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Scenes from the Chronicles of Grime

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Literature and tradition have united to throw a mantle of romance over the lives of some of the best known rogues of British history. Their doings have formed the subject of romances and dramas innumerable, but the mantle of romance is easy to remove.

For many hundreds of years the world believed that the right way to suppress crime was to punish the criminal severely. This principle was carried out, with little mercy, in England, as elsewhere. Prisons were literally places of torment; thefts to the value of even a few shillings were punished by death by hanging; in the days of our grandfathers, trivial offences - such as, for instance, in one case a girl scorching some linen she was ironing - were followed by transportation; debtors were imprisoned until they could meet or compound their debts and pay the cost of their confinement, if necessary for life. The very severity of the law defeated its own ends. The criminal faced such penalties if caught that he became in the eyes of the public a daring and gallant fellow, fit example for lads of spirit to follow. There was never so much crime in England as when the laws against crime were most cruel. The criminal was made a hero.

In the City of London, between Ludgate Hill and Newgate Street, stands the splendid building of the New Bailey, with loft}, dome and the outstanding figure of Justice overhead. This is the site of the most atrocious of all British prisons, Newgate. In the Middle Ages, Newgate stood the terror of all criminals, with its stocks and whipping post outside, and with its carts waiting for the sharp punishment of minor offenders. They were fastened to the cart's tail, led through the streets - to quote the law - " stripped naked from the middle upward and whipped till the body should be bloody." Young girls and old women, boys and old men suffered alike. There were stocks and pillories in many parts of London where offenders were exposed to public contempt, This punishment depended for its severity on the public mood. Some were treated as heroes and cheered by good-humoured mobs; others had better have been hanged. By the latter part of the seventeenth century the most barbaric forms of punishment - such as boiling to death - and the general use of torture had disappeared. But conditions were still bad enough.

Under ancient law, if a person would not plead he could not be tried. There was a corner in the Old Bailey called the Press Yard, and under it was the cellar where the punishment for refusing to plead was carried out. Here obstinate prisoners were pressed to death. Their treatment was exactly prescribed: "That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came to a low dungeon, into which no light can enter: that you be laid on your back on the bare floor with a cloth around your loins, but elsewhere naked: that then be set upon your body a weight as great as you can bear - and greater: that you have no sustenance save on the first day three morsels of the coarsest bread, on the second day three draughts of stagnant water from the pool nearest to the prison door, on the third day again three morsels of bread as before, and such bread and such water alternately, from day to day until you die." The last pressing to death in Newgate was in 1696, and the victim of this barbarity was Major Strangeways, who had murdered his brother-in-law.

Execution day was quite a London festival. The prisoners were each placed on an open cart, with his coffin in front of him. Often enough, while the chaplain rode along in his coach, some fiery evangelist would accompany the condemned man in his cart, urging him to genuine repentance.

There were different execution grounds around London, but in the end they came to two, Execution Dock, near the river, for pirates, and Tyburn for others.

The procession, accompanied by the sheriffs and their mounted guards, would travel up Holborn Hill, through Holborn Bars, High Holborn, Broad St. Giles and Oxford Street to Tyburn Road. There came a pause at the Angel, in St. Giles, where the miserable wretch was given his last drink.

There have been many disputes about the exact site of Tyburn. Park Lane was known, in the eight-teenth century, as Tyburn Lane, and the upper part of Oxford Street as Tyburn Road. The execution ground was close by where these two meet. Here vast crowds would assemble, sometimes numbering twenty thousand and more. Hogarth has immortalised the scene. The great aim of the prisoner was to show a defiant front, and for long he was given the opportunity to make a dying speech from the scaffold. Public executions continued at Tyburn until 1783. Then they were removed to the front of the Old Bailey, where they created such scenes and made such a scandal that in 1868 they ceased.

Near Newgate was the Fleet prison, where criminals and debtors were confined under the charge of the Warden of the Fleet. In Southwark were the King's Bench prison and Marshalsea, the home of debtors where Charles Dickens's father lived for a time. In each of these prisons the rule was the same. Those who paid well were treated well. A debtor first taken to the Fleet had to rent a room or part of a room. If he could not, then he was herded in a miserable den and crowded out in the corridors and yard all day. Those prisoners who took oath that they were not worth 5 and could not live without charity were given donations from begging boxes and allowed to stand at the gratings and beg. City men sent them spare victuals.

In the church of S. Paul, Covent Garden, there is said to have once been a stone marking the last resting-place of Claude Duval, in many ways the most famous of highwaymen. Duval was a French lacquey, who came to England in the service of a noble at the Restoration. For reasons unknown he took to the road, gathered some followers around him, and quickly acquired a reputation for daring and gallantry. Great ladies fell willing victims to his charms. He became the hero of many tales. Here is one.

He learned that a knight, travelling with his wife and a maid by coach, had 400 with him, and he and his band set out to catch them. When the husband saw five masked horsemen approach, he was much alarmed, but the lady, to show that she was not, drew a flageolet out of her pocket and started to play. Duval, taking the hint, also took a flageolet and played as he rode up to the coach side.

Duval became so notorious that he had to flee to France. Returning after a time, he was captured while drunk in "The Hole In the Wall," a public house in Chandos Street, Strand, committed to Newgate, and in due course executed at Tyburn, when twenty-seven years old. Great efforts were made by many ladies of high position to secure his pardon, but in vain. When his body was cut down it was carried in a mourning coach to the Tangier Tavern in St. Giles's, where it lay in state all night. But there is no trace of Duval's tomb to be found in S. Paul's Church to-day, and no mention of him in its books. All were perhaps destroyed when the old church was burned.

Dick Turpin, whose fame as a highwayman rivals that of Duval, was a young ruffian, the son of a small innkeeper at Hempstead in Essex. Here there long stood an oak where Turpin is once supposed to have found refuge when pursued. Apprenticed to a butcher in Whitechapel, he preferred crime and joined a group of smugglers and deer stealers known as the Essex gang. Under Turpin's guidance they developed a plan of attacking lonely farmhouses and torturing the inmates to make them reveal their wealth. On one occasion Turpin caught an old lady at home alone, and roasted her over her own kitchen fire until she told where her money was. The gang became so notorious that a reward of 100 was offered for its capture. The men were surprised in an' alehouse in Broadway, Westminster. Turpin escaped through a window and made a famous ride to freedom. His three companions were captured. One turned king's evidence and the other two members of the gang were hanged in chains.

Then Dick became a highwayman. One of the first men he held up proved to be another highwayman, King, who laughed to his face. "What," he cried, "dog eat dog. Come, come, brother Turpin, if you don't know me, I know you." The two joined forces, until once, when threatened with capture, Turpin accidentally shot King as he was coming to his rescue, and then fled, leaving his companion in the hands of justice. King, before he was hanged, put the authorities on Turpin's track. He, however, made away to Yorkshire, where, under his mother's name, he started as a horse dealer. Arrested on the charge of horse stealing, his real name was discovered, and he was hanged at York.

His fellow highwaymen did not think so much of Turpin as the world at large has since done. Once another famous highwayman, Gordon by name, proposed a bold plan for seizing the Government's money that was taken by road to Portsmouth, to pay the Fleet. Turpin's courage failed him, and he earned Gordon's undying contempt. "He is a coward and will die like a dog," he declared. Turpin was thirty-three years old when hanged, far older than most of his craft.

The redoubtable Jack Sheppard was a London apprentice who started his career of crime by stealing two silver teaspoons from a tavern, and who then stole a bale of cloth from his master and ran away. He had two girl friends, Poll Maggott and "Edge-worth Bess," and needed money for them. He was soon in prison, but for long no prison could hold him. He could work his hands through any manacles, and with a nail could force apart most chains. He skipped out of the St. Giles Round House. He cut through an iron double grille and bent an iron bar in the New Prison, climbing a wall 22 feet high with a companion on his back.

Jonathan Wild, the thief catcher, of whom more later, was now on his tracks, and thanks to him Jack was caught again, tried at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death. His girl friends brought him some files, and he made his way out of the condemned hold. Captured again on Finchley Common, he made one of the most wonderful escapes in all prison history. He had been taken to the strongest part of Newgate and chained by two heavy staples to the floor. While the turnkeys were absent he got free of his manacles, snapped his chains, wrenched an iron bar from a chimney and climbed up it. This brought him to the upper leads of the prison. He forced a way into the chapel, breaking down part of a stone wall to slip a great bolt, forced open three stout doors, and then emerged on the lower leads, only to discover that he could go no farther without something to lower himself to a house below. So he returned to his cell for his blanket, and then got free. It is hard to believe that some of the turnkeys had not been bribed to help his escape.

He was soon captured again, drunk in a tavern in Clare Market. The turnkeys now kept day and night guard over him and charged the public 33. 6d. a head to view him, until in due course he was hanged. Contemporary chronicles claim that 200,000 persons were present at his execution. He was buried in the old churchyard of S. Martin-in-the-Fields, after a riot to save his body from the surgeons, in which the military were called out. His body is now probably in Marylebone cemetery. Jack Sheppard's whole career of crime stretched over about fourteen months. He was a mere lad, twenty-two years old, and looking younger than his years. His offences would nowadays be considered sufficiently punished with at the most a few months' imprisonment.

The name of Jonathan Wild has been mentioned. He was the Moriarty of his age, and ran a double business. He organized thieves, planned their operations and bought their spoils, having a regular system of taking back stolen goods in return for handsome rewards. This side of his activities was so extensive that he had to extend his premises and open two branch establishments. His ostensible calling was that of thief catcher, in those days a profitable profession, handsome rewards being paid by the authorities, usually 40 a head for convictions. If any of Jonathan's thieves proved troublesome, he would hand them over to the authorities and have them hanged.

But at last the sheriffs became suspicious, and Jonathan was arrested with his chief assistant, on a charge of assisting a highwayman to escape. He pleaded the great services he had done the State, having in his time secured the conviction of thirty-five robbers, twenty-two housebreakers and ten returned convicts, all of whom were hanged. But this could not save him, and he was hanged.

They bred some rare criminals in those days. There was Seven-Stringed Jack, who became a traditional figure of terror throughout the land, and was supposed to be able to assume the visage of devil, baboon or bear at will. John Raun, the highwayman, was blamed and hanged, but people freely whispered that the real criminal was a famous nobleman.

A notorious woman criminal of older days was Elizabeth Brownrigg, wife of a house-painter. She sought to increase her income by taking in parish apprentices, receiving 5 premium from the authorities for each girl. She showed fiendish delight in flogging the girls, and one, Mary Clifford, was taken to the workhouse in a terrible state, where she died. Mrs. Brownrigg disappeared, but was soon captured and sentenced to death. This happened in 1767. Another notorious woman criminal was Catherine Hayes, who was burned alive at Tyburn in 1726 for the murder of her husband.

The work of John Howard and of Elizabeth Fry began a transformation in the whole outlook on criminal life. Prison reform, at first regarded as the amiable eccentricity of some benevolent individuals, began to be recognized as a national necessity. There were great difficulties in the way of cleansing the old gaols. Nobles who owned the privileges of the prisons and the wardens were loud in their outcry of the disturbance of their rights. But step by step the work went on. Big new prisons, planned to accomplish the reform of the criminal, were built outside London, especially the "model" gaol of Pentonville and a vast pentagon at Millbank - costing half a million - where the Tate Gallery now stands. In Pentonville, every prisoner was kept separate from the others. Even in the chapel each man had his little cubicle to himself, and at first the prisoners were masked, in order that they would not recognize one another.

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