Being A General and True History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Rogues, Cheats, Murderers and Rebels of Every Description; Together with Examinations of Historical True Crime Literature, Penny Dreadfuls, and other Sorts of Pernicious Trash; Set Forth to Public View for the Common Benefit of Mankind
All too often histories of crime focus upon what happened in the big cities such as London, Manchester, and New York. Part of the reason for this is that, as is especially the case with London, more records are available and many of them are digitised (see the Old Bailey Online website, for example). So, whenever I find a notorious story from near where I live in West Yorkshire, I feel that it is kind of my civic duty to bring it to people’s attention (even though having a criminal associated with your local area is not, I suppose, something to take particular pride in…).
The following case, which recounts a notorious murder committed by one John Terry from Wakefield, West Yorkshire comes from The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters, which was published in four volumes between 1804 and 1809. In their form, structure, and content the volumes resemble earlier eighteenth-century compendia of the lives of criminals such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734). Smith and Johnson’s earlier works focused solely upon the lives and crimes of the criminals, while accounts of the felons’ trials are almost non-existent in their works. The Criminal Recorder is different in this respect however, for it is written ‘by a Student of the Inner Temple’ and the majority of each of the accounts contained therein is devoted to the criminals’ trials (the Inner Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, and to become a barrister one still has to be a member of one of these Inns of Court).
We know nothing of John Terry’s early life apart from the fact, at the time of his being committed to trial at the York Assize Courts, he was listed as an apprentice from Wakefield. Terry, along with another apprentice named Joseph Heald, were tried and found guilty of the murder of a sixty-seven year old woman, Elizabeth Smith.
Elizabeth was a respectable woman who lived in Wakefield, and although relatively poor, she maintained herself in her humble dwelling by keeping cows and selling the milk to local residents. However, two of her cows died and she found herself almost on the point of destitution. Being a pillar of the local community, however, her neighbour granted her some monetary assistance, and her son who lived in Leeds also gave her eighteenth guineas with which to purchase more livestock. The whole neighbourhood was happy for her, and the following day she resolved to go to Leeds and purchase two more cows.
At night, however, Terry and Heald met together and resolved to break into Elizabeth’s house and steal the eighteenth guineas. While she was sleeping, the pair broke into her dwelling and, although Terry only ever wanted the money, Heald became inexplicably enraged and began beating the sleeping Elizabeth upon the head, and then took a razor and cut her throat.
The pair got the money and made a quick escape. They were arrested soon afterwards by two of the town’s constables, T. Shaw and S. Linley. Terry instantly confessed to everything, although Heald was adamant that he was not present at the burglary. The judge and the jury did not believe Heald’s tale of innocence, and both men were found Guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged on 21 March 1803.
On the evening before the execution, as the gaol Ordinary was administering the sacrament to Terry, the latter admitted that he had indeed been lying at his confession, and that Heald was never with him, and that if they did hang Heald, then they would be hanging an innocent man. Terry said that he only accused Heald of being with him in the hope that he might get a lesser sentence or even, having become an informant, a full pardon. When he realised that he was not going to get away with the murder he felt it his Christian duty to admit to his lies.
The Judge was immediately asked to review the case, although he recommended that the execution of both men should still go ahead because the circumstantial evidence against Heald was strong.
The execution of both men went ahead. But just before their execution, Terry implored the officials and the public spectators present not to hang Heald. But Heald was hanged in spite of these protestations. Did the town of Wakefield hang an innocent man based upon the lies of another? We will never know!
The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: J. Cundee, 1804-09), 4: 335-340.
In the course of my research for my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2018, I came across a now little-known novel written by a Mrs. O’Neill (I have been unable to find out her full name) entitled The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (1833). O’Neill’s text is the first time that the story of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 received its ‘big break’ in the historical novel. Now, during the nineteenth century, novelists would often appropriate the medieval past to comment upon contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), about which I have written a lot on this site, was written as a response to the parlous, divided state of England at the time. As I was reading The Bondman, I realised that in the novel there are echoes of the political agitation that occurred in the lead up to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.
During the early nineteenth century, by and large, neither the working nor the middle classes had the vote. The franchise was restricted to those who owned over 40 shillings of freehold property. Electoral constituencies were not equally sized, and many were not fit for purpose. Some constituencies, the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (which was a mere field in 1832), returned two MPs to Parliament. Yet new towns such as Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Westminster. The system needed changing, and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), reform-minded members of the middle and working classes came together to secure representation in Parliament. Mass meetings were held throughout the country, but it was only in 1832 that the Whigs passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property qualification to £10. This went some way to addressing the demands of the reformers, but it still excluded many members of the working classes from voting. From that point on, the middle classes, who had been allies with the lower classes previously, now abandoned all further actions towards reform (the working-class Chartist movement would be founded six years later).[i]
So how does The Bondman reflect the events of 1832?
Firstly, perhaps a précis of the plot is in order. The narrative revolves around the life of a serf named Stephen Holgrave, who lives on Baron Sudbury’s estate in the South of England. He is set free from bondage after having saved his master Sudbury’s life on campaign in the Hundred Years’ War. Now a free man, he goes off to marry his sweetheart. Yet he falls victim to the schemes of Thomas Calverley, the Baron’s sergeant-at-arms, who is secretly in love with Holgrave’s life. Accused by Calverley of poaching in the Royal forest, Holgrave must submit to becoming a bondman again. From that day forward he experiences a radical awakening. He begins to resent the upper classes, a resentment fuelled by the preaching of his brother-in-law, John Ball (a historical figure and one of the key men in the Revolt of 1381), as well as by the revolutionary ideas of the local village blacksmith, Wat Tyler. Soon the revolt breaks out, and Holgrave joins with Tyler, Ball, and Jack Straw.
Essentially, the novel is the story of the growth of a labouring class consciousness, and the language of class is prominent throughout the novel. Having resubmitted to bondage, Stephen asks himself,
Can it be that the lord of the castle and I are sons of the same heavenly father?[ii]
In one of his speeches given to a crowd of peasants, John Ball speaks of bondmen as being,
When the Poll Tax of 1381 is initiated by Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who also has a personal rivalry with John Ball), opposition to the tax creates discontent, nnot simply among the peasants, but amongst merchants, skilled workers, and professional people. What emerges in the novel is
This ‘coalition of the lower classes’ mirrors the alliance of the working and middle classes seen prior to the passage of the Reform Act. Reflecting the strikes and the political agitation seen in the lead up to the passage of the Act in 1832, O’Neill’s novel speaks of how there was,
In the novel, the rebels have a very specific set of demands which are in keeping with the historical rebels’ demands, such as the abolition of serfdom, the right to freely buy and sell in the marketplace, as well as a general pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. But in O’Neill’s novel, added on to this list of demands, is the general enfranchisement of serfs and freemen.[vi]
At the end of the novel, Tyler and Ball die, but Holgrave survives and must go back to serving his Lord. But the Baron of Sudbury soon realises, through twists and turns in the plot which are unnecessary to repeat here, that Holgrave was falsely accused of the crime. the Baron immediately restores Holgrave to freedom, and in a show of good faith, he releases all of his other serfs from bondage as well, because it is, in the Baron’s opinion, much better to be served by freemen. Of course, O’Neill points out that it is only some people in medieval England who get emancipated, while the rest carry on as before. Holgrave, instead of adhering to Tyler and Ball’s revolutionary principles throughout his life instead settles down to family life and thinks no more about his fellow bondmen in England. Such scenes mirror the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the working classes by the middle classes after 1832.
In addition, Kathryn Gleadle points out in Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (2009), the role of women and the events of 1832 are not well-researched.[vii] The novel is also interesting because it illustrates how one woman, at least, in an era when women could not vote, was engaging in politics (some wealthy women could vote in elections in some instances prior to 1832, but it was rare, and this right was taken away from them after the passage of the Act). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out any further information about Mrs. O’Neill. She was definitely an educated woman, for footnotes appear throughout the novel referencing primary sources such as Froissart’s Chronicles. Of what social class she was I do not know, but it is evident that her sympathies lay with the rebels of 1381, for she calls Wat Tyler ‘the Worthy’.
[i] See the following works on the Great Reform Act of 1832: Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (London: Random House, 2003); Eric J. Evans, The Great Reform Act of 1832 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1992).
[ii] Mrs. O’Neill, The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1833; repr. 1837), p. 139.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many criminals recorded in works such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714), and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), as well as his Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) were said to have begun their criminal careers as unruly, or idle apprentices. The notorious Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is said to have been apprenticed to a carpenter, but being of a wicked disposition fell out with his master, and began cohabiting with a prostitute, Edgeworth Bess, and thereafter commencing a criminal career.[i] Even when discussing Robin Hood, the authors cited above, in a complete break with the existing historical tradition, state that he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, but ‘being of a wicked, licentious inclination, he followed not his trade’.[ii] (Not a single Robin Hood text, from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, records the famous outlaw as having been a butcher, and eighteenth-century accounts are unusual in this respect).[iii] The figure of the idle apprentice received its most famous artistic representation in William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled Industry and Idleness (1747).
One of the reasons why the idea of the unruly apprentice became a worrying figure was because, by going against his master, the delinquent youth was effectively signalling his intention to revolt against, not only his employer, but also the state and divine providence, ‘the concept that invokes hierarchical orders which support eighteenth-century life from the arrangement of the Cosmos to the distribution of wealth among the social classes’.[iv] The noted critic, John Richetti, for example, argues that the idle, or the “revolted apprentice”, ‘embodied furtive and unnatural longings for disruptive revolt […striking out] against social and moral restraints, against any sort of control from an external source’.[v] Moreover, when a certain criminal is represented in literature as having shunned hard work in his youth and preferring to follow a life of crime, this trope allowed the reader to view the felon’s criminality as part of an enduring strain of wickedness in the boy’s moral character, which early signs were present when he was young.
There were several factors which could induce initially virtuous young apprentices to fall into a life of criminality. First among these was the apprentice masters who, it was reasoned by some writers at the time, often failed to act as a moral guide for the youngsters. Often it is the dissolute habits of masters themselves which were assumed to have an adverse effect upon the minds of impressionable youths. For example, The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters (1804-10), says that,
The evil habits of masters are in a great degree the means of corrupting apprentices. No sooner does an apprentice advance towards the last year of his time, than he thinks it incumbent on him to follow the example of his master by learning to smoke. This accomplishment acquired (according to his conception), he is a fit associate for those who frequent public houses.[vi]
Visiting public houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not, and still is not, a marker of potential criminality of course, but the same writer goes on to argue that, although the master may visit respectable public houses, the apprentice, in order to avoid meeting with the master on a night out, must necessarily visit those places to which he knows that his master will not venture, namely, places of ill-repute where the apprentice ‘meets with depraved company’.[vii]
It is through frequenting such places of ill-repute that the youth first becomes ‘ensnared’.[viii] A major factor in apprentices’ fall from grace is when they first become acquainted with prostitutes in these low public houses, as The Criminal Recorder writes:
Having arrived at the age of puberty, and meeting with profligate females in those haunts of idleness, his passions become inflamed. The force of evil example overpowers him. He too becomes depraved – Money must be procured to supply his wants which are generated by depravity. Aided by the facilities held out by old iron shops, he pilfers from his master to supply those wants, or associates himself with thieves, whose acquaintance he made in the progress of his seduction.[ix]
It will be recalled that this is how the criminal career of Jack Sheppard began, through meeting a prostitute, at which point in his biography Daniel Defoe exclaims:
Sometimes thieves and prostitutes could collaborate together in robbing people to supply their wants, through a system known as the ‘buttock and file’. The woman would entice a respectable passer-by into a dark alley with the prospect of sex. Then her male partner would emerge out of the shadows, usually deal a blow to the gentleman, and rob him.
Yet the idea of the unruly apprentice who shunned hard work and became a criminal was very much a metropolitan idea. Fewer accounts of criminals from outside London record their having been apprentices initially. Much of this was down to the nightlife temptations that were on offer in the capital, which, combined with apprentices’ youth, could be a recipe for moral disaster. As the fictional Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817), based upon an earlier play entitled The London Merchant (1731), records:
The juvenile mind is constitutionally sanguine; and the imagination wanders into wild and fanciful expectations, before its exuberances have been repressed by reason, and its dangerous heat tempered by experience. In the critical season of youth, before prudence and judgement have assumed the sceptre in the bosom, fancy is too apt to “riot in pleasure,” and to revel in visionary delights, the offspring of its own ardour, and which, unless seasonable correctives are applied to keep them in check, may ultimately lead to practical excesses of the most unprincipled nature and dangerous tendency.[xi]
If not constantly on his guard, the unsuspecting apprentice could find himself drawn into the criminal underworld. The account of Robert Crouch, a footpad, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, tells the story of how he was initially apprenticed to a butcher in Newgate Market,
But as soon as he was out of it he addicted himself to gaming, drinking, and whoring, and all the other vices which are so natural to abandoned young fellows in low life.[xii]
And it was women, gaming, drinking, and crime that would, it was supposed, eventually lead the apprentice to the gallows, just as happens to Hogarth’s Idle Prentice at the end of his story. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), references, references ‘Marybone and the Chocolate Houses’ as being the ‘undoing’ of the highwayman, Captain Macheath.[xiii]
Of course, this was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and when it came to discussions of the luxuries and vices of the town in the public sphere, there was inevitably some class-based hypocrisy at play. The poorer classes might become criminal through indulging their passions at womanising, drinking, and gaming, but the sons of rich aristocrats, or rakes, which did the same, were rarely condemned as criminal. There are further comparisons to be made between the rake and the idle apprentice, one of them being the fact that neither could hold down a job, although of course the sons of the aristocracy had inherited wealth to fall back on. The image of the aristocratic rake is a recurring one throughout the eighteenth century. For example, in issue two of Joseph Addison’s Spectator magazine, one of the members of the fictional coffeehouse club is Will honeycomb, a man who is
Very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.[xiv]
In his memoirs, William Hickey (1749-1830) records how he partook of the entertainment of the town, debauching one or two young maidens in the process.[xv] Generally seen as a bit of a cad, this type of man pursued the same pleasures of the town as the idle apprentice, but of course he was not condemned for it.
So what could be done to turn the unsuspecting eighteenth-century apprentice away from a life of crime, and inculcate respect for virtue, religion, and authority? One of the reasons that so many criminal accounts appeared in the eighteenth century is because, at a time of great public concern about the apparently ever-rising crime wave, they were intended as moralist texts. A person was supposed to read the account of the criminal and take lessons from his life. As Johnson in the preface to Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals states,
My intention in communicating to the public the lives of those who, for about a dozen years past have been victims to their own crimes, is to continue to posterity the good effects of such examples, and by a recital of their vices to warn those who become my readers from ever engaging in those paths which necessarily have so fatal an end.[xvi]
Other solutions proposed by the author of The Criminal Recorder include stopping all apprentices’ wages, and making the apprentices entirely dependent upon their masters for food, drink, and lodging. To do otherwise is to ensure that the apprentice falls into a life of crime.[xvii]
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution continued, the number of apprenticeships drastically declined. But instead of the unruly apprentice, public fears towards the emerging idea of the juvenile criminal. From the 1830s onwards, it would be figures such as the Artful Dodger and the Wild Boys of London, homeless pickpockets with no master, and eventually the hooligan from the late nineteenth century, that would be society’s cause for concern.
Header Image: Illustration of Jack Sheppard from The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10). Author’s Collection.
[i] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, edited by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), p. 4.
[ii] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 408.
[iii] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography’ Law, Crime and History 6: 2 (2016), pp. 54-70.
[iv] John Richetti, cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Late-Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 45.
I have just returned from a conference entitled ‘Reworking Walter Scott’, held at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where I gave a paper on ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ (a reworked and expanded version of an earlier blog post). Obviously there was no way I could have missed this one, given that Walter Scott (1772-1831) had such a profound and lasting influence upon the legend of Robin Hood, having authored the novel Ivanhoein 1819. On the way back, I decided to stop at Abbotsford, the Baronial hall that Scott had built in the early nineteenth century. While there, I learned how Walter Scott became best friends with a man who was originally caught poaching from his land. This man’s name was Tam Purdie (1767-1829).
In 1804, long before Abbotsford was built, while Scott was living in Ashestiel, a small village near the Scottish border, Thomas ‘Tam’ Purdie was caught poaching from Scott’s land. This was a serious offence during the eighteenth century, and in England (whose laws on this matter were practically the same as those in Scotland), there was no right to trial by jury, and sentencing was summary in front of the local magistrate. Summary justice was meted out, probably, because juries were often reluctant to convict offenders of poaching. For example, there was a case in the 1830s where,
A poacher was acquitted because though he had a gun, which had just been fired, and was holding a “warm pheasant”, there was no proof that he had actually fired the gun.
It was not unusual for juries to downgrade the charge, or look for ways to deliberately lessen the verdict, a practice that was known as ‘Pious Perjury’ (after all, especially in those cases which involved potentially warranted the death sentence, what decent person would want to be the among the ones to sentence a person to death?). Needless to say, for the wealthy landowners whose lands were being poached, in a time when the plaintiffs had to fund the prosecution of a felon themselves, having the case dealt with summarily by a magistrate would have had a better chance of them getting the verdict they desired: a guilty verdict for the defendant. Indeed, many of the magistrates would have been landowners and hunters as well, so they would have been sympathetic to those whose lands were being invaded by poachers. And there could be a heavy fine imposed by the magistrate if a person was caught poaching, amounting to £10 as well as three month’s imprisonment.
And so Purdie found himself in the dock at Selkirk Courtroom before Scott in his role as Sheriff (Scotland’s equivalent, in those days, of the English magistrate, who dealt with civil cases such as bankruptcies, probates, as well as the summary cases outlined above). One might imagine that Purdie would have received an unusually severe sentence, given the fact that the man he had stolen from was the man who was deciding what should be done with him.
Purdie stated that his reasons for poaching Scott’s land were the fact that his family were going hungry, and that, to quote Purdie, ‘work was scarce and game plentiful’, and that he had merely, ‘grinned a hare or twa to prevent them frae doing any mischief’.
What happened next demonstrates Scott’s good nature: he took pity on the man, and instead of sentencing him to a fine and a prison sentence, decided to employ Purdie on his land instead as his ‘Special Assistant’. Purdie brought his own family to live on Scott’s estate with him, In time, he became, not only Scott’s gamekeeper, but also his librarian, and most importantly, his best friend:
What a blessing there is in a man like Tam whom no familiarity can spoil, whom you may scold and praise and joke with.
The pair spent much leisure time together, and sometimes Scott preferred Tam’s company to that of some of the members of high society whom he entertained from time to time (by virtue of Scott having been the world’s first celebrity author).
When Tam died, at Scott’s home, Abbotsford, in 1829, he was much affected:
I have lost my old and faithful servant – my factotum – and am so much shocked that I really wish to be quit of the country and be safe in the town.
Scott had his old friend buried in Melrose Abbey, and the following inscription was laid upon Tam’s grave:
In Grateful Remembrance of the Faithful and Attached Services of Twenty-Two Years, and in Sorrow, for the Loss of a Humble but Sincere Friend, this Stone was erected by Sir Walter Scott, Bart. of Abbotsford.
Scott died just two years later of a stroke in the latter part of 1831, but I like to think that his friendship with this criminal has potential lessons for our own day: it asks us to consider whether punitive sanctions are always the appropriate course of action to take against those convicted of petty thefts when circumstances have driven them to commit crime.
 Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.128.