Hallowe’en Highway Robbery

An account of a hallowe’en robbery on The Highway 1733

An engraving of the Ratcliffe Highway murders

Coloured engraving of a funeral procession on the Highway

A hallowe’en crime from the annals of the Old Bailey. Today’s crime involves the assault and robbery of Francis Curfoy by John Beach on All Hallows Eve, 1733 on The Highway in the East End of London. The items alleged to have been stolen in the attack are slightly different to your standard mugging for an iPhone and make the case a quite rich example of crime in the 18th century:

a Handkerchief, a pair of silk Garters, a Key, and a Bill of Exchange

The bill of exchange was for 5 pounds, 9 shillings, equivalent to over £470 in 2005 prices, not something one would casually wander about with. A bill of exchange is basically a promisory note, a legally binding IOU.

Curfoy was called to testify the circumstances of his assault:

Between 10 and 11 at Night, the 31st of October, as I was going home, I met the Prisoner in Wapping, and enquir’d of him, the Way to my Lodging, for I was a Stranger in Town.

This dear reader was never going to end well and certainly not carrying nearly £500! However, he agrees to pay the man 6 d (£2 in 2005) for directions but like a dodgy taxi driver the route isn’t the most direct:

He led me a back Way, till we came to a Brandy-Shop ; I found I was wrong, and told him so. He said he brought me thither for a Dram; I gave him a Dram or two, and went out.

This isn’t going so well – you meet a man, ask for directions, agree to pay him, and then he drags you for a brandy that you have to pay for. But worse was to come:

He follow’d, knock’d me down, and took 4s. a Bill […] and a pair of silk Garters, and the Key of my Chest, out of my Pockets.

However, it looks like that handkerchief was a real prize- so keen for it that poor Curfoy is nearly strangled:

My Handkerchief was ty’d about my Neck in a double Knot, and in getting it off, he had like to have strangled me.

However, Curfoy, whilst being terrorised remains philosophical:

I cry’d out, Murder! and said, Fye upon it, what a sad thing it is, for a Man to be robb’d in his native Land !

Even when disturbed by a woman, the attack continues for a while:

A Woman came out of a Chandler’s-Shop with a Candle, and yet, for all that, the Prisoner kept pulling my Handkerchief, ’till he had got it off, and then he run away.

I like the detail of a woman leaving a chandler’s with a candle- doesn’t really have any relevance but goes towards an eye for detail. Alas the poor man is taken to a house for a small beer [a weak beer] and stays there in fear, before hearing of an arrest the next morning, and discovering his assailant already in jail:

The good Woman, I don’t know her Name, took me into a House, and gave me a Farthen’s worth of Small-beer. I was afraid to go home, left I should meet the Prisoner again, and so I stay’d in that House all Night – I had never seen the Prisoner before, but I had a full View of him in the Brandy-Shop, and am sure he is the same Man. He was taken that Night, I know not how; but next Morning Tho Ovington , (the Officer, who took him ) came to enquire for me, and told me, the Prisoner was in Shadwell-Cage. I went thither; I knew him at first sight, and said, he was the Man who robb’d me.

Now, possibly the best bit of the trial is the fact that the accused gets to cross examine the witness. It’s a bit like one of the wacky episodes of Law & Order where the defendent refuses legal representation. [I’ve tidied some of the language up here for modern spelling for clarity] Beach, starts with some questions about the handkerchief, possibly the most trivial element of the case,given Beach’s desire for it earlier, maybe he just is fixated upon it, though perhaps his trial strategy is to distance himself from it, in an attempt to absolve himself of involvement with the robbery:

Prisoner: Was I the Man as produced the Handkerchief before the Justice.

Curfoy: It was produced by a Woman who went for the Prisoner’s Wife, I think her Name was Jane.

Prisoner: But did not a Fellow that was before the justice own it, and say, that he gave it to her?

Curfoy: No; she said she had it from him, but he deny’d it.

Having failed to get his story to be believed, the accused tries to start from the beginning:

Prisoner: Was not I drinking in the Bandy-shop when you saw me first?

Curfoy: No; I met you first in the Street, and we went into the Shop together.

So, two attempts and some of the least productive bits of cross examination in the history of the English legal system. So, he tries to establish if there were any witnesses:

Prisoner. Was nobody else in the shop but you and I?

Curfoy. Nobody but the Woman of the Shop.

Mmh, no witnesses of than ‘the woman’. So he probes the reliability of Curfoy:

Prisoner. Was you drunk or sober?

Curfoy. I was not drunk, but I had got a small Cup of Liquor.

Aha! Curfoy had drunk a small cup of liquor- goes to the witness’ credibility m’lud!

The lady with a candle 

The next witness is called, the woman with the candle, a Grace Thornton:

I had been winding Silk all Day, and went down to a Chandler’s Shop in Blue -coat-fields, between 10 and 11 at Night to drink; I had been there but a few Minutes before I heard a Man cry out Murder!

[As an aside and for a little context, Blue Coat Fields, known as Blue Gate Fields, was an area north of The Highway, adjacent to St George in the East church, and renowned as an area of crime, even being mentioned as such in The Picture of Dorian Gray]

Ms Thornton also comes across as an extremely eloquent and philosophical witness:

Its a sad Thing for a Man to be robb’d in a Christian Land by his own Fellow-natives.

Less of the rhetoric, let’s stick to the facts Ms Thornton…

I ran out with a Candle, and saw the Prosecutor [Curfoy] sitting on the Stones at Brown’s Door, and a Man (which I believe was the Prisoner) pulling a Handkerchief off his Neck, and then he ran away.

That handkerchief! Curfoy asks for some water, but instead he gets offered a very precise farthing’s worth of small beer! One should of course remember that small beer was far less likely to be contaminated than water.

The Prosecutor’s Nose was cut, and he was very bloody. He ask’d me for a little Water; I told him I’d give him a Farthing’s worth of Small-beer

However, Curfoy is clearly worse for wear:

so I lifted him up, but he fell down again, whether it was owing to Drink, or to the Damage he had suffer’d, I can’t say; at last I got him into the Chandler’s Shop, and gave him some Small-beer, and ask’d him why he did not get a Dram?

I find this woman, who appears to be deliberately intoxicating this man, to be almost charming in her care of her fellow man. Until that is, when you realise she is angling for him to get a round in:

He felt in his Pocket, and said he had lost 4s. but hop’d his Note was safe; but searching farther, he said that was gone too; so I left him, and went to bed.

Oh that’s nice – man is violently assaulted but he can’t buy you a brandy so you leave him. Now, here comes the slightly odd bit [even more so than the rest]:

The Houses in our Neighbourhood are let out in Tenements to Lodgers; between one and two, Mr. Ovington, the Beadle, and the Watch, came and knock’d at our Street-door; my Husband went down and let ’em in; they said they came to search for some Fellows that had made a Disturbance; they went backwards [out the back], and saw the Prisoner getting over the Wall in the Yard into an Alley, and there he was taken.

So by chance, Beach, who had by chance been asked for directions before violently assaulting a man by chance was later found in a witness to the original crime’s building.

Beach begins his cross examination and it appears that the witness had crossed paths with the victim and the accused earlier at the brandy house (given that this is where she took him and he stayed overnight). Beach tries to suggest that the victim had already been assaulted before the alleged later run-in:

Prisoner: When I was drinking with the Prosecutor in the Low-room, where he afterwards lay, you came to the Door and lock’d it; pray was not his Nose cut then?

Thorton: Not that I know of.

Beach then suggests that Ms Thornton visited him in jail, though she denies this. The case is getting more confusing – did Beach believe her to have visited him?:

Prisoner: I was taken up for a Quarrel, and sent to the Cage, and this Woman came to see me there, and said she did not know me.

Thornton: I never was nigh the Cage.

Beadle’s about

We next hear testimony from the Thomas Ovington, Beadle:

Between one and two in the Morning a Woman came to the Watch-house, and said there was a Disturbance in Blue-coat-fields; I went with the Watch thither, and knock’d at the Door, and Thornton let us in, and said, the People were got out backwards; we follow’d; the Prisoner was getting over the Wall; I went into the Alley and found him sitting on a Bench thus – with his Hands on his Knees, as if he had been asleep.

This is hardly a manic dash though the back streets of East End estates as portrayed in The Bill, even if there was one scaling of a wall – the man runs and then appears to have managed to have fallen asleep. Given the Beadle appears to knows Beach’s name, it would suggest he might be a trouble maker:

John, says I, you must go with me to the Watch-house.

However, Beach isn’t coming easy:

Go with you, you Black-guard Dog? says he. Do you know who you talk to?

However, that said, he then somewhat undermines his subsequent defence:

I’d have you to know, Sirrah, that I have got Money, and a 5 l [5 pound] Note in my Pocket.

Regardless of this Beach is taken into custody, but again Beach seems determined to show off his wealth:

I made no more Words, but took him away. When he was in the Watch-house he pull’d a Paper out of his Fob, and said, See here, you Rascal! you Black-guard Rogue! here’s a 5 l. Note! I ask’d him to let me see it in my Hand, but he refus’d, and put it up again.

Beach then cross examines the Beadle:

Prisoner: Did you find any Note upon me, when you search’d me in the Morning?

Ovington: No; I search’d him only for Arms, for I did not then think the Paper he had shown me was really such a Note as he said it was.

So it appears that the idea of Beach having such wealth wasn’t believable, or that the beadle didn’t really care as long as he didn’t get injured. However, this failure to log his possessions may ultimately have had financial implications. Ovington recounts Curfoy visiting:

In the Morning the Prosecutor came to see him in the Cage, and said directly, That’s the Man! He robb’d me of 4 s. a pair of Garters, a Key, a Handkerchief, and a Note of 5 l. 9s.

Mmmh, a bit of a coincidence, someone accusing the local drunk of stealing exactly the same amount of money that the drunk had previously laid claim to. However, it seems that the note was not recovered. ‘Oops’:

Prisoner: One of the Watchmen search’d me, and found but a Groat in my Pocket, and that he took away.

Ovington: I did not see any Watchman search him.

The accused testifies

Beach eventually gives his version of events:

I was going to see [sea?] for my Wife, and call’d in at this Brandy-shop to drink, and there I saw the Prosecutor and another Man, like a sea-faring Man, and they asked me to drink with them, and we had two Half-pints of Brandy together, and then I went about my business, and going home there was a Quarrel, and I went to take a Mans part, and so I was sent to the Cage.

It’s almost comic the matter of fact description he provides – ‘yeah happened to pop into a brandy shop, and I shared a pint of brandy with two men, and then there was a fight, and so I felt obliged to participate and so yeah, I ended up in jail’.

It’s unclear to me, whether either the defendent or the victim were being actively dishonest, or whether in fact the large quantity of alcohol involved in this story had any impact on the testimony provided such as the fact that Ms Thornton appears to have forgotten that she had met the pair before the assault.

So how did the jury find? Guilty. And the sentence? Death.

Original text. I’d highly recommend reading the original text- it manages to give Broad a consistent comic lisp in the spelling of his speech that isn’t as present in the other witnesses – pretty much every ‘s’ is replaced with a ‘th’. Now this was in the days before standard spelling, but given the difference in the way Beach’s testimony is written, I wonder if the stenographer was attempting to capture some form of speech impediment.

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