‘The Prince of Pick-Pockets’: George Barrington (1755-1804)

George Waldron, alias Barrington, was born into a poor family at Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland. Although destitute, his mother and father made sure to learn that he could read and write. Because of his rudimentary education, he attracted the attention of the local doctor, who privately tutored him in mathematics, geography, and grammar. The young George Barrington made great progress, and the local bishop paid for him to go to the grammar school at Dublin.[i]

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A “True” Likeness of George Barrington, Esq. From The Criminal Recorder, Vol. 1 (1804). Author’s Collection.

But from a young age, it seems, Barrington, always had a propensity to commit acts of violence. While at school, he stabbed one of his schoolmates with a pen-knife. The wound was not fatal, luckily for the other boy, and Barrington was flogged for the assault. He resented the punishment, and in May 1771, he stole a few pieces of gold from the school and absconded.

He set off on the Great North Road from Dublin until he came to Drogheda, where he stopped at inn. After having eaten a meal and gotten some rest at the inn, he got talking to a man named John Price, ‘an abandoned character’, according to Barrington’s biographer. Price was the manager of a company of travelling street performers. He invited Barrington to tour with them.

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Penny Dreadful Serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

He turned out to be a pretty good actor, and apparently distinguished himself in the lead role of a play entitled Venice Preserved. But the successes were not to last, and soon the entire company of players fell on hard times. Having noted his acting skills, Price asked Barrington if he would use his talents to become a gentleman pickpocket, ‘by affecting the airs and importance of a gentleman of fashion’.

It seems, however, that he was not a very good pickpocket. He first attempted an aristocrat at the races in Carlow, but he was caught. However, the good-natured nobleman said that if he returned his property nothing more would be said about the matter. Barrington wisely agreed.

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Penny Dreadful serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

Meantime, his former master, Mr. Price, had been arrested for forgery and was hanged. So Barrington decided it was best if he moved to England and tried his game there. He first travelled to Brighton where, in 1775, he ingratiated himself into polite society. During this time he robbed several of his high-born friends.

He then travelled to London where he became acquainted with a Mister Lowe, another pickpocket, and the two men became quite daring in their enterprises.

Barrington went to Court where the Queen’s birthday celebrations were being held. Dressed as a clergyman, and again ingratiating himself with all the nobility, managed to rob several pounds from various people, as well as a diamond. He then retired from the party without suspicion and sold his stolen goods to a Jewish fence.

Barrington next visited a Drury Lane theatre, and proceeded to play a game of cards with Count Orlow, the Russian ambassador. He robbed the Russian of a gold snuff box set with diamonds. But one of the count’s servants saw him and seized him. Hauled before the Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding, Barrington confessed all, whereupon he was sentenced. The Count declined to prosecute, however, and so the matter went away.

He soon returned to his old ‘profession’, however, and in the Spring of 1777, he was arrested and sent to the prison hulks for three years. Due to his good behaviour, he was released after only twelve months, and went straight back to thieving.

Only a few days after his release, he attended a sermon at St. Sepulchre’s Church, and attempted to rob a lady’s purse. But he was seen by Constable William Payne, and again taken before the magistrate. He was found guilty and probably would have been hanged had he not pleaded for mercy before the judge. The account of Barrington’s life in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09) records this purported speech, in which he blames his criminality on his poverty. Although given the many fictional confessions at the time, there is no way of knowing if Barrington ever actually said these words.

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Penny Dreadful serialisation of Barrington’s Life (1863). Author’s Collection.

The magistrate took his lengthy speech into consideration, and sentenced him to seven years’ transportation to Botany Bay (see my other post on transportee Charles Kinnaister). While there, he conducted himself in an admirable manner, but in the latter part of his life suffered from various mental health problems, and he died in 1804.

Barrington went on to enjoy a limited literary afterlife as the hero of a long-running serial in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar. There are various stories of him robbing corrupt officials and decadent aristocrats. As all true outlaws should, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He is named in these serials as ‘The Prince of the Pickpockets’.

Like all eighteenth-century criminals who enjoyed a brief resurgence in Victorian literature, however, he soon fades from cultural memory. It seems that no historical thief can compete with Robin Hood.


References

[i] Information for this article taken from the following books: The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: T. Hurst & D. Symonds, 1804-09), 1: 38-46; Camden Pelham, Esq. The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (London: T. Miles, 1887), pp. 363-369.

The Newgate Calendar

People in the eighteenth century believed that they were living in a crime-ridden society. In addition to Capt. Alexander Smith’s and Capt. Charles Johnson’s criminal biographies, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, a series of books were printed in London entitled The Newgate Calendar.

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A man being publically whipped in the Sessions House Yard. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

There is no single authoritative text of The Newgate Calendar as there have been many versions of works bearing the name since the eighteenth century, so a brief history is offered here. Newgate Calendars were named after the infamous London gaol, Newgate, which was first built in 1188, and subjected to numerous renovations and rebuilds in its history until its demolition in 1904.

There were various criminal ‘calendars’ compiled from the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as The Tyburn Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register (1705), and The Chronicle of Tyburn; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches (1720).

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The Execution of William Dodd. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

The first publication that bore the name of The Newgate Calendar appeared in 1774, entitled The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and published in five volumes. Five years later, there was The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, dedicated to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), the co-founder of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first dedicated law enforcement agency.

Another publication, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar appeared in 1795, whilst William Jackson’s The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Universal Register, appeared in 1818.

Like Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar contains biographies of the most notorious criminals. For its sources, the various versions often directly plagiarised contemporary criminal narratives, in particular the ‘Last Dying Speech’ broadsides which contained news of convicted felons. In the words of the 1784 edition, The Newgate Calendar comprises:

All the most material passages in the SESSIONS PAPERS, for a long series of years; together with the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Capital Convicts, and complete narratives of all the most remarkable trials. [1]

And some familiar faces appear in the pages of The Newgate Calendar such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1734), Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). The claim to provide ‘complete’ and ‘true’ accounts of all the trials of these offenders, however, is a little suspect. Despite the claims of the Proceedings (upon which, as we have seen, The Newgate Calendar was based), for instance, to provide a ‘fair, true and perfect narrative’ the publishers of these works had the final say in their content, and they had to be entertaining so they could be profitable. Hence ‘greater attention [was] paid to murders, robberies, and thefts from the person (involving titillating details of prostitutes’ interactions with their clients)’ in order to ‘make the Proceedings appeal to a wide audience,’ and thereby proving profitable.[2]

(For a discussion of how ‘true’ their accounts are, bear in mind that some of these authors thought that Sir John Flastaff was a real person…)

The accounts of each offender, like the broadsides and criminal biographies that they were taken from, were very formulaic in style. They begin with an account of the offender’s birth and parentage, and then describe his/her descent into a life of sin and depravity. Crime, if you have read some of the other posts on this site, in the eighteenth century was viewed as a sin. Criminals were not necessarily inherently wicked: they were people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, which is why a lot of criminals are portrayed sympathetically in the accounts (murderers apart). [3] Hence in the case of the burglar Luke Cannon, it was ‘an early attachment to bad company, an early introduction to the paths of vice, [that] led with rapid success to his ruin’. [4]

At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes. [5] In a world that lacked a professional police force, one of the aims of the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar was (as well as providing sensational entertainment), to function as moralist texts. Readers were supposed to shun the examples of sin and vice and avoid making the same unhappy mistakes that had led the criminals to the gallows.

In fact, the title page of the 1795 edition contains a short piece of verse which is illustrative of its aims:

The crimes related here art great and true,
The subjects vary, and the work is new,
By reading, learn the ways of sin to shun,
Be timely taught, and you’ll not be undone. [6]

It might be supposed that The Newgate Calendar was cheap entertainment for eighteenth-century readers. However, this is not the case: firstly, all editions of The Newgate Calendar were multivolume sets, and accompanied with fine engravings. Although we do not know the prices for the individual editions of The Newgate Calendar, comparisons can be made with the prices of other works. Volume three of Alexander Smith’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1719) cost half a crown, an expensive amount in the 1700s. Similarly, Charles Johnson’s Highwaymen addressed ‘gentlemen’. We are talking about a literate and sophisticated audience who read these books.

There were further publications bearing the name of The Newgate Calendar during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A major early nineteenth-century version was edited by two layers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in 1824, and given the name The Newgate Calendar; Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages upon the Laws of England since the Eighteenth Century, with a revised edition appearing in 1826.

After Knapp and Baldwin’s editions followed G. Thompson’s Newgate Calendar of 1840, which at first glance appears to be a virtual plagiarism of Knapp and Baldwin’s version. The penny dreadful version, The New Newgate Calendar, was then published weekly between 1863 and 1865, and then Camden Pelham published, in two volumes The Chronicles of Crime; or, the New Newgate Calendar in 1887.

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Penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1864) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection].

The last large-scale five volume compilation of The Newgate Calendar was printed by the Navarre Society in 1927, whilst the Folio Society has more recently reprinted a selection of the most famous trials in two volumes, The Newgate Calendar, and The New Newgate Calendar (1951).

The legacy of The Newgate Calendar can be seen in any bookshop today. This publication, along with criminal biographies, initiated the whole ‘true crime’ book industry.

More importantly, however, criminal biographies and The Newgate Calendar paved the way for a form of literature that we still read today: the novel. Whereas fiction before the eighteenth century tended to focus upon the lives of aristocrats, such as Don Quixote (2 Vols. 1605, 1611), criminal biography primed readers for reading about ‘real life’. Hence it is no surprise that the first English novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), often made the protagonists of his novels, not Kings and nobles, but those from low life: prostitutes (Moll Flanders, 1722), pirates (Captain Singleton, 1720).

Thus although nobody today prints accounts of criminals in the same way as the publishers of The Newgate Calendar did, it has to be remembered that there would be no novels were it not for eighteenth-century criminal accounts.


References

[1] The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
[2] Robert Shoemaker ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’ Journal of British Studies 47: 3 (2008), 563.
[3] John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
[4] The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
[5] For a critical discussion of these accounts see Andrea Mckenzie Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007) and Lincoln B. Faller Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987).
[6] The New Newgate Calendar, 1.