thief.
  • Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Pinder, was accused of theft, and Mrs Phebe Audery, who kept a pawnbroker’s shop, gave evidence at the trial, but she was acquitted.
  • Richard Lokin was convicted of stealing numerous items, partly on the testimony of Richard Munk, who lived with Mr Bibby a pawnbroker.
  • Luke Henry, convicted of theft, was employed by a lady of the town named Marten. Henry regularly carried stolen goods from her to the pawnbroker William Watson.
  • Twelve yards of cloth stolen by Joel Blackbourn were found at Edward Ray’s pawnbroker’s shop in Whitechapel. Blackbourn confessed and begged for mercy; he was branded.
  • Jane, wife of Richard Brooker, stole many things from Francis Lomas, who employed her as a washerwoman. When Lomas discovered what was happening, he told her ‘if she would take me to the pawnbroker’s, I would fetch them out, and forgive her. She took me to Mr Brown, a pawnbroker on Snow-Hill, and asked for two shirts that she had pawn’d there, which were produced, and I took them out. Then she took me to a second pawnbroker, and asked for two more. I took them out. Then she took me to a third, and asked for one, which I took out.’ But a sixth shirt was still missing, so Lomas went back to John Brown the pawnbroker ‘and desired him to examine his books, to see what he had taken in of her, which he did, and found many things; among which were five shirts more of mine that I had missed’ as well as seventy-five yards of linen. Jane Broker had also brought stolen goods to another pawnbroker, James Bruin.

In April:

  • Mary Jervis and Catherine Miller were charged with stealing clothes found at Walter Brooks’s pawnbroker’s shop in Joyner’s Street. Jervis and Miller were apparently part of a shoplifting gang which included Elizabeth Butcher, who turned King’s evidence against them, and Elizabeth Butcher’s mother and sister, both of whom were convicted and transported on Butcher’s evidence, though Jervis and Miller were acquitted.
  • James Cotes, a soldier, was convicted of highway robbery on the evidence of William Humphrys, the pawnbroker to whom he brought a silver watch; he swore that he bought the watch from a Jew in Holborn. Henry Myers who testified on Cotes’s behalf was held over to be tried for wilful perjury (see below, June).
  • Elizabeth Johnson, convicted of theft, had had dealings with James Styles, a pawnbroker in Castle Court, for the past three years.
  • Margaret Cameron was convicted of theft after the pawnbroker Mr Barnwell saw an advertisement for a stolen Scotch plaid which she had brought to him.

In May:

  • John Frost was convicted of fraudulently obtaining a silver tea-kettle from a goldsmith, which kettle was produced in court by Michael Beadle, servant to Mr Price the pawnbroker in Snow Hill. The Court remarked that Mr Price had impudently refused an earlier request of the Court, and asked why he was not present, but Beadle could only report that Price had been called out of town on business the day before the trial.
  • George Albeat was accused of stealing a great deal of silver and jewellery, some of which was produced in court by the pawnbroker Daniel Wood; by Patrick Rook, who kept a pawnbroker’s shop at the corner of Hatton Garden, Holborn; and by the pawnbroker William Crisp. But the pawnbrokers claimed they could not absolutely identify Albeat (who was a servant to Lord Oliphant), and he was acquitted.

In June:

  • Henry Myers was accused of perjury, in having sworn that James Cotes (see above, April), now executed for theft, had bought a watch, which the pawnbroker William Humphrys now confirmed was stolen by Cotes and delivered to Humphrys. But Myers was acquitted after some difficulty in identifying the watch.
  • Sarah Thornton was convicted of theft after the pawnbroker Henry Spence produced the goods in court and identified her.
  • Thomas Forshall, a pawnbroker in St Martin’s Lane, testified that James Hartley brought him a stolen silver mug to pawn, which he recognized as coming from the Thistle and Crown.
  • Arthur Hambleton was convicted of stealing hundreds of items of clothing and silver from the home of William Ing (where he was a lodger) while Ing was in King’s Bench prison for debt. Hambleton had audaciously pawned the items in the name of William Ing, to Francis Patrick, a pawnbroker in Drury Lane, to the pawnbroker Gilbert Murdey, to Mr Stone’s pawnbroker’s shop in Princes Street and to the pawnbroker Walter Rochfort (who may have been a relative of Francis Rochfort, a servant to John Brown the pawnbroker in Snow Hill).
  • Elizabeth Smith, a streetwalker, was accused of picking the pocket of her client for the night, on the basis of an identification made by a pawnbroker, but she was acquitted.
  • Dorothy Introdure was accused of stealing many things from Mary Manden, a blind woman with whom she shared a room at Lady Lumbley’s alms-house, which were all put in pawn with Thomas White. Though blind, Mander was able to identify her aprons and so forth in court, which were obtained by warrant from the pawnbroker, as she had made them herself and knew their particular marks. But Introdure insisted she had been asked by Manden to pawn them for coal and candles, and she was acquitted.

In September:

  • Henry Heron and Carow Barnaby were convicted of theft after two partner-pawnbrokers, James Brooks and Mr Graygoose, identified him as bringing them stolen goods.
  • Edward Gee was convicted of theft with the assistance of evidence from Francis Rochfort, a servant to John Brown, the pawnbroker in Snow Hill.
  • Sarah Finch was convicted of theft with the assistance of evidence from William Ward, a servant to a pawnbroker.

In October:

  • Mary Brown was accused of theft, but the pawnbroker declined to appear in Court with the allegedly stolen goods, and she was acquitted.
  • Mary Lindsey was convicted of theft when the pawnbroker Mr Trippet produced in court a stolen cambric gown and identified her.

In December, James Fish was convicted of theft after constables followed up information provided by the pawnbroker to whom he sold stolen worsted stockings and leather breeches.

            It will be noted that three of the pawnbrokers listed above kept their shops in Snow Hill, and that three pawnbrokers appeared more than once during 1758: James Styles, William Humphrys, and John Brown (or his servant Francis Rochfort) of Snow Hill. These were by no means the first or last occasions when John Brown would produce stolen goods in court. For example, on Brown’s evidence, Alexander Patte was convicted of theft in April 1746; Francis Maginnis was charged with theft in January 1759 but acquitted; and in 1760 he testified against Jer. Wakefield Harcourt for theft, but Harcourt was acquitted. Pawnbrokers themselves were prosecuted relatively rarely for receiving stolen goods. Partly this is because, as professionals, they took great care that they could not be discovered to have directly instigated theft, and they followed the formalities of asking their customers to confirm that the goods were their own. However, it must have been as apparent to contemporary constables as to modern historians that many pawnbrokers very regularly received stolen goods. It seems likely that the authorities felt that they could control theft more effectively by employing pawnbrokers as unofficial thief-takers. Pawnbrokers, like criminals who turned King’s evidence, were useful tools, albeit criminals themselves, for controlling crime.


Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General


In the previous chapter I noted that Humphrey Angier, keeper of a series of disorderly houses which were important in the criminal networks of London, was a confederate of the robber John Dyer, who joined a gang of highway robbers which included William Duce, whose sister he married, and James Butler. Now we need to follow the ripples of these underworld connections just a bit further outward: John Dyer, since his youth, was also a long-time friend of the man who would become the most famous criminal in eighteenth-century England and the first leader of large-scale organized crime, Jonathan Wild. Indeed, Wild gave evidence at the trial in 1723 in which Dyer turned King’s evidence against Duce and Butler and obtained their convictions. Duce, before he was hanged, exclaimed ‘There is not a greater villain upon God’s earth than Jonathan Wild; he makes it his business to swear away honest men’s lives for the sake of the reward, and that is what he gets his livelihood by.’ Wild was born in Wolverhampton – as was Duce – about 1682, the eldest son of a carpenter and a fruit seller. At age 15 he was bound apprentice to a buckle-maker in Birmingham. He married a woman in Wolverhampton at the end of his apprenticeship and had a son, but left his family after two years and came to London. He had an argument with his wife and cut off one of her ears, but although they separated, he allowed her a weekly pension for the rest of his life. In London he soon fell into debt, and was thrown into Woodstreet Compter, where he remained for about four years, acting as Under Keeper and acquiring knowledge of criminal networks for his future trade. There he became intimate with Mary Milliner (or Molyneux), a common streetwalker-cum-pickpocket, who knew everyone in the underworld. She became his mentor as well as his mistress. After they were released, together they followed the trade of buttock and twang, that is whore and bully, and opened a brothel in Lewkenors Lane. Soon they earned enough to take a little house in Cock Alley, opposite Cripplegate Church, running it as a ‘flash house’ or thieves’ kitchen.

            Mary Milliner was one of many prostitutes who paid protection money to Charles Hitchin, the Under Marshall of the City of London, who was in charge of all of the City’s constables and watchmen. Hitchin had paid 700 for his post, which was unpaid like all public offices, but he earned that back many times over by protection rackets, by blackmail and extortion, by receiving goods, and by a clever system of earning rewards by returning stolen goods. Once every quarter, he collected protection money from the bawdy houses. What he especially demanded as ‘pay-back’ from the disorderly houses was information, information about stolen goods, information about stolen pocket-books. He would then use this information to extort money from the thieves and to extract rewards for returning stolen goods, and more generally, as a means of controlling the criminal underworld. Hitchin ‘regulated’ perhaps as many as 2,000 thieves. One of Hitchin’s boys was William Field, who was the model for the character Fitch in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Hitchin originated the trade of returning stolen pocketbooks for a reward (the papers these wallets contained were normally thrown away after the cash was extracted, but Hitchin exploited the fact that they were very valuable to the owners). Since most of the pocketbooks were stolen by whores, the gentlemen were not likely to prosecute their finder.

            Hitchin was temporarily suspended when he tried to blackmail a Quaker whose pocket-book had been stolen, but he was reinstated after he made some excuse for his behaviour. It was at this point, in 1713, that Wild became Hitchin’s assistant, probably through the agency of William Field, the thief who worked for Hitchin and who was in Wood Street Compter with Wild. Together Hitchin and Wild searched out disorderly houses and arrested people when they did not receive protection money or stolen goods. Hitchin and Wild were confederates for about two years, but in 1715 they quarrelled with one another and parted. Hitchin was also a notorious sodomite, and collected quarterly payments not only from heterosexual brothels, but also from the ‘molly houses’ in the homosexual underworld, which will be discussed in Chapter 16. In 1718 Hitchin denounced and exposed Wild as ‘King among the thieves’ in his pamphlet True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers. Wild replied with a pamphlet exposing Hitchin as a sodomite – though neither man met his downfall for some years to come.

            Wild took new lodgings at a house in the Old Bailey, from where he separately pursued his own business of thief-taking. By his industry and that of his help-meet, and with the experience and knowledge acquired during his employment with Hitchin, Wild became acquainted with all the prigs within the bills of mortality. He became familiar with their usual haunts, what lays they went upon, and how they disposed of their stolen goods. By building up a large store of knowledge, Wild held their lives in his power, and he managed to organize London’s criminal underworld on a wide scale. Wild expanded on Hitchin’s trade, and had systematic meetings with a large number of London’s professional thieves and housebreakers, persuading them to let him arrange for stolen goods to be returned to their owners, for a reward, for which he would keep a share. Sentimental items such as cypher rings or mourning rings, as well as notebooks, were worth stealing in this scheme, because owners were willing to pay generously for the return of such items, which receivers and pawnbrokers would not accept because they could be so easily identified as stolen property, and which therefore were usually thrown away by the thieves. Wild’s house on the Old Bailey – next to the Sessions House and Newgate Prison – became a ‘lost-property office’ visited by respectable people seeking assistance in finding their stolen valuables. He even employed a clerk, who entered the details in an account book, and he advertised his services in the newspapers. The underworld became disciplined. Wild began dressing as a gentleman, and was surrounded by bodyguards, like a gangland leader of the 1920s.

            Wild simultaneously became very successful as a thief-taker. In January 1716 he broke up a small circle of highway robbers, James Goodman and John Stephens of Stepney, and other accomplices, who were hanged together with Joseph Hutton, whose name was on Wild’s list. In March 1716 there was a notorious incident in which a widow, Mrs Knapp, was murdered by five footpads near Sadler’s Wells, and another man was attacked in his coach by the same gang. Wild gathered information about the whole gang, and apprehended them over the next few months. Three of them were hanged for robbery and murder in June, and a fourth man a couple of months afterwards. The fifth man turned King’s evidence against twenty-two house-breakers, footpads and receivers of stolen goods. Wild shared in the rewards for all these convictions. Wild gained a good reputation for his handling of this affair.

            Wild gradually forced other criminals to join his confederacy. For example, when the notorious housebreaker Arnold Powel declined to join him, Wild intimated that he had the means to have him topped. Powel dared Wild to do his worst, and Wild investigated the robberies in which he was involved and successfully brought an indictment against him. Powel repented, and agreed to join Wild if he could arrange his delivery. Wild therefore arranged for the time of Powel’s trial to be unexpectedly moved to a different date, so that when it came up the witnesses were not to be found, and Powel had to be acquitted. However, the prosecutor found out about this trick; Wild was rebuked by the Court, and Powel was retried, convicted, and hanged in March 1717.

            The law against ‘receiving’ stolen goods – that is buying goods known to be stolen had considerably reduced the ease with which thieves could dispose of their booty to the fencing culls and flash pawn-brokers. Wild circumvented this law by dealing direct with the persons whose goods had been stolen and who offered a reward for their recovery. Whereas Hitchin had dealt with fences, Wild cut out fences altogether. Wild by himself now occupied the space formerly occupied by all the middlemen receiving stolen goods, and as sole broker he could offer more money to thieves than the fences could. He was henceforth informed by the thieves themselves immediately when any robbery was committed and told from whom the goods had been stolen. The goods were put in safe keeping until the owners offered a reward in the newspapers and were then contacted. Many people, including the aristocracy, simply went direct to Wild’s office the moment after they were robbed. Wild accepted a gratuity from them and promised to investigate, though he already knew all the details of the theft and may even have arranged it himself. Wild maintained a good reputation, by directly receiving no more than a single guinea for his ‘advice’, and then later receiving his share of the reward paid by the owner to whoever returned them (usually an anonymous porter in Wild’s employ). The goods themselves never passed through his hands, at least not officially, nor did the advertised reward appear to go direct to him. Wild thus benefited both by the owner’s preference to pay a reward for the return of goods rather than pay to mount a prosecution whose outcome was uncertain, and by the Government’s rewards for information leading to the conviction of felons if a thief did not comply with Wild’s system.

            However, Wild’s activities became notorious for encouraging the trade in stolen goods, and for actually promoting a rise in theft. So in 1718 an Act was passed which made it a felony for anyone to take a reward under pretence of restoring stolen goods unless they prosecuted the felons who stole them. But Wild contrived various ways to evade this clause, mainly by never being seen to receive money directly. The victim would leave the reward in a certain place, and told to go to a certain place where he or she would find their goods; no persons connected to either the reward or the goods could be traced. If the robber was traced, generally it was Wild himself who gave the information and received the reward.

            Wild increased his thief-taking in order to make up for lost revenue from accepting rewards for returning stolen goods. In 1721 he captured seven members of the Spiggot gang, and in 1722 he captured twenty-two members of the Carrick gang, earning himself 900 in rewards or bounty money. By this stage Wild was in effect the Godfather of the criminal underworld. Now and then he would arrange for his own people to be hanged so as to conceal his practices. The character in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) who is based on Wild is named Mr Peachum, from Wild’s practice of persuading felons to impeach one another so that he could collect the reward for their conviction. The play opens with Peachum sitting at his account books, determining if it will be worth more to him to arrange for an individual in his Register of Thieves to be hanged or reprieved. Although Wild began the practice, throughout the century thief-takers kept in their employment convicted thieves who had returned from transportation, and thieves who had received a pardon, because they could be easily controlled by threatening to turn them in, and very often the 40 reward for apprehending such thieves was a useful source of income. Such thieves were kept ‘as men do pigs and poultry, for the sake of what they shall get by their death’ (The Complete Modern London Spy, 1781).

            One of the thieves Wild apprehended during this period was a former associate Joseph Blake, nicknamed Blueskin. Wild was eager to capture Jack Sheppard, who became famous through his escapes from Newgate gaol (to be discussed in Chapter 17), and who refused to join Wild’s system. But Blueskin was Sheppard’s accomplice in a robbery, so it was necessary to apprehend him as well. On a previous occasion Wild had given Blueskin 3s. 6d. a week while he was in the Wood Street Compter after a robbery conviction, and finally helped to get him released. But on this occasion Wild said he could not get the death sentence commuted to transportation. Wild paid the gaol expenses of Blueskin’s last weeks in Newgate, but told Blueskin ‘I believe you must die. – I’ll send you a good book or two, and provide you a coffin, and you shall not be anatomized.’ Wild’s cynicism easily matched anything in The Beggar’s Opera, but was more brutal. When Wild went to the Old Bailey Sessions House to give evidence at the arraignment of Blueskin, he met Blueskin in the courtyard and offered him a drink from his flask. Blueskin asked Wild to put in a good word for him, but Wild callously laughed at him and said ‘I can’t do that. You’re a dead man and will be tucked up very speedily.’ Illustration showing Blueskin's throat being cut outside Newgate court Infuriated, Blueskin drew a small clasp knife and slit Wild’s throat from one ear across to the windpipe. Two surgeons were present and saved Wild from death, though he languished from the wound for a long time. Blueskin at his own trial said ‘he should be hang’d with pleasure if Wild did but die before him.’ Blueskin was hanged in November 1724, on evidence from William Field, who had formerly been Charles Hitchin’s principal boy, and who now was in the employ of Jonathan Wild.

            Wild’s business continued to thrive, so much so that for the two years before he was arrested, he had become careless and began to take stolen goods into his own custody. He thus became a fence outright, and began to export stolen goods that were not returned for rewards. He accordingly set up a warehouse and purchased a sloop, put under the command of Captain Roger Johnson, in which gold watches, rings, snuff-boxes, silver plate, and sometimes bank-notes stolen from the Mail were carried over to Holland and Flanders. His chief trading port was Ostend, from whence he travelled up to Bruges, Ghent, or Brussels to dispose of the goods. Other goods were then loaded in Holland and unloaded in England at night-time, without paying Customs. This business went on for about two years, until an argument took place between Johnson and his Mate, who revealed that Johnson was running uncustomed goods, whereupon the ship was ‘exchequered’. An argument also arose between Johnson and Tom Edwards, nicknamed Country Jack, who kept a notorious flash case or house for receiving stolen goods at The Goat in Long Lane (he had been twice in Newgate, and his wife’s previous husband had been hanged). Edwards charged Johnson with a felony and carried him into a tavern, but Johnson notified Wild, who sent a constable with a warrant for Edwards’ arrest, and had him thrown into the Marshalsea. But Edwards gave bail, and again tried to have Johnson arrested, on which occasion Wild and his lieutenant Quilt Arnold helped Johnson escape. He was recaptured, and eventually hanged in 1725. Wild and Arnold had to hide out for three weeks, but they were arrested by the High Constable of Holborn on 15 February 1725 when they came out of hiding, and this led to a trial which brought an end to Wild’s career.

            Wild was indicted for assisting a highwaymen make his escape, and while he lay in gaol a warrant was drawn up detailing his numerous other crimes, under eleven counts:

  1. That for many years past he had been a confederate with great numbers of highwaymen, pick-pockets, house-breakers, shop-lifters, and other thieves.
  2. That he had form’d a kind of Corporation of Thieves, of which he was the Head or Director, and that notwithstanding his pretended services in detecting and prosecuting offenders, he procured such only to be hang’d as conceal’d their booty, or refused to share it with him.
  3. That he had divided the town and country into so many districts and appointed distinct gangs for each, who regularly accounted with him for their robberies. That he had also a particular set to steal at churches in time of divine service: And likewise other moving detachments to attend at Court, on Birth-days, balls, &c. and at both Houses of Parliament, Circuits, and country-fairs.
  4. That the persons employ’d by him were for the most part felons convict, who had returned from transportation before the time, for which they were transported, was expired; and that he made choice of them to be his agents, because they could not be legal evidences against him, and because he had it in his power to take from them what part of the stolen goods he thought fit, and otherwise use them ill, or hang them as he pleas’d.
  5. That he had from time to time supplied such convicted felons with money and cloaths, and lodged them in his own house, the better to conceal them; particularly some, against whom there are now informations for counterfeiting and diminishing broad pieces and Guineas.
  6. That he had not only been a receiver of stolen goods, as well as of writings of all kinds, for near 15 years past, but had frequently been a confederate, and robb’d along with the above-mention’d convicted felons.
  7. That, in order to carry on these vile practices, to gain some credit with the ignorant multitude, he usually carried a short silver staff, as a badge of authority from the Government, which he used to produce, when he himself was concerned in robbing.
  8. That he had, under his care and direction, several warehouses for receiving and concealing stolen goods; and also a ship for carrying off jewels, watches, and other valuable goods, to Holland, where he had a superannuated thief for his factor.
  9. That he kept in pay several artists to make alterations, and transform watches, seals, snuff-boxes, rings, and other valuable things, that they might not be known, several of which he used to present to such persons as he thought might be of service to him.
  10. That he seldom or never helped the owners to the notes and papers they had lost, unless he found them able exactly to specify and describe them, and then often insisted on more than half the value.
  11. And lastly, it appears that he has often sold human blood, by procuring false evidence to swear persons into facts they were not guilty of; sometimes to prevent them from being evidences against himself, and at other times for the sake of the great reward given by the Government.

Two men who resided with Wild turned evidence against him for these indictments. On the morning before the trial, Wild handed over a document in which he listed the names of fourteen robbers, housebreakers and highwaymen who had been discovered, apprehended and convicted by his agency, plus the names of nineteen people convicted by his agency for returning from transportation, of whom ten had been sentenced to death. He felt that it was ‘too tedious to be inserted here’ the names of the many women shoplifters and pickpockets whom he had also helped to convict, even though these were also capital offences. Later he provided a summary list of 76 criminals who had been prosecuted by his efforts, though common report had it that Wild was responsible for the execution of no fewer than 120 felons.

            Ironically Wild was convicted for a crime that took place while he was imprisoned on the preceding charges. Wild was accused of having directed the theft of 50 yards of lace from the shop of Catherine Stetham near Holborn Bridge, and then arranging to have these goods ‘recovered’ and returned to her for a reward of 10 Guineas. He had stood guard outside the shop while two assistants went in and stole the lace, but he was acquitted of theft on a technicality. However, he had foolishly accepted the reward as he lay in prison, for which he was convicted for taking money on pretence of restoring stolen goods, and sentenced to death. As a capital conviction was obtained on this relatively minor indictment, and was all that was necessary to sentence him to death, the original eleven indictments were not pursued.

            While in prison, Wild told the Ordinary that he did not merit this punishment, for during the past twelve years ‘his business was doing good in recovering lost goods; that as he had regained things of great value for Dukes, Earls, and Lords, he thought he deserved well. – That he had apprehended the greatest and most pernicious robbers the nation was ever molested by, – and had wounds and scars still remaining in his head, body, and legs.’ He appeared to be very much disordered in his behaviour, perhaps due to two fractures of his skull which had been repaired by silver plates. He declined to go to Chapel, which was at the top of the prison, claiming that he was lame and unable to support himself on his legs. He said he did not like people whispering about him and pointing to him in Chapel, and that he could not attend to his prayers when so vast a crowd appeared to look at him. The evening before he was hanged, ‘he enquir’d how the noble Greeks and famous Romans, who slew themselves, came to be so glorious in history, if self-murder be a crime?’ About 2 o’clock in the morning he tried to kill himself by drinking a large dose of liquid laudanum. But it was on an empty stomach, because he had been fasting for four days, and most of it was vomited up, leaving him delirious rather than dead.

Illustration of Jonathan Wild being drawn to his hanging in a cart

            Many people mistakenly thought he was drunk when he was drawn in a cart to his execution on 24 May 1725, because he appeared to be too stupefied to know what was happening. Mounted on a horse riding behind the cart, directing the event, was the Under City Marshall – Charles Hitchin. The scene at Tyburn was one of tumult and clamour. Wild was reviled by the crowd partly because he had been responsible for the hanging of their hero Jack Sheppard. According to the Ordinary, ‘It is not easy to express with what roughness he was treated by the mob, not only as he went to the Tree, but even when he was at it. Instead of those signs of pity they generally shew when common criminals are going to execution, they reviled and cursed him, and pelted him with stones and dirt continually.’ The Executioner told Wild that he could take what time he liked to prepare for his death, so Wild sat in the cart waiting hopefully for a reprieve (he had written to several noblemen). As the minutes passed, the crowd became uneasy, then angry, and began shouting at the Executioner and threatening to tear him to pieces if he did not tie Wild up and proceed with the hanging, which he finally did. Wild’s body was buried in St Pancras Churchyard, but was removed a few days later, probably by the surgeons. His empty coffin was found in Fig Lane. More than a century later, in 1847, his skeleton, believed to be genuine, was presented by a private collector to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it is still on display in its museum.

            Wild’s 19-year-old son came up from Wolverhampton for the execution, but behaved so violently that he had to be confined during the hanging. Shortly afterwards he sold himself as a servant to the plantations abroad. Three of the five women with whom Wild had lived in sequence, sometimes for four or five years at a time, were alive at the time of his hanging, as was his first and only genuine wife. In October 1726 Wild’s widow married the Turnkey of the Poultry Compter. William Field, who hanged several men by turning King’s evidence against them, tried to take over as Wild’s successor, as Thief-Taker in Ordinary, but he lacked Wild’s skills and failed to advance in his profession. He was transported to Maryland in 1729.


Return to The Georgian Underworld