As one wanders through our stacks, reflecting upon 276 years of maritime history, one can also stumble across some musical gems on a maritime theme. Guildhall Library holds the Lloyd’s Marine Collection, but sea shanties and sea songs are both represented in the library’s resources.

Sea songs were more often sung ashore, occasionally by sailors home from sea, but frequently by land lubbers. These songs often celebrated a great victory or the bravery of a particular Captain. A renowned writer of these sailor songs was Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). Some tell of the “delights” of a life at sea and one wonders what real sailors thought of those doubtful pleasures. Some sea songs were sung aboard ship e.g. – forecastle songs, reflecting where the singing took place. Hugill (in “Shanties and Sailor Songs”) tells us that some forecastle (fo’c’sle/forebitter) songs were popular with the Navy and Merchant Navy.

Shanties (said to be from the French chantez or chanter) were practical work songs, sung not for leisure and enjoyment, but during very heavy work indeed e.g. – the words and repetitions of halyard shanties helped the men to haul together. Shanties were sung in the Merchant rather than the British Navy where work was carried out without musical encouragement.

One of the library’s musical treasures is “Real Sailor Songs: Collected and Edited by John Ashton”. It was published by the Leadenhall Press in 1891. Both writer and publisher offer interesting areas for study. Historian and member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, John Ashton, was a ballad collector who drew on the broadsheets in his possession for his publications. He was aiming to bring the best of the texts he had collected to a wider public. In his preface, Ashton commented that at time of publication, sea songs were mostly sung in the music halls saying “I have omitted the whole of Dibdin’s, as they were songs for Sailors, but not necessarily Sailors’ Songs”.

His earlier publication “A Century of Ballads” (1887) included eighty broadsides from the seventeenth century. His “Modern Street Ballads” (1888) drew on later sources from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ashton made use of the woodcut illustrations from the original broadsides in his possession, but he rearranged them, attaching them to different songs, pointing out that in the original broad sheets the illustration often bore little relevance to the words beneath.

Ashton divided his volume of sailor songs into those about sea fights, the press-gang, disaster, life ashore, love, and finally a miscellaneous section.  Several of the songs recorded by Ashton have a London theme e.g. “Meg of Wapping” is about landlady who cheerfully gains and loses six husbands.  He also records “The Jolly Sailor” or “The Lady of Greenwich” in which a well to do lady falls in love with our hero sailor and showers adoration and wealth upon him.  This enables him to return from the sea for good.

Other London songs recorded are “The Greenwich Pensioner”, “Bonny Shadwell Dock” and “Ratcliffe Highway in 1842”….

“You jovial sailors, one and all,

When you in the port of London call,

Mind Ratcliffe Highway, and the damsels loose,

The William, the Bear, and the Paddy’s Goose”

There are several versions of these songs but a common tale is the unfortunate sailor who comes ashore at Wapping, wages in pocket, meets and gets drunk with a woman who then robs him.  The woman is sometimes described as a “flash packet” and the lyrics are filled with double entendre.  There are versions in which the sailor steals something from the woman in return.  Hugill thinks that songs celebrating the delights of being ashore are probably genuine sea songs.  He calls Ashton’s book “The first genuine attempt to bring together sailor come-all-yous, forebitters and ballads, in one book.”

Publisher of the Ashton book, The Leadenhall Press, was founded by Andrew White Tuer (1838–1900) of Field & Tuer. The firm began at the Minories in 1862, principally as a printing and stationery business, but Tuer drove the business toward a fuller range of printing techniques and the production of books. In 1868 Field and Tuer moved to 50 Leadenhall Street and by the 1880s they were printing a wide range of volumes including children’s books and limited editions. They had also developed a reputation for reproducing art works. They worked with artists such as Burne-Jones Joseph Crawhall, Randolph Caldecott, and Punch cartoonists Phil May, Charles Keene and Linley Sambourne. To find out more about the publications of the Leadenhall Press see “Field & Tuer, The Leadenhall Press: A Checklist” by Matthew McLennan Young.

The work of Charles Dibdin is also represented in the library’s collections. Dibdin was an actor, composer and writer from Southampton who moved to London. He became part of Garrick’s Drury Lane Company and composed for them. His only experience of life at sea came from his brother’s seafaring career and perhaps his own journey to France to escape his creditors. He wrote several popular sea songs including “Blow High, Blow Low” “‘Twas in the good ship Rover” and above all “Tom Bowling” (suggesting the bowline, an important sailor’s knot) from a character in Smollett’s “Roderick Random”. “Tom Bowling” is often played on the Last Night of the Proms. Dibdin’ s songs had a strong patriotic flavour and were taken up by the British Navy in time of war. During the Napoleonic Wars his version of “Britons Strike Home” (1803) led to his being awarded a government pension.

Guildhall Library holds a copy of “Songs, Naval and National, of the Late Charles Dibdin, a Collection Arranged by Thomas Dibdin with Sketches by George Cruikshank”. His work was much admired by Charles Dickens who kept a copy of this in his library.

In 1889 a memorial to Dibdin was erected by public subscription which has a verse from “Tom Bowling” inscribed upon it. This gives a flavour of Dibdin’s style and demonstrates the marked difference between the sailor songs collected by Ashton and those written by Dibdin:
“His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below, he did his duty;
But now he’s gone aloft.”
Other memorials to Dibdin are at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich and at Holyrood Church in Southampton.

Jeanie Smith, Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection

Find out more at Guildhall Library

JPT Bury  “A W Tuer and the Leadenhall Press” in Book Collector 36.2 (Summer 1987):225-243.

Roy Palmer (ed.) Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs reference (1979) reference 782.4216221

Stan Hugill Shanties and Sailors’ Songs  (1969) reference 782.421595

Stan Hugill Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961) reference 782.421595

Oxford Book of Sea Songs chosen and edited by Roy Palmer (1986) reference S782.421595

Matthew McLennan Young Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press (2010) reference SL 07.1

John Ashton Modern Street Ballads (1888) reference S 821:04

John Ashton Real Sailor Songs (1891) reference AN 11.4.2

T Dibdin Songs of the Late Charles Dibdin, with a Memoir (1864) reference B:D 544

Dibden’s Humourous Budget of Sea Songs. Vol. 1. [1790] reference pam 1275

John Braham  Braham’s Whim: or, Songster’s Delight : Comprising all the Modern Fashionable and Sea Songs now Singing at the Theatres of London (1812) reference pam 6170


Lady Jane Grey – Famous Trials at Guildhall

I’m Thomas; I am currently a placement student from the City of London academy working at Guildhall Library. This is a piece of research I did on some of the famous trials that have taken place at Guildhall.

The Guildhall is a key part of the modern day City of London and it also holds great historical and social importance. Essentially the town hall for the City of London it has also played host to many historic trials in its near thousand year history. Some of the more famous trials happened during the Tudor period and include the trial of Lady Jane Grey, Anne Askew and Thomas Cranmer.

Lady Jane Grey

The trial of Lady Jane Grey, otherwise known as the Nine Day Queen, was probably the most famous trial to take place at the Guildhall. As Edward VI was dying of consumption (today we know it as tuberculosis), he and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his most trusted advisor, wanted to keep the country Protestant and they knew when Edward died the throne would go to his half-sister Mary who was strongly catholic. As a result Edward named his cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as heir to the English throne. So when Edward died, Jane was named queen of England, Wales and Ireland on 10th July 1553. But, as her ‘nickname’ suggests, she was only Queen for nine days, not even long enough to be officially crowned.

Mary turned out to have a very large following of both Catholics and people who believed a Tudor queen should sit on the throne and not a Dudley. So nine days after Jane was named Queen by the council, Mary rode into the City of London and was in turn proclaimed Queen. Jane was arrested, along with her husband Lord Guildford Dudley and members of her council including Thomas Cranmer. On 13th November 1553 she and her co-conspirators where marched from the Tower of London where they were being held, to Guildhall to be tried by special commission. On her journey, Jane was stated to have worn all black whilst holding an open prayer book, which was meant to represent protestant piety.

Once at Guildhall, they were all accused of high treason, or more specifically Jane, Guildford and Cranmer were charged with taking possession of the tower and proclaiming Jane as Queen. Jane was also accused of ‘signing various writings’. The commission was led by Sir Thomas White, the then Lord Mayor of London and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard. They were all charged with high treason and sentenced to death. The men where to be executed by being hung, drawn and quartered, whilst Jane would be burnt at the stake or beheaded. They were then marched back to the tower.

Although, as time went on, it appeared that Mary would spare Jane as no date was announced for her execution. This was sadly not to last. On January 26th 1554 Thomas Wyatt as well as other nobles, including Jane’s father the Duke of Suffolk lead a rebellion against Mary over her very unpopular decision to marry Phillip II of Spain as well as over political and theological concerns. Whilst Jane was not directly involved she was becoming a ‘security risk’, and so, bowing to  pressure from her council Mary scheduled Jane’s and her husband’s execution for 12th February 1554 when she was beheaded at the Tower of London.

Lloyd’s Register Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection: The London Port Boxes and Project Undaunted

I work for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and would like to share some exciting findings from our current project with you all. The Heritage & Education Centre in London has a specialist marine science and engineering library and archive. In addition to our main holdings, we also have the Lloyd’s Register (LR) ship plan and survey report collection dating from 1834 to the 1960s. This is an extensive collection in excess of 65,000 ships with an estimated 1.25 million items.

We have embarked on an ambitious venture to make 10% of this collection more accessible to the public. The records themselves are globally significant and unique and until now have been little utilised. We have a great team in place with our cataloguers Miles, Sarah and Eloisa, as well as our conservator Nicole, all working under the guidance of our Curator of Maritime Heritage & Education, Barbara Jones. It is thanks to their hard work that we will have some of this great material to share with you at my talk on 5 June (free talk, book via:

To get a feel for what is there we will launch with a look at some first and famous ships – those of significant design, technological advance and historic importance, or just ones that everyone has heard of! Vessels like the Cutty Sark, the Queen Mary, Carpathia and Fullagar.

A product of ship classification, the archives were created during the survey of ships and there are a total of 1,756 reports in the first three London port boxes alone. I have conducted some initial analysis of these to show the potential of the collection, but there is far more that can be done with the material by researchers with a wide range of possibilities. For example, if someone is interested in researching a particular place or country of build, or if they want to see the destined voyages of vessels or totals for a time period then the data can be used for these ends. Equally if they are interested in individual ships then these can also be examined.

Key places of build are evident from analysis of the London port boxes such as Sunderland, London, Hull, Newcastle and Aberdeen. Interestingly many of these places also feature as Coats of Arms on the exterior of our building and on the ceiling of the Old Library in our office at 71 Fenchurch Street. The ceiling, decorated by Shrigley and Hunt in 1901, was commissioned to represent the major shipbuilding centres at the time. As an aside – if anyone is interested in seeing the ceiling in person then you are welcome to join us during London Open House on Saturday 16 September when our offices will be open to the public.

The digitisation project itself has been named ‘Project Undaunted’ after the first survey report prepared for the re-constituted society, London no.1, belonging to the barque Undaunted. The survey was carried out by LR surveyor Nathaniel Middleton on 1 July 1834. This has turned out to be a very apt title!

We have some great characters in our long LR history – surveyors like George Bayley – who took exception to a shipowner that offered him a bribe. I hope that you can join me on 5 June to find out what happened next!

By: Louise Sanger, Heritage & Education Centre Deputy Manager, Lloyd’s Register Foundation


Coastal Catastrophe and a Steep Learning Curve – The 50th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Torrey Canyon

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” were not written to tell an exciting tale but occasionally their immediacy allows a story to unfold, minute by minute, in great detail. This one had me on the edge of my seat!

The 18th March 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of a shipping disaster which had a long term environmental impact on the British and French coasts. Over 100,000 tons of crude oil seeped into the Atlantic affecting the coastline of Cornwall, Brittany and the Channel Islands. The details still shock today and the incident impacted coast and wildlife for decades.

The “Torrey Canyon” ran aground on Pollard’s Rock, between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles on the 18th March 1967. She was an early super tanker and owned by the Barracuda Tanker Corporation (chartered to BP at the time of the incident).

As you can see on this “Lloyd’s Voyage Record Card” she left Kuwait (Mina Al-Ahmadi) on 18th February 1967. She ran aground a month later following a navigation error.

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” for 1967 take up the story…

The first reports appeared on the day of the incident, stating that the Liberian tanker “Torrey Canyon” had run aground near Seven Stones and that her position was extremely dangerous. There were thirty six Italian crew on board. In gale force winds two Dutch, two French and two British vessels were on their way to assist, the St Mary’s lifeboat had been launched (report above), the Penlee lifeboat was standing by and a request had been made for helicopter assistance. Eyewitness accounts confirmed that oil was pouring out of the vessel and desperate attempts were made to re-float her until the salvage operation had to be called off for the night.

The next day, fourteen of the crew were taken off the vessel and an ominous report from St Just stated “St Mary’s lifeboat reports that steam tanker Torrey Canyon does not look too good”. By mid-morning it was estimated that 20,000 tons of her oil cargo had been lost.
Attempts were made by tugs to pull her free of the rocks and the Royal Navy began to tackle the oil spill with detergent. Sadly this not only failed to stop the slick reaching the shore but the detergent was toxic, thus adding to the environmental impact of the incident.

The weather deteriorated and the St Mary’s lifeboat rescued a further nine of the crew who were in danger. The “Torrey Canyon’s” Master and some crew stayed aboard in spite of hazardous conditions, accompanied by two radio operators from the Dutch tug “Utrecht” which had been one of the first on the scene.

By March 20th the helicopter pilots reported that the main bulk of the oil now extended some 22 miles south of the Scilly Isles. The sea area covered was reported to be 100 square miles. More dispersant was used, and an expenditure of £500,000 was authorised by government for the incident. Questions were already being asked about who would pay for the enormous cost of tackling the oil spill and its aftermath.

On the 24th came the bad news that “a change of wind has heightened the danger of west country beaches being polluted by oil from the tanker”. Desperate attempts were made to save them but the oil reached Cornwall’s beaches on the 25th and by the next day the situation was disastrous…”Up to yesterday, oil-fouled beaches stretched from St Ives to Lizard Point, but heavy winds and sea swell have now spread deposits from the wreck twice as far up the north Cornish coast…a naval spokesman at Plymouth reported oil offshore for about nine miles from St Ives to Portreath and a further eight miles from there to Perranporth.” (April 4th report). Oil had also contaminated Lizard Point to Mount’s Bay.

On the 26th came the unwelcome news of the vessel’s fracture and more reports of oil reaching the coast at Sennen Cove and Cape Cornwall. One can only imagine the increasing dread of people living and working on the Cornish coast.

Two days later a new way of tackling the problem was tried:

“London, Mar.28.
Planes from the Royal Naval Air Station at Lossiemouth will attempt to destroy steam tanker Torrey Canyon with bombs this afternoon.”

The aftermath was also reported in The “Casualty Reports”

“Coastguards at Sennen said that the tanker was a mass of flames, with dense black smoke rising to 2,000 ft.” (March 28th reported in April 4th issue)

By the 29th March the oil slicks covered “an area from 15 miles east of the Lizard to 40 miles west-north-west of Guernsey”

The “Casualty Reports” for April 1967 take up the next instalment of the unfolding disaster as the oil had by then reached the coast of Brittany. Reports from St Brieuc describe the French Navy’s “Operation Orsec” which aimed to stop the oil reaching oyster beds worth millions of francs. The French authorities seem to have taken a different approach, using powder containing volcanic ash to make the oil coagulate so that it could be scooped from the surface. They also applied sawdust requisitioned from local mills. It is in these reports that the effect upon wildlife is recorded. The French authorities feared that they would be unable to save the majority of 60,000 birds nesting at a government owned sea bird sanctuary at Sept Iles. The plight of thousands of other sea birds was also highlighted.

Claims were made against the owners of the vessel by the British and French governments which later led to the arrest of the “Torrey Canyon’s” sister ship the “Lake Palourde” at Singapore (reported 15th July see below).

It should be remembered that the agencies involved were facing new challenges and trying to find the best solutions as the crisis unfolded. An inquiry was later held in Liberia (where the vessel was registered) which placed the blame for the incident on the Master of the vessel. Changes in legislation occurred as a result of the disaster e.g. the 1969 “International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage” which placed liability firmly on a ship owner.

If you would like to read the “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” to find out more, you are welcome to visit Guildhall Library to view them. We are a public reference library and open to all.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection


18th Century Thief-takers – Part 3

Part 3- The demise of Charles Hitchin and Jonathan Wild

A decade later Hitchin was in the limelight once again when he was caught up in a campaign against ‘sodomitical practices’ instigated by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, because of his alleged homosexuality. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners were established in the late seventeenth century in order to suppress profanity, immorality, prostitution and brothels.

A prominent supporter of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, Sir John Gonson, is pictured below in William Hogarth’s satire The Harlot’s Progress 1732 from COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections available freely online:


‘The Compleat trull at her lodging in Drury Lane’, plate III of “The Harlot’s Progress”; The harlot’s handsome young lover has cost her an easy life with her Jewish protector and she is now in a Drury Lane lodging house. In the background bailiffs enter, led by Sir John Gonson, to take her away’.

Hitchin was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1727 for the capital offence of sodomy.  Although acquitted of that charge he was convicted on a second indictment of attempted sodomy. His indictment (below) from Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6 is available online at the Old Bailey Online:

Charles Hitchin (under City Marshal , formerly a Cabinet-maker in St. Paul’s Churchyard , was indicted, for that he did on the 29th of March last, wickedly make an Assault, and commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Body of Richard Williamson.
He was second Time indicted for a Misdemeanour, in assaulting and endeavouring to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Person of Richard Williamson.
The Prosecutor depos’d. That the Evening mention’d in the Indictment, coming from the Savoy Gate, he met the Prisoner, who asked him to drink, and carried him to the Royal Oak in the Strand, where after they had drank 2 Pints of Beer, the Prisoner began to shew some little Sodomitical Civilities, which not pleasing the Taste of the Prosecutor, he desired Leave to go saying, he had some Business in the Savoy, which must not be neglected, but the Prisoner not willing to part with a smooth Face and a fresh Countenance without shewing some greater Marks of his Brutallity, bound him under an Obligation to come again and made him leave his Hat for a pledge, giving him a little Money, and a great many fair promises: After the Prosecutor’s Return, the prisoner took him to the Rummer Tavern, and treated him with two pints of Wine, giving him some unnatural Kisses, and shewing several beastly Gestures. After this he perswaded him to go to the Talbot Inn , where he called for a Pint of Wine, and order’d the Chamberlain to get a Bed ready, and bring a couple of Nightcaps: Here they went to Bed, (where the Writer of this paper would draw a Curtain, not being able to express the rest with Decency, but to satisfy the Curiosity of the Reader let this susfice, he did all that a beastly Appetite could prompt him to, without making an actual penetration. ) Next Morning the Prosecutor under frightful Apprehensions of what had been offered, went to a Relation of his and told him the whole Story, who came back with him to the Talbot, and desired, if the prisoner should come thither he might be sent for; accordingly the prisoner came again on Saturday the 9th Instant, when the people of the Inn sent for the Prosecutor’s Relation, Mr.Joseph Cockrost , who depos’d. That coming to the Talbot Inn, and hearing that the Prisoner was there with another Person, he look’d through the Key-hole of the Door, and saw such filthy Actions that are not proper to be mention’d. After this, knocking at the Door, the Prisoner came out, and upon this Deponent’s taking him by the Collar, and saving, he had some Business with him, the Prisoner laid his Hand upon his Sword, upon which this Deponent said, Sir, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip you through the Gills.
Christopher Finch , Servant, depos’d. That he saw the Prisoner the Time aforesaid, come to his Master’s House with the Prosecutor, and by his frequent coming there with Soldiers, and calling for a private Room, he suspected him to be guilty of Sodomitical Practices, and thereupon looking through the Key-hole, he saw him offer some beastly Actions to the Prosecutor.
John Carter Constable, depos’d. That he being call’d, was charg’d with the Prisoner, by the Cook of the Talbot and the Prosecutor, but he heard nothing of any Proposals made by the Prosecutor and his Friends, to make it up, as was intimated by the Evidence of John Cole and George Birch two Watchmen. The Prisoner call’d several to his Character, but the most Material was Micah Wilkins , who depos’d. He had known the Prisoner to be a very honest Man, and that he had took a deal of Pains, and spent a great deal of Money to curb the Vice of the Nation. Upon the Whole, his first Indictment being laid for actual Sodomy, he was acquitted of that, but found guilty of the Second.
12 April 1727
Charles Hitchins for Sodomitical Practices, was fined 20 l. and 6 Months Imprisonment, and to stand in the Pillory near the End of Catherine Street, in the Strand.
From Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6

In this Daily Journal article the Societies for Reformation of Manners distance themselves from Charles Hitchin:

We are well informed, that Mr Charles Hitchin, the Under City-Marshal, who was lately convicted of an Attempt to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy, never did belong to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, nor had any Concern with them, and that what has been reported and printed to the contrary, is false and groundless. But there is Reason to believe he may have pretended to belong to those Societies, because some years ago he offer’d them his Assistance which they refused to accept of, as having no very good Opinion of him, and apprehending that such Offer proceeded from corrupt motives. We are also assured that the said Societies have, for a considerable Time past, had good reason to believe that he was a Frequenter of the Sodomitical Clubs and a Practioner of that abominable Lewdness, tho’ they had not sufficient Evidence for a legal conviction, and therefore they did not promote a Prosecution against him till they were acquainted with the Evidence of the Fact, for which he is now convicted.

Daily Journal (London, England), Monday, April 17, 1727; Issue 1952. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Hitchin might have escaped from death but together with a fine of £20 and six months’ imprisonment he was sentenced to an hour in the pillory. The pillory was a frightening prospect for men convicted of homosexual offences and particularly for Hitchin as newspapers revealed he had targeted young men. The under-sheriff took him down long before his appointed hour had passed:

This day Charles Hitchin, Under City Marshal stood in the Pillory over against Katherine Street End in the Strand, Pursant to his Sentence, for an Attempt to commit Sodomy. The Mob us’d him so roughly that his Life was in Danger, part of his Cloaths were pull’d off his Back, his Breeches down and several Persons struck him on the bare skin with the end of their Canes.

Evening Post (1709) (London, England), April 29, 1727 – May 2, 1727; Issue 2773. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Charles Hitchin was taken back to Newgate prison to serve out his sentence. He was stripped of his title of Under-Marshal by the Court of Aldermen for his ‘notorious and wicked practices’ He died shortly afterwards in poverty.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Wild continued to thrive in his trade of receiver—thief-taker  despite the clause in the 1718 Transportation Act which would make it a felony to accept a reward for recovering stolen goods without attempting to prosecute the thief. Many saw this legislation as directly aimed at Wild. William Thomson, the City Recorder, one of the men who devised this act, was reported to disapprove of Wild’s activities. However, Gerald Howson, a biographer of Wild’s, has suggested that even such high-ranking City officials as Thomson turned a blind eye to the thief-taker’s double-dealing, possibly to avoid exposure of their own implication in these activities.

After 1718, Wild concentrated on gang breaking and thief-taking. It was a lucrative business: a 1720 royal proclamation offered rewards of £100, above those already granted by Parliament, for the successful conviction of robbers in London and its environs. Wild was regularly to be found at the Old Bailey and other criminal courts where he appeared to give evidence for the prosecution.

Wild fell from grace in the eyes of the public after his involvement in the arrest and prosecution of two of the most famous criminals of the age- Jack Sheppard and his accomplice Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake in 1724. The press promoted Sheppard as a popular hero who had avoided any dealings with Wild and they used him to denounce thief takers like Wild. The press portrayed Blueskin as one of the children Wild had introduced to the life of a thief and subsequently sent to the gallows. While Blueskin was awaiting trial, Wild reportedly said he could do nothing for him short of paying for his coffin. Blueskin slit Wild’s throat in a fit of rage. Wild survived, but his reputation was in tatters.

On 15 February 1725, Wild was arrested for helping one of his associates escape from a constable. Wild was held on a warrant of detainer. He was accused of being both a receiver and a confederate of thieves; of having formed a ‘Corporation of Thieves’. He was also accused of selling human blood by presenting false evidence. There was as yet no precise charge against Wild, and it appeared that the authorities still sought witnesses in order to bring him to prosecution.  However, on 10 March Wild was discovered having accepted 10 guineas for returning some stolen lace to one Mrs Statham without attempting to prosecute the thieves, who had, in any case, committed the robbery on his instructions. On 15 May 1725, Wild was tried at the Old Bailey for ‘privately stealing’ the lace, and for ‘helping’ Statham ‘to the said Lace’ for a reward.  Wild attempted to influence the jurors by producing a list of the names of 75 felons he had brought to justice. However, while Wild was acquitted of the theft, he was convicted of the second indictment, accepting reward for the recovery of stolen goods without having attempted to prosecute the thieves; a charge that had been made a capital offence under the 1718 Act. He was sentenced to hang. The night before his execution Wild attempted to commit suicide:

About two o’clock in the morning he endeavour’d to prevent his Execution by taking Laudanum, but the Largeness of the Draught, together with having fasted before, instead of destroying him immediately, was the occasion of his not dying of it.

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

On 24 May 1725 Wild, still drowsy from the laudanum, was transported to Tyburn to be hanged. An angry mob pelted him with stones so violently on his head that ‘the Blood ran down plentifully, which occasion’d a report that he had cut his throat.’

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

For those who wish to learn more about Jonathan Wild we can recommend consulting Gerald Howson’s biography, Thief-Taker General: the Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (1970) available at Guildhall Library shelf mark B:W 668.

Jonathan Wild’s trial was dramatized by the BBC please find the link below:

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian Guildhall Library

18th Century Thief-takers – Part 2

Part 2 – Rivalry between Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin

Rivalry between Wild and his old boss Hitchin came to a head when Hitchin attempted to win the support of the Court of Aldermen for his plan to eliminate crime by publishing an attack on Wild as the ‘regulator’ of the criminal world in 1718. In this tract (pictured below) he accused Wild of manipulating evidence to convict and hang minor offenders while protecting greater villains and profiting from the return of stolen valuables.

thief-taker-p2-1A true discovery of the conduct of receivers and thief-takers in … the city of London : to the multiplication, and encouragement of thieves, house-breakers, and other loose and disorderly persons.

By Hitchin, Charles, published in London : 1718.
Available at Guildhall Library, shelf mark A 2.6 NO 60 (please note photo ID such as passport or driving licence is required to consult this item).


Above, a wood cut of a man being hanged, taken from the same volume.

Needless to say Wild retaliated, giving an account of his work as Hitchin’s assistant and of the Marshal’s turning a blind eye to, and even profiting from, the thefts carried out by numerous young pickpockets in the City. Furthermore, he included evidence of Hitchin’s homosexuality by telling how the marshal had taken him to a house of ‘He-Whores’, also known as a Molly House, one of several such clubs for homosexual men established in London in the early decades of the eighteenth century.


An answer to a late insolent libel, entituled A (true) discovery of the conduct of receivers and thief-takers, in … the city of London / Written by C(harle)s H(itchi)n. Wherein is prov’d … who is originally the grand thief-taker … (Anon.).
By Wild, Jonathan, 1682?-1725. London : T. Warner, 1718.
Available at Guildhall Library A 1.2 NO 65A (please note photo ID such as passport or driving licence is required to consult this item.)

Hitchen made an unsuccessful attempt to turn these charges aside by reissuing his condemnation of Wild, in a slightly enlarged version, under a new title The Regulator, or, A Discovery of the Thieves, Thief-Takers and Locks, 1718 also available at Guildhall Library (see below):


People of the eighteenth century, like the people of today, were intrigued by the lives and language of the criminal world.  A list of ‘Flash words now in Vogue amongst Thieves’ can be found in the same publication:


To be continued…

Isabelle Chevallot

Assistant Librarian Guildhall Library


18th Century Thief-takers

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…