The power of the Georgian underclass

Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker reveal how the cunning, courage and sheer resourcefulness of some of 18th‑century London's poorest residents forced the authorities to overhaul the justice and welfare systems...

An illustration of the Georgian underclass

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Life was changing in 18th-century England – and the changes would be dramatic for criminals and the poor. Georgian London saw the evolution of the modern adversarial trial, crime reporting, a newly professional police, the reformatory prison and the workhouse. A new, and newly extensive, form of governance was being created.

Yet these developments were not primarily the result of high-flown theories or abstract arguments but, rather, emerged in response to the clamouring voices of the poor and the criminal. The pace of reform was forced by violent gangs and serial escapers, insistent paupers and aggressive beggars, manipulative defendants and prison escapees. It was action ‘from below’ – the strategies and pleas of working people – that most fully explains how London, the modern world’s first million-person city, came to invent new forms of modern social policy. Plebeian Londoners may not have liked the new brand of policing, nor the punishment that resulted from it, but they forced the pace of change and redefined the limits of the possible.

The forces that drove changes in practice are clearly discernible in the lives of paupers and criminals, acting individually and collectively. Paupers used their limited written and oral skills to cajole and embarrass parish elites, so creating a more comprehensive welfare system, while the courtroom strategies of street robbers laid the foundations for the rise of the adversarial trial. Criminals who illustrated the failure of justice through constant escapes and charismatic leadership forced the state to build a new world of prisons but also gave hope to some in the wider working class.

In the following pages you’ll meet five characters whose crimes or reaction to poverty helped influence changes in social policy.

The cocky criminal

In the 1720s a wave of gang robberies and prison breaks alarmed London. At the centre of this emerging culture of criminal defiance was leading gang member James Dalton. Having reportedly seen his father hang when he was five, Dalton himself appeared in at least seven Old Bailey trials, four as a defendant and three as a prosecution witness (turning king’s evidence).

Dalton’s actions brought the workings of the judicial system into sharp focus. After an early conviction he was sentenced to transportation, but joined a mutiny off the Spanish coast. Recaptured, he plotted another escape attempt that was foiled only when a file was discovered hidden in a gingerbread cake in his possession.

Later, when charged with attempted robbery and told he would be fined the substantial sum of 40 marks (about £26), he replied: “Give me a receipt for it, and I’ll pay you now.”

Dalton and others, notably the jail-breaker Jack Sheppard, became widely notorious but popular with the poor. Having seen The Beggar’s Opera (1728), featuring a character based partly on Sheppard, Dalton said that he and his gang thought “the whole seem’d to be an encouragement of their profession”. Dalton himself is referenced in William Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress (1733), in which his wig box is seen on top of a prostitute’s bed. He was executed at Tyburn in 1730, aged 30.

Dalton helped to create a rebellious plebeian culture that prompted the government to offer enhanced rewards for the conviction of street robbers. But this led to new forms of corruption, prompting Old Bailey judges in 1732 to make the epochal decision to admit defence lawyers into the courtroom in felony cases – the first step in the creation of the modern adversarial trial.

The letter-writing pauper

Catherine Jones was sick, disabled and semi-literate. That didn’t stop her, and thousands of others, from writing ‘pauper letters’, by which those living outside their parish of settlement (their ‘home’ district) sought to extract financial support from that parish.

Few such letters survive, but Jones’s are found in a cache from the City of London parish of St Dionis Backchurch. In the mid-18th century she was living 200 miles from London, on the Welsh border; she wrote to the St Dionis churchwardens outlining her needs, and threatening to return home (thereby costing the parish even more) if they did not send her money.

In 1758 she wrote: “Their is none knows what paines I do baer in my limes [limbs] and I can not stire sum time for the ruptor, but I do keep my contyenas [countenance] as well as I can or eles I should be sent to my parch [parish] before now. And if… I must go the ofissers of this parch… they will hunt me from heer… Then I must come to London. But I do raether have to gunyes [two guineas] heir.”

These pleas were successful: for a decade Catherine received substantial sums. Such letters set precedents for the level of support a pauper could expect from their parish, driving up the cost of poor relief. They contributed to the pressure for change, culminating in the New Poor Law of 1834 mandating the national operation of a poor relief system along with new workhouses.

The bloodthirsty gang

Gangs in the 18th century were quite different from their modern equivalents. They generally comprised threatening networks of thieves, loosely organised and supported by friends and neighbours. The most frightening was named for its base on the ill-policed boundary between the City of London and its suburbs: the Black Boy Alley Gang.

In 1744 this “profligate sett of audacious bloodthirsty, desperate, and harden’d villains” carried out a series of street robberies and resisted efforts to arrest them, leading to a moral panic. When one was seized, the others freed him “in defiance of justice”. In response, the authorities increased rewards, encouraging thief-takers to assume the job of arresting and prosecuting members of the gang; in December 1744 alone, £1,400 was paid out. One thief-taker claimed that “the very sanction of Black-boy-alley will hang an hundred of them with very little evidence, no matter who swears”.

Faced with the danger of being convicted and hanged on dubious evidence, gang members increasingly recruited the newly permitted defence lawyers. These lawyers challenged cases prosecuted for profit by thief-takers or on the basis of accomplice evidence, leading to a high acquittal rate and the survival of several gang members of the Black Boy Alley Gang.

The balance of power in criminal trials was thus altered, and the authorities were forced to develop new methods of combatting street crime. A few years later, in the late 1740s, Henry Fielding created the Bow Street Runners, often seen as the forerunners of the Metropolitan Police.

The unruly prisoner

In the 1780s London’s authorities had a problem: there were few reliable ways of disposing of criminals. The American War of Independence had curtailed transportation, while several London prisons were destroyed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.

This suited Patrick Madan, a criminal celebrity who repeatedly eluded justice. On one occasion at Tyburn, convicted of a brutal robbery and with a noose around his neck, a man in the crowd claimed that he, not Madan, was the guilty party, so Madan was reprieved. (It seems that the man may have been a member of Madan’s gang willing to put his neck on the line for his leader.)

Madan once escaped from prison by donning women’s clothes, and was freed from a local police station by a mob who tore down the house and carried him to freedom.

Madan was as dangerous in prison as he was at liberty. In Newgate in the late 1770s he took control of the system of ‘garnish’ (payments from prisoners for basic amenities), and ran a school for criminals. In 1777 he led a prison riot in which “all the windows were broke”.
The subject of two biographies, Madan railed against authority. Finally, as part of a disastrous attempt to find a new home for convicts, he was transported to Africa, where he probably died. His example drove home the need for both a new prison colony and a new kind of prison.

The cotton-mill labourer

Harriet Russell was born in the St Clement Danes workhouse just before Christmas 1779, and her childhood was spent in the 18th-century equivalent of social care. The parish separated her from her mother soon after birth and sent her to a nurse in Low Leyton (near Hackney) for the next 10 years.

Harriet was healthy and smart – she learned to read and say her prayers before the age of four – but she became a victim of one of the most painful policies of 18th-century poor relief. At the age of 10 she was one of the thousands of parish children shipped to Yorkshire and Lancashire as cheap apprenticed labour for the cotton mills in the early years of the industrial revolution.

In early March 1790 Harriet was put in the back of a cart with a new set of clothes, a hat and two aprons, and taken hundreds of miles from any familiar face to Joseph Wells’s cotton factory in Sheffield, where she was to work at his bidding for the next seven years.

But despite the cruel treatment she received, Harriet was not broken. On completion of her term she headed ‘home’, and in early September 1797 the London parish was confronted by “a girl by the name of Harriet Russell” and forced to listen. Despite being only 17 she prompted the all-male body of middle-class churchwardens and overseers to call a special meeting explicitly to hear her story.

While the policy of shipping off London’s unwanted children did not change immediately, her voice was added to a growing body of criticism that would eventually lead to new legislation and the abandonment of the policy.

With her peers, Harriet Russell helped to change the history of social policy by shaming the men who ran it.

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Tim Hitchcock is professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, and Robert Shoemaker is professor of 18th-century British history at the University of Sheffield.