The Unsolved Mystery of Elizabeth Canning

Today in Guildhall Library our Principal Librarian, Dr Peter Ross, gave the first in a series of lunch time talks we’re holding as part of English Tourism Week. This talk featured the unusual story of Elizabeth Canning, discussed in further depth below. If this piques your interest, we have another five talks over the next week, with topics covering the plague, Jack Sheppard, Shakespeare, Victorian ‘lad’s mags’ and Agnes Marshall’s ice creams. Further details are listed at the end of this post.

Amongst Guildhall Library’s more unusual holdings are some rare pamphlets in the remarkable collection of material relating to a genuine mid-eighteenth century crime mystery – the disappearance of Elizabeth Canning.

Canning

On 1 January 1753 Elizabeth Canning, a poorly educated maidservant, disappeared on her way home from visiting relatives and reappeared on 29 January 1753 at her mother’s house near St Mary Aldermanbury. According to her story, she had been abducted by two men in Moorfields, who dragged her to a house on the Hertford Road. There, an old woman solicited her to become a prostitute. When she refused, Canning was held prisoner for nearly a month, until she escaped through a window.

On 1 February a posse took Canning to Enfield, where, at the house of Mary Wells, Canning repeated her story, with notable inconsistencies. She picked a local Romany woman, a Miss Mary Squires as the one who had imprisoned her. Wells and Squires were arrested. The trial took place on 21 February 1753 at the Old Bailey.

Trial

Mary Squires said that she had been travelling in Dorset during Canning’s supposed imprisonment, and three witnesses supported her alibi. More witnesses had come to give evidence on her behalf, but the mob, incensed against the “Gypsy”, prevented them entering the courtroom. They were both found guilty and Wells was sentenced to branding on the thumb and six months in prison, whilst Squires was to be hanged.

Chief magistrate and Lord Mayor of London, Sir Crisp Gascoyne, however, was dissatisfied with the verdict. He opened his own enquiry, which resulted in several more witnesses supporting Squire’s alibi. Gascoyne appealed to the King who granted first a stay in execution and then a pardon in May of 1753. Canning was then indicted for perjury on 9 June 1753.

Portrait

The resulting press frenzy was extraordinary. The two camps were called the Canningites and Egyptians (for “Gypsy”). Henry Fielding wrote the pro-Canning A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning (Guildhall Library A 8.6 no. 5 in 10) and two of his enemies wrote replies. Allan Ramsay wrote A Letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of — Concerning the Affair of Elizabeth Canning (Guildhall Library Pam. 3226)  Gascoyne wrote An Address to the Liverymen of the City of London, from Sir Crisp Gascoyne (Guildhall Library Large pam. 580)  Gascoyne was physically attacked in his coach, and he received death threats.

Canning’s trial began at the Old Bailey on 29 April 1754 and there followed seven full days of evidence. She was eventually found guilty of corrupt and wilful perjury and sentenced to one month of imprisonment and seven years of transportation.

Illustration2

Canning was transported to Wethersfield, Connecticut where she eventually married John Treat, a great-nephew of a Governor of Connecticut and had five children. She died 1773 at the age of 38. During her later years in America, she never explained what had happened to her during her missing month.

John Trehern’s The Canning Enigma provides an exciting modern description of the real events, whilst Josephine Tey’s novel The Franchise Affair updates the story to a home counties town in the 1940s. Tey’s novel regularly appears in listings of the top 100 crime novels and was made into a film in 1951. 

Peter Ross, Principal Librarian

Tey


English Tourism Week talks at Guildhall Library
As part of English Tourism Week, Guildhall Library is holding a series of talks that take you beneath the surface of its collection and provide an insight into London through the ages. With a free mini-cupcake and the chance to win a great prize, what more could you ask for?
Each talk is free, requires no booking, and runs from 1-1.30pm

Monday 31st March 2014, The Bills of Mortality – Tissick, Tympany and Plague in 1665 
Each week in the 17th century, the Parish Clerks recorded the number of burials in the City and the causes of death. In doing so they have left us a remarkable and unrivalled record of disease.

Tuesday 1st April 2014, The Prison-Breaker triumphant – Newgate Prison 1724
Discover how, with his extraordinary escape from Newgate Prison on the night of 15 October 1724, Jack Sheppard, a 22-year-old burglar, became the most famous prison-breaker of all.

Wednesday 2nd April 2014, Shakespeare’s First Folio
The world would have lost 18 of Shakespeare’s plays had his friends not published the first collected edition in 1623. Discover the history of this remarkable book and find out why Guildhall Library’s copy is amongst the finest to survive.

Thursday 3rd April 2014, Buying under-the-counter ‘lads mags’ in Victorian London 
Our early Victorian ancestors may not have been as prim and proper as we imagine. Discover the contents of the soft-porn ‘lads mags’ they could buy in London’s Holywell and Wych streets.

Friday 4th April, 2014 Mrs Marshall: the queen of Victorian ice-cream 
Entrepreneur Agnes Marshall built up a highly successful kitchen equipment and cookery school business in late Victorian London. She specialised in creating extravagant ice-cream recipes and ice-cream machines that, today, influence the extraordinary creations of Heston Blumenthal.

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