18th century

Edgworth Bess, a Prostitute (fl. 1723-24)

This is a blog post written for my friend, Dr. Kate Lister, and her ‘Whores of Yore’ project.

All illustrations featured in the article are from original nineteenth-century books in my personal collection.


The two thieves which feature most on this blog are, of course, Robin Hood (supp. fl. c.1190s), and Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Robin was not the only thief to have been enamoured with a woman, however, for Sheppard was also. The name of Sheppard’s woman was Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgworth Bess. What little we know of Bess’ life is gleaned from the contemporary criminal biographies about Sheppard. She was born, apparently, in the county of Middlesex in the early eighteenth century, was the reputed wife of a soldier but also a prostitute, having led ‘a wicked and debauched life’. [1] She was ‘a large masculine woman’, and of her personal character we are told (from second-hand, highly-embellished sources) that she was fond of strong drink, and often beat her lover Sheppard when she quarrelled with him. [2]

Sheppard Fortescue

Jack Sheppard in Newgate. From Lincoln Fortescue’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845) [Scanned Image – Personal Collection]

To contemporary journalists, she was a temptress: ideas about criminality in the eighteenth century were not related to social class; instead of a sociological explanation of crime, the Georgians held to a theological explanation. Anyone in the eighteenth century was capable of becoming a criminal because all men were sinners. [3] People instead were ‘tempted’ into a life of crime through small sins which multiplied and hardened their hearts against God. As Andrea McKenzie explains:

It was a commonplace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought (if by no means new or unique to the period) that sin was both addictive and progressive. Contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of ‘Farthings and Marbles’ grew great oaks of iniquity. [4]

Temptation could come from bad associations also, which is an echo of the Bible’s command at 1 Corinthians 15: 33 which says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. And it was usually through a prostitute that unsuspecting good youths could be led astray down a bad path. This was the case with Jack Sheppard, who was enticed by Edgworth Bess into a life of crime. Speaking of Sheppard, Charles Johnson says in Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) that:

The history of this unfortunate man affords another to the many examples of already given in this volume, that the company of profligate women have plunged men into scenes of dissipation and vice. [5]

In a biography attributed to Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) entitled The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), we are told how Sheppard was essentially a good lad when he first started his apprenticeship as a carpenter:

The lad proved an early proficient, had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business, and gave entire satisfaction to his master’s customers, and had the character of a very sober and orderly boy. [7]

In all of the accounts of Sheppard’s life, it is his fateful meeting with Edgworth Bess which leads him astray, however, and it is narrated by Defoe in a truly dramatic way:

Alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin! [8]

In his own confession, printed by John Appleby in 1721, Sheppard himself (or more likely the Ordinary of Newgate who attended to him before his execution) blames Bess for his misfortune:

I may justly lay the blame of my temporal, and (without God’s great mercies) my eternal ruin on Joseph Hind, a button-mould-maker, who formerly kept the Black Lyon alehouse in Drury Lane; the frequenting of this wicked house brought me acquainted with Elizabeth Lyon, and with a train of vices, that before I was altogether a stranger to. [9]

But how, exactly, was Bess responsible for bringing Jack to a life of crime?

Firstly, she convinced him that ‘they must cohabit together as man and wife’. [10] She also convinced Sheppard to steal items for her on multiple occasions. At first they were small items, but having introduced Sheppard to other thieves in the Georgian underworld such as Joseph Blueskin Blake, his robberies became greater in number (crime, remember, was ‘addictive and progressive).

FullSizeRender(17)

Jack Sheppard in the Georgian Underworld. From: Anon. Jack Sheppard, or, London in the Last Century (1847) [Scanned Image: Personal Collection].

The pair’s first brush with the law came when Sheppard and Bess stole a watch from a gentlemen as they were passing through Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). The hue and cry was raised and Sheppard was captured, but Bess got away. Sheppard was consequently detained in St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Bess went to visit him the next morning, she too was arrested, having been implicated in the robbery the day before.

Remarkably, however, Sheppard and Bess managed to escape. With a file, Sheppard sawed off his and Bess’ fetters, cut an iron bar out of the window, and descended 25 feet down the walls of the prison by fastening a blanket to the remaining iron bars and lowering himself and Bess down. [11]

As soon as he was out, Sheppard turned again to robbery:

Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit. [12]

Sheppard managed to escape from gaol a further four times, and once with Bess’ help, when she visited him in gaol and secretly gave him the tools with which to carry out his escape.

Sheppard was hanged on 16 November 1724. It is not known if she attended the execution of her lover, and history is silent in all particulars of Bess’ life after that. There was an Elizabeth Lyons who gave evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1740, [13] and then there is an Elizabeth Lyons listed as a defendant in a trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1742. [14] It is unknown, however, if these two Elizabeth Lyons are the same person as the prostitute with whom Jack Sheppard was enamoured.

Whatever the circumstances of her later life, Bess did enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’. This came in the next century with William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839). In this novel, she comes across as quite a mean-spirited character: changeable, indifferent to Jack’s fate. Ainsworth’s novel was plagiarised several times: in Lincoln Fortescue’s Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845); in the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847); and in The Real Life and Times of Jack Sheppard (c.1850). In addition to these novels, she also appears in entries on Jack Sheppard in the numerous reprints of The Newgate Calendar (1825) and Camden Pelham’s The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887). All of these publications presented Bess in the same way that Defoe and Ainsworth had done: a treacherous, wicked woman.

An altogether more positive portrayal of Bess came in the little-known movie Where’s Jack? (1969). However, while the movie is certainly an entertaining watch, the producers were liberal with the truth. Bess is not a sex worker in the movie, and far from being a temptress, she actually tries to steer Jack away from a life of crime.

As of yet there is no scholarly biography of Bess’ life, and likely there never will be due to the lack of evidence surrounding her life. This post has merely endeavoured to shed light on the life and actions of an historic sex worker.


References

[1] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 6.
[2] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), 182.
[3] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 54.
[4] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburns Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[5] Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 367.
[6] Perhaps not written by Daniel Defoe. See P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[7] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 5.
[8] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[9] Daniel Defoe, ‘A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 51.
[10] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[11] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 10.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 16 April 1740 (t17400416-37) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=t17400416-37 Accessed 12 March 2016].
[14] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 28 April 1742 (t17420428-14) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=t17420428-14 Accessed 12 March 2016].

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