In this three part blog Guildhall Assistant Librarian Isabelle Chevallot will explore the lives of Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin, two of the most celebrated thief-takers of the eighteenth century.
Part 1-Jonathan Wild, Thief-taker General
Jonathan Wild, baptised on the 6th of May 1683 in Wolverhampton, was one of Britain’s most notorious thief-takers of the eighteenth century. Before the establishment of a professional police force in the nineteenth century, thief-takers, private individuals hired to catch thieves, were instrumental in bringing criminals to justice. An Act of Parliament passed in 1697 which offered rewards for the capture and successful prosecution of highwaymen in order to persuade people to assist in law enforcement, had inadvertently created the occupation of thief-taker. The unfortunate side effect of this law was that apprehending criminals brought rich cash rewards and also a free pardon for any offences the thief-taker himself may have committed, encouraging corruption, blackmail and perjury.
Jonathan Wild, the self-styled “Thief-taker General of England and Ireland”, learned his ‘trade’ while serving a sentence in Wood Street Compter debtor’s prison. In prison, Wild became acquainted with prostitutes and petty criminals but also was in favour with the prison keepers and was granted the privilege of ‘the liberty of the gate’ which allowed him out at night to help arrest thieves and paid him for running errands. He was instructed in the ways of thievery by Mary Milliner, a well-known prostitute, and they moved in together when he was released from prison at the end of 1712. To begin with Wild made a living from the proceeds of prostitution and working as a bailiff’s assistant, and then expanded into racketeering and dealing in stolen goods. By 1713, Wild fell in with Charles Hitchin, Under-Marshal of the City, who had been suspended after being accused of receiving stolen goods and other shady practices. Hitchin, who was still empowered to act as a constable, enlisted Wild to help him keep control of his thieves while he was officially side-lined. Hitchin asked Wild to accompany him on his night walks where, on the pretext of reforming disorderly houses, Hitchin and Wild extorted protection money and trafficked in stolen goods. After Hitchin was reinstated to his office in April 1714 they fell out with each other and pursued separate careers in thief-taking.
By the December 1714, Wild had installed himself in Little Old Bailey where his house became an ‘Office of Intelligence for lost Goods’. Wild acted as a middleman who helped victims of theft recover their goods without ever keeping them in his possession. In this way he was able to avoid prosecution under the Act of 1706 which made receiving stolen property a felony. Wild put advertisements in newspapers calling for lost valuables to be brought to him at his house in the Old Bailey on the promise of rewards and no questions asked.
See below an engraving dating from 1813, this is a view of the house which was once the residence of Jonathan Wild in Old Bailey. This image can be found on COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections which is available online:
See below a couple of examples of Jonathan Wild’s advertisements from the 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection of newspapers which are available online at Guildhall Library, (please note remote access to this, and other historical newspaper archives including the Financial Times and the Times are available to City of London library members):
Whereas the house of John Bentham at the Three Spoons in Petty France was broken open on Thursday Night or Friday Morning last and there was taken from thence two Silver Tankards and 2 Stone Mugs tipt with Silver, markt B. I. D. If any of the Persons concerned in this Robbery will bring the said Goods’ to Mr Jonathan Wild at the Duke of Grafton’s Head in the Old Bailey, or discover the rest of the Persons concerned in this Fact, so that they may be brought to Justice, he or they shall have, besides his Pardon according to Act of Parliament, a Reward of Eight Pounds paid him by the said Jonathan Wild.
Post Man and the Historical Account (London, England), July 7, 1716 – July 10, 1716; Issue 11250. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.
Whereas the House of Aaron Arcos in St Mary Ax, was between Friday and Monday last broke open, out of which was taken 2 Salvers, 1 Coffee Pot, 1 Caudle Cup and Cover, 6 Forks, 5 Spoons, 1 set of Casters, and 1 Salt-seller, with other Goods; but the above mention’d Plate being on Monday last taken upon a Person by Jonathan Wild, these are to satisfie the Person or Persons that hath the remainder of the said Goods, that if they do not forthwith return them to the Person injured, or to Jonathan Wild at the Duke of Grafton’s Head in the Old Bailey, they may assure themselves that the said Wild will make it his Business to bring them to Justice.
Post Man and the Historical Account (London, England), August 14, 1716 – August 16, 1716; Issue 11250. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.
Many regarded Wild as performing a vital public service, especially by reuniting people with their lost valuables. To begin with Wild was shrewd enough to refuse any fees (although he received a cut from the thieves). Frequently, to better establish his reputation as an honest man, he would take steps to have the thieves arrested and prosecuted, particularly if they did not cooperate with him. In this way Wild was both a receiver and a thief-taker who earned not only public approbation for bringing thieves to justice, but also the rewards offered by parliament for the successful conviction of burglars and highwaymen.
Below is an engraving dating from around 1724 entitled The London Rairey Shows or Who’ll step into Ketch’s Theatre showing Newgate. Jack Sheppard, a celebrated criminal of the age, is imprisoned in the gate house at the door of which sits a figure, thought by some to be Jonathan Wild besieged by a crowd of people seeking the return of their stolen property. This engraving is available from COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections which is available online:
Below is the text of one of Jonathan Wild’s notices in the London Gazette which is available in hard copy at Guildhall Library as well as free to search online at:
London Gazette 28 November 1719 Issue: 5803 Page: 2
To be continued…